Before the 1960s, discrimination on the grounds of skin colour was not illegal. Casual ‘colour prejudice’ was part of daily life for many Londoners even though discrimination was not written into civil rights. In 1930, a Dr A M Shah had complained to the Home Office that the Streatham Locarno dance hall had refused him admission on the grounds that he was Indian. The Home Office replied that, although it was sympathetic, there was nothing it could do.
By the 1950s ‘the colour bar’ had became an increasingly obvious injustice in British society, particularly in London where most migrant workers from the Caribbean had settled. Resentment of the new arrivals had spilled over into violence in the Notting Hill riots of 1958.
The first Race Relations Acts, 1965 and 1968In 1965, the first Race Relations Act outlawed racial discrimination and set up the Race Relations Board (R.R.B) to investigate complaints. The Act’s provisions were weak and, in 1968, a new act enlarged and extended the R.R.B’s powers and set up the Community Relations Commission (C.R.C) to help enforce the new laws.
The 1976 Act
In 1976, a far tougher Act was passed that made discrimination unlawful in employment, training, education, and the provision of goods and services. It extended discrimination to include victimisation, and replaced the R.R.B. and the C.R.E. with the Commission for Racial Equality, a stronger body with more powers to prosecute.
The Stephen Lawrence case
Since 1976, further amendments have been made the Act. The police were specifically excluded from the provisions of the 1968 Act, on the grounds that they had their own disciplinary codes. Racism within the police force was not fully recognised until the 1990s after Black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered. The subsequent enquiry into the police’s handling of the case found there was ‘institutional racism’ within the Metropolitan Police.
A turning point
The Race Relations Acts of the 1960s and 1970s did not eradicate racial discrimination. However, they did make an official statement about the values of British society, and as such marked a turning point in the evolution of a multi-cultural society.
The 1968 Race Relations Act was passed in the same year as the Commonwealth Immigration Act, which tightened controls on new migrants. The Home Secretary responsible for both was James Callaghan, who saw the Acts together as a way of creating ‘a society in which, although the government might control who came in, once they were in, they should be treated equally’.