Blacks in Britain: racial discourse in
UK politics and media

by Susan Hayward

from Jump Cut, no. 41, May 1997, pp. 49-58
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1997, 2006

Before embarking on this analysis, I wish to lay down one or two disclaimers. First, this paper is more of an attempt to pull together analytically into one text important discourses already articulated by other researchers and academics. Therefore, this work does not constitute original research per se but rather is very much inflected by research conducted both by the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University since the 1970s and by Therese Daniels, who is currently a researcher at the BFI. Second, the approach in this paper is a political-cultural one rather than one of textual analysis, so that television programs will be referred to only by way of illustrations of points made.

Focusing on shifts in political and cultural definitions of racism and Blackness over the past four decades, I also examine the representations of Black people on British TV from the 1950s to the 1990s, including resistances to a White-ordered representation. By examining the interface between political and media discourses around race, this paper will establish the evolution of the political agenda as it concerns race — which has gone from integration via social control to present state racism — and show how this is manifested on TV. By way of a precision: the use of the term Black will most times refer to Afro-Caribbean Blacks and also to
Asians — a term readily recognized by both cultural groups in England. At times it will be necessary to be more specific and at those moments distinctions will be made.


In the beginning there was the Empire and, then (post-1945), there was the Empire no more. In a nostalgic bid to keep the idea of Empire alive, the British establishment first created the Commonwealth and, in 1948, voted through Parliament the Commonwealth Act whereby all citizens of the ex-Empire could come to the mother country: the United Kingdom. Indeed, during the 1950s there were several waves of immigration into the UK — mostly at the behest of the British government in a need to make up its shortfall in man- and womanpower primarily in the health and transport areas. This amounted to an annual "high" of 30,000 in the mid-1950s (Anwar, 1986, 8). The intention at this time on behalf of both government and immigrants was that entry would not be permanent and that the stay would be measured in years.

Concern as to the number of "coloured" immigrants (as they were then known) was being voiced in the mid- to late1950s by the Conservative party (which had been in power since 1951), but race as an issue did not fully become one until the watershed year of 1958. Two occurrences: the so-called Nottingham "riots" and Nottinghill "riots" (the former in the north-eastern part of England, the latter in a London borough) put race on the social and political agenda. Thanks to these events, race would henceforth be perceived as a problem. However, it is the key term "riots" which must be examined here. While these events made race an issue, they simultaneously showed how political and media discourses mobilized a first myth in the making — thereby staking out what would become their permanent function as a mythmaking machine in matters related to race. What occurred was not a riot but series of attacks by White youths (fascists and Teddy boys) on Black youth. In fact, a Black youth, Kelso Cochrane was murdered at Nottinghill. The White youth called these attacks "nigger hunts"-attacks which the police notoriously did little to interfere with. Indeed, Kelso Cochrane's family are still protesting the police's failure to apprehend their son's murderers. Media coverage did not point to the fact that these hunts were anti-black attacks but claimed that the Blacks were themselves to blame. By the very dint of "being there," Blacks were trouble-causers. They were the "other," the Black intruding menace.

Historically what is important in terms of these discourses around race/racism is that henceforth any Black protest is invariably labeled negatively as "riots, disturbances, unruly mob violence"; and since the early 1980s protest has been called "orgies of arson, rampaging Blacks, black tide of looters." Implicit within these discourses is the notion that Blacks remain invisible until and unless they are perceived as a problem. In other words what is occurring is a normalizing effect through these discourses around Black protest whereby it becomes something quite other. There is a dissolving effect at the interface of political and media discourses which points to innate Black lawlessness. Blacks are stereotyped and rendered visible only as "rioters, looters, muggers, scroungers on the welfare state, illegal immigrants." This stereotyping also places Blacks outside history and bleaches out their historical contribution to Britain (such as fighting in the two World Wars). And it is interesting to note that in contemporary political and media discourses there is no reference to Britain's colonialist and imperialist past as a way of "explaining" Black presence within the UK.

Implicitly then since the late 1950s political and media discourses have been articulating an acceptance of an idea that as the Black population in the UK has grown over the past four decades, "violence and disorder" have become the order of the day. Blacks have no history. Traces of Black life have been removed from the British past to ensure that Blacks are not part of Britain's future. Blacks are the "alien disease" for whom there is only one "common sense" solution: Repatriation. As a signifier of the increase in this common-sense racism, one only has to look at the seven different Acts on immigration (and to the shift in the signifying chain of key words) which have been voted by Parliament since that watershed moment in 1958:

  • 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act
  • 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act
  • 1971 Immigration Act
  • 1981 Immigration Act
  • 1981 Nationality Act
  • 1985 New Visa System

It would be fair to say that these Acts came mostly in response to predominantly rightwing, but certainly popular, press discourses around Blacks in Britain. The irony is, of course, that while the impact of the first 1962 Immigrants Act was to create an anomalous figure in the number of Black immigrants coming to the UK (in a rush to beat the passing of the Act into law), since that time these legislative measures increasingly address a smaller number of demands. By mid-1980s, less than half of immigrants to the UK were from Commonwealth countries and Pakistan (Anwar, ibid., 9).[1][open bibliography and notes in new window]

Common-sense racism does not, however, construct its ideology around facts. Here are the actual figures and facts. First, 5% of the total population is of "ethnic" minority. Of these 50% are British-born, and of course this is a percentage which is rising as the earlier generations of immigrants with British and Commonwealth passports die out. Second, more people leave the UK than seek immigration. Third, until the 1980s there was a sex imbalance of more Black men than women. During the 1980s that imbalance became redressed but clearly that was a statistic which fed usefully into the myth of the predatory and potent Black, especially Afro-Caribbean, male. Finally, in terms of the population ratio of Blacks, Asians outnumber Afro-Caribbeans by 2:1.


The common-sense agenda is made up mostly of open discourses which serve to normalize racism. It is articulated around two key terms: unemployment and immigration. Indeed, immigration is often closely allied in political discourses to unemployment. By the mid-1980s the notion of specifically Black immigration as a threat to the UK was being exploited by the TV and print media. This racist agenda particularly targeted Tamil Asians (who, in 1985 were seeking political asylum) and Asian brides. With regard to the latter category, the myth being perpetrated was that the Asian tradition of pre-arranged marriages meant that Asian men could obtain British nationality and enter the UK. In fact, this is not the case, marriage only entitles husbands to limited rights of residence, and since the 1985 New Visa System, even these rights are diminishing. The essential point that needs to be made here is that the media's assertion — that there were people attempting to enter the UK illegitimately — made it all the more imperative that the government should be seen to be doing something to "stem the tide" which could only increase Britain's unemployment problem.

Media exploitation of these issues was, in the final analysis, most helpful to the government in introducing its New Visa System whereby immigration officials refuse entry into the UK to potential immigrants before they can even leave their own country. Although on the surface this New Visa System was ostensibly an attempt to solve an immigration issue, it had a double hidden agenda. In the first instance, it would put a stop to meddlesome MPs interceding on behalf of a claimant already in the UK — because the claimant would be denied entry at source. In the second, it made the government popular with particular repressive regimes where the UK had "interests."

The linking of unemployment with immigration and the heritage of political discourses strongly advocating stopping immigration and repatriation go back to 1968 and to the MP Enoch Powell's infamous speech, which the media retitled The Rivers of Blood speech. In his speech, referring to the immigration issue, Powell declared:

"Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with blood."

Powell, who as Health minister in the 1950s had actively sought to recruit immigrants into the Health Service, was now seeking to reverse the tide. Powell's inflammatory speech made several things possible. First, through the use of certain key terms which punctuated his speech — "rivers, flood-tide, funereal pyre" — it became possible to talk about "threats to society" in a particular way and to distance the source of the real problem, economic recession, by having a visible target: Blacks. Second, his speech made it "normal" to talk of immigration as a menace.

Powell, like most politicians, claimed to be speaking for his electorate. However, race relations in the 1960s were not a big issue, not even in Wolverhampton, Powell's constituency at the time (Gordon & Rosenberg, 1989, 45). Powell made race relations an issue and it had a snowball effect. The press picked it up and then the government. Powell's speech, by positing that the UK was a nation under threat from outside, undisputedly helped the government's agenda on the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, whereby the automatic right of British passport holders from the ex-colonies to live in the UK was withdrawn. Third and finally, Powell's speech made racist opinion respectable and began the chain which has put in place today's common-sense racism which goes like this:

— by saying it, it becomes acceptable
— by being acceptable, it becomes true
— by being true it forms part of the racist common sense.

A reflection of this common-sense racism can be seen in the backlash effect of the intentionally anti-racist TV sitcom Till Death Do Us Part (BBC 1, launched 1968). This hugely successful sitcom was supposed to expose the bigotry and racism of the central character Alf Garnett (incidentally a representative of the working class). However, by airing these prejudices in the public domain, through Garnett as the mouthpiece of common-sense racism, the program did not expose them to ridicule but served to legitimate them — the audience in the quiet of its home could agree with Garnett's sentiments or, if it did not, it could turn the TV set off. Alf Garnett was the prototype for Archie Bunker in the popular US series, All in the Family.

The way in which the rightwing press and certain Conservative politicians respond to anti-racist discourse reveals just how pernicious this common-sense racism is. Anti-racism gets turned around to become the fanatical beliefs held by the "Loony Left, Lesbians…" Equal Opportunities they re-label Reverse Discrimination. This "black is white" syndrome is a particular effect of Thatcherism and one which continues today. As an example of the insidiousness of this syndrome (one could not call it "thinking"), I will refer to one particular incident: The Burnage School Report which was the result of an official enquiry into the murder at Burnage High School in Manchester of a 13 year-old Asian pupil, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, by a 13 year old White boy, Darren Coulbourn. Only part of the report was published. It suggested that racial tension within the school happened because the school implemented a particular model of anti-racism. This is bad enough in and of itself. The media, however, picked this up and gave the following reading: anti-racist education itself was responsible for the polarization which ended in the "death" (sic) of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah.[2] This comes unpleasantly close to stating that Whites are the victims of anti-racism.

Since the late 1960s, common-sense racism has evolved along lines which are commensurate with the political climate of the time. Thus, the late 1960s marked a sharp decline in Britain's economic security which projected the country into a state of crisis. This downturn led to a "fear of the future" mentality. At the beginning of the decade, the then Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, told the British that they had "never had it so good." By the end of it, Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister, was beseeching the British to declare: "I'm backing Britain." As the Birmingham University Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS, 1982) in its important survey of the 1960s and 1970s, The Empire Strikes Back, makes clear:

"The sixties represent what Gramsci called a condensation of contradictions at all levels of society. This placed violence, permissiveness and later race on the agenda of popular politics. This was also the period in which the post-war consensus over the role of the state [i.e., Welfare Statism] in economic and social policies began to break down...although the sixties are sometimes represented as the high points of the 'permissive society', they are also a period which saw important changes leading to greater separation of decision-making from popular control [e.g., trade unions], and a shift towards an authoritarian response to so-called 'threats' to society..."

"The period of Wilsonism from 1964 to 1970 is perhaps the most interesting from this angle, since it is also during these years, that race became a core theme in wider political discourse. The 'Wilson experiment', with its detailed plans for transforming the economy, developing further social provisions, and bringing Britain through a new technological revolution, has always been difficult terrain for political historians of the left. It was, after all, a period which the left had welcomed as the dawn of a new era in 1964, and which ended with dismal defeat in the 1970 election. It seemed to represent the end of the road for the post-war model of social-democratic change, and yet, ironically, it confirmed the fact that the basic dilemmas which Britain faced could not be overcome by the implementation of technocratic models from the top... Wilson's [failures] introduced the notion that ours was not simply an economic problem, but a deep malaise which had taken root in the whole of society."

"The idea that 'the nation' is diseased and slowly destroying itself is not new... What was new in the sixties was that the threat came to be conceptualized as the 'enemy within'... This shift had profound implications for the way black people were perceived..." (22-23)

This "fear of the future" mentality, then, made sense of the crisis confronting the UK by creating an "enemy within" concept whereby the country was divided into two camps: authority and its enemies. In other words, the real cause, a country in economic crisis, was displaced by a visible cause: Black criminality. This common-sense racist view, which is underpinned by popular politics' ostrich mentality that anything can be blamed for the state of crisis as long as it is not capitalism (i.e., the hegemonic foundation of the nation), has led in the last 30 years to increased criminalization of Blacks.

The 1970s was characterized by a "siege" mentality. The enemies of society were now those who openly defied authority: trade unions and also Black protestors (among other groups). In economic and political terms, Britain was all but bankrupt. There seemed no solution to the aggravated crisis. Governmental discourses on trade unions — seen as "holding the nation to ransom" — revealed a determined attempt to get rid of social democratic consensus (this would eventually happen under Thatcher). By placing itself as the one besieged, the government made it clear that protestors' voices and demands threatened the state's legitimacy. The fragmentation now became "authority versus disorder and violence." The rise in racist attacks during that decade and the impact of the U.S. Black Power Movement on Blacks in Britain led them to politicize their protest — a move which "naturally" allowed first political discourses and then media discourses after them to make race central to an understanding of the crisis. It should be noted that segregation in pubs was a common practice in certain London boroughs.

With social-democratic consensus on its way out, all that remained for the 1980s to do was to give the kiss of death to the welfare state. Again common-sense racism was useful to this political agenda. With the rise in unemployment, crime was on the ascendancy. "Fear of crime" became the new mentality of the Thatcher age — especially of small-time but violent crime such as mugging. Never before have so many security systems been installed or neighborhood-watch schemes been established in middle- to lower-middle-class suburbia. Since I shall be picking up on the issue of crime in the next section, here I am only indicating how political discourses exploited unemployment and race as a way of dismantling the welfare state. Proportionally speaking, although they will not outnumber unemployed Whites numerically, because Afro-Caribbeans and Asians are more likely than Whites to be unemployed, percentage-wise they will represent a higher figure than their actual proportion to the nation's demographic make-up (Anwar, ibid., 15).[3] A distortion then occurs — which as we shall see in the next section gets carried over into discourses around crime. Blacks get represented as "scroungers" on the welfare state. It is interesting to note that the only other visible minority to be targeted in such a way by Conservative politicians and the right wing press is single mothers.

Implicit in this rhetoric is, first, "What right do these people have to state benefits?" and second, "Should the welfare state be concerning itself with the likes of these people who either 'don't belong here' or are just 'out for what they can get and are bone-idle'?" Throughout Thatcherism the welfare state has been represented as the bountiful but blind, stupidly gullible hander-out of free "meal tickets" to scroungers, who will stop at nothing to defraud the system. Given the awesome task of providing for the nearly four million unemployed, to be rid of the welfare state would be something successive Conservative governments would devoutly wish for. The fact that the Conservatives with their market force mechanisms have created this economic rod for their own back seems to have totally escaped them. By enforcing the imperatives of a market society, Thatcherism has pauperized labor in the belief that ever-cheaper labor will produce profit and competitiveness. It does not. It swells the ranks of the unemployed so that ultimately unemployment benefits along with other social security benefits such as housing outstrip pay! By driving the market principle into the welfare system, Thatcherism has increased public spending and, commensurately, tax rates. Furthermore, by centralizing power away from local authorities and by punishing them if they overspend, inner city decay has been one of the most tangibly visible legacies of this Thatcherite era, one which will take decades to repair and one with which, unsurprisingly, Black communities are much identified in political and media discourses, as we shall see in the next section.


Since Powell's 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, which played on economic insecurity and pointed to immigration as the cause, Political discourse has increasingly criminalized Blacks. It is not just the government of the day which sets the agenda around race. Both the police (termed Babylon by Black slang) and the media, including TV, have had their part to play. But first, another piece of history.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Blacks became more and more active in their protest against the common-sense racism discussed in the previous section, and in so doing they increasingly clashed with the police. Numerous so-called "riots" erupted all over England — the most notorious of which were the Brixton "riots" in April 1981. I say notorious because, although not the first among the many protests nationwide, it was the one which persuaded the Thatcher government that an enquiry was necessary (some would say overdue). Lord Scarman, a leading legislator and judge, was appointed and submitted his report in that same year. In his report, he severely criticized police action, falling short of calling it racist. And in the light of the reproving tenor of that report, it is not difficult to see why, in the 1980s, Blacks were increasingly criminalized by the police and subsequently by the media. Equally revealing was the tendency of the police to associate Blacks with certain types of crime — thus feeding into the "fear of crime" mentality of the 1980s.

Looting was one crime associated with Blacks — especially the looting of one cultural group, Asians, by another, Afro-Caribbeans. Police remarked upon what they termed "Black on Black racism" which occurred in Handsworth (an area of Birmingham) during the so-called Handsworth/ Lozells "riots" of 1985. What they failed to point out is that Handsworth and the Lozells Road area are almost entirely composed of Black communities, and that most, if not all, of the shops involved in the looting (particularly on the Lozells Road) were owned by Asians. It was hardly a case of "Black on Black racism," more one of whatever store was there got damaged and looted. The effect of the focus on Blacks-as-looters by police and the media was of course one of criminalizing the protests.

The other crime associated with Blacks, mugging — implicitly of little old ladies — is even more pernicious, particularly since the facts just do not bear out the assertion. Pernicious, too, since mugging is not actually on the statute books as a crime (Gordon & Rosenberg, op. cit., 14). Nonetheless, this did not prevent the Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Leslie Walker, in February 1982, from claiming on TV that 80% of all muggings in London were committed by Blacks. Although, as Gordon and Rosenberg (ibid., 14) point out, the facts do not support this claim (1% of all crimes are "muggings" and the victim is usually male and aged between 21 and 30), the fact remains that during 1982 this piece of fiction set loose a series of quotations proffered by unverified sources, claimed to be anonymous police officers, saying that Black crime was rampant. The magic figure of 80% gained considerable popularity: claims of 80 muggings per week in Brixton were made by the Evening Standard, and unnamed police sources stated that 80% of all muggings in Brixton were by Blacks-extraordinary prowess when one considers that the Black population in Brixton at that time was a mere 36%!

This "80% factor-reaction" can be read in a number of different ways. First, it can be seen as a verbal response to Scarman's 1981 report and as a marker of police determination to undermine that report. Second, it is a way of criminalizing Black protest against racism. Finally, it's also a way of feeding into the insecurity agenda of the 1980s, pointing to crime as the factor for social unease rather than to the fact that the UK continued to languish in an economic recession now 20-years old. This particular incident also served notice that the police were on the counterattack and would increasingly frame their version of the event in a way that, as it transpires, the media, including TV, would predominantly accept. The way in which the death in 1987 of Clinton McCurbin was mediated by the police will serve as an example. McCurbin, a Black, died in Wolverhampton as a result of police strangulation when they were arresting him. The police claimed that McCurbin was asphyxiated. The main point is that the Black-as-victim scenario was completely glossed over and, instead replaced by that of the police-as-victim. McCurbin's death, the police stated on TV, was a result of inadequate policing, which in turn was a result of inadequate police training, which in turn was the result of inadequate resources from the government (and so on). And TV news completely went along with the police's reading — showing how TV reproduces the power relations between Blacks and Whites as "natural" and also how deep-rooted the acceptance of that representation within the dominant ideology is (Cottle, 1993, 91-98). Indeed, British culture has not moved on very far from its colonialist mentality.

From the early 1980s on, police have increasingly been speaking the political agenda around race. Whereas, in the late 1960s it was a politician, Powell, who made race a political issue and diagnosed Britain's social ills in the light of race (i.e., immigration), now the voice of the police has taken up running with this agenda, with the media and TV close to their heels.


At the beginning of the previous section, I discussed how, during the 1980s, the police have increasingly been speaking the political agenda around race. In section two, I showed how common-sense racism was used to sidestep, invisibilize the true cause of the UK's state of crisis. Progressively since the late 1960s, "neo-conservative ideology has shifted the cause of the crisis into the social and political sphere." (CCCS, op. cit., 183) It is also the case that in police and state discourses of the 1980s there has been a progressive "visibilization" of urban unrest — they speak it, so it is there (as in the chain mentioned earlier, it becomes part of the commonsense agenda). The social unrest and disorder which is "rampant" in our cites, these same dominant discourses claim, is criminally motivated. This projection represents a convenient way of dodging the real issue: that society is trapped in widening inequality, so that the poorer areas have become generators of the poorly socialized, the criminal and the disaffected. Since many of these deprived areas are those inhabited by Blacks, it is not difficult to see how the common-sense racism of which I spoke earlier has now evolved into state racism. Law (the police) and order (the state) say this is so: "Social unrest (primarily caused by Black criminality — probably 80%) is the root cause of the climate of instability, uncertainty and fear in which the UK finds itself." Indeed, state racism exists at the interface of the authoritarian state ("law and order society") and common-sense racism.

This state racism is one which pathologizes Blacks and constructs them as a national problem by identifying them with the crisis confronting Britain. This leads not just ideologues of the Powell tradition, not just fascists and skinheads, but also politicians of the right to openly discuss who is and who is not British and to pass laws based on those debates as is evidenced by the 1981 Nationality Act.[4] I have already discussed in some detail one of the ways in which Blacks are pathologized: identifying non-racial phenomena with race (e.g., unemployment, inner city decay/unrest, "riots"). The other is one whereby "race problems" are comprised of Black communities in and of themselves. That is, Blacks cause their own problems. This second form of pathologizing is mostly articulated around the family. It is this particular issue of "familyism" which I now want to address in relation to the interface between political and TV discourses.

The family is, as we all know, a politically crucial site for the construction of common-sense ideologies since it is seen as "natural." Familyism has been a key concept of Thatcherism and post-Thatcherism (under John Major). As with all common-sense ideology, however, it is quite contradictory as a concept: it exists but is perilously in danger of not existing. This is because in Thatcherite discourse, the decline of just about everything in the UK is blamed on "our" having stripped the family of so many of its rights and duties thanks to the welfare state. We saw earlier how the welfare state was constructed in the racial political agenda as weak and vulnerable to "scroungers" — now the circle has widened to collectivize all citizens as colluders in the destruction of the family and family values. But this collectivization has not made Blacks less visible. Far from it. Asians and Afro-Caribbeans are particularly singled out for their inadequacies. Asian family culture is seen as tyrannical because of pre-arranged marriages, as barbaric because of Asian food culture (not just by virtue of their animal slaughter traditions but also their culinary traditions). Asians are seen as even more alien than the Afro-Caribbeans because they keep to their traditions. As might be expected, their religious practices are equally a target for fomenting racism. The recent Salman Rushdie Affair made that clear.[5] On the issue of familyism, TV has done very little to disperse the racist perception of Asian family culture's "tyrannizing" females. Documentaries on the subject of arranged marriages have focused on the daughter as victim of the father's will and not on the active part which she has to play in the decision — namely, that often she can refuse the chosen suitor and the father must go and look again.

Afro-Caribbean familyism comes in for a different kind of targeting from common-sense racism. Against Asians, this racism is charged with a sense of cultural superiority; however, racist judgments against Afro-Caribbeans are often more based on concepts of morality and incompetence. According to common-sense racism, West Indian families came to the UK with so-called Victorian values (something Thatcherism should have appreciated given the then Prime Minister's aspirations to Victorian values). But, because Britain is a "permissive society" (since the l960s), permissive Britain (former Mother England, let us not forget) has undermined parental authority and thus the family can't cope. Unable to parent properly, the families raise children who run "riot," especially male youth. To this incompetency myth gets added a second, this time fingering the mother. The weak family structure so "endemic" to West Indian familyism arises as a "natural" consequence of its matriarchal base. This matriarchy has created instability for the male of the family so that he has no role and therefore no responsibility or identity.[6]

The Afro-Caribbean produced and scripted TV sitcom Desmond's is an important program to cite in the context of familyism. This sitcom reflects the notion of the family as the site for the reproduction of traditional values (respect for the parents, the work ethic, and so on). And in so doing it reproduces stereotypes around the Afro-Caribbean family. It is the mother who is the site of the reproduction of traditional values. It is she who restores order at the end of each program — by making the others see sense or come to their senses. The men (and there are quite a few, not just her children but also in the extended family) are seen as dysfunctional, as non-copers. The mother is portrayed as fair but firm, the site of traditional values, which stand as a bulwark to permissive White society and education. Afro-Caribbean womanhood doing what it knows best: keeping the family together.


Given this framework, it is hardly surprising that Blacks on TV have very little favorable representation. For the most part, they remain invisible on TV — especially Asians. What positive Black imaging there is tends to be found in sports and entertainment — both of which point "naturally" to Blacks, Afro-Caribbean Blacks primarily, as having an instinctive athleticism and rhythm. But Blacks have to pay a price for this sort of "equality"/visibility.[7] Effectively in both instances, Black-as-entertainer/Black-as-athlete, Blacks are marginalized and decontextualized. They are the exceptions and they are outside of history — especially their own.[8]

Based on Therese Daniels' as yet unpublished research into the TV archives,[9] a synoptic view of what's been on the small screen since the 1950s will show that there has been little change in the representation of Blacks — rarely for the better, at least until the last fifteen years where there has been a mixture of progress and racist regression. It is only now with deregulation and the new technology of cable and satellite that there may well be a definitive change because of audience targeting.

In her research, Daniels makes the following points. During the 1950s, with the exception of one or two specific documentaries on race issues in the UK — the first full length documentary made on race relations in Britain was in 1955 (in the Special Enquiries series: 'Has Britain A Colour Bar?') — what dominated amongst the very few programs made at all concerning Black immigrants were either magazine-type ones or travelogues. As the following titles make clear — Commonwealth Magazine, Meet Us In London, Children Of Other Lands, Asian Club — Black immigrants were seen in terms of where they came from, i.e., as citizens of the ex-Empire. So these programs functioned mainly to keep in place the notion of Commonwealth so vital to the Establishment post-decolonization.

However, it was the 1958 "riots" which brought race onto the TV agenda in a strategically different way. Race was now presented as a problem in the UK rather than as an end-of-Empire debate as it had been previously. TV programs of the 1960s and 1970s now characterized Blacks as immigrants, all the same, and the cause of overcrowding and unsanitary house conditions. Two BBC I sitcoms, the already mentioned Till Death Do Us Part and It Ain't Half Hot Mum (launched 1975), should be singled out as representative of this common-sense racist discourse. In the first, Alf Garnett belches out his everyday racism to all within earshot, mostly his family; he displays a bigotry which the audience is supposed to find funny. In the second, we are back in the good old colonialist past-in India to be precise (though where exactly is not clear) with an army unit in 1945. The army unit is White, the servants, or punkawallahs as they are called, are Indian (or in some cases browned-up Whites). The source of laughter for the audience is the Indian's "funny" way of talking English. TV's agency here as a mediator of colonialist attitudes does not need spelling out.

There were a few isolated attempts to counter these images. Daniels cites three: Man from the Sun (1956) which concerned the problems of settlement in the UK; Hot Summer Night (1959) which addressed White fears of mixed marriages (and of course the fear of the Black male phallus and White female fascination with same); The Colony (1964) which was a documentary which let Blacks speak for themselves (a bit in the vein of Lindsay Anderson's Free Cinema documentaries of the 1950s). I would add the liberal-minded sitcom, Love Thy Neighbour (launched 1972, ITV) which addressed racial prejudice albeit within a very localized situation between two neighbors of different race: one Black couple and one White. Elsewhere, as in the 1960s police series Z Cars, racism was referred to but Blacks were really only ciphers. And even the few resistances which were put forward by TV programs of that period were written and produced by Whites.

Not until the 1980s would there be any significant change on this front. Since the various protests of 1981, possibly in response to them, TV has made attempts to give more positive images of Blacks and to counter the negative image the police were producing, particularly of Black youth. First of all, certain primetime programs (particularly soaps and series) although predominantly produced by Whites began to include Black storylines within their existing narratives. Secondly, studios began to open their doors to Black producers and practitioners, thanks mostly to the impact of the newly launched Channel Four in 1982 and its specific remit to provide airtime for cultural minorities. I want now to look at these two new developments in turn.

As far as primetime programs are concerned, a very good set of essays on Black images on British TV was published in 1989: The Colour Black, edited by Therese Daniels and Jane Gerson. I do not intend to reduplicate this important study but wish rather to turn my attention briefly to two TV programs which began in the early to mid-1980s and which are still ongoing: the police series The Bill (ITV) and the soap opera Brookside (Channel Four). It is precisely their long-lasting nature that makes them interesting to discuss; in some way they act as barometers of change. These are White-produced programs, and as we shall see they are not without their problems. The Bill is an equal opportunities dream ticket, although as yet there is still to be an identifiable gay or lesbian. It is set in a fictitious inner city working-class district of London, Sunhill, where drugs, petty crime, wife and child abuse, prostitution get dealt with by the representatives of law and order (the Bill). The series is mostly shot in Wandsworth (a fact not without its ironies given that that borough is Mrs. Thatcher's golden child, the bastion of Conservative correctness). Women are well represented in this series, and the issue of sexism within the police force is realistically portrayed. From the beginning of the series in mid-1980s, an Afro-Caribbean male and an Asian female have been on the staff of the uniformed police ranks. In the early 1990s, in the plainclothes force, an Afro-Caribbean female Detective Inspector was introduced. At first when she joined the series, she was portrayed as ambitious but fair. She quickly commanded respect from her female officers; the men took a bit longer to come round. However, this image gradually started to become less positive. As ambition turned to driving ambition, she started taking risks with her staff on drug raids and the like. She was obliged to move on to another police headquarters and so, effectively, has left the series. So far, not too good.

Brookside, set in suburban Liverpool, is also mindful to represent pluri- and multiculturalism. During the 1980s, it had gay young men confronting the difficulties in coming out to their parents. By the 1990s, they had disappeared to be replaced by, arguably, less controversial images of lesbians kissing on screen in prime time (8 p.m.). In the late-1980s a middle-class Chinese couple came to live in this lower- to middle-class housing estate, thus representing the significant proportion of Chinese living in Liverpool. And, in the 1990s, an Afro-Caribbean couple took up residence. The latter couple are partners, not married. She is a middle-line professional woman with good career prospects. Her partner has a young son who is none too keen on this "new" woman in his father's life; when she gets a promotion which would mean her having to leave and work in London, the child sees this job change as a dream come true. He also has a child-minder who looks after him while the couple are at work and whom he is at great pains to encourage in her ostensible attraction to his father. After much deliberation over the job offer and acutely aware of the possible "threat" the "other woman" represents to her relationship, the wife decides to stay put. Realistic but undermining of progressive images, so not so good either.

I want now to raise what I perceive as four essential problems in these doubtlessly well-intentioned programs' "political correctness." First, given today's construction of the ideological function of the inner city as a site of racial conflict, tension, violence (a construct put in place, incidentally, as a reaction to the numerous incidents of protest and violence in the early to mid-1980s), series like The Bill do little to challenge that construct. Thus, the inner city as an unsafe place for the middle class to go and a place for the underclass to be kept in remains unquestioned. Second, Blacks in these two programs are mostly represented as if fully integrated into British culture. If they are not, as for example with Blacks who are represented as perpetrators or victims of crime, then they are the problem. However, as fully integrated, they still have problems because they are represented as having no community culture of their own. So we are back to the issue of visibility and the bleaching out of history, which I discussed earlier. Finally, these programs make it very clear how enormously difficult it still is for Black actors to get on TV. Because so few actually "make it," the ones who do tend to be recycled into other programs; thus the same Black actor may appear in three totally distinct programs in one week. Such overexposure cuts away an actor's credibility and authenticity, and inexorably it devalues her or him.

The second development I want now to discuss is the entry, post-1981, of Black producers and practitioners into TV studios. Curiously it would be during the ideologically most severe postwar conservatism under Thatcher that liberalism would open TV doors to Blacks. This is not all due to market forces' "benign" effects. The heritage goes back, first, to the 1960s and, second, to Blacks' political mobilization and militancy during the late 1970s. Black independent film production dates back to the 1960s but has remained largely unrecognized by the dominant culture. By the late 1970s, however, film/video collectives and workshops started to spring up all over Britain.[10] By the early 1980s when TV in response to the 1981 protests ("riots") opened up spaces for Blacks — mostly on Channel 4 with its specific remit to give air-space to cultural minorities — there were Black professionals to step inside. At last, Black independent production was receiving institutional support.

In the 1980s, the intention was to make pluri-culturally inflected programs. However, the programs produced by Black practitioners had their own set of problems. These were mostly magazine-type or sitcoms, cheap to make and not requiring the huge time and money investment which soap operas do. Thus, in the 1980s, there were three sitcoms and several magazine programs. However, these types of programs had limited "watchability," which in turn made them open to criticism. And this led to political problems. Magazines programs, made by and for Blacks, could be in danger of becoming ghetto-shows and feeding into the Black-as-victim mentality; the sitcom's main problem lies in the generic nature of this type of program to play off stereotypes. The products of the 1980s did indeed encounter these problems. Even the title of some of the magazines, Black on Black and Eastern Eye, despite their parodic intent, signaled this danger of ghettoization. Eastern Eye connotes the idea of the Third vigilant eye of India. Black on Black indicates not only that Blacks are going to speak about Blacks but also deliberately parodies the police who talk about "Black on Black racism." This latter reading is certainly the Black producers' way of "grinning" in collusion with the Black spectators at the expense of White viewers, which is a very positive strategy if a Blacks-only audience is being targeted. However, introspection and being in-the-know also produce marginalization; they do not seem, in the final analysis, to guarantee pluri-culturalism. Black TV critics at the time criticized these magazines for exploiting difficulties experienced by Blacks and for making programs where the appearance of the program was more important than the content (this was the Black television journalist, Marc Wadsworth's criticism, 1986, 39-40).

As for the sitcoms of the 1980s, Black producers also wanted to achieve pluri-culturalism with their programs. Asian producers made the sitcom Tandoori Nights — again the title is deliberately parodic, intending to evoke the aromas of Indian cuisine and the exotic nature of the East. This sitcom gave a slice-of-life view of Asians living in some (vaguely indeterminate) city/suburb and portrayed the life and times of numerous relations (uncles, cousins, grandmother) mostly living under the same roof. The Afro-Caribbeans, for their part, found their family life represented, through a variety of comic situations, in Fosters.[11] The basic criticism, and one which was bound to be leveled against these sitcoms, was that neither one nor the other managed to achieve a representation of the pluralistic or cultural depth within these different ethnic groupings. The point is of course that all sitcoms rely on family conflict, misunderstandings and stereotypes for their comedy-so why should Black sitcoms be an exception? Problematically the producers were reproducing stereotypes which Whites already attach to Blacks. So the question of these programs' watchability, as with the magazines, came down to the type of images of Blackness they enunciated (stereotype, marginal, victim, and so on). Indeed, it is not even clear if Blacks actually watched these programs. What did become clear during the 1980s was that Black practitioners no longer wanted to make specifically Black products and chose to be absorbed into more mainstream TV or to turn to filmmaking. This is possibly one of the reasons why in the 1990, there is only one surviving sitcom, the afore-mentioned Desmond's.

It should also be added that although by the 1980s Black practitioners were finally getting institutional support, not all their programs got a fair screening. I'll cite just one example because of its fairly clear signals of censorship — and note that this practice is common for many productions which are "controversial." It concerns the documentary film made by CEDDO (a Black film and video workshop), A People's Account, made in 1985 but never screened. This documentary was filmed in Handsworth, Brixton and Tottenham during the 1985 disturbances/protests and gave the Black point of view. Implicitly, too, the film offered a critical analysis of media coverage of those protests. The camera was not positioned on the side of the police (as with the mainstream coverage — thus positioning Blacks as a menace) but from the point of view of the people facing the police. It used numerous interviews with those persons concerned in the protests, including militants and "ordinary" people. Three times its schedule for transmission was changed. It never came on-screen.

The 1980s were a watershed for Black presence in TV. However, as the 1990s reveal, this advantage has not been pressed home. There seem to be two major causes for this beyond the one mentioned above. First, when the government's latest round of deregulation measures hit private sector TV, Channel 4 became disassociated from the ITV Channels and had to become self-financing. Its programming had to be structured and filled in such a way as to attract optimum audiences. It now cannot afford to go below a 10% audience and will need to aim higher if it is to survive well. Thus Channel 4 has had to become more generalist as a TV channel, so that it has lost some of its earlier mandate to favor the voices of cultural minorities. And it has found it increasingly difficult to give prime time to minority-focus programs (something it may rethink once audience targeting becomes vital in the post-cable and satellite era). The multiculturalism which played such a role in the Channel 4 of the 1980s has diminished greatly.

The other factor feeding into this loss of advantage comes down to the products which Black practitioners themselves are currently producing for TV. Here I am providing a synopsis of what Jim Pines, an African American expatriate and freelance writer, has said about the present scenario in which he sees scripts as reinforcing the victim syndrome.[12] Pines says that Black-produced works tend to look at problem issues in a masochistic way and to present a barrage of images which are negative. The Black practitioners' attitude has become one which unresistingly accepts that multiculturalism is out. These practitioners sense that the agenda of the day must be something controversial but also something which sells. So what do we see on TV, asks Pines? A glamorizing of Black "self-destructiveness" and "suffering" on the one hand (victims of White racism, drugs, inner city deprivation, just like "our brothers" in New Jack City, e.g., Baadaas TV, Channel 4) or on the other hand, a glamorization of Black sexuality (e.g., Doing It with You Is Taboo, Channel 4). As Pines says, nothing is private in Black space, which is a high price for getting onto TV.

Alternatively, it could be proposed that the watershed euphoria of the 1980s was bound to be short-lived. It should also be added, as Daniels & Gerson (op. cit.) point out, that a number of sitcoms and crime series made by Blacks were already problematic in their ciphering or creating new sets of stereotypes around Blacks. Maybe the victim syndrome must be worked through unabashedly so that space will be cleared for new voices: those of the new generation of Blacks who do not accept their marginalization or those of Black students who increasingly are getting into TV & Media Studies courses and into the London International Film School. The heritage of the 1980s does have descendants, as seen especially in the Channel 4 produced film Bhaji on the Beach, made by the Asian woman filmmaker Gurinder Chadha (1993), and the new Asian TV magazine, East (BBC2), which looks at events occurring in contemporary India and Pakistan.

Although greater, more complex representation will be slow to get on the small screen, it will get there. Once there, the history of Blacks will no longer be bleached out; the invisibilization of Blacks except as problems will no longer be acceptable. The Empire, once and for all, will have expired.


1. Anwar (1986, 8-9) quotes the figures as follows: 1961-62 =>98,000 (as opposed to a steady annual rate of 30,000); 1984 =>51,000 total of which 24,000 were Commonwealth or Pakistan immigrants.

2. For further details on this incident and other examples of backlash against anti-racism, read Gordon & Rosenberg, 1989, 39-50.

3. 1993 figures on unemployment are as follows: all 'ethnic' groups 10%; 30% of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi population is unemployed; 28% of the Afro-Caribbean population; 15% of the Indian population; 10% of the White population. (source: Social Trends, Central Statistics Office, 1993, 63.

4. Note how in France since the Right got back in power in 1993, they too have voted a Nationality Act. Note also how in a 1993 local election contest between the British National Party and the Liberal Democrats in the Tower Hamlets district of London, both parties' campaign was run along racist lines. The BNP won the seat (only to lose it in the most recent local elections), and the local Lib-Dems were severely reprimanded by their party for their scurrilous tactics of playing on the "insecurity = racial problems" ticket.

5. See Cottle (1993, 106-116) for a case study of this affair as it was represented on TV.

6. What is deliberately ignored in all of this mumbo-jumbo is how the West Indian mother came to have matriarchy thrust upon her. Until very recently the culture around sex and reproduction in the West Indies was extremely macho. A result, incidentally, of white colonialist rule. After the white British colonialist had had his "droits de seigneur" over a particular slave girl, she was then given over to the male slaves. The notion of responsibility could hardly have been bred there. Upon independence, that culture could not change overnight, and men still felt entitled to sow their oats wherever they so felt inclined. Thus the young woman was predominantly left alone and pregnant, and it is from this condition that her enforced matriarchy was born: to protect the child. The "naturalness" of Afro-Caribbean matriarchy then is largely a myth.

7. The Afro-Caribbean newscaster Trevor MacDonald (ITN) was recently accused of Uncle-Tomism (an accusation he fiercely contested in a TV interview). This accusation was put to him by a white journalist claiming to quote Black opinion. It is a fairly insidious way of undermining MacDonald's standing, professionalism, and of course any sense of equality.

8. For a Black woman viewer's reception of these programs, read Angela Barry's stimulating analysis of TV's ideological function in
the representation of Blacks on TV (In: Twitchin, 1992).

9. Therese Daniels presented these findings at an all-day conference — Adjusting the Picture: Black People on British Television, 1950-1990s — hosted by the Birmingham Film Festival in September 1993.

10. Just to name the three most successful groups: Sanfoka Film and Video Collective, Black Audio Film Collective with its award winning Handsworth Songs (1985), CEDDO Film and Video Workshop.

11. The actors playing the parents of that family are the same as those playing Desmond and Shirley in Desmond's.

12. Jim Pines also spoke at the all-day Birmingham conference mentioned previously. See also his article on Black independent cinema (In: Cham & Andrade-Watkins, 1988).


Anwar, M. (1986) Race and Politics: Ethnic Minorities and the British Political System, London, Tavistock Publications

Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (1982) The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, London, Hutchinson

Cottle, S. (1993) TV News, Urban Conflict and the Inner City, Leicester, Leicester University Press

Daniels, T. & Gerson, J. (eds) (1989) Black Images in British Television: The Colour Black, London, British Film Institute

Gordon, P. & Rosenberg, D. (1989) The Press and Black People in Britain, London, Runnymede Trust

Murray, N. & Searle, C. (1989) Racism and the Press in Thatcher's Britain, London, Institute of Race Relations

Pines, J. (1988) The Cultural Context of Black British Cinema, In: Cham, M. B. & Andrade-Watkins, C. (eds) Black Frames: Critical
Perspective on Black Independent Cinema, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press

Twitchin, J. (ed) (1992) The Black and White Media Show Book, revised third edition (first published 1988), London, Trentham Books

Van Dijk, T. A. (1991) Racism and the Press: Critical Studies in Racism and Migration, London, Routledge

Wadsworth, M. (1986) Racism in broadcasting, In: Curran, J., Ecclestone, J., Oakley, G., Richardson, A. (eds) Bending Reality: The
State of the Media, London, Pluto Press Ltd.