In a memorandum from the Annual General Meeting of the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) in 1937, W. Arthur Lewis argued that “the exploitation of coloured people was possible in England only because it was possible in the colonies.” Lewis’s insight, that metropolitan and colonial racial discrimination intersected and overlapped, has recently become the focus of academic inquiries into the history ... [Show full abstract] of racism and anti-racism in Britain. His further recommendation to the League, that they “watch very closely events abroad,” might just as much be an injunction for contemporary historians of Britain as for an inter-war anti-racist group. Lewis was attentive to the requirement of contesting the way in which colonial racial prejudice filtered into its metropolitan equivalent, emphasizing that the ultimate task was “the destruction of colour prejudice in this country” (“Memorandum”).
What constituted the experience of race, or “color prejudice” as was more commonly referenced at the time, in imperial Britain? The problem, for Lewis and others concerned with countering racism in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century, was that color prejudice in Britain did not carry a sign. “In America,” Jamaican-born journalist Una Marson declared, “they tell you frankly where you are and are not wanted by means of big signs, and they don’t try to hide their feelings. But in England, though they never say what they feel about us, you come up against incidents which hurt so much that you cannot talk about them” (qtd. in Bressey 32). As British sociologist Kenneth Little described in 1943, racism was experienced as “the refusal of lodgings, refusal of service in cafés, refusal of admittance to dance halls, etc., shrugs, nods, whispers, comments, etc., in public, in the street, in trams and in buses” (qtd. in Fryer 356). Not only were British race relations filtered through colonial events, they were further disassembled through subtly coded language and silences, action and inaction. Indeed, the very need to convey British racial prejudice in comparison with American forms of racialism is testament to its amorphous character.1
If British racial dynamics could be evasive, they were also not static. In 1955, after spending almost two years in the imperial metropolis between 1947 and 1948, the American sociologist St. Clair Drake concluded that “Contact between white and coloured people in Britain” was in the midst of an extended process of redefinition: from a social condition to a “social problem.” During his research Drake developed close connections with individuals associated with the LCP, the International African Service Bureau (IASB), and various organizations and committees in the seaport towns of Liverpool and Cardiff, where “welfare” activity on the “color problem” tended to be focused.2 His research concluded that over the past thirty-five years, a web of associations, committees, and institutions [End Page 166] had coalesced into what he termed a “race relations action-structure” (Drake 197–98). Kevin Gaines has recently shown that Drake “argued for the existence of systemic racism in Britain,” and that his research findings “ran counter to the Colonial Office’s ongoing denial of the existence of the colour bar operating in the United Kingdom” (Gaines 82). Drake’s research and conclusions were part of a burgeoning field of race relations theory after the 1950s. Yet while the origins of this discourse borrowed heavily from US race relations theory, as Barbara Bush has argued, its origins in Britain were “rooted in an imperial context” (246).
Writing the transnational history of imperial race-making, then, requires careful attention to immediate contexts in order to avoid a view of race in static, decontextualized terms (Kramer 199). This is because racisms invoke hard and essentialized categories but, as Ann Laura Stoler has argued, simultaneously derive their strength from “the internal malleability assigned to the changing features of racial essence” (Carnal Knowledge 144). Race, in other words, aims to imprint fixed essences by applying ambiguous and changeable identifiers. The uneasy space which British race relations occupied in the first half of the twentieth century contained...