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Content warning: sexual assault, abuse, self-harm, racism.
The intensifying racist assault on BME communities and migrants in Britain has been most recently brought to public attention by the Stansted 15 case. The fifteen activists were arrested in March 2017 for bravely trying to stop the deportation of 60 people to Nigeria and Ghana from London Stansted airport. However, while in their recent sentencing on 6 February the Stansted 15 were spared jail, the deportation of around 50 black people of Jamaican descent from Birmingham airport that same day was given almost no media attention. To understand the escalation of state racism, including the recent spate of deportations, we need to examine its evolving function for British imperialism.
Transformations in the function of British racism
British racism has a long bloody history going back to the slave trade and Empire, along with the colonisation of Ireland. However, successive slave revolts and anti-colonial revolutions forced British capital to adopt a subtler approach known as ‘neo-colonialism’, one facet of which is the exploitation of cheap labour from the ex-colonies.
After the Second World War Britain faced a serious labour shortage, and immigrants from the Commonwealth were brought over to enter “unskilled” low-status jobs, for instance in the textile and foundry industries of the Midlands. Women from Asia and the West Indies were also integral to the establishment of Britain’s post-war welfare state, which was used to help pacify the British working-class. These women’s placement in low-paid, low-security ancillary nursing roles was justified not only by the sexist idea of a “natural” female caring role, but also racist notions of black and Asian subservience.
Immigrant labour was especially useful to British capital because of its unique flexibility, meaning it was able to help absorb the shocks of periodic economic boom and bust throughout the 1950s. Then in the late 1950s, when inadequate social spending engendered a housing shortage, black and Asian immigrants (mostly living in slum conditions) became a convenient scapegoat for rising social tensions.
Without getting drawn into the numbers game, the irrationality of this racist scapegoating can be highlighted by pointing out that immigration from Europe far outpaced that from the Commonwealth, and that throughout the 1960s and 1970s more people were leaving the UK than arriving.
Commonwealth immigrants were never passive victims of British racism. Throughout the 1970s black and Asian workers, often inspired by Black Power ideologies, attacked racism in the workplace while contributing to the broader radicalisation of the British labour movement at that time. Unemployed black and Asian youths in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Yorkshire and elsewhere also formed militant self-defence campaigns against police and fascist violence, as well as against deportations and the racist immigration laws.
This ethnic minority self-assertiveness, alongside the contraction of the post-war economic boom from the 1960s, caused British capital to change tack. As the great Sri Lanka-born Marxist Ambalavaner Sivanandan identified at the time, Britain embarked on a long-term strategy of moving towards the more flexible European model of contract labour, with successive Tory and Labour governments passing acts to stem black and Asian immigration. By 1971, when the so-called “patriality” act was passed, the rights of Commonwealth citizens were effectively eroded and Britain become ‘a neo-colonial power with two peripheries’ of cheap labour reserves: migrant workers from underdeveloped Europe, and the settled communities originating from Britain’s former colonies. Since this time Britain has benefitted from a complex labour hierarchy based on race and nationalities that helps maintain downward pressure on wages.
Economic stagnation along with British imperialism’s increasing reliance on migrant labour has however provoked the need for new vulnerable and economically expendable scapegoats on which to blame spiralling social contractions. Asylum seekers have been the main victims of this requirement. The subsequent dual character of racism in neoliberal Britain today is captured by Jon Burnett:
Racial violence is now structured into postindustrial Britain, particularly its night-time economy where ‘new’ migrants and asylum seekers alongside ‘older’ discarded BME workers feel the brunt of unemployment as industries are dismantled.
The role of deportations
The UK’s first detention centre was built in the 1970s at Harmondsworth near Heathrow, but the anti-asylum seeker offensive really escalated under Blair’s New Labour. Domestic austerity policies along with an increased reliance on super-exploited European Economic Area (EEA) migrant workers exacerbated social polarisation. An opportunity to deflect from these tensions arose with the “asylum crisis” caused by refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East and Balkans. That these refugees were predominantly Muslim added a further dimension to the scapegoating. And once Britain became America’s main military partner in repeated interventions in the Middle East, Islamophobia was cemented as a mainstay of British racism. The threat of “radical Islam”, created by the West’s long-term project of destabilising and fostering extremist non-secular regimes favourable to its interests in the Middle East, became a ploy to quell wider domestic dissent. The Stansted 15 were charged and convicted under anti-terrorism legislation.
From 1998–2003 New Labour set targets to deport 30,000 people a year, and a scattered complex of detention centres was built. The UN definition of refugees, based on the 1951 Convention, was (and still is) frequently ignored to achieve such high numbers of deportations.
A second wave of scapegoating began when the Arab Spring, and then the imperialist proxy war and invasion in Syria from 2011, caused another refugee crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees currently estimates there are 68.5 million “forcibly displaced people” in world – the highest number ever recorded – of which the West takes a miniscule proportion despite its leading role in creating the crisis.
New Labour also pioneered the generalised targeting of “illegal immigrants”. “Illegal immigrant” is a spurious concept that has proved to have exceptional political currency and has been taken up by the media and politicians in the two ruling parties. The Tories took their lead from Labour, setting “net migration targets” of under 100,000 a year in successive election campaigns. In 2013 Theresa May, then Home Secretary, declared her aim to “create a really hostile environment for illegal migrants”. Corbyn’s Labour has failed to challenge this anti-immigrant grandstanding.
The renewed assault on immigrants was the wider context for the 2018 ‘Windrush scandal’. The task of totally dismantling Commonwealth citizenship rights was completed by Thatcher in 1981. Generally, it is now the case that if someone is born in the UK before 1983 or have a British parent they are entitled to citizenship. However, many of the “Windrush generation” lack documentation to prove their citizenship and so are vulnerable to deportation.
It should also be noted Eastern Europeans are not immune from the state’s racist offensive. Since 2012, when the debate over Brexit first began, there have been mass roundups and deportations of homeless Eastern Europeans on the grounds they are “abusing” their treaty rights – by being homeless.
In 2017 a total 27,231 people were detained in Britain of which 13,173 were deported. At least 37 people have died in immigration lockups or shortly after release since 1989, according to the Institute of Race Relations.
Capitalism will always take advantage of the descent into social barbarism. The four main detention profiteer companies in the occupied north of Ireland and in Britain have been using detainees as de facto slave labour. A Corporate Watch report from 2014 revealed they charge a standard pay rate of £1 an hour for cleaning, cooking and building maintenance. Detainees are probably forced into this work in order to be able to afford basic necessities while inside.
The sexual violence of the British state
Sexism is another key weapon in the arsenal of imperialism alongside racism, the two being intimately related. The role of gender in capital accumulation was explored by anti-imperialist feminists in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s. For instance, Selma James explained how women’s unwaged “invisible” labour is vital to imperialist profits:
Many generations of Third World women have paid heavily so that Britain and other metropolitan countries could have a reserve labour force ready and waiting…That it is women’s unwaged work in Third World conditions of economic and technological poverty which has produced [immigrant] labour power, and that this is a subsidy extracted specifically from women by international capital, is rarely if ever noted.
Pratibha Parmar came to similar conclusions, stressing the advantages for Western capital of the role that wives of male immigrant workers play in the maintenance and renewal of their families. The domestic labour of women in ‘Third World’ countries ‘greatly subsidises the costs of reproducing male labour in the cities, mines and other centres of production’. Women in the global South are themselves rapidly entering capitalist wage-labour relations, at pay rates and work conditions well below that of their male counterparts, in the sweatshops, factories and service industries of the global economy.
Women’s subordinate position in the international capitalist division of labour is maintained by structural violence, including sexual violence. Black and Asian women in Britain have long understood this. For instance, in 1979 the groups AWAZ and Southall Black Sisters led protests against the virginity “testing” of Asian women at Heathrow airport. The “tests” purported to determine whether the women were already married, or fiancées of men settled in Britain. According to Parmar this was ‘based on the racist and sexist assumption that Asian women from the subcontinent are always virgins before marriage…[this] absurd generalisation is based on the same stereotype of the submissive, meek and tradition-bound Asian woman’ and represented ‘acts of violence and intimidation against black women by the British state’. Such violence was justified by notions of “bogus” immigration that have parallels today with the idea particularly female migrants are a “drain” on the NHS, a racist lie that has ‘led to Windrush generation British citizens being denied treatment, or deported midway through being treated’ under May’s hostile environment.
The sexual targeting of vulnerable migrants by the state continues today but on a far more systematic basis. Resistance by affected women also continues.
Violence against women has been most thoroughly exposed at Yarl’s Wood detention centre in Bedford, which holds around 400 asylum seekers. Cameras have never been allowed inside and the United Nations special rapporteur for violence against women was barred entry, but in 2015 a Channel 4 news reporter working undercover revealed the level of misogyny and violence experienced by detainees.
Employees of the company that manages Yarl’s Wood for the government were recorded saying the following:
“Headbutt the bitch, I’d beat her up”
“Let them slash their wrists”
“They’re animals. They’re beasties. They’re all animals. Caged animals. Take a stick with you and beat them up. Right?”
“I allegedly walked into somebody’s room without knocking,” one employee joked to colleagues. “I just like tits. I’m addicted to the viewing of tits.”
The investigation also found out about a pregnant woman who, after being taken to the hospital to be told she had miscarried, was sent back to detention centre, still bleeding and highly distressed, for several hours until she was returned to the hospital.
There have been numerous allegations of sexual violence against detainees. ‘Tanja’, a 23-year-old held at Yarl’s Wood in 2013, claimed one guard forced oral sex on her and that the guards targeted vulnerable young new arrivals.
As mentioned, there has also been sustained resistance by those victimised. The Yarl’s Wood uprising in 2002 permanently destroyed half of the new centre. In 2012, women inside the centre formed a Movement for Justice group, and there have been mass hunger strikes in the past several years.
Migrant women are vulnerable even when not detained in these centres. This is particularly true for domestic workers, mostly from the Middle East and originating in South/Southeast Asia and North Africa, on special UK visas that tie them to their employers with little to no coverage by labour protection laws. Between 15,000−16,000 such visas, which have been called another form of modern slavery, are issued each year by the government. Reports of sexual harassment and assault by employers are common. In such conditions of migrant insecurity sex trafficking is also able to flourish. It is estimated the suspected number of victims of trafficking and modern slavery in Britain has risen tenfold in just several years from 13,000 in 2013, to 136,000 in 2018.
British imperialism in decay
Domestic British racism continues to be inextricably linked to the parasitic dependence of British capital (including private finance and state capital) upon the super-exploitation of labour within the global South – a fact that continues to be downplayed or outright denied by Trotskyists and neo-Kautskyites like David Harvey.
John Smith explains:
When in 2018 the British state collects, in VAT and other taxes, up to half the final sale price of a shirt made in Bangladesh (while the woman who made the shirt is paid a tiny fraction of this amount) and uses these tax receipts to finance the National Health Service and workers’ pensions (neither of which are available to our Bangladeshi sisters, nor to the 260 million migrant workers from China’s countryside who toil in that country’s export-oriented factories), is it acceptable for Marxists to ignore such inconvenient ‘realities on the ground’?
As Kwame Nkrumah once wrote, neo-colonialism represents imperialism’s ‘last hideous gasp.’ Brexit was the product of a deep crisis in British imperialism. Britain faces global economic stagnation as a second-rate European power, and a completely subservient partner in the Atlantic alliance. Yet a section of the ruling class has bought into the illusion that Britain’s imperial decline can somehow be halted. Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, invoked memories of how ‘a small island perched on the edge of the European continent became a leader of world trade’. Similarly, May’s Brexit speech announced a vision for a ‘Global Britain’: ‘a great, global trading nation that is respected around the world and strong.’ Whitehall officials even described the African commonwealth as a potential ‘Empire 2.0’.
It would not then be surprising if British imperialism tried to intensify its parasitism upon the global South, which will draw it into increasing conflict with the other world powers. A 2016 report by War on Want revealed Britain’s major stake in the ‘new scramble for Africa’. ‘101 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange— most of them British — have mining operations in 37 sub-Saharan African countries. They collectively control over $1 trillion worth of Africa’s most valuable resources.’ Many of the companies are implicated in the killings of protestors and workers.
The section of the ruling class deluded into thinking Britain’s independent role in the imperialist world-system can be recovered is dangerous for another reason: it is apparently willing to mobilise the far right for its nationalist ends. Boris Johnson’s racist comment about veiled women was a clear ‘dog whistle’ to fascists. Élite anti-immigrant think tanks such as MigrationWatch also reinforce the ideological outlook of street fascists like the English Defence League and Democratic Football Lads Alliance. In failing to break with the anti-immigrant paradigm, Labour remains wholly incapable of stemming the rising tide of fascism.
“There is a war against Black people in the UK.”
An investigation into the deportation flight from Birmingham by Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC UK) and Movement for Justice found that ‘ten people had never been to Jamaica before and 36 British children were about to have their fathers ripped away from them. One was born in Britain and holds a British passport.’
Racism is endemic to British society. The latest figures show that over half of the people locked in young offender institutions in England and Wales belong to an ethnic minority group, due to the liberal use of “stop and search” against black and Asian youths by the police. Professor of black studies as Birmingham City University Kehinde Andrews has recently invoked Malcolm X’s warning of a “racial powder keg” in the deprived areas of our cities.
There is a complete lack of police accountability for racist brutality. Edson da Costa, a young black father, died in an East London hospital after being restrained and sprayed with CS gas on 21 June 2017. An IOPC investigation claimed the use of force was “necessary and proportionate”. That following month Rashan Charles, 20, also died in hospital in East London after being restrained on the ground by a police officer. The inquest dismissed the death as ‘accidental’.
Corbyn’s Labour is complicit in this state of affairs. During the 2017 election Corbyn and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott pandered to chauvinism, promising an extra 500 border guards. The current Labour Manifesto refers to migrant labour ‘undercutting workers’ pay and conditions’. And at a time when prisons are already bloated with BME youths, Abbott has promised to hire 10,000 more police officers.
Highlighting racist contradictions within the working-class is not “divisive”, as many claiming to be leftists would have us believe. While racism has created a super-exploited strata of workers, the fact is that all workers are being increasingly squeezed by neoliberal capitalism. Racism is a primary lynchpin of this system that condemns all workers to ever-growing precarity. If most workers in Britain today are at best apathetically nationalist, this is only because the left has failed to provide a truly radical alternative to capitalism, instead pushing for meek “anti-austerity” programmes with the false promise of a return to post-1945 welfare capitalism – an anomalous system that was possible only due to a golden era of imperialist expansion that, now capitalism has finally cannibalised the entire globe, cannot be repeated.
We must listen to the rising mood in black communities, as captured by Samantha Asumadu: ‘there is a war against Black people in the UK. It burned slowly for decades but now it is at fever pitch. And by now if you are complacent about it you are complicit.’ The struggle against all forms of racism and sexism is integral to socialism, at every stage of its advancement.
Solidarity with the Stansted 15! Solidarity with BME communities and migrants in their continued struggle against British racism!
 Ambalavaner Sivanandan, A Different Hunger: Writings on Black Resistance (Pluto Press, 1991), p. 103.
 Ibid., pp. 104–6.
 Corporate Watch, The UK Border Régime: A Critical Guide (2018), p. 18.
 Anandi Ramamurthy, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements (Pluto Press, 2013).
 Sivanandan, A Different Hunger, pp. 107–8.
 Ibid., p. 112.
 Jon Burnett, ‘Britain: Racial Violence and the Politics of Hate’, Race & Class, 54:4 (2013), p. 12.
 Corporate Watch, The UK Border Régime, p. 15.
 The UN definition is itself inadequate as it does not account for environmental disaster or economic exploitation. Ibid., p. 37.
 Ibid., p. 25.
 Ibid., p. 35.
 Ibid., p. 88.
 Corporate Watch, The UK Border Régime, p. 93.
 Selma James (ed.) Strangers and Sisters: Women, Race and Immigration (Falling Wall Press, 1985), p. 19.
 Pratibha Parmar, ‘Gender, Race and Class: Asian Women in Resistance’ in University of Birmingham, The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70’s Britain (Routledge, 1994), p. 244.
 Many Asian people including pregnant women were also X‑rayed in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh at the British High Commission offices. The British state justified this by insinuating it was receiving ‘bogus’ immigration from ‘false wives’ ”.
 Corporate Watch, The UK Border Régime, p. 100.
 Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (PANAF: London, 2004), p. 253.
 Mark Curtis, ‘The New Colonialism: Britain’s Scramble for Africa’s Energy and Mineral Resources’ (July 2016), p. 1. https://waronwant.org/s…/default/files/TheNewColonialism.pdf
 Ibid., pp. 26–7.