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The Windrush Scandal, Government Denial and Airbrushing History

Illustration: Maria Dragoi @maria.dragoi

The three-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire on 14 June, reminded many of the fatalities which were largely due to governmental neglect and failure to act. Today, 22 June, marks the 72-year anniversary of the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948, which has been popularly remembered as the first and largest migration of West Indian people to Britain. Now, June 2020 prompts us to look towards and reassess yet another recent example of institutional racism: the Windrush Scandal.

Exposed in 2018, the Windrush Scandal removed the veil which concealed the Home Office’s treatment of the Windrush generation, those who were migrating to Britain from the West Indies between 1948 and 1973 under the terms of the 1948 Nationality Act. From 2013, people of the Windrush generation started to receive letters claiming that they had no right to be in the UK. It has been revealed that the Home Office wrongly deported at least 164 Black British citizens and detained 850 people between 2012 and 2017. At least 11 of them died on the streets of foreign countries where they were deported. Many of these Black Britons, who have only known Britain as home, were told to ‘return home’ or face deportation. More recently, it has been exposed that the Home Office destroyed the landing cards of thousands of Windrush immigrants in 2010: the documents which would have proved their citizenship. The systematic and unlawful treatment of the Windrush Generation as illegal immigrants has represented one of the most grievous examples of ongoing institutional racism.

Labour MP David Lammy has argued that the Windrush Scandal happened because the government ‘still fails to confront the legacy of empire’ which dehumanised Black people through years of slavery approximately 350 years ago.

The recent BBC1 drama Sitting in Limbo, aired on 9 June 2020, portrayed the real experiences of Anthony Bryan who was wrongfully threatened deportation to Jamaica, leaving him abandoned by a government that was supposed to protect him. The one-off drama shows the escalation of injustices Anthony faces; first losing his long-term job in 2017, to immigration authorities arriving on his doorstep taking him to a detention centre - where he was held for five weeks - which was not dissimilar to a prison. The treatment of Anthony Bryan like a criminal in the country he had lived for 50 years; where his wife, children and grandchildren all live, represents governmental dehumanisation of Black Britons to this day, where immigration and citizenship policies have repeatedly discriminated against Black and ethnic minority citizens for decades.

Three years on, Anthony and his family have only received one phase of compensation, whilst many more affected are yet to receive justice. Three years on, this demonstrates that the British government is institutionally resistant from learning, especially from its own colonial past.

It is somewhat ironic that the conclusive, independent report published on the 19 March this year was titled ‘The Windrush Lessons Learned Review’. Inside, Wendy Williams outlined that the scandal showed “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness” on race issues, that is “consistent with some elements of the definition of institutional racism”. Williams also points out that the Home Office had many opportunities to figure out that something was going to go wrong regarding pre-1973 Commonwealth immigrants, or to detect the scandal as it was unfolding.

It seems a customary cycle for the Conservative government to commission a review, report or establish a committee addressing a race issues, but fail to act upon it, or learn from it. Whilst governmental inquiries might act as a much-needed mirror for the cabinet to stare the effects of their policies in the face, they usually fail to look deeply.

Perhaps an explanation why the government is resistant from learning from the past, is because they whitewash it themselves. Dominic Raab the Home Secretary proclaimed in an interview, ‘we shouldn’t airbrush our history’ upon discussing Britain’s colonial past. Contrary to this, the British government is the main culprit behind the screen actively airbrushing history and has done for thousands of years. Reflecting upon historicisation of the arrival of Empire Windrush beginning 72 years ago, is an important example of the way the government has obscured historical narratives to benefit its own agenda.

The arrival of Windrush has been typically framed in national histories as a totemic moment in the arrival of multi-racial Britain. The conventional narrative has taught that 492 Jamaican men arrived aboard SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks, Essex, to fill post-war labour shortages across the country and rebuild Britain. The Evening Standard headline read ‘Welcome Home’ the day of its arrival, and this sentiment has been echoed in government commemorations of Windrush in contributing to the ‘irresistible rise of multi-racial Britain’.

More recently, historians such as Matthew Mead and Hannah Lowe have revealed that there was rather, over 1000 Windrush passengers, whom included women and children, from across the West Indies – thus extending the conventional narrative.

Comparing the treatment of the Black Britons in the Windrush scandal, in contrast to the way in which the government frames its ‘welcoming’ of West Indian migrants arriving aboard Empire Windrush in 1948; reflects the double standard of a government who portrays itself as the champion of racial tolerance, but fails to treat Black Britons as rightful citizens. Understanding the disparities between these narratives is crucial.

The conventional narrative deliberately excludes the covert and overt forms of discrimination faced by West Indian migrants upon arrival, who were discriminated against in housing and job opportunities and subject to racist violence. For many arrivals, as seen in the testimony of Windrush passenger Sam King, the realities of racism in the ‘mother country’ were unforeseen, significantly altering their experiences, in comparison to the expectation of life in Britain. For example, Black Britons would sometimes have to club together to buy a house to share, because white landlords often rejected their tenancy offers.

In addition, institutional racism became increasingly rife post-Windrush. In 1955, just seven years after the arrival of Windrush, Churchill announced the slogan ‘Keep England White’ to his cabinet. This ideology became sedimented within right-wing rhetoric, as seen in the 1970s National Front motto ‘Keep Britain White’. Until today, this rhetoric is evident in the Home Offices ‘hostile environment’ policies which guided much of its justification behind the treatment of the Windrush generation.

Yet, the government continues to celebrate the Windrush within national cultural histories as the watershed moment epitomising the birth of multi-racial Britain, without acknowledging its own role in perpetuating racism. By framing history in this homogenous light, various governments since the Second World War have been able to practice covertly racist anti-immigration policies, whilst effectively convincing the global audience otherwise. Historian Kennetta Hammond Perry coins this the British “anti-racism mystique”, whereby the government effectively self-fashioned its international identity as a post-imperial, wholly racially inclusive, liberal state. This formed a global brand depicting Britain as the champion of tolerance, human rights and democracy, which has allowed the British government to remain unscathed in the international community, when evidence of injustices become exposed.

This post-war image has successfully masked the racist policies of the UK government, and helped to bury white guilt. This modulation of the myth over decades as a reflection of the historicisation of imperialism and its glorification, translates directly into Home Office culture today and the Conservative government’s attitudes towards race.

In February this year, two years after the scandal was revealed, 50 people of the Windrush generation were denied access to jobs and healthcare and deported to Jamaica. The wrongful displacement of Black Britons demonstrated in Sitting in Limbo, still has an unsettling presence

Justice still remains elusive for the Windrush scandal survivors. After countless apologies framing the scandal as a ‘mistake’; the government has created a complex compensation scheme that becomes a distressing process for applicants filling out an 18-page document, for something that wasn’t their fault. Losses compensation aims to cover education, health, detention, deportation, legal costs and impact on daily life, representing the extent of damage the Scandal caused to all aspects of its victims lives. On the 19 June, Windrush scandal survivors delivered a petition to Downing Street, calling the government to speed up compensation payments and implement all elements of the Lessons Learned Review.

As many rightfully celebrate Windrush Day today and the invaluable contributions made by West Indian migrants in rebuilding post-war Britain; the government must acknowledge how its denial of the past will only perpetuate institutional racism further.

It is difficult to feel confident the government won’t do something like this again. Newly appointed Racial Inequality Advisor to the government, Munira Mirza, has casted doubt on the very existence of institutional racism, stating “race is no longer the significant disadvantage it is often portrayed to be” and alleging institutional racism is “a perception more than a reality”. Mirza will be heading the government commission on racial equalities in response to Black Lives Matter protests this month. It seems the government are deliberately shielding their eyes from staring institutional racism in the face: the denial of the past will only allow an injustice as inhumane as the Windrush Scandal, or Grenfell, to happen again.


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