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"We Ask For British Justice": Workers and Racial Difference in Late Imperial Britain.

The well-known and emotionally-charged story of nonwhite immigration to Britain since the 1950s has obscured our understanding of the roots of international labor migration and racism in the interwar years. Laura Tabili argues that British racism was not a psychological response of an insular people to "strangers" nor a defensive reaction to imperial decline. She even rejects that it was an inevitable response to economic competition between two alien labor markets. These arguments are superficial and ahistoric in their neglect of the prewar period. By contrast, Tabili offers two somewhat distinct explanations: first, she makes an essentially instrumentalist interpretation, that maritime employers used "blacks" (a term that included Indians and Arabs as well as black Africans) to "extend colonial levels of control and exploitation to workers in the metropole" in the interwar years. (p. 3) In addition, she argues that British racial policy was rooted in a "historically contingent" process (a kind of "indirect corporatism") comprising the unequal inputs of various government agencies, maritime employers, unions, and the blacks themselves. Most of her evidence points to the latter perspective.

About one third of Britain's seafaring workforce were "black." Many of these were hired under discriminatory "Lascar" contracts that offered inferior wages and denied employment security while prohibiting workers from quitting. Tabili provides an impressive range of analysis of these blacks in Britain - their restricted access to jobs on ships, the attempts of government to control their social and economic movements on shore, and the cultural representation of blacks by diverse British groups. She also gives us at least a glimpse at the family lives of black seamen and their organized attempts to resist exploitation in the name of "British justice."

Tabili argues that working-class racism was the product of employers' efforts to create a segmented and hierarchical labor force. The British union leadership failed to challenge this division because, as a weak and conservative force, it needed to displace rank-and-file discontent at its poor performance onto resentment of blacks. While the union accepted discriminatory pay and employment conditions for contract labor, it tried to force blacks out of jobs paying standard rates. The onus of racism is placed on the structural relationship - the relative impotence of organized workers vis-a-vis employers in a context of declining job opportunities.

She employs a similar analysis of the on-shore regulation of blacks as output of unequal inputs of diverse state and employer interests. This story was complex and inevitably confusing. For example, the India Office favored specialized amenities on shore (in part to separate the "races"). But shipowners prevailed in their desire to have Indian seamen lodged on the docks, available for immediate deployment on ships. The India and Colonial Offices sometimes promoted a paternalistic policy of protecting black rights and upholding Commonwealth ideology of nonracial citizenship of British subjects. However, Board of Trade defenders of maritime employers and the unions prevailed in restricting those rights and limiting citizenship. Various administrative decrees created a division based not on legal origins but race. Thus, for example, the Coloured Alien Seamen Order of 1925 restricted the on-shore movements of all undocumented blacks even if they were clearly British subjects.

Not surprisingly Black seamen combatted these controls often using the appeals of patriotism - even though they were effective only after the beginning of World War II when employers faced labor shortages. They resisted marginalization too by marrying and having families and by creating social networks, often around boarding houses. Tabili even notes evidence of black-white cooperation in protests in May 1930 in North Shields against shipowners hiring "non-local" men, without regard to race.

The reader might well wonder whether this book underestimates rank-and-file racism (as for example in the July 1919 race riots). The consequences as well as origins of a race-stratified workforce need to be explored fully. Her conclusion that the state's fiscal constraints limited its role to a police rather than policy function might also be questioned. After all, that was a policy. A student of the British Empire could expect a fuller analysis of the continuities between the colonial labor system and black labor policy in Britain. But Tabili corrects a bias toward psychological and cultural explanations of racism. This is especially refreshing today when structural arguments are out of fashion. Blacks may not have consciously migrated to Britain to redress the global economic imbalance resulting from imperialism. But, given the seemingly disproportionate response of British authorities to their presence, British racism is surely linked to imperialism.

Gary Cross Pennsylvania State University
COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History
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Author:Cross, Gary
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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