Fifty years since the act was passed and it’s not clear how far we’ve come
2015 marked the 50th anniversary of what we now know as a landmark piece of legislation.
It’s called the Race Relations Act 1965, it was the first of its kind, and it addressed two very contentious issues in 1960s Britain: ethnicity and race.
But have race relations matured since this pivotal Act?
With clear showcases of racial tension being demonstrated as recently as this century — particularly in London — it is clear the Act may have fallen short of its long-term aim of nationwide equality.
But what prompted the passing of the Act? And how can we use its background to create a whole new conversation on 21st century racism?
Unknown to many and parallel to the racially-fuelled crises of 1960s America, Britain had an equally contentious episode of prevalent racism. While the southern states of America were experiencing events like the famous Birmingham riots of 1963, us Brits had our own version of events (as Emeli Sande would call it).
The Notting Hill riots of 1958 involved a group of white, working class men nicknamed the ‘Teddy Boys’ attacking West Indian residents in their homes and on the street. They were said to be radicalised by the ‘Keep Britain White’ campaign by the White Defence League — an eerie echo to the rhetoric of UKIP and the BNP, two parties that both boasted similar nationalist sentiments in their election campaigns this century: “Love Britain Vote UKIP/BNP.”
Of the very many who participated in the attacks, less than nine were convicted, thus many argue the police did not handle reports adequately. Yet, thanks to this tragic event, the birth of an event we all know and love was born, the Notting Hill carnival, a celebration of the culture of those who were attacked — a true testament to how a rose can grow in concrete.
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Some say the riot was spurred on by the assault of a Swedish woman, attacked for having a Jamaican husband. Nevertheless this riot, combined with the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 and a medley of other events, stimulated the enactment of the first Race Relations Act in 1965, which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of colour, race, and ethnic or national origins in public places.
Fast-forward to 2011 and we have the mirroring London riots, of which the precursor was a racially contentious event: the shooting of an unarmed black man.
But behind the madness in the streets, there was a true disgruntlement with the police that actually had a legal basis. If you watched the short documentary series The Met: Policing London, you would have seen how fearful Tottenham police were of the possible backlash they could receive as a result of the inquiry into the lawfulness of this death. The verdict was that — although there was no proof Mark Duggan was in possession of a firearm at the time he was shot — his killing was still lawful. This sent the ominous message that, despite the convention of ‘hands up, don’t shoot’, the police were lawful in shooting this unnamed man dead. Au contraire to the publicity the riots received, the conclusion of this inquiry was not widely broadcast in the media and, luckily for the police, no riot occurred.
The bigger picture was that the riot reflected a significant breakdown in race relations and thus the failure of this Race Relations Act, particularly between blacks and the police. This legislation was extended to outlawing the refusal of housing, employment, or public services under the Race Relations Act 1968.
So why are young black girls still being discriminated against in employment? Why was Simone Powderly told to change her braided hairstyle if she wanted to secure a job selling high-end products? And why was is that Lara Odoffin’s braids were not considered to be a part of the uniform of a company she applied to work for? With arguments heating up about ethnic hairstyling and cultural appropriation, surely the denial of a job based on a hairstyle popular among black people says a lot about the perception of black hairstyling and thus literally goes against the Race Relations Act 1965, 1968, 1976 and the Equality Act 2010, which supersedes and consolidates all of these acts.
An interesting insight into how blacks perceive the police was shown in a recent BBC documentary This is Tottenham.
It focuses on the relationship between Tottenham’s MP, David Lammy, the public services of Haringey, the police and the people. But the interlinking of relationships hit high fever when the topic of a missing person, Ambrose Ball, was brought to Lammy’s attention.
Ambrose went missing in January 2015 after a car crash and his family argued the police had not investigated the disappearance properly due to Ball’s profile. The media was not interested in the disappearance of a middle-aged black man despite the circumstances being suspicious. And after parallel cases of missing persons outside of London who were white and female gained nationwide courage, it was clear that there were biases in publicity and media representation.
When crises are happening and race is a factor, we must consider whether there is a need for more drastic measures to be taken to mitigate how race is being used as a ground for discrimination. From racially aggravated riots to denial of employment based on ethnic hairstyling, we can no longer brush off the topic.
Racial contention exists, and thus I question: though protective laws are in place, to what extent are they in practice? How are they significant? Do we need new ones? The British media must not sensationalise crises across the Atlantic any longer. There are home-grown British issues that require critical attention, one being the disillusionment of the youth with British politics.
Discrimination based on the grounds of race, colour, ethnic and national origin is unlawful and affects us blacks both personally and disproportionately, therefore we must review this to evaluate how far we truly have come.
Korkor Kanor is a student at the University of East Anglia.
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