My parents and extended family were among the group of immigrants in the 1960s for whom attempts were made to legislatively address the depth of racial discrimination and societal exclusion they faced; for example, being denied public housing, while at the same time being also denied a mortgage or the ability to purchase insurance, all because of the colour of their skin. The Race Relations Acts of 1965, 1968 and 1976 emerged, offered varying degrees of protection against racial discrimination, with each Act strengthening weaknesses in the preceding one.
The Race Relations Act 1965 was the first Act but did not provide any relief to my relatives from any of the fundamental barriers that society had constructed for them (and others). Within months of its enactment, the defects and deficiencies of the Act were obvious; for example, the Act made discrimination in some limited respects a criminal offence punishable by a fine. However, people who discriminated, such as landlords and business owners were prepared to pay damages in civil cases, or a fine in a criminal case, as the price for continuing to subject a section of society to acts of indignity. It therefore could not have remained in place if racial inequality were to have been treated as a serious social problem.
The pressure to address these shortcomings was immediate and extensive, which coincided with the Political and Economic Planning (PEP) report that was published in April 1967. The report documented multiple instances of racial discrimination and concluded that there was substantial discrimination in Britain against non-white immigrants in employment, in housing and in the provision of certain services, such as motor insurance and car hire. The report was largely responsible for the 1968 Act which followed but could also be seen as representative of the process of the changes taking place at the time, particularly in the United States. Consequently, Parliament yielded to pressure and the second Race Relations Act was passed in 1968, strengthening the provisions of the 1965 Act.
The Race Relations Act 1968 prohibited discrimination in both public and private employment, housing and public facilities; this was crucial because these were the spheres in which discrimination against the newly arrived immigrants took place most frequently and had the most significant bearing on most aspects of their everyday lives. Additionally, discrimination within the terms of the 1968 Act later became known as direct or intentional discrimination.
The Race Relations Act 1968 therefore began to prevent and even dismantle barriers blocking equal access to services, public facilities, housing and employment. However, the legislation being based on complaint system belied its weakness; thus, a new strategy became necessary, which was provided in the Race Relations Act 1976. Its significance was not only tightening up against race discrimination in employment, providing some protection from summary dismissals of black workers from their jobs, as often occurred, but also legislated against direct discrimination. It moved the problems of racial disadvantage away from being deemed to be one solely on the basis of interpersonal relations and laid the foundations for my family to become homeowners and later the more comprehensive Race Relations Act 1976 and consequent policies and regulations that have since advanced equality generally in the UK.
Dr Vivienne Connell-Hall (PhD)
Sociologist and Visiting Lecturer in Social History