Regarding Race, Nation, and Our Future

Written Work by Graham T. Baden

The British Dialect of Race and Nation: Postcolonial Histories of Sub-Subaltern Societies


The British Dialect of Race and Nation:

Postcolonial Histories

Of Sub-Subaltern Societies

In the 1960s and 70s, waves of resistance swept over an empire upon which the sun had not set in a century. The power of the British Empire crumbled, and in its wake, nations that had been under the boot of imperial domination for generations declared their sovereign independence to became nations of their own. Out of this global tumult, a great influx of peoples migrated from their homelands to England, and as a result, underwent two decades of economic, cultural, and political discord. Class strife between capital and labor, alternating recession and inflation, a massive housing shortage, and the division of the working class defined the economic status of the period; racial strife, indicated by race riots and employment prejudice, epitomized the culture shock of the era; and immigration control, founded on the conservative protection of British status quo, outlined the political turmoil of the time.

            In all these conflicts, there is evidence of the changing definition of what it meant to be “British” during the twentieth century. Britons and citizens of the Commonwealth both searched for a foundation of national identity. Did it stem from race or religion, ethnicity or cultural heritage, and who is it who decides? The histories written about this period center on the divisions between class, race, and national identity that are highlighted in these conflicts throughout the empire. In their process, they outline and give a voice to new societies— subaltern communities— that lived and worked in between conflicting worlds.

            Historigraphical tradition, founded on the Marxist analysis of historical change, had long viewed history through the lens of materialist division. Marxist scholars based their studies on the economic relations between the capitalist and working classes— the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. They found that historical change could best be understood through the ebb and flow of capital and labor— resources and production. In the post-war world of capitalism vs. communism, though, the Marxist dialectic slowly evolved to describe a more nuanced depiction of the economy. Scholars like Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson, and Stuart Hall among others analyzed class relations through a more cultural and social lens. Class, to these historians, could still be understood through materialism, but had to be analyzed in a method that was more complex than a simple dialectic.

            One early example, offered by M.D.A. Freeman and Sarah Spencer in their article “Immigrant Control: Black Workers and the Economy,” written in response to a 1978 Report by the House of Commons and published in the British Journal of Law and Society in 1979 is one representation of the histories of race and nation in Britain. In their article, Freeman and Spencer side with Stuart Hall, and feel that racism is most easily understood by the material conditions in society. [1] The state’s function, Freeman says, is always in the interest of capital. It structures social relations “in order to maintain conditions conducive to capital accumulation.”[2] Their study finds that employment practices during the 1960s and 70s showed an obvious racial bias, and the work and pay conditions of immigrant workers lead to what scholars have called a “split labor phenomenon.” This phenomenon divided the labor force, an already subaltern group, between native British and black immigrant workers. Employers took advantage of the “free trade” point of view and exploited the immigrant labor force to increase margin for their own advantage.[3] The native British laborers, who would not work in the dirty, hazardous conditions, also took advantage of the black labor force to place themselves in a position of greater bargaining power. To the capitalists, Freeman states, immigrant labor offered a mobile, pre-trained, and low-cost workforce that could be exploited for economic gain.[4]

            Lydia Lindsey, a professor of history at North Carolina Central University, also studied the split-labor problem. In her article, “The Split-Labor Phenomenon,” published in 1993, she gives a history of the working class centered in Birmingham during the mid-twentieth century. She, like Freeman and Spencer, also outlines the turmoil of black, West-Indian immigrants pushed into secondary subaltern work positions by the exploitation of the capitalist class. Lindsey finds that these immigrants, who came to England for economic opportunities, found themselves stuck at the bottom of a “stratified class system.”[5] This competition between the split identities of the worker led to “intra-class competition.”[6] Her “primary” labor force— those at the top of the working class— refused to do “secondary” work, and thus, the secondary labor force had no other position available to them. The work of Freeman and Spencer is echoed in Lindsey’s article. She states that not only were immigrants taken advantage of by their employers as a source of cheap labor, they were exploited by the higher-priced workers that pushed them into the dirty and difficult positions at the bottom of the labor system.[7] While this system appears to be a racially determined on its surface, though, Lindsey agrees with sociologist Oliver C. Cox that at its core, it was “a class situation disguised and distorted as a racially deterministic phenomenon.”[8]

            A recent study, written in 2012 by Kaveri Qureshi of Oxford University, further outlined the divisions between class, especially detailing the difficulties of spit-labor. In his article, “Pakistani Labour Migration and Masculinity,” he details specifically the harm it caused to the body of marginalized Pakistani laborers in England. The “body,” Qureshi states, is a common topic of cultural histories and anthropologies. The body is “constructed,” as Michel Foucault says, by its relation to power, and as Qureshi states, in the working body of Pakistani laborers, was merely an “instrument of labour and… site and expression of illness.”[9] However, class itself, Qureshi states, is not sufficiently covered in subaltern studies.[10] He finds that labor, in the economic crash of post-industrialism, shifted from manufacture to service.[11] This, as well as the economic insufficiencies Pakistani laborers endured due to inflation and unemployment, led to their emasculation and redundancy.[12]  The collapse of industry in the 1980s began a gross labor surplus, and methods of automated production contributed to their further marginalization.[13] Unemployment, poverty, and the prolonged exposure to secondary-labor positions left the lower working class increasingly replaceable, and hampered the Pakistani immigrants’ inability to interact transnationally with their homelands.[14] The Pakistani working body had become one that one that didn’t matter. It was replaceable by machinery, automation, or simply other immigrant bodies just like it. The bodies of the Pakistani working class, Qureshi realizes, poignantly quoting Gardner, were not merely “constructs existing in the imagination: they are also materially constituted locations, with very real effects on people’s lives.”[15] The material environment, and the split-labor division of the working class, had a causal relationship with the marginalization and emasculation of the Pakistani laborers of England during the 1950s and 60s.

            The tradition of material histories and the studies of class division have evolved dramatically in the decades approaching the new millennium. Paul Gilroy, professor at King’s College London, finds that the struggles of the post-colonial world can be better analyzed by peering at the divisions of race, as well as class. In his There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, written in 1987, he explains that a simple Marxist analysis of labor and class division is an insufficient model for the modern world, and “must itself be thoroughly overhauled.”[16]

            In the article discussed above, Freeman and Spencer found examples of conflict based not simply on economic resources, but race alone. Even when there were labor shortages, white immigrants from European countries were hired in substantially higher amounts than from the commonwealth.[17] Not only were black immigrants treated unfairly on racial grounds, “the position of British-born-and-educated-blacks was often no better,” Freeman states, ” so that explanations of status in terms of immigrants is unsatisfactory.”[18] British hiring inequalities were based purely on skin color, and racism was “both a cause and effect of the inferior position of blacks in the labour market.”[19] Lindsey’s article supports this claim. Because of racially determined employment, and their sequester to the secondary labor positions, black workers underwent continued harmful conditions. This led to the belief that black people “were inferior to whites because they were able to endure horrible accommodations,” Lindsey says.[20] Further, in much of public opinion, “black tended to be equated with lack of skill.”[21]

            Indeed, this argument is the linchpin of Qureshi’s above-mentioned article. Not only was the “racialized labour market” responsible for the relegation of Pakistani immigrants to the “lowest echelons of industrial labour,” it relied on the availability of the immigrant body to be subjected.[22] The irony of the state’s “doublethink,” a term borrowed from George Orwell’s 1984, is a theme that appears frequently in the study of the working, immigrant poor of England during the mid-twentieth century. Freeman sees it in the desire to integrate blacks into British culture, but anxiety at their inclusion.[23] Lindsey sees it in white-English racism towards blacks that had fought for the crown during the war, but acceptance of Italians and Germans who had so recently been enemies.[24] This doublethink, a necessity for the maintenance of English status quo, required black immigrant labor as a subjugated base for production, but acknowledged the “undesirability of black immigration.”[25]

            The social inequalities that plagued the immigrant communities in England reached a fever pitch in the 1970s. Gilroy’s work depicts a nation divided by race, where subaltern groups found agency through their collective voice of protest. Groups united both by race and shared histories of difficulty protested the constraints of the unaccepting country in which they found themselves— whether by immigration or by birth. The color of their skin separated them from economic and housing opportunities in Britain but united them in rebellion against subjugation. Ultimately, these conflicts resulted in a series of riots throughout urban Britain; riots that resulted from “differential access to civil rights and national belonging— third-class citizenship which operates along racial lines.”[26] However, these racial conflicts are made more complicated when one acknowledges that simple definitions of “race” and “ethnicity”— often externally imposed social constructs— are not sufficient to understand the conflicts of the global, postcolonial world.

            Randall Hansen, in his 1999 article “The Kenyan Asians, British Politics, and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, 1968”  outlines the struggle of the Asian community in Kenya as it achieved sovereign independence in 1963. The Asian community, having played a vital role in the economy of Kenya and other East-African colonies for years, was placed in a position of racial conflict with the emerging national identity of Kenya.[27] After the declaration of Kenya’s independence, non-Africans were resented by the black, native Kenyans. Many believed they had not participated in the struggle for independence and after the passage of the Kenyan Immigration Act of 1967, were denied Kenyan citizenship without the acquisition of work permits.[28] Asians throughout the country, long favored for their commercial skills, became “others” and “were sacked in favour of Africans.”[29] When one comprehends that Asians from West India— often referred to simply as “black” in England— were excluded from citizenship in Kenya on racial and ethnic grounds, it becomes clear that simple definitions of race are not sufficient in the postcolonial world. The Asians of Kenya, having held British passports as citizens of the Commonwealth, were forced from their homes in Kenya, and were neither welcomed back to their native lands of India and Pakistan, nor offered an easy immigration into Britain.[30] They were disjointed, and stuck between worlds. They were “unable to scramble through the closing door” of English citizenship, Hansen says.[31]

            Citizenship, unlike race and culture, is not a subjective determination. In the 1960s, England passed a series of Acts through the conservative parliament that restricted immigration to England on successively more stringent parameters. Though the expansive colonies of Britain had once included peoples from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean as citizens of the Commonwealth, as the power of British imperial dominance faded, those citizens entered into a new world of global trans-national relations. Thousands of people immigrated to England, sometimes pushed from their homes by economic hardships or political turmoil, often pulled by the lure of British economic opportunities. Until the collapse of the British Empire, the “common definition of British nationality tied,” Hanson says, “the whole of the empire and the Dominions together,”[32] but this influx of population strained the economy and the public sector. The status quo of the British identity was in jeopardy.

            While Freeman sees immigration control as a “numbers game” that used immigration “quotas” that intended to protect against inflation and overcrowding, Hansen sees that immigration control was often in result of public opinion. The National Opinions Poll of 1968 found that 69 percent of is respondents wished to quell non-white immigration for conservative and racial reasons.[33] Nationality and opportunities for citizenship became increasingly based on histories of shared race and community. Allowing anyone else into that history was to allow the inclusion of “others”. The British public’s status quo would not allow for this. Though liberal opinion hated the idea of exclusion and touted itself as “the greatest multi-racial association the world has ever known,” the restrictions in the Immigration Acts of 1962, 1965, and 1968 were adored by the public.[34] Middle and working-class England saw this “nationalist, anti-intellectual” legislation as “a triumph,” says Hansen.[35] Just as often as “others” have been defined as the negative to a dominant class’s identity, national identity has been understood by those others’ exclusion. Immigrants to England in the mid-twentieth century found little room in the pre-established “British” identity.

            Gilroy’s definitions of community offer clarity to this matter. While he disagrees with Benedict Anderson’s claims that nation and community are imagined entities, “made possible in and through print languages rather than notions of biological difference and kinship,”[36] he does posit that communities are united by “roots” of shared histories and tradition.[37] Where the “Bulldog Breed” and the “Island Race” had been white and Protestant for centuries, after the Second World War, the borders of English identity were invaded by the encroachment of black settlement.[38] In response to English prejudice, subaltern inner-city communities were grounded by “locality, ethnicity, and race,” and united by collective resistance to white racism.[39] The borders between nation and community were thrust into conflict in the sudden transnationality of the postcolonial world.

            While historians and scholars have long analyzed the conflicts between class, race, and nation, they have generally placed two parties at opposite ends of a binary power-relationship, one against the other. However, there is a theme that runs throughout the studies of race and nation written in the post-modern world. It appears that in outlining the dialectic between historical characters, capital and labor; dominant and subaltern; white and black, there is always a third party who is given voice in the process: a subaltern of a subaltern— if you will. Whether it is Hansen’s Kenyan Asians, left without a nation; the secondary laborers of Freeman or Lindsey, left without jobs; the immigrant workers of Qureshi, whose bodies were broken and left without a sense of home; or the young protesters of Gilroy, disturbed by the racism of Britain, but united only to their locality, all found their communities in the shared histories of turmoil stirred up by a warring dialectic. Most plainly in Qureshi’s work, a history that gives voice to such a unique community within a community, we can see the trials of these sub-subalterns— the peoples left without a place in the dialectic.

The racism of England during the mid-twentieth century hinged upon an imagined, ideological identity of British as “white” and “from the Island,” but broke down when liberal thinkers shared more in common with their black comrades than they did with their racist forefathers. Communities, as Gilroy says, are built by association and constructed by locality and the commonality of shared trials. In the histories written of the post-modern world, there must be a middle path, with studies of the trans-national, global citizens of the new millennium— the sub-subalterns and the citizens of the internet.

Many thanks to Dr. Sharlene Sayegh

[1]               M.D.A. Freeman and Sarah Spencer, “Immigration Control, Black Workers and the Economy,” British Journal of Law and Society 6/1 (1979), 53.

[2]               Ibid., 54.

[3]               Ibid., 55,62.

[4]               Ibid., 55.

[5]               Lydia Lindsey, “The Split-Labour Phenomenon: Its Impact on West Indian Workers as a Marginal Working Class in Birmingham England, 1948-1962,” Journal of African American History 87/4 (2002), 125.

[6]               Ibid., 138.

[7]               Ibid., 120.

[8]               Ibid., 138.

[9]               Kaveri Qureshi, “Pakistani Labor Migration and Masculinity: Industrial Working Life, The Body and Transnationalism,” Global Network 12/4 (2012), 488.

[10]             Ibid., 486-487.

[11]             Ibid., 490.

[12]             Ibid., 497.

[13]             Ibid., 490.

[14]             Ibid., 497.

[15]             Ibid., 500.

[16]             Paul Gilroy, “There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack”: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation, (Chicago: Universtiyt of Chicago Press, 1987), 245.

[17]             Freeman, 67.

[18]             Ibid., 58.

[19]             Ibid.

[20]             Lindsey, 124.

[21]             Ibid., 125.

[22]             Qureshi, 499.

[23]             Freeman, 77-78.

[24]             Lindsey, 129.

[25]             Freeman, 80.

[26]             Gilroy, 238.

[27]             Randall Hansen, “The Kenyan Asians, British Politics and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, 1968,” Historical Journal 42/3 (1999), 814.

[28]             Ibid., 816-817.

[29]             Ibid., 817.

[30]             Ibid.

[31]             Ibid., 810.

[32]             Hansen, 815.

[33]             Ibid., 812.

[34]             Ibid., 811.

[35]             Ibid., 822.

[36]             Gilroy, 44.

[37]             Ibid., 246.

[38]             Ibid., 44.

[39]             Ibid., 246.


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