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  • Race as a Separate Sphere in British GovernmentFrom the Colonial Office to Municipal Anti-racism


Recent scholarship on the history of Black and Asian communities in Britain has emphasized that this history does not begin with the much-discussed arrival of the HMS Windrush into Britain in 1948. It is true that communities of Asian, Arab, African, and West Indian origin, comprising settled workers, itinerant merchant seamen, students, and professionals, were present in Britain in the pre-war years. Port cities, like Liverpool, Cardiff, and London, had Black populations numbering in the thousands in this period, though the size of the community nationwide remained under 15,000 (Ramdin 72, 126; Matera 22). Aside from transnational organization on issues that rippled through the entirety of the Black diaspora, this period also witnessed attempts to mobilize politically and to make welfare provisions both by and on behalf of black students and seamen. In their attempts to resist the color bar, counter negative portrayals of black people in Britain, and secure adequate welfare provisions for the communities they served, organizations like the West African Students Union (WASU), League of Coloured Peoples (LCP), and Coloured Colonial Seamen’s Union (CCSU) demonstrated concerns that would remain salient in the ethnic politics of post-war Britain. Racist violence, aimed at seamen and other workers, was also witnessed in this early period, with riots and attacks taking place in London, Cardiff, and Liverpool in 1919 (Hiro 38; Visram 198–99; Tabili 72). This violence was often attached to demands for restrictions to be placed on foreign labor, and large numbers of lascars (black, Asian, and Arab seamen) were repatriated in the early 1920s. Later, a racially discriminatory piece of immigration/nationality law, the Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order, was passed, institutionalizing existing practices that provided lascars with unequal pay, conditions, and labor mobility (Talibi 66–69).

As well as extending backwards into at least the inter-war period, the story of Black and Asian immigration clearly fits into a broader narrative concerning the movement of peoples into and out of Britain in the post-war period. A substantial aspect of this story is the net emigration of around 440,000 white Britons to the “Old Dominions” (Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand) in 1946–1951.1 The need for labor created by the war’s depletion of Britain’s working-age male population and ravaging of its built environment led in this period to active recruitment by the national government of “alien” labor (i.e. labor from outside the Empire). This recruitment occurred through a variety of schemes aimed at former prisoners of war, displaced persons, and Poles who had served in aid of the war effort in Britain. The number of European workers recruited under these [End Page 185] various schemes approached 500,000 (Miles 429–31; Paul, “Politics” 64–69). In addition to this, migration from Ireland, a longstanding feature of British population dynamics, continued unrestricted in the post-war period at a rate of 20–30,000 people per year up until 1950, though much of this labor was likely to be temporary or seasonal (Isaac 196).

Compared to these movements, black and Asian migration to Britain did not become large in scale until the mid-1950s. The number of migrants arriving in Britain from the “New Commonwealth” did not reach 2,000 until 1953. In the years 1955–1960, this number totaled 241,000, an average of a little over 40,100 per year (Layton-Henry 13). Coming after the main period of “alien” migration from Europe and at a time when emigration to the Dominions remained voluminous, this level of immigration was not large enough to result in a net in-flow of migrants to Britain in any of the years 1953–1957. Only in 1958 did Britain begin to experience a net in-migration, amounting to around 45,000, and then 44,000 in the following year (Allen 45). In the early 1960s, with legislation to restrict immigration from the Empire to Britain appearing inevitable, a rush of “beat the ban” migration occurred, with over 230,000 migrants arriving from the New Commonwealth to Britain between the beginning of 1961 and the passage of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act (Layton-Henry 13).

This Act made migration to Britain from the Commonwealth dependent upon acquiring a voucher. These vouchers were limited in number (to about 20,000 per year), and some were tied to the migrant’s possession of a job offer. Having officially opposed this legislation when in opposition, the Labor Party quickly turned towards restriction in the mid-1960s while in government, issuing a White Paper in 1965 that reduced the total number issued per year to just 8,500 (Immigration 6). This apparent volte face by the party reflected a number of factors. Firstly, a number of Labor backbenchers, as well as the Trades Union Congress (TUC), had long been supportive of restriction, despite official policy (Hansen 7, 82). This formal opposition to restriction had been sustained, to a large degree, by the energies of party leader Hugh Gaitskell, who passed away in 1963 and was replaced by the moderate Harold Wilson (Foot 175). Perhaps most importantly, the party was becoming increasingly concerned about the pro-restriction bent of public opinion. This was emphasized in its by-election defeat of 1964 in Smethwick, as prominent opponent of restriction Patrick Gordon Walker was defeated by the anti-immigrant Tory Peter Griffiths following an explicitly racist campaign by the latter. This turn towards restriction by Labor created a bipartisan consensus on the most incendiary aspect of “race” as a political issue, and the 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act, which denied the right of settlement to any person without at least one grandparent born in Britain, was largely supported by both parties. More decisive legislation, essentially ending the flow of primary migration from former colonies, was passed in 1971, and was not repealed by later Labor governments.

Black and Asian migration to Britain in the post-war period was therefore only one aspect of a larger movement of peoples to and from the metropole. Nevertheless, “New Commonwealth” migration was problematized in a particular way and emphasized, so that already in this period, the term “immigrant” was essentially synonymous with the oft-used phrased “colored immigrant,” and the issue of “immigration” had an implicit link to race (Miles 426). Indeed, a major difficulty perceived by the government in the years leading up to the restriction of immigration was how Black and Asian immigration might be reduced without threatening continued freedom of movement between the metropole [End Page 186] and the White Dominions (Paul 142; Hansen 118). In discussions of the “fitness” of certain peoples for acceptance as migrant workers in Britain, the concept of “way of life”—then closely articulated with the more biological notion of “stock”—was frequently invoked (Miles 426). Despite the linguistic and cultural affinities between black West Indian migrants and white Britons as compared to those from Eastern Europe, affinities created by imperialism, the linguistic and cultural differences between white Poles (for instance) and white Britons were seemingly regarded as comparatively unproblematic (Allen 23; Phillips 79).

This conflation of “race” and immigration is also suggested in the widely-accepted linking of immigration restriction and “good race relations,” which did much to underpin bipartisan consensus on these issues from the mid-1960s (Hansen 129). The first two Race Relations Acts, aimed at prohibiting racial discrimination in certain aspects of British life, were passed in 1965 and 1968, both years that also witnessed increased immigration controls. These acts, along with the stronger legislation passed in 1976, and the bureaucracy they created, established “race relations” as an autonomous sphere of policy and practice. Keen to depoliticize potentially sensitive issues of ethnic politics, national elites in Britain have intervened little in this sphere through legislation, allowing potential for significant variation across localities (Garbaye, Getting 45, 48). The politics of what was then called “community relations” or “race relations” up to the late 1970s occurred largely in ineffective, marginal, and voluntary structures termed “voluntary liaison committees” (VLCs). Later, under various pressures, a number of local authorities pledged their commitment to “racial equality” and, through their own structures and partnership with external organizations, offered various resources (such as funding, employment, and representation) to black and Asian organizations, though at the cost of political co-option. Black and Asian activists were therefore required to make, sometimes shifting, decisions about working within or outside the state. By the later 1980s, however, the brief heyday enjoyed by this style of politics appeared to have passed, as reforms to local government under Thatcher’s governments impoverished and disempowered its major proponents, while intellectual and practical criticisms from within the Left gained wider attention.

This article seeks to explore the processes by which “race relations” became an autonomous sphere in British government and politics, contained in specific bureaucratic structures and governmental practices, and filtered through a particular corpus of legislation. It will begin by tracing some of the personal and institutional links between the administration of the Empire and post-war “race relations.” Much has been said about the ideological and intellectual links between concepts of race active in the Empire and in the post-colonial situation.2 Interest has been exhibited in the links between colonial and metropolitan “race relations” sociology and anthropology.3 This essay will contribute an examination of the Colonial Office’s continued involvement in provision for migrants settled in Britain, and of the role of former colonial administrators in post-war “community relations” work.4 The following section will turn to the incorporation of ethnic minority organizations into this paradigm of community relations, as well as to the resistance against this. This is followed by a treatment of the enlargement and enrichment, though with considerable local variation, of what would become known as “race relations” and “race equality” structures from the late 1970s. In particular, attention will be paid to the effects of this tendency to filter political claims made on an ethnic and racial basis through specific governmental structures. [End Page 187]


The British Colonial Office (CO) had a longstanding responsibility for the welfare of students and merchant seamen who came to Britain from the colonies. Although viewed as sojourners, there was no legal impediment to the permanent settlement in Britain of these individuals. Seamen naturally spent their time between voyages ashore in Britain, facilitating the establishment of small black, Asian, and Arab communities in a number of British port towns and cities—particularly London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Glasgow, Newcastle, and Bristol—prior to World War II. A need for labor during the war led to significant growth in the population of black workers in Britain.5 The welfare of these workers was placed in the hands of the CO, which operated nine hostels across Britain for students, seamen, and war workers by 1943, and grant-aided five further hostels operated by voluntary organizations.6

Although the CO’s responsibility for such provisions work was justified with reference to the expected transience of the communities they would serve, the needs of such sojourner populations were not easily divisible from those of settled black communities. Transitory and settled black people in Britain were often clustered in particular residential areas.7 Use of hostel facilities provided in such areas was never restricted specifically to seamen or war workers, but was open equally to members of such settled ethnic minority communities as existed in these localities. There was eagerness amongst church members and social service workers in East London that the CO hostel there, on Leman Street, should be opened more explicitly to the settled population. This reflected concern, outlined in a number of reports issued during and after the war, that the lack of social provisions for overwhelmingly single, male black immigrants was leading to their development of a seedy café culture. These immigrant-run cafes, it was felt, too often became hotbeds for vice and, most worryingly, provided a venue in which white women “not [of] a good type,” “below the normal intelligence,” and “over-sexed” could prey on black men.8 In this scheme, the provision of residential and social facilities for recent black immigrants could be of great societal benefit. As the number of temporary war workers expanded, provision for their welfare needs was increasingly combined with provision for settled migrants. For example, in seeking assistance from the Treasury in 1943 for a hostel catering to black seamen in Liverpool, John L. Keith noted that the proposal would also provide for “the social and recreational needs of the large coloured population of [the] Dock area of Liverpool, whose interests have been sadly neglected in the past.”9Almost all of the CO’s hostels and similar facilities remained in place after the war, reflecting the continuing need for black, Asian, and Arab labor at sea.10

As noted, the CO in making this provision at times worked with voluntary organizations, including those with Black leaderships and/or memberships. Where these leaders were prominent, and perceived as moderate, they could be regarded as a “great asset” to such a project—as LCP leader Dr. Harold Moody was in the establishment of Aggrey House, a hostel opened for students of African origin in 1934 (Adi 44–45). However, the function of such hostels as a means to monitor the social and political conduct of young African students made them controversial. They were a place where, in the words of the CO’s Maj. Hans Vischer, the “wild lads of Africa” could be made “meek and mild and happy” (qtd. in Adi 65). Aggrey House was, in its development and upon its opening, criticized by the [End Page 188] more radical WASU as a project aimed at ensuring African students did not become prey to political influences that would make them threatening to imperial governments after their returns home (WASU 1). Later, however, with the closure of Aggrey House and the increase in the number of African students in Britain, the CO came to rely upon WASU’s provisions at the latter’s Africa House, established in 1933. This heightened the leverage enjoyed by WASU, but also brought it into a closer relationship with the CO, with the latter acting as an intermediary in WASU’s search for funding from colonial African governments (adi 93–94; Matera 37). WASU’s predicament in attempting to maintain its political independence while obtaining the resources offered by the state offer an early example of a dilemma that would later become central to ethnic politics in Britain.

The CO’s continued involvement with provision for not only students, but also both temporary and settled Black workers—who in any case could not easily be cleaved apart, and were in many cases not legally distinguished—provided a bureaucratic continuity between responses to pre-war, wartime, and post-war migration. Furthermore, it is notable that the CO was not, of course, responsible for provision with respect to the hundreds of thousands of European and Irish—i.e. white—labor migrants arriving in this period. The CO’s responsibility for the welfare of Black migrant labor extended into the post-Windrush period, despite its efforts to prevent the voyage of migrants on that vessel before its departure.11 Internal communication in the CO suggested that it could not “for political reasons, quite apart from welfare reasons, declaim responsibility for trying to do something in the matter of . . . reception and accommodation” once migrants decided to come to Britain.12 These “political” factors were clearly transnational in character, and reflected a declining Britain’s attempt to fashion itself a new world role as the head of an equal, multiracial Commonwealth (Doty 237–38). Those efforts linked to a more longstanding British national self-conception as a tolerant nation, undergirded by a narrative that stretched back to abolition in the nineteenth century and buoyed by defeat of Nazi Germany (Perry 161–62). This “Commonwealth ideal” was a significant check upon anti-immigration sentiment in both parties, at least until it became outweighed by more pressing electoral concerns and then was increasingly nullified by Britain’s geopolitical reorientation towards Europe (Hansen 17, 68–69, 79, 98, 108–109, 121). In any case, this feeling of political obligation did not lead to lavish provisions. The CO secured temporary accommodation for the migrants—the use of Clapham Deep Shelter for three weeks—and attempted to secure employment in private firms for those without jobs.13 A black member of the CO, Ivor Cummings, was present to greet the passengers on Windrush when they arrived in Tilbury, and representatives were likewise present at the arrival of the Georgic, a ship sailing from New York with black immigrants on board, into Liverpool in 1951.14 Even in 1954, a year in which 11,000 immigrants came to Britain from the West Indies, the CO was represented by its welfare liaison officer, another black West Indian, I. S. de Sousa, when the Reina del Pacifico arrived in Liverpool from Jamaica with some three hundred immigrants aboard.15 Even in their arrival, therefore, black migrants were assigned specific points of contact with the wider government bureaucracy, and these points of contact were determined with reference to race and ethnicity.

Continued involvement with post-war migration was, however, regarded ambivalently by the CO. Already during the war, Keith believed that the welfare of immigrants intending to settle should primarily be the responsibility of local authorities since such people were [End Page 189] “a section of the local community.”16 Despite its noted hesitancy to “declaim” responsibility for colonial migrants, the CO issued a memorandum in 1948 stating that it could not be viewed as “the proper authority” in matters concerning Commonwealth immigrants. It seems plausible to suggest that the government’s severe apprehension regarding the arrival of black Caribbean immigrants discouraged it from making any welfare provisions that might stimulate further migration. The CO’s stated concern—that to take up such a function in relation to such “New Commonwealth” migrants as did arrive would risk turning them into a “permanent segregated minority” dealing with the state through a single, specific ministry—was probably also genuine, however. Such a development, the Office noted, would “go clean against the idea, which it is highly important to establish, that Colonial peoples are in no sense aliens and are entitled to treat and regard this country as their home.” Such rhetorical appeals to universalism in the governing of ethnic diversity were resonant throughout the twentieth century, though they appeared more realistic in this period when the government could force or encourage the relatively small numbers of immigrants arriving to disperse, preventing the formation of heavily concentrated ethnic minority communities.17 Later, in the 1970s, the inability to ensure continued dispersal as Commonwealth immigrants arrived in larger numbers was seen to have nullified the possibility of gradual, undirected integration through informal social contacts, and so made necessary special provisions by governments at least on a temporary basis and aimed at integration in the long term.18

The continued involvement of the CO in British post-war racial politics, and particularly the question of provision for temporary and settled black and Asian workers, is revealing about this area and phase of politics in a number of respects. Firstly, it provides additional justification, from a top-down perspective, for linking the post-Windrush narrative of “New Commonwealth” migration to Britain’s wartime and pre-war, domestic and imperial, racial politics. It is also important to note that black and Asian migration even in the post-Windrush era could easily be regarded as a continuation, albeit on a larger scale, of itinerant and temporary labor migration from Empire to metropole apparent during and before the war. Both West Indians and Asians intended to live and work in Britain only temporarily, though the vast majority in fact settled (Phillips and Phillips 81; Bradford 43–45). Belief in this “myth of return” was perhaps even more persistent amongst elites.19 Secondly, the responsibility of the CO for black and Asian migrants from various corners of the Empire and Commonwealth, but not for the equally significant waves of migration from continental Europe recruited for similar work, provides further evidence regarding the institutionalized racial distinctions between groups of migrants to Britain. This bureaucratic separation of racial issues, defined as arising where non-whites were concerned, was a persistent feature of the British approach to black and Asian migration, and would later be expressed in various different forms to be described below. Finally, it must be noted that this bureaucratic and administrative “hiving off” of race came despite elite invocations of the indispensability of a “color-blind” approach. Over time, as communities of West Indian and Asian origin increased in size and became more heavily concentrated in certain neighborhoods, the plausibility of any drift to assimilation receded, but an ambivalence about the respective merits of special and universal provision remained. This ambivalence has often led to a conservative form of pluralism in Britain, and to further “disguising” of special as universal provision (Feldman 288, 300). [End Page 190]


As the CO wrestled with its responsibilities as regards New Commonwealth immigration in the 1950s, a number of voluntary responses to it were being formulated. In Birmingham, for instance, a Coordinating Committee for Coloured People (BCCCP) was formed in 1950 by the city’s Archdeacon, bringing together local religious and social service organizations as well as CO representatives. Its primary aim was welfare provision for Commonwealth migrants (Solomos and Back 45). Such organizations, referred to generically as VLCs, were formed gradually in a number of cities, including Bristol and Nottingham, by the mid-1950s (Hill and Isaacharoff 2). The slow and undirected nature of this response reflects uncertainties, noted above, about the permanence and likely extent of Commonwealth migration, and about to whom responsibility for responding to it should fall. Black and Asian immigration became regarded by central government as a sensitive issue that should, if possible, be depoliticized and left to local voluntary actors (Garbaye, Getting 48). These VLCs, led largely or entirely by whites, focused on social service work, fact-finding, social events, and efforts to improve “community relations.” Although emphasizing that their social service work consisted in directing recent immigrants to mainstream providers, most VLCs undertook their own casework, and some initiated language teaching, playgroup, and similar projects (Hill and Isaacharoff 203). The effort to improve “community relations” was regarded with an increased sense of urgency following the riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958, and further VLCs were established. Fifteen were in existence by 1964 (Messina 55). Beginning with Nottingham in 1960, local authorities increasingly took the step of grant-aiding VLCs in their area (Hill and Isaacharoff 3). This step was encouraged by the Labor government in its aforementioned white paper, which encouraged support for VLCs seeking to “help immigrants to use the ordinary facilities of social service provided for the whole community” (Immigration 16–17).

To the extent that these cautious and apolitical organizations did seek ethnic minority representatives, they were usually middle-class, well-educated, and male, and therefore unrepresentative of their communities in demographic, if not substantive, terms. Furthermore, some were chosen on arbitrary bases: a Barbadian member of Hackney CRC’s executive was chosen because he was the G. P. of another member (Hill and Isaacharoff 139, 148). The lack of power possessed by the voluntary CRCs led to the suggestion that their primary function was to allow local authorities to absolve themselves of responsibility. A Conservative councillor in Birmingham suggested in the early 1970s that “[t]here isn’t any need for the council to do anything. We have a special racial committee to cater for that . . . they look after everything” (Newton 217). Where ethnic minority organizations did participate in CRCs, these were mostly organizations aimed at social and welfare work. Some organizations that had more of a political remit, such as the National Federation of Pakistani Associations (NFPA) and the Bradford branch of the Indian Workers Association (IWA)—though not the more radical IWA-GB, based in the Midlands, or the Huddersfield branch—were affiliated to their local CRCs. The Bradford IWA disaffiliated from its local committee when the local CRO defended the 1968 Commonwealth Immigration Act, and was not the only organization to end its participation in such circumstances. Nevertheless, even relatively radical organizations like the Universal Coloured Peoples Association (UCPA), a forerunner of the Black Power movement in Britain, kept apprised of the workings of their local committees (Hill and Isaacharoff 109–37). [End Page 191]

The period beginning in the late-1950s nevertheless witnessed a flourishing in the creation and development of black and Asian organizations outside the mainstream structures of “community relations” and government consultation. Several branches of the IWA appeared in the late-1950s, and were formally “centralized” in 1957. Branches in various parts of the country exhibited different political outlooks and attitudes, but organized on various combinations of welfare, employment, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist issues (Josephides 6–13). The racial attacks on West Indian communities in Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958 encouraged the appearance of organizations aimed at community defense as well as welfare work (Phillips and Phillips 136, 182, 225). In the early-1960s, the apparent imminence of legislation to restrict immigration led to the formation of umbrella organizations such as the Conference of Afro-Asian-Caribbean Organizations in London and the Coordinating Campaign Against Racial Discrimination in Birmingham, through which ethnic minority organizations worked with leftist groups opposed to restriction (Shukra 16–18). The Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), in a sense a national version of these organizations, was formed in 1964. CARD brought together ethnic minority organizations with a putatively national reach, alongside Labor Party figures. Its relationship with Labor gave it good access as a lobbying organization, and it was especially effective in shaping the 1965 Race Relations Act. However, CARD persistently struggled to gain a strong grassroots foothold, and was split on the issue of co-option in 1965. Two of its leading members, David Pitt and Hamza Alavi, accepted offers to sit on the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigration quango, which was created by the same white paper that greatly reduced Commonwealth immigration. This, combined with a general split between moderate members and more radical black activists belonging to groups like the Caribbean Workers Movement (CWM), irreparably damaged CARD.20 Organizations like the CWM, meanwhile, were associated with a nascent “Black Power” movement motivated by dissatisfaction with increasingly tight immigration restriction, the gains made by Black Power groups in America, and an increasing assertiveness in the face of growing racial attacks.21 Early groups like the CWM and UCPA were followed, particularly after Stokely Carmichael’s influential 1967 speech at the Dialectics of Liberation conference in London, by organizations such as the British Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Front, and the Racial Attitude Adjustment Society.22

The militant posture, radical black consciousness, and focus on community autonomy within these organizations ensured that they remained outside the orbit of Britain’s “community relations” structure. This structure was expanded in this period by the Labor government’s 1966 Local Government Act (LGA) that, in its Section 11, permitted grants to local authorities “required to make special provision in the exercise of any of their functions in consequence of the presence within their areas of substantial numbers of immigrants from the Commonwealth whose language or customs differ from those of the community” (“Local Government Act”). One might note here the posited distinction between “the community” and the “immigrants from the Commonwealth” apparently regarded as existing outside of it. These grants were to come in the form of salaries for specific workers and, here again, the national government followed, and encouraged, rather than anticipated local initiatives. Workers of this type had already been engaged by several local authorities prior to the Act. Liverpool, unsurprisingly given its long history of black settlement, seems to have been one of the first authorities to do so, in 1952 (Hill and Isaacharoff 3 [End Page 192] ). Birmingham also appointed a welfare officer for Commonwealth immigrants in 1954 (Solomos and Back 45). Such appointments were encouraged by the riots of 1958, and in 1959 Sheffield appointed a West Indian man to work with the local black community, in part in the role of a “chaplain.”23 In the following year, at the same time as it grant-aided the local VLCs, Nottingham appointed Eric Irons, the leader of the local Caribbean Social and Cricket Club (CSCC) as Organizer for Educational Work amongst the Colored Communities (Katznelson 435). This provides an early example of a process that would later become common: the co-option of black activist or community worker into state employment in service of his/her “community.” Once local authority support for VLCs, by then termed Community Relations Councils (CRCs), became more common from the mid-1960s, almost all had attached to them at least one full-time Community Relations Officer (CRO).

Workers of this type came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds: of the sixty-five CROs in post by May 1973, thirty were white, eighteen black, and seventeen of Asian origin.24 Some of the ethnic minority CROs had activist pasts. Paul Stephenson, former leader of the Bristol bus boycott against racial discrimination in public transport, became CRO for Coventry in the 1970s (House of Common, Police 502). CROs, of any ethnic background, who viewed their work in political terms faced the possibility of censure or dismissal by the relevant quango or the local authority (Mullard 93, 102, 105–06). White CROs, meanwhile, commonly had imperial connections. While the careers of these figures are often difficult to trace, it is clear that the first appointee to Birmingham’s welfare officer position, William Davies, had previously been in the Colonial Service (Solomos and Back 45). When Davies left this post in 1956, he was replaced by Alan Gibbs, a former police inspector in Kenya and Palestine (Solomos and Back 46).25 George King, the first Immigrant Liaison Officer (ILO) in the town of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, had previously been Group Captain in the Air Force in India.26 The first ILO appointed in Manchester, attached to the Health Department, was Margaret Joyce Buck, who had recently spent three years working with Amerindian communities in Manitoba through the Indian Health and Welfare Office.27 Into the 1970s, these traces of personal post-imperial careers are evident in a survey of language expertise across the London Borough governments conducted by the London Council of Social Services (LCSS). This survey reveals non-native speakers of Hindi, Urdu, Burmese, Swahili, Arabic, Kikuyu, and other languages, along with speakers of various other languages whose nativity is not specified, amongst the capital’s health, welfare, and surveying staff.28

Regardless of their ethnic and professional background, those appointed to “community relations” roles were expected to possess, as job advertisements put it from 1969, “knowledge of different ethnic groups” along with experience in social/community work and an awareness of local government.29 Other than from work in the Empire, such knowledge is likely to have come from the raft of “race relations sociology” produced in this period by figures such as Michael Banton, Kenneth Little, Sydney Collins, E. J. B. Rose, Sheila Patterson, Ruth Glass, and organizations like the Institute of Race Relations and Centre for Urban Studies. This work was clearly influenced by the American sociological literature on “race relations”—that term, and this literature, owing its genesis to the Chicago school.30 However, some of these figures—including Banton and Little, both based at the University of Edinburgh’s Social Anthropology department—had also previously undertaken anthropological work in the colonies (Bailkin 27–33). [End Page 193]

The links between colonial anthropology and post-colonial “race relations” sociology therefore suggests belief in the existence of a body of knowledge common to both contexts and relevant to the understanding and governance of non-white peoples. As noted, in post-war Britain, this knowledge was aligned into specific structures: committees, employees, funding sources, etc. Local authorities were motivated to appoint special workers out of a belief that ethnic minorities were especially hard to deal with, created problems in such volume that a casework approach could not be applied, and/or should be dealt with by workers that had special knowledge of their socio-cultural backgrounds. Evidence from Wolverhampton in 1964, for instance, suggested that health visitors in the town “find visiting Asian families frustrating and time consuming” due to linguistic difficulties and because the “homes of Asians are generally dirty.”31 Employees engaged to work with ethnic minorities were often originally appointed to deal with fairly specific matters or fields, such as health, overcrowding in houses, education, or religious matters.32 In time, however, these workers became regarded as specialists in matters concerning ethnic minorities, and their remits became conceived of in racial or ethnic rather than thematic terms. In 1969, Manchester’s Medical Officer of Health noted that the health department’s ILO was being referred a large number of cases unrelated to health but involving ethnic minority families. The recommendation was therefore that workers abandon casework and instead adopt a “community approach” concerned “with the problems of race relations in general.”33 In Bradford too, the Pakistani immigrant liaison officers began to take on broad responsibilities in “their” communities.34 Concerns expressed by the CO in 1948, therefore, about Commonwealth immigrants becoming a “permanent segregated minority” were to some degree realized by the 1960s, as uncoordinated, ad hoc responses to local exigencies tended to create separate structures for the governance of ethnic minority communities. These initiatives, although primarily local, were encouraged, particularly under the Labor government of 1964–1970, by the provision of funding and the creation of a more centralized “race relations” bureaucracy.


The previous section of this article focused upon mainstream aspects of local racial politics in the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s. From the mid-1970s, a number of factors led to the expansion and enrichment of “race”-related structures in local government, and this in turn enabled and encouraged co-option of ethnic minority organizations by the state. Firstly, a growing appreciation of the potential significance of black and Asian votes can be perceived from the mid-1970s. This was encouraged particularly by an influential report produced by the Community Relations Commission in 1975, which suggested that the “Black” vote had been vital in the outcome of seventy-six “ethnic marginal” constituencies in the February 1974 general election that generated a hung parliament, and in eighty-five such seats in the similarly close election of that October (Community Relations Commission). The psephology of this claim was highly dubious, but it was nevertheless influential on both major parties, which responded with changes to their internal structures and more active attempts to recruit black and Asian votes (FitzGerald 7; Anwar 85–89). [End Page 194]

Concurrent with this process was the development of a new Race Relations Act, enacted in 1976, that was far more robust than its predecessors. A number of reports, particularly those by the think-tank Political and Economic Planning (PEP), evinced the severity of racial disadvantage, compounded by the depression of the period, in Britain during the mid-1970s (Smith; Bleich 96). The form taken by the legislation was also determined by the content of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, and the determination in the Labor government that laws against racial discrimination, though enjoying less popular support, should not be comparatively far weaker. The fresh legislation empowered the new Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) to launch investigations against various agencies, including local authorities, and issue “non-discrimination notices” if evidenced was found that their institutional practices were leading to unequal treatment on a racial basis, even if this was unintentional. In its Section 71 (S71), the Act also exhorted local authorities to “eliminate unlawful racial discrimination . . . and promote equality of opportunity, and good relations, between persons of different racial groups” (“Race Relations Act”). In tackling “indirect discrimination” the CRE faced a number of handicaps, including its lack of subpoena powers, its need for cooperation from agencies being investigated, the weakness of available sanctions, and the widespread lack of ethnic monitoring statistics on which to base claims of unequal treatment (McCrudden; Sanders). S71, meanwhile, was attached to no particular provision of resources, or to sanctions for application to authorities that failed in this duty. Nevertheless, a number of investigations were launched by the CRE into local authority practices that resulted in reformed practices in various facets of housing and education.35 Herman Ouseley, the first Principal Race Relations Advisor for the Greater London Council (GLC), has suggested that local authorities were concerned to at least meet their minimal legal obligations, and the ability to cite legislation gave a weapon to officers and councillors supportive of reforms to practice (134).36 Arguably, the “sanctions” not enshrined in the 1976 legislation were instead perceived by local authorities in the riots that occurred in many British towns and cities in 1981 and 1985. Although “race equality” initiatives predated the 1980s, the perception that innovations in this area could obviate threats to public order encouraged many more authorities to act (Candappa and Joly 18).

Already in the late-1970s, local politics, particularly the character of urban Labor groups, was greatly altered by the entry into the party of activists who had been associated with various “new left” social movements over the previous decade. These movements were variously concerned with issues of gender, sexuality, peace and disarmament, economic redistribution, environmentalism, and race. By the late-1970s, these movements were mobilizing less frequently on a mass basis, and their leading activists became more concerned with accessing power and resources through the mainstream. At the turn of the decade, the swing to the left at national level by the Labor Party in opposition, the discrediting of the party’s right wing following its trouncing by Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979, and the departure of the most conservative elements into the breakaway Social Democratic Party all facilitated the empowerment of the party’s active and growing left wing. Black and Asian activists formed just one strand of this movement, moving into Labor politics from a number of leftist, community defense and welfare, and youth organizations (Lent 12–17).

Under these various pressures, a number of local authorities, particularly those in urban areas and with large ethnic minority populations, introduced various initiatives in the area of “race relations” or “race equality.”37 Most minimally, a number of authorities [End Page 195] prepared statements declaring their commitment to equality of opportunity in employment and service provision. Many authorities expanded and diversified their use of S11, now using this funding to appoint a raft of “race relations advisors” and employees with similar posts. The proliferation of welfare, community, and education workers engaged, often under S11, to work specifically with particular ethnic communities in this period offered a route of entry for activists from black and Asian organizations into local authority employ from the voluntary sector. The size of this expansion is demonstrated by the fact that the West London borough of Brent, for instance, employed the equivalent of 182.5 full-time staff under S11 in the mid-1980s (Cross, Brah, and McLeod 81, 89). In a number of authorities, such staff were aligned into specific units and committees. The GLC’s Ethnic Minorities Committee was introduced in 1981 and by 1983–1984 was granting a total of £2,300,000 per year to eligible groups (GLC, Ethnic 13). In Ealing, a Race Equality Unit was created with a £2.3MM annual budget (Candappa and Joly 109). Aside from funding ethnic minority organizations, consultation of them by local authorities and co-option of their representatives onto council committees and sub-committees, including those devoted to “race” issues, became far more common in this period (Prashar and Nicholas).

The legacy of this “municipal anti-racism” is debatable. Clearly, the issuing of statements on racial equality is not by itself evidence of a meaningful commitment to that aim. The many staff employed as workers with ethnic minority communities, or as race relations advisers, struggled with marginalization and a lack of support from colleagues, especially when engaged through the enclave of S11 funding.38 The potential to take advantage of certain resources offered through this system, such as certain forms of employment and perhaps political co-option, was dependent upon educational and status factors that have led some to see municipal anti-racism as a paradigm that benefited only a relatively small slice of the Black middle class (Gilroy, “End of Anti-racism” 59). The political constraints placed on an organization or individual by agreeing to work with a local authority, and the bureaucratic and managerial requirements attached to state funding, naturally led some to see the municipal incorporation of anti-racism as entailing its depoliticization (Gilroy, There Ain’t xxx). Organizations that focused more squarely on welfare and service provision were less greatly affected by these bureaucratic changes, however, and more political organizations could benefit from the sounder footing on which state funding placed them even if this came with significant drawbacks (Lent 14–17). Indeed, authorities advancing this form of politics must be seen as motivated partly, and perhaps mostly, by negative motivations: the desire to meet legal obligations and to co-opt a segment of moderate Black leadership as a guard against threats to public order. Following the racial violence of the early 1980s, local authorities became eager to find mediators within ethnic minority communities who could help to ensure order was kept. In this context, Ali Hussein, a member of the Bradford Asian Youth Movement (AYM) at that time, says that the council “were shit-scared . . . They were staring at the possibilities of widescale riots and they were looking for people to talk to. Anyone, anywhere” (qtd. in Malik 73).

Even on these terms, however, the operation of this municipal anti-racism, by its confinement of local racial politics into specific structures, increased competition and conflict between and within ethnic minority communities. Too great a number of competing claims, all by definition made on an ethnic basis, for the limited resources available through municipal anti-racism would pose administrative, political, and financial [End Page 196] difficulties (Ellis 119). Perhaps cognizing the difficulties created where different ethnic groups were encouraged to compete, certain authorities sought to distribute political representation amongst ethnic minority communities on an apparently proportional basis. For example, Manchester established a Race Committee in 1985 to which direct elections were made, with a certain number of seats being allocated to particular communities. By 1991, the committee had thirty-six members: ten Afro-Caribbeans, eight Pakistanis, four Indians, Africans, and Chinese, and two Bangladeshis, Middle Easterners and Vietnamese.39 Pnina Werbner, in her study of Pakistani Muslim communities in the city, noted the fierce competition that could occur for these seats (Donnan and Werbner 194). Similarly, Birmingham in 1990 created eight umbrella organizations, representing Black churches, Afro-Caribbeans, Chinese, Hindus, Sikhs, Pakistanis, Irish, and Vietnamese. Existing community groups were encouraged to affiliate to the organization that represented “their” community, which would then in turn send elected members to a Standing Consultative Forum (Garbaye, Ethnic 25–27).

The separation of structures through which ethnic and racial claims were made from the rest of government bureaucracy also encouraged a potentially harmful and divisive focus on race within municipal anti-racism. For example, in making applications for funding to the GLC Ethnic Minorities Committee, organizations stressed the lack of existing provisions for members of “their” community. These leaders, usually middle-aged men, were often successful in winning support. This suggests that ethnic minority communities were often regarded, even in the context of committees tasked specifically with functions relating to them, as relatively homogenous. Organizations such as the South London Islamic Centre, Muslim Welfare Centre, and North Kensington Moroccan Tarbia (NKMT), all male-led, were funded to carry out work with women in their communities.40 Furthermore, when confirming its grant to NKMT, the Committee noted that the group’s officers were all male and placed “an undue emphasis . . . on male dominated activities.” Tarbia was therefore apprised of the GLC’s equal opportunities policies, informed about “[t]he particular situation of Moslem women, specifically Moroccan women” and required to “ensure that the premises and programme do take into account the special needs of women.”41 The GLCEMC’s main concern was to fund any deserving organization that couched its appeal in terms of its ethnic community’s special needs. It sought to ensure that organizations made social provisions for women, but was not, as the Women’s Committee may have been, so concerned about who delivered these or what their specific content was. As part of a wide-ranging consultation exercise with ethnic minority organizations in 1982, the GLC Ethnic Minorities Committee held a session on “Asian Youth” that involved dialogue with just one organization, the largely male Southall Youth Movement (SYM) (GLC, Consultation). This organization was subsequently criticized by the feminist organization Southall Black Sisters (SBS) for its “lumpen posturing and sexual harassment” (Southall Black Sisters 14).

Regardless of its intellectual and practical merits, municipal anti-racism was weakened by its confinement to vulnerable local authorities, and by its association with a relatively narrow political constituency. Whereas more modest forms of ethnic and cultural pluralism were advanced on a bipartisan basis in other localities, most notably Bradford, this style of anti-racism was associated not only with Labor specifically, but with a strand of the urban Labor party associated with the “new left” and opposed by the workerist, universalist currents within the movement.42 Excoriations of the mostly London-based “loony [End Page 197] left” councils encouraged the party at local and national level to see anti-racism, as well as other concerns of this new left milieu, as a vote loser (Gilroy, There Ain’t xxx). Although anti-racism itself was not much considered in the Tory government’s Streamlining the Cities report that outlined plans to abolish the GLC and other metropolitan county councils, the general impoverishment and disempowerment of local government under the Thatcher regime hollowed out the institutions through which anti-racism was expressed, as its ideological underpinnings came under attack even from erstwhile supporters.43


This article has examined a number of aspects of British racial politics and government, particularly the embedding of “race” into specific bureaucratic structures, primarily in the post-war period. However, it has also noted the many continuities between pre-war, wartime, and post-war dynamics that make a wholesale separation of this latter period unfeasible. These continuities are partly intellectual, inasmuch as the British post-war approach to racial diversity relied on a conceptualization of race that clearly owes much to the experience of Empire. Recurrent themes and dilemmas, such as that between working within and outside of the state for Black activists, and between a universalist and differentialist understanding of ethnic minority communities for the state, are perennial. However, this article has focused on some relatively neglected concrete, personal, and institutional, links. Firstly, the continued involvement of the Colonial Office (CO) in welfare provision for post-war migrants illustrates that the movement to an impression of “New Commonwealth” labor migration as a permanent phenomenon was only a gradual one. Secondly, the involvement of former colonial officers in Britain’s post-war “community relations” and “immigrant welfare” structures highlighting the positing of an expertise, possessed by certain individuals, that was applicable to the governance of non-white peoples in both imperial and post-imperial contexts.

Although clearly linked to earlier migrations and forms of politics, therefore, the post-war arrival and settlement of large numbers of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the West Indies in Britain occurred in a distinctive context characterized by large flows of people both in and out of the metropole. This movement included both the continuing emigration of whites to the Dominions, as well as the migration and settlement of white Europeans in Britain. Despite this, immigration became rapidly collocated with “race” in the post-war period. This was given bureaucratic expression through, as noted, the continuing involvement of the Colonial Office with non-white migration. Over time, the voluntary and statutory structures created for the promotion of improved “community relations” and the handling of ethnically inflected claims multiplied, but remained largely hived off from the mainstream of government. Therefore, even as the resources available through working within the state expanded for ethnic minority organizations in the later 1970s, this occasioned both inter-ethnic competition for the limited resources available in this autonomous sphere, and intra-ethnic competition to be recognized as the legitimate intermediary between a particular community and the state. As women and young people within ethnic minority communities became increasingly vocal, the inadequacy [End Page 198] of governmental institutions that attempted to hive off racial claims became increasingly apparent. There is therefore a sense in which the stated fear of Colonial Office bureaucrats in 1950 that black and Asian Britons would become, in bureaucratic terms, a “permanent segregated minority” were realized in the following decades.

Jed Fazakarley

JED FAZAKARLEY is currently an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow in history at the University of Oxford. He is based at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. He received a doctorate from Oxford in 2014 for a thesis entitled “Muslim Communities in England, 1962–92: Multiculturalism and Political Identity.” When he was studying at Oxford, he was elected to a Jowett Senior Scholarship by Balliol College. He has published in such journals as Immigrants & Minorities, Contemporary Islam, and Sussex Journal of Contemporary History.


1. This estimated figure is obtained by subtracting the figure of 319,800 for migration from the Dominions to the British metropole (Miles 429), from the figure of “over 760,000” for migration to the Dominions from the British mainland in the same period (Paul, “The Politics of Citizenship” 452).

4. The former of these issues is touched on briefly in Federowich and Thompson 255.

5. Fryer 320; The National Archives (TNA), London, UK, Colonial Office (CO) papers, CO/876/69, The Advisory Committee on the Welfare of Coloured People in the United Kingdom, “The Eleventh Meeting of the Committee . . . on Thursday the 17th of May 1945.”

6. J.L. Keith, “Notes for the Advice Committee on the Present and Future Development of Welfare Work”, 25/9/43.

7. CO/876/28, J.L. Keith, minutes, 8/8/42.

8. These quotations are from CO/876/39, Mrs. Phyllis Young, “Report on Investigation into the Conditions of the Coloured Colonial Men in a Stepney Area,” 3/44 (13–4, 18–33). See also CO/876/247, Derek Bamuta, “Report on an Investigation into Conditions of the Coloured People of Stepney, E1,” 1949 (4–6).

9. CO/876/36, Keith to Treasury, 5/43.

10. CO/876/69, J.L. Keith, “Notes for the Advice Committee on the Present and Future Development of Welfare Work,” 25/9/43.

11. CO/876/88, Arthur Creech-Jones, “SS Empire Windrush – Jamaican Unemployed,” 18/6/48.

12. I.G. Cummings, minutes, 17/6/48.

13. A.H. Poynton, “Empire Windrush: West Indian Workers,” 22/7/48.

14. CO/876/232, Inter-Departmental Committee on Colonial People in the United Kingdom, “Migrant Workers from Jamaica,” 13/9/51.

15. Manchester Guardian 9/10/54.

16. TNA, CO papers, CO/876/69, Keith, “Note on the Report of Conditions of the Coloured Population in the Stepney Area”

17. National Assistance Board (AST) papers, AST/7/1212, Inter-departmental Committee on Colonial People in the United Kingdom, “Draft Minutes of the 2nd Meeting” 19/7/50; Colonial Office (CO) papers, “Statement Showing Dispersal of Coloured Colonials Who Arrived in Liverpool per SS Georgic,” 30/9/51.

18. West Yorkshire Archive Service, Bradford (WYASB), Bradford, UK, Town Clerk’s papers, BBD 1/7/T15401, Director of Education to Clerk, 28/1/71.

19. WYASB, Yorkshire Committee for Community Relations (YCCR) papers, Yorkshire Council for Social Services, “The Young Migrant: Papers Given at a Study Day . . . in June 1966,” 11.

20. See Heinemann.

21. The Times 15/3/68.

22. See Wild; Angelo.

23. London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), London, UK, London Council of Social Services (LCSS) papers, ACC1888/121, Ruth Slade, “Area Reports on Cities and Boroughs with Substantial Immigrant Settlements: Sheffield,” 7/65.

24. Guardian 3/5/73. Note that this article confusingly takes these three figures to total 63.

25. Guardian 3/5/73 (46); The Times 25/8/67.

26. Guardian 30/01/68.

27. Guardian 20/10/65.

28. LMA, LCSS papers, ACCC1888/189.

29. See for example Guardian 25/4/69, 27/6/69, 18/7/69, 20/8/69, 24/8/69.

30. See Clapson.

31. Modern Records Centre, Coventry, UK, Trades Union Congress (TUC) papers, MSS.292B/805.94/3, Wolverhampton City Council to CIAC, 30/1/64. [End Page 199]

32. WYASB, Town Clerk’s papers, BBD 1/7/T9644, Association of Municipal Corporations, “Memorandum of Evidence Submitted by the Association,” 1963.

33. Guardian 4/1/67; Manchester City Library (MCL), Manchester, UK, Manchester Medical Officer of Health reports, “Report on the Health of the City of Manchester for 1968.”

34. WYASB, Town Clerk’s papers, BBD 1/7/16, Bradford County Borough, “Reports on the Problems of Coloured School Leavers and on Housing from the SCRRI,” [1973].

35. For cases concerning education, see, for example, Commission for Racial Equality, Teaching English as a Second Language: Report of a Formal Investigation in Calderdale Local Education Authority (London: CRE) on “reception centres” for Asian schoolchildren in Yorkshire, and Commission for Racial Equality, Birmingham Local Education Authority and Schools: Referral and Suspension of Pupils—Report of a Formal Investigation (London: CRE, 1985) on the suspension of black schoolchildren in Birmingham. In relation to housing, see, for example, Commission for Racial Equality, Homelessness and Discrimination: Report of a Formal Investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality into the Allocation of Housing by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (London: CRE, 1988).

36. For a specific case in the GLC, see the account in Livingstone 237.

37. A tabular overview of such initiatives in London can be found in GLC Ethnic Minorities Committee, Ethnic Minorities and the Abolition of the GLC 20. A narrative list with a wider geographic span can be found in LMA, Inner London Education Authority Equal Opportunities Unit (ILEAEOU) papers, ILEA/EOU/1/20, Manchester Committee for Community Relations, “MCC and Racial Equality: the Case for Ethnic Record Keeping,” 7/82.

38. LMA, ILEAEOU papers, ILEA/EOU/1/36, GLC, “The Role of Section 11 Workers,” 27/1/84.

39. MCL, Manchester City Council Race Unit, “Ethnic Minorities Directory,” [1991], 12–3.

40. See for example LMA, London, UK, GLC Ethnic Minorities Unit presented papers, GLC/DG/MIN/49/1, South London Islamic Centre, “Grants to Voluntary and Community Groups,” 6/82; GLC/DG/PRE/49/5, Muslim Parents Association, “Grants to Voluntary and Community Groups”; and GLC/DG/PRE/49/7, North Kensington Moroccan Tarbia, “Grants to Voluntary and Community Groups”

41. GLC/DG/PRE/49/7, GLC, “NKMT — Grant Application,” 22/4/83.

42. On the bipartisan approach in Bradford, see Grogan. On divisions within the left regarding anti-racism in London, see Livingstone 243.

43. A major criticism of anti-racist practice and the ideas behind it can be found in Macdonald.


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