Race and Immigration in the Era of Decolonization

AHA Session 306
North American Conference on British Studies 3
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Columbia 12 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Anne Spry Rush, University of Maryland, College Park
Anne Spry Rush, University of Maryland, College Park

Session Abstract

The British Nationality Act of 1948 guaranteed the right of abode in the United Kingdom to all people resident in the Empire-Commonwealth. Commonwealth Citizenship presented a universalist ideal, but as decolonization created distinct nation-states from the empire, ideas of racial difference and more restrictive views of citizenship based on ancestry hollowed out its broad promise. By the 1960s amid racially-charged concerns about rising immigration from former colonies, the United Kingdom implemented immigration restrictions beginning with the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act. In 1981, the British Nationality Act reversed the 1948 Act and defined citizenship and right of abode in ancestral terms. In assessing this change, the main focus of scholarship has been the quesiton of whether this shift stemmed from policy-making elites themselves or pressure from an illiberal and racist public.

The contribution of this panel is to shed new light on the role of racial ideology in the formulation and, crucially, the execution of immigration policies in decolonising Britain. We pay attention to both the broader transnational context in which such policies were formulated and the ways in which they were put into practice, both directly in terms of post-1962 family reunion cases and indirectly in terms of state-sanctioned violence against Commonwealth immigrants. Moving chronologically, Kennetta Hammond Perry’s paper focuses on the carceral powers of immigration officials and the anxieties that West African and Caribbean stowaways generated in regards to the exercise of Commonwealth citizenship through the act of migration in the years preceding the passage of the first wave of Commonwealth immigration restrictions. Jean Smith’s paper highlights ongoing connections between the United Kingdom and apartheid South Africa not only in terms of both states’ racialised immigration policies but also in the ways in which concerns about demographic change in Britain contributed to the dramatic increase in British emigration to South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. Radhika Natarajan examines the problem posed by young migrants from the Caribbean and South Asia who traveled to Britain for reunification with their families. This group produced anxiety on the part of immigration officers who doubted the integrity of their family ties and generated racialized discourses to discount their claims to entry to Britain. These papers share a focus on the experiences of individual migrants rather than racialised immigration policies in the abstract, or the viewpoint of the policy-maker. The Commonwealth promise of a multi-racial family of nations created a framework for the emergence of nations defined on ethnic and racial terms. By focusing on migration, this panel demonstrates the particular patterns of race and exclusion in the decolonizing British Empire. The questions regarding mobility and belonging raised in these papers continue to haunt us in the present.

See more of: AHA Sessions