The history of ‘race’ and welfare: Free Essay Example


There are three popular misrepresentations in discussions on ‘race’ and racism in welfare. The first is that racism in welfare is predominantly a I b Fiona Williams post-war phenornenon associated with the greater presence of black people in Britain and the expansion of the welfare state. The second is that resistance against racism is a relatively new political development a new social movement. And the third is that racism constitutes a form of outdated prejudice by uneducated individuals, a failure to accept cultural diversity and/or a divide-and-rule tactic by the capitalist state. None of these claims is wrong, but they are partial and therefore misleading. To begin with, I suggest that the discourses of ‘race’ and racism are historically embedded in some of the earliest forms of state welfare, especially in t1 inscription of eligibility to state benefits. For example, in the 1834 Poor Law the cost of poor relief was the responsibility of the parish from which a claimant originated. Workers moving from one area to another in search of work were often, when they became unemployed, ill or aged, sent back to their parish of origin. This practice hit Irish immigrants most, for many had arrived in Britain to escape starvation from the Irish potato famine. If they subsequently applied for poor relief they risked deportation. If they didn’t it made them vulnerable to destitution or exploitation. Nevertheless, one of the key defences against the argument that the Poor Law inhibited the movement of labour was that to change it would make Irish labourers eligible to relief.

Such clear exclusionary practices need to be understood in the context of widespread anti-Irish sentiments which had their legacy in the anti-Catholicism of the Reformation, but which by the early nineteenth century found their expression in the fear by the state of Irish political agitation and a fear by the trade union movement of wage-cutting Irish labour. These sentiments fed into a developing discourse of a hierarchy of ‘races’, of which one aspect was the assumption of the superiority of industrialized over rurai societies. This discourse also developed a number of different racialized facets, as subsequent sections in this chapter illustrate. At the same time the definition of eligibility to social rights became increasingly, by the turn of the century, tied to the construction of the nation state and associatedly to nationhood and to the boundaries of nationality expressed through citizenship.

This is explored below, but the point here is that the early development of the nation state and the welfare state drew the lines of inclusion in and exclusion from both, and set in motion the practi::,.s and forms of knowledge which regulated and excluded along racialized lines. In this way, members of the black Commonwealth who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s stepped into a situation heavy with the legacy of racisms. What the example of the Poor Law also shows is that the construction of ‘race’ and the processes of racism operate differently over time and place. Although there is considerable debate about which groups might be said to constitute raLialized ‘otht rs’ f,see, for example, Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1993; Miles 1992; Masor: 1994), 1 extend the concepts to include, at different points in time, in Britain, the subordination and the marginalization of Irish people, Jews and people from Africa, South-Fast ‘Race’, welfare and community care a historical perspective 17 Asia and the Caribbean. This is not to deny racism experienced by people from say, Turkey, the Middle East or China, but my main references are to the racialization of these first groups. Again, the point is that the construction of ‘race’ and the operation of racisms need to be set far wider than the experiences of Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants in the postwar period: By the same token, the forms of resistance also need to be given a historical dimension. While it is true that the rise of new social emancipatory movements around specific aspects of oppression in gender, ‘race’, sexuality or disability is a particular feature of political life from the late 1960s onwards in Britain and the USA especially, it is also the case that individual and collective resistance is also part of the history of ‘race’ and racism. The forms this resistance has taken have also changed over time: sometimes subsumed under anti-imperialist or anti-fascist movements, sometimes expressed through spontaneous political agitation, at other times through the establishment of self-help initiatives and so on. For all these reasons I prefer not to understand racism as operating through a single or main cause or route. Instead I present racisms as operating in different ways, on different sites, changing in form and degree over time and place. Sometimes ‘race’ and racism articulate closely with class, gender or sexuality; at other times they appear to follow a separate logic, only then to be disrupted by the shifting relations of power. Similarly, the discourses of ‘race’ and racism have no overall coherence or outcome: they operate unevenly and with contradictions. Sometimes it is the contradictions and unevenness which provide the space for contestation; at other times forms of resistance expose the unevenness. To connect this understanding of ‘race’ and racism to the history of community care is no easy task. If we understand community care to be the current organization for the social care and support given to particular groups in society frail older people, disabled people, people with learning difficulties, people with mental health problems, people living with chronic or terminal illnesses or with drug or alcohol induced dependencies then this history is as complex and varied as it is under-explored. At a simple level, from the perspective of policy we can, within this century, point to a development of institutionalization the incarceration and segregation of those groups deemed unfit for either paid work or motherhood and then to its gradual dismantling from the 1950s.

From the perspective of politics we can point to the different and conflicting imerest groups involved in the creation of and resistance to these policies from political, professional, trade union and gender, ‘race’ and disability-based groups.

From the perspective of those whose lives were and are influenced by these policies, then, historically we have very few accounts. Indeed, it is only in the past five years that there has been any major attempt to recol d an oral history of the lives of those who were affected by policies for incarceration and segregation.

But there are very few 1 8 Fiona Williams specific histories of those who were cared for in the community, and the issue of why some people were incarcerated and others were not still remains relatively unexplored. Furthermore, any attempt to explore these histories of institutional or community care in terms which highlight gender or ‘race’ has not received much specific attention.

In the following sections I look at three historical moments which reveal significant aspects either of the general relationship between ‘race’ and racism and the history of welfare or of the specific historical intersection of the politics of ‘race’ with the politics of institutionalized or community care. The issues I explore should not be seen as discrete to these time periods, but simply as time-specific illustrations of the construction of ‘race’ in the development of welfare.