A year after the Windrush scandal broke, Lara Choksey writes that we should be looking at the deportations and violence in the context of decades of state definition of who deserves care
As Brexit turns the screw on a national consciousness split over who should fall under its remit of care, history is asking for our attention. Brexit is restoring and rejuvenating imperial imaginaries, and with them the promise of returning colonial subjects to their former place. When confronting the rise of the far-right, we should also acknowledge the ways these exclusions are entrenched in British law and policy-making, how they have accelerated over the last ten years, and how they are embedded in the fracture between the promises of national welfare and its street-level implementations.
Seen through the lens of Black and Asian British histories, three phases of welfare come into view: segregation (1948-1981), neoliberal multiculturalism (1981-2008), and austerity (2008-now). I’ll explore these three phases before considering a new phase of activism now emerging: caring for community histories of survival and resistance. Turning from the lure of meritocracy (and its underbelly of dependency) would mean breaking out of the contribution compulsion; that is, the tendency to justify presence by highlighting services to national development and culture. Instead, care-work focused on inter-community narratives of survival and resistance are reshaping the ways we relate to each other, as we continue to heal from history.
“The deportations of Windrush migrants and their descendants have taken place under the aegis of Theresa May’s hostile environment, but represent a longer history of how welfare allocation has been imbricated in the shifting relation between race, ethnicity and citizenship”
At a recent student-organised event on the Windrush scandal, I and two other panellists were asked to respond to questions about its long-term implications, and what it says about the historical moment we find ourselves in. “Why, despite all the coverage, are people still at risk of deportation?” and, “what are the implications of the Windrush scandal for today’s younger generations?” These questions invite us to look back and forward in working out the present – to a history of exclusion, and the strangeness of Commonwealth migration: “You get settled, and then you too become part of the strangeness,” says the ‘West Indian Man’ in John Akomfrah’s 2010 film, The Nine Muses.
This strangeness involves learning to live in embodied contradictions: declarations of acceptance, tolerance, and care delivered in environments of hostility and neglect. These are contradictions that cannot be resolved through hard work or by hiding in plain sight; what can be done is to attend to histories of care that have not tried to make sense of this conflict, but which have instead disrupted its violence.
The deportations of Windrush migrants and their descendants have taken place under the aegis of Theresa May’s hostile environment, but represent a longer history of how welfare allocation has been imbricated in the shifting relation between race, ethnicity and citizenship. In their simplest iteration, a deportation is an abdication of state responsibility, determining who and which groups are and are not entitled to its care.
To understand this, we have not only to understand the way that colonial social relations continue to shape national infrastructure, but also how these relations were embedded in postwar welfare. This is not just a problem of neo-fascism; the historical exclusion of Black, Asian, and, to some degree, Irish Catholic migrants from state care has been marked by uneven, racialised policy-making, from the ground up. These recent deportations mark the continuation of a history of welfare being denied on the basis of racialised identifications, sustaining the myth of a biological underclass, as well as the illusion of the meritocratic mobility of the ‘naturally’ talented.
The Beveridge Report of 1942 rehearsed ideas developed in part through the British Eugenics Society in the interwar years, particularly around the importance of providing an even and fair environment so that that ‘best’ stock could rise to the surface; the interwar eugenicists assumed that intelligence and aptitude was hereditary, but that class did not (necessarily) correspond to merit.
In Beveridge’s vision, welfare was to be implemented by the state in the form of a minimum provision, to provide a ground for the individual to flourish, so that “individuals may build freely upon it,” promoting ‘natural’ talent. This was allied to the discourse of meritocracy, a rewards-based system valuing contributions to civil society. This was the Britain into which people from the Caribbean and the broader empire arrived, still considered British citizens, and, in theory, with the same rights to welfare as their white neighbours.
Segregation (1948 – 1981)
The Brixton uprising of 1981
In identifying the subjects it sought to rehabilitate, the welfare state needed to create undeserving subjects. Virginia Noble and Michael Lambert have both written on the construction of the “problem family” as a way of excluding people from accessing welfare, determining who was and was not eligible for benefits. But in the early years of welfare, Black and Asian families were not included in the category of problem families. Rather, proximity to these communities was considered to constitute a problem.
The Moral Welfare Association, among other local and national non-governmental organisations, tried to prevent mixed-race marriages. Housing allocation was determined by race, and welfare was withheld from applicants of colour. Problem families, while ‘problems,’ were still included within the practices of the state’s rehabilitation measures; families of colour were external to the problem family paradigm.
“After a summer of resistance, parliament passed the British Nationality Act in October 1981, when the term ‘commonwealth citizen’ replaced ‘British subject,’ beginning the process of legal exclusion from state care in the framework of citizenship”
In response to these exclusions, the late 1960s and 1970s saw a flourishing of inter-community resistance movements as the National Front grew in power, in the broader context of economic crisis across Europe and the US in the mid-1970s. Radical housing and education initiatives did not so much supplement these gaps in welfare as forge trans-local networks of support, and defensive blocs against state sanctioned and partisan violence. The idea of ‘community’ in this context was not about identity as such, but based on political practices of collective resistance, and shared experiences of social organisation in the colonial heartland.
In 1981, accelerated by Thatcher’s austerity policies and police brutality, uprisings took place around the country: in Brixton, Toxteth in Liverpool, St Pauls in Bristol, and Handsworth in Birmingham. After a summer of resistance, parliament passed the British Nationality Act in October 1981, when the term ‘commonwealth citizen’ replaced ‘British subject,’ beginning the process of legal exclusion from state care in the framework of citizenship. The Act meant that women married to British men could no longer acquire British citizenship purely by marriage, and the right of Commonwealth citizens to become British citizens through registration was replaced by the process of applying for naturalisation.
The Scarman Report published after the Brixton Uprising acknowledged the “racial disadvantage” of African Caribbean communities, but denied institutional racism in the Met, and stressed the need for assimilation and cross-cultural dialogue; racial disadvantage was, moreover, considered to be a result of cultural differences rather than structural inequality. Speaking just after the Scarman Report was published, Ambalavaner Sivanandan warned against the erosion of “the class aspect of Black struggle” through “the discourse of ethnic pluralism and or multiculturalism.”
Neoliberal Multiculturalism (1981-2008)
Linford Christie winning gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, at a time when the “contribution” of Black and Asian Britons was being emphasised
In the wake of the Uprisings, the language of social mobility became entangled in state control. This phase saw the increasing criminalisation of low-income men of colour, and particularly Black and, later, Muslim men. Black and Asian families were now included in the discourse of subjects considered deserving of rehabilitation, but under conditions of increased surveillance and policing.
After Brixton, the Met joined forces with other public departments – health, education, environment, and social services – taking a developmental approach to dealing with crime. In Paul Gilroy’s words, “The disparate activities of the various agencies involved are linked along a continuum of professionalism and can be synchronised by police leadership and common responsibility for the enhancement of social order.” The logic here is containment.
“This was partly responsible for the weakening of solidarity across Black and Asian communities: the competition to be not just a good immigrant, but the best, breaking inter-community unity, and exacerbating anti-Blackness among South Asian communities”
As neoliberal multiculturalism extended into the late 1990s and early 2000s under New Labour, “tolerance” became common parlance. There was increased visibility for Black and Asian cultural production, and postcolonial studies entered Anglo-American academia, though generally restricted to options in the humanities and social sciences. In 1998, Mike and Trevor Phillips’s book Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain and its accompanying four-part documentary series contributed to making the HMS Windrush stand in for the larger and longer story of postwar migration from the Caribbean.
This phase emphasised the individualised narrative of contributions, returning to a meritocratic framework for recognition. As Sivanandan had foreseen, this was partly responsible for the weakening of solidarity across Black and Asian communities: the competition to be not just a good immigrant, but the best, breaking inter-community unity, and exacerbating anti-Blackness among South Asian communities (another colonial legacy). This phase also includes the fallout of 9/11 and the establishment of Islamophobia in domestic and foreign policy through anti-terror laws, emergency protections, indefinite detentions, and war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By the time the 2008 financial crash happened, there was already a legal framework for exclusion, and an infrastructural framework for surveillance and criminalisation. This made it easy, then, to continue the process set in motion by the British Nationality Act of 1981 and to begin the process of physical deportation as a way of relieving ‘burdens’ on a state in crisis. In 2014, a clause of the Immigration Act that protected longstanding Commonwealth residents from deportation – included in 1999 – was removed. David Lammy has linked the hostile environment to austerity, and its effects on the low-income and often unemployed people targeted for forced removal: “I have met many Windrush citizens forced into petty crime precisely because of the government’s hostile environment outrageously stripping them of their rights to work, healthcare, housing and benefits.”
Despite the scandal and its public backlash, a deportation charter flight with an estimated fifty people on-board flew to Jamaica in February this year, the first known deportation since March 2017. The identification of those deported as criminals who have forfeited their right to remain underscores the history I’ve briefly outlined here, in which the right to rehabilitation is determined along racialised lines of meritocracy. The issue is not these people’s joblessness, health problems, or criminal behaviour: it is the final abdication of state responsibility for their welfare. The declaration of their failure to contribute is a distraction. We’re caught in a social story of the right to belong and to be cared for, and race is one of its principal plot devices.
From Contributions to Caring for History
Windrush scandal demonstration
There has been much discussion recently around the need to emphasise the contributions of postwar migrants to national development and public culture, to justify our presence and place here. The contribution compulsion is a close relative of the good immigrant narrative, and goes something like this: work hard, toe the line, be polite, don’t get angry, stay ahead of the game, and demonstrate what you can achieve if given the chance. But this language of contributions, in turn, feeds arguments for deportation: if you haven’t made a visible contribution, why should you have the right to remain?
The Windrush scandal shows that in times of crisis, merit is not a finite value, but malleable, and its trappings can be confiscated. In this way, as others have pointed out, it is not really a scandal at all, but more of the same. Citizenship is a privilege that can be taken away, and contributions do not guarantee anything.
When trying to justify our presence on the grounds of what our communities have contributed, we need also to ask whom we are trying to convince. The lure of origin stories is powerful, but leads quickly to claims over territory and property, and back to the contribution compulsion. The history of liberal humanism shows instead how access to the public sphere has been naturalised and policed, and how this has determined whose contributions deserve acknowledgement.
Survival involves healing, and it is difficult to heal when you are fighting for breath. When the language of contributions is suspended, other practices of care and caring for history come into view. María Puig de la Bellacasa describes care as “disruptive thought,” an ambivalent and speculative venture based on the apprehension of interconnection and interdependency, distinguishing this from the cultivation of dependency in modern industrialised societies.
“Can care-work be transformed from its uneven, classed, gendered and racialised formations in social reproduction – where the biological family is the primary object of interest, and where, overwhelmingly, it is women who do this labour – to more speculative iterations of kinship?”
In the wake of Brexit, a renewed attention to the radical histories that sustained migrant communities in the 1960s and 70s has come into force, where care figures as disruption to the status quo, rather than its supplementation. This attention acknowledges what much mainstream discourse around this moment does not: Brexit has made a different set of political responses to organisation, participation, and inclusion vital. To realise these responses requires forms of care-work that remember the lifeworlds of colonialism, reading the history of capitalism as a history of racialisation, and working against national amnesia.
In this moment, “Windrush” now also represents a crisis for whiteness – namely, its global diminishment. The moniker is shifting in unpredictable ways from its use as a buzzword for a selectively historical multiculturalism, to iterations of collective, decolonial activism that encompass centuries of resistance, making it possible to take care of history in new ways.
Can care-work be transformed from its uneven, classed, gendered and racialised formations in social reproduction – where the biological family is the primary object of interest, and where, overwhelmingly, it is women who do this labour – to more speculative iterations of kinship? These might require, following Stuart Hall, an urgent examination of the difference between “multi-cultural” (a description of social characteristics and problems of governance in societies with people from different cultural communities live together) and “multiculturalism” (as the governance and management of diversity).
Here, a long history of building social worlds through non-biological bonds extending out of declared cultural affiliations becomes available: in queer theory, critical race and ethnicity studies, and indigenous STS. These projects recognise different social relations to those outlined by nations, corporations, and institutions, taking in the kinds of attachments and ties that have emerged as methods of collective survival, some of which predate modern legislations of care and responsibility.
To paraphrase James Baldwin, these formations of kinship keep the faith, rather than pushing individuals to “make it.” “Faith” here would be something like the protection of an affinity with others that remembers social stories of exclusion, while sustaining the inventions and creative energies that have countered them. Multi-cultural communities with activated collective memories of settlement, resistance, and survival can travel across space and time in ways that help us heal in struggle.
 For more on the interwar eugenicists, see Pauline Mazumdar’s Eugenics, Human Genetics, and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, its sources and its critics in Britain. London: Routledge, 1991.
Lara Choksey is a postdoctoral research associate at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health at the University of Exeter. With the Global Warwickshire Collective, she co-facilitates Windrush Strikes Back: Decolonising Global Warwickshire, a project exploring methods of investigating local histories with descendants of the Windrush generation in the Midlands. Her first book, Narrative in the Age of the Genome: Genetic Worlds, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic.Follow @larachoksey