You would have to be heartless not to be moved by the stories of the Windrush generation who came to these shores – at our invitation – to rebuild this island after the war but who now face deportation, loss of medical treatment and the denial of the right to exist here as a citizen.
I use the word “our” casually, like I’m part of this country, which I hope I am and think I am, but after the horrific stories that we’ve seen over the last ten days, I’m not so sure.
My father came over to this country in the late 1960s from India to work in the NHS like so many of the Windrush generation who came from the Caribbean at that time. I spoke to my parents and even though they are now British citizens with up-to-date passports, they – like many immigrants – felt a shiver. What if had been them? What if something had gone wrong with their paperwork? There but for the grace of God.
The timing of the Windrush scandal has been poignant. Fifty years since Enoch’s Powell ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Twenty-five years since the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. An embarrassing collision with the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London as we try to show our best face and hustle for trade deals post Brexit.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time in many ways, but let’s be honest, there’s never a good time for this kind of inhumane treatment and the story may have just broken in terms of the mainstream media but the actions of the state against this group of black men and women from the Caribbean and their children has been happening for a long time – they just didn’t matter enough to break through until now. Credit must be paid to the Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman who has been chipping away at this story and chasing the Home Office for more than six months, but as the poet Benjamin Zephaniah said on the Andrew Marr Show last Sunday, this wasn’t news to the black community and the Voice newspaper had reported on these cases for a long time to silence from the establishment. It took an established, and I hate to be so crude, but an essentially white newspaper, the Guardian, to get the nation to notice and thank god it did – and what does that tell us?
As I watched the quiet dignity and poise of Doreen Lawrence who yesterday spoke about the impact of her son’s killing had on her and the country at a special ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary, I felt profoundly depressed. Has anything really changed in all this time? There are profound echoes of Stephen Lawrence in the Windrush scandal. I was a young press officer working in the Home Office at the time of the inquiry into the way the Metropolitan Police investigated his murder and how they treated the family. The Macpherson report was stark. It was clear that the police had treated the family, and indeed the murder investigation, differently because it was the death of a young black man and that had had profound consequences on bringing the perpetrators to justice, and that while they may not have meant any malice, there was clear institutional racism. I was looking after the Lawrence family that day. Emotions were high and there was a rowdy press scrum. I remember Stephen’s aunt saying to me: “What if had been your brother? He was probably just like your brother – so why were we treated this way?”
The police looked at that family as not just a grieving family, but a black family and they made assumptions about gangs and they lacked a human empathy because they looked different to them. And they didn’t empathise and connect the way they would have done with a white family who they would have naturally felt akin to. They would have had sympathy of course, but on an unconscious – and for some on a conscious – level, they just didn’t relate to them, didn’t understand them and, as a result, treated them with a damning, professional disrespect. That is the essence of what institutional racism means. And I’m afraid we have seen it in spades in the way politicians of all hues and civil servants at the Home Office have handled the Windrush cases.
I’m sure everyone is deeply sorry and ashamed, but everyone had the collective groupthink and mindset from their largely white, lived experiences, to feel it was basically okay for this group of black people to be treated like this. This is why diversity at the heart of decision-making matters. I heard a senior, white, older former official on the radio at the weekend speaking in a slightly exasperated tone. He pretty much said: “Now look here everyone. Let’s just all calm down shall we? This is all a fuss over nothing. We don’t know how many people may be affected by decisions but I’m absolutely certain it will only be a relatively small number … I mean I don’t know … but I’m pretty sure …”
Well cheers for that glib, patronising, tonally deaf comment which sums up the problem. The phrase that we keep hearing again from decent people of all races and backgrounds who are appalled at the scandal is: “Imagine if it was someone you knew? Imagine if it was happening to your mum or dad?” Well, it never would. The vast majority of people making these weighty decisions, which can literally make or break people’s lives, couldn’t possibly imagine this scenario, because it would never happen to their friends or family. They and loved ones thankfully would never have experienced the fear of deportation or a letter saying that they no longer existed.
This is why having people from different communities, classes, parts of the country and backgrounds matters in all the important parts of our society from the law to media to politics. The black community particularly has had a really tough time and the metrics for inequality are pretty grim from education to unemployment to prison population. And of course, it is the Afro-Caribbean community who have been hit by this latest scandal. And that’s sadly no surprise, because there are hardly any black people in senior positions in our governments, politics or public life. Black voices are missing, and black lives clearly don’t matter enough.
Diane Abbott and David Lammy fight courageously but look at the abuse they face. Lammy tweeted a letter he had received telling him to be “grateful” as a black man or “go back to where ever you came from”. And that is par for the course these days.
We can all be deeply moved by these awful Windrush stories but unless black people get real power, respect and status in society, 50 years on from that awful rivers of blood speech, I’m afraid our rivers of tears won’t count for very much.