21 JUNE 1963, Page 22

Race and Second Class

Dark Strangers. By Sheila Patterson. (Tavistock, 65s.)

IN the course of the nineteenth century this country may have assimilated up to 10,000 coloured people. They gained their freedom in Britain with the court ruling of 1772. Surprisingly little research has been done on what happened to them. Some of them went off with a band of white prostitutes to form the colony of Free- town and so led ultimately to the present day friction between the people of the former Colony and the former Protectorate of Sierra Leone; many returned to the West Indies and more must have died without offspring. Yet it appears that a substantial number must have intermarried with the English and done so without any great feeling that this was at all unusual. A corres- pondent to the Spectator in July, 1925, tells this story: I suppose there are not many people now living who can remember the days when a negro servant was a not uncommon feature of an English household, but I believe that in the days of the Georges there were often such. At any rate, in my childhood there was a real negro, brought from Africa, bought and sold living in my Grandfather's establishment. . . .

Garlo, that was his name, was said to be a

bright and smart fellow and served for some time as footman. But alas! things went ill with him. He became engaged to a nice English girl, and to his great sorrow she died. He was so distressed at her death that he went out of his mind and had to be sent to an asylum. .. . To us children he was of great interest. The fact that he was black never seemed at all strange.

And there is the quoted example of the coloured servant Gumbo in Thackeray's The Virginians who married one of the white housemaids, again without any appearance of protest.

Yet assitnilation is not the only, nor necessarily the most desirable way in which a migrant group can be accepted; certainly it can never be a single or even a two generation process. The more usual first step is one of accommodation where migrants are given a perhaps somewhat limited acceptance by the receiving society, as say, part of the labour force, but where this is withheld from most forms of social intercourse, and particularly from intermarriage. Sometimes a second, though often final step is one of integration where the migrant group is permanently accepted by the receiving society but maintains a separate identity, as expressed in its religion and culture and possibly an unwillingness to marry outside the group. This form of acceptance applies largely to the Jews in this country, for instance, and is common to minority groups in many parts of Canada.

Each of these three processes of absorption, depends upon a large amount of adaptation by the migrants to the morals and customs of the receiving community. The important point to establish, however, is that neither accommoda- tion nor. integration necessarily imply accep- tance on an equal footing. It is all too possible that acceptance will become in fact limited to the migrants keeping to certain jobs and observ- ing unwritten rules about intermarriage and about participation in social and political life.

Sheila Patterson's study, the first to deal at length with the post-war West Indian migration into Brixton, is not ostensibly about colour at all. It has reference to migrpnt communities anywhere, and makes great play with the tradi-

tional British reserve and reluctance to accept strangers irrespective of their race, colour or even region. Mrs. Patterson has no doubt done this deliberately in the interests of objectivity, for it frees the subject from much superfluous emotion and a lot of reiterated statements by informants whose colour prejudice is merely a repetition of received ideas and would not always be adhered to in practice. She has approached mainly employers, union officials, social workers and landlords, all of whom might be expected, if only from self-interest, to take a fairly rational view, especially as many of the migrants to Brixton are there to stay and in some places actually outnumber the whites. With great insight, she tends throughout to treat colour problems as' class problems, which are at heart economic. She deals exhaustively with the whites, but unfortunately her interviews with the coloured people themselves have not been nearly so extensive, partly no doubt because they were difficult to keep in touch with and partly, perhaps, because of a general reluctance to answer questions whose very nature suggests the existence of discrimination and prejudice. '

I do not think the first conclusion can be any- thing but this: that we should not be at all surprised or resentful that the migrants are often critical of us. Still less, should we be ready to charge them with ingratitude—what have we given most of the West Indians to feel grateful for? They come with a knowledge of this country often limited to plantations and mission schools, and perhaps exaggerated success stories sent back by their compatriots. They find our cities unbelievably ugly, their main feature the extent of the urban working class, too often housed in appalling conditions even if sometimes well provided with consumer goods. In a country which parades the virtues of the family, they find few marked signs of respect and care for the old. Employers may criticise them for their lack of interest and application to their work, but employed as railway porters what interest can they have? It is not for the migrants to under- stand that the low wages on the railways have only been borne by the British in return for (until recently) security of employment.

In a large regional railway station where I once worked there was a notorious shortage of barrows for carrying parcels. No one knew why; no one was able to remember a time when there had ever been enough barrows. The barrows were urgently needed in the early hours of Sunday morning for unloading the Sunday papers, but the only way of obtaining barrows was to throw in a massive indiscriminate pile all the parcels which had been so carefully stacked on to the barrows during the latter part of the week. Apart from the outlay involved in com- pensation for damaged goods, this meant asking a large group of men to come in on Sundays at double rate to stack the parcels back on the barrows. No one complained of this, for of course the overtime was the only way of making up the men's pay packets to a reasonable wage. But we should ask if it is any wonder that these men should feel resentful when the labour force is increased by (as it happens) coloured labour and so the chances of overtime are lost. We might ask, too, how many men can be expected to assimilate themselves to such conditions.

The remarkable thing is not how much strain

the migrants have placed on labour relationships, but how little. Time and again in reading Mrs. Patterson's book one is impressed by the efforts made by union officials and employers to come to terms with the situation. One should remember that they have done this without an official lead of any kind. The Labour Party has been in a particularly embarrassing position, obliged to uphold colour immigration (and the new Com- monwealth) in principle, while its supporters, more than anyone else, are obliged to live with it in fact. And the party has had its inevitable embarrassments, as in the recent case of the transport workers in 'Bristol. On the whole, however, it has come out well; even those union officials who have said that in periods of reces- sion coloureds must go first have not always stuck to this in practice. Management too has often shown admirable tact in regulating colour employment, in setting an unofficial limit to the number of migrants they will take and scattering them carefully throughout the factory. It may be that the need to do this is itself evidence that discrimination exists (certainly this is how many West Indians see it). But surely it is a realistic assessment.

Should there be legislation introduced against colour discrimination? In a brief chapter of proposals for the future at the end of the book, Mrs. Patterson says that she favours this. It is a delicate subject; there has been no very apparent need for it in the past and the very suggestion of legislation has always been felt to arouse colour prejudice and economic fears. Yet there is little doubt in my mind that she is right. For however well the native population have adapted them- selves to the migrants, and however much the labour force (the men, if not the women) has been absorbed, it is hard to argue that the process of acceptance has yet gone much further than accommodation. What of the future when many migrants will have established themselves and made enough money to want to seek better living conditions, and move from property they have only been able to acquire because no whites would take it? When their immediate financial worries are over, the migrants will want to fit more closely into British social life and care more about the eduCation of their children. The position of these children is important, born of at least one migrant parent, but wholly British by upbringing. The thought of them condemned to a dilapidated ghetto where few whites will encroach and valued only for their labour is appalling, but it is at least a possibility. One should realise that it is only by full-scale accep- tance on the part of the receiving community that most of the migrants can be encouraged to adapt themselves and achieve any sort of stability. There will be otherwise no migrant climate of opinion to control the often irrespon- sible attitude on the part of the migrant worker towards illegitimacy, and the already large number of unmarried women condemned to look after unwanted children will increase.

With the end of colonialism the colour prob- lem is being more and more reduced to a struggle between the 'haves' and the 'have nots.' It is becoming, as Mrs. Patterson so rightly sungests, a class problem, if perhaps a class problem be-

tween nations. This fact is at the root of the continuing charges of neo-colonialism. The question is whether we are prepared to exacerbate

the problem by condemning people in this country to second or even third class citizenship, or whether a piece of timely legislation might not sway the balance the other way.