Viewpoint: Malcolm X, Smethwick and BME Politics

Viewpoint: Malcolm X, Smethwick and BME Politics

John Narayan (University of Warwick) and Kehinde Andrews (Birmingham City University)


1965 has crucial lessons to teach us in 2015 when it comes to the issue of racial politics in the UK. It might be said that Malcolm X would not recognise the UK in 2015 and that we, equally, would not recognise the country he visited in the 1960s. Yet the political legacy of his visit to the UK is as relevant today as it ever was.

The 60s seemingly marked a watershed in Britain’s transformation from colonial to post-colonial society, with decolonisation dismantling the British Empire and immigration from former colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean bringing thousands of ‘coloured people’ to the so-called ‘motherland’. This fed into an ideology that believed that the order of ‘white’ Britain had been fundamentally disrupted and corrupted by New Commonwealth migrants. and set the stage for two racist Commonwealth Immigration Acts (1962, 1968), designed to control coloured migration, and for the rise of Powellism.

Nine days before his untimely assassination in 1965, Malcolm X’s visit to Marshall Street in Smethwick Birmingham made national and international headlines. The previous year, the Conservative general election candidate Peter Griffiths had successfully run on the most racist platform in British history. This saw Tory and far right campaigners in Smethwick stoke racial tensions between the white population and the ‘coloured’ Asian and Caribbean migrants. Griffiths’ campaign team had even resorted to handing out pamphlets that declared to white residents that ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour’. The new Honourable Member for Smethwick also used his position as a Council alderman to help facilitate a request by the white residents of Marshall Street for the council to buy up local housing and rent the properties only to ‘white residents’.

Malcolm had been invited to walk down Marshall Street at the behest of the Indian Workers Association who sought to highlight the growing racism encountered by the UK’s New Commonwealth migrants. The BBC’s pursuit of Malcolm across the UK in turn drew national and international attention to the plight of the Smethwick’s coloured population. On Marshall Street Malcolm declared to the waiting media that he’d heard that Blacks in Smethwick were being ‘treated like Negroes in Alabama – like Hitler treated the Jews.’ He would go onto to say ‘Coloured people must organize themselves against any colour resistance’ and that both coloured and white people would have to ‘analyse what the white people find so repulsive about them’ (1).

To a large extent this is exactly what the ‘coloured people’ of Britain did for the next 20 to 30 years. This saw the drawing together of disparate New Commonwealth communities in the fight against institutional racism in the UK. These communities of resistance, like Malcolm’s evolving Black nationalism and latter forms of Black Power in the US, were not solely based on establishing state legalisation against racial prejudice, but rather practised open rebellion against the UK state and global imperialism. This saw the emergence of British Black Power and other forms of anti-racist politics that reinterpreted class struggle in the UK and aligned it with liberation in the Third World. This was a time when Black was both the colour of people’s skin and the colour of their politics.

One of the key legacies of the UK’s anti-racist struggles is to be found both in the decline of such visceral and visible racism on the streets and in the equalities legalisation that, on the surface, bars discrimination on grounds such as skin colour. Indeed, today, such visceral and visible racism based on skin colour would largely be viewed with disgust by blue as well as brown eyes

Yet, to understand the importance of Malcolm’s legacy in 2015 we have to recognise

that he was not a civil rights leader and, in fact, condemned the civil rights political project as a fantasy. Central to why he rejected civil rights was that he saw the key markers of success in the movement – such as integration, diversity and legislation – as, at best, naïve and, at worst, conscious attempts to slow down movements for Black liberation. He ridiculed the showpiece event of the civil rights March on Washington as the ‘Farce on Washington’, a scripted delusion that ‘Hollywood couldn’t have topped’.

Malcolm foresaw that the civil rights struggles could never lead to racial equality, as the capitalist system is fundamentally racist and will forever continue to produce racial inequality. He argued that the system cannot produce freedom and racial equality in the same way that a ‘chicken can never lay a duck egg. The best we could hope for was ‘token integration’, where a lucky few do well but the masses are locked out.

You will not find a better description of the history of modern day UK race relations. The Black struggle of the 60s, 70s, and 80s eventually fell apart through both the internal tensions between New Commonwealth migrant communities and a state funded process of multiculturalism aimed to disrupt and pacify such radical politics. The emergence of ethnic minority politics and fiefdoms under multiculturalism, as Arun Kundnani describes, took ‘African-Caribbean and Asian cultures off the streets – where they had been politicized and turned into rebellions against the state’ and put ‘them in the council chamber, in the classroom and on television, where they could be institutionalized, managed and commodified’(2).

To take Malcolm X’s insights fully on board in 2015 means that the so called ‘progress’ that has been made in integrating areas like Smethwick, and the consumer multiculturalism that is marketed by cities like Birmingham, should not be seen as signs of progress but rather as illusions that we get caught up in when maintaining an unjust system. We need to realise that just because we’ve been moving forward, it doesn’t mean we’ve been making progress.

Today, under a regime of racial neo-liberalism, the apparent ability of some within ethnic minority groups to become socially mobile has been taken to disavow racism as an explanation of anything. But the reality is that older racisms continue to thrive.

For example, a third of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in England and a fifth of its Black African and Black Caribbean populations live in the country’s most deprived neighbourhoods compared to 8% of the white British population. And when one considers that even in the midst of rising levels of educational attainment, BME communities are still over represented in relation to unemployment, prison populations, housing overcrowding, deaths in state detention, and poor social mobility, it is clear that old fashioned structural racism, interspersed with issues of class and gender, is as fundamental a problem in 2015, as it was in 1965.

This brings us to the 2015 election and the politics of Britain’s BME communities. Central to Malcolm’s argument about the nature of society was the metaphor of the House and Field Negro. Modern Day House Negroes were those who had some level of access to the House, mainstream society; those who had a decent job and access and who were relatively comfortable. In contrast to the Field Negro who was locked out of society and ‘catching hell’ in the Ghetto. Malcolm argued that civil rights would only open up space for House Negroes but could never deliver for the Black masses in the Field.

This is the dynamic in which the descendants of New Commonwealth migrants find themselves trapped. In 1965 the question was whether we would be incorporated into British society. Token integration meant the emergence of Black and Asian middle classes and the illusion of social mobility for those suffering disadvantage. Our qualified incorporation into the ‘House’ has meant a level of acceptance of the structures of racism that continue to blight the lives of those in the ‘Field’. Those of us who have ‘made it’ often lambast the less fortunate for not working hard enough and not taking the so-called opportunities that are around them. Instead of focusing on the problem of structural racism, there is a shift to perceived dysfunctions in families, communities and culture.

This has been replicated in mainstream politics. As Labour has let down ethnic minorities there are ethnic minority activists seeking solace in the Conservative party. Worse still, it is no longer a surprise to see a dark face in UKIP or even the EDL. This is not the embrace of a modern face of conservatism, which has become compassionate and inclusive. The right wing in today’s politics is anti-immigration, anti-poor, and pursuing a myriad of policies that are anti-ethnic minority (for example dismantling protections in work, the legal system and policing). Yet, many descendants of those who migrated to the ‘motherland’ have embraced insular politics, trying to protect their token acceptance into British society. The motto for the right wing parties in this election may as well be ‘if you want a foreigner for a neighbour, vote labour’, it is a sad mark of the times when New Commonwealth migrants and their descendants are supporting it.

Heading into the general election of 2015 there are a lot of similarities with the situation in 1965. There is a surging right wing that is rejecting migration and rallying to defend so-called British values and society. What is missing, however, is real attention to issues of structural racism and inequality in mainstream politics. BME communities traditionally vote Labour and will likely do so again in 2015 – but they will find no solace or future in a Labour party driven rightward by UKIP and the media. Instead, we must recover a vocabulary that allows us to talk about racism and a politics of solidarity that links us to other oppressed groups in the UK and in a world of growing inequality. A possibility aided by the fact that BME communities in the UK now posses historically unparalleled voting power. Whilst it may be too late for 2015, for 2020, we must choose to inherit our history of radical community based politics and seek to dismantle rather than join the ‘House’.

But this can only happen when we have realised that the gains and progress of the last fifty years are in large part an illusion, caused by token integration and acceptance. It is clear that we need to recover the spirit of 65 and Malcolm’s visit to Marshall Street, to reconnect to a politics of resistance to racism and oppression.


(1)  X, Malcolm (1992), February 1965: The Final Speeches. Pathfinder Press: Canada. pp. 70-71.
(2)  Kundnani, Arun (2007), The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain. Pluto Press: London. pp. 44.


John Narayan is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. His research interests are in the fields of globalisation, post-colonialism and democratic praxis. He is currently researching the global aspects of Black Power activism in the UK. Kehinde Andrews is a senior lecturer in sociology at Birmingham City University. His research interests are in the fields of race, racism and ethnicity, and community and scholar activism. He has recently published a book Resisting Racism: Race, Inequality and the Black Supplementary School Movement (Institute of Education Press, 2013).