Revisiting the Smethwick street Malcolm X said was worse than America

I am not the first ITN correspondent to make this journey, down this road.

In December 1964, a reporter and his film crew travelled to Marshall Street in Smethwick, West Midlands - another period during which race and racism were in the news.

Conservative MP Peter Griffiths had won the Smethwick seat at the general election a few weeks earlier using the slogan: "If you want a n**** for a neighbour, vote Labour"; residents were petitioning the local council to buy up empty houses to ban immigrants.

I am retracing the reporter’s route, though what I am seeing and the conclusion I am reaching are very different.

He spoke of a “shining white” community torn apart by a “coloured invasion” that risked turning the street into a “black ghetto”.

I watch this report from the archives with a personal interest as well as a professional one, knowing it was broadcast two years before my mother was moved from Jamaica as a child to live on one of the adjacent streets.

“The whites say they want to keep the proportion of coloureds within bounds so they can help raise their standards and ways of living to the British level,” the reporter said, offering an almost humanitarian explanation of the residents’ campaign.

Then viewers were shown a basic computer graphic to map “the deluge” of black and Asian families moving in, one by one - the sort of device that today’s ITV News correspondents might use when charting the spread of Covid-19.

“The first house to go coloured,” he said, using the language of the day.

“The man of the house, a Jamaican, is in prison now serving twelve months for indecent assault on a fourteen year old girl.

"Marshall Street remembers this.”

The graphic used to illustrate houses occupied by 'coloureds'.

This report, about a proposed form of apartheid in a Birmingham suburb, provides a snapshot of what racism looked and sounded like in the early 1960s.

The language about multiculturalism was crude and the debate was nuance-free; it was a long time before people talked about unconscious biases and structural prejudice.

“Their way of living is not like the white people because what they cook, there’s always fumes coming from it,” said Mr Barnett, a Marshall Street resident.

“Well I don’t suppose any white people would like it.”

The crackling audio and old-fashioned language make this report feel like a museum piece.

And yes, we can choose to laugh at it in the way we might cringe at a set of old school pictures, safe in the knowledge that it’s all now history.

But the more difficult analysis is of what hasn’t changed, or what’s still changing.

One former resident complained of 'unsanitary' foreigners back in the 60s.

Although anti-racism has become an almost universal British value in the years since these interviews were broadcast, the widespread protests of the last few weeks are rooted in the belief that those hostilities have not disappeared but simply evolved.

It is 21 years since the Macpherson Report labelled Stephen Lawrence’s murder “institutionally racist”.

Most young BAME people have only ever understood racism to include less overt prejudices, unconscious biases and the structural discrimination highlighted by the inquiry into the teenager’s killing.

Racist insults are still hurled; even though society has made them even less acceptable, technology has made it easier to express them.

My mixed Jamaican-Indian heritage offers racists double the repertoire - I have heard an "N" for every "P", “go back to Africa… and also to Asia”.

Marshall Street is much changed today.

But it’s just as hurtful to be asked for the wine list by a fellow diner in a restaurant, to be closely tracked by the security guard when walking around a clothing shop, or to be mistakenly called by the name of the other BAME guy in the office.

These are sudden reminders of difference with unprovable motives.

A high-flying black friend of mine, a lawyer in the City, refers to “death by a million micro aggressions”.

She recalls how she was recently excluded from an evening reception hosted by top barristers because the hosts assumed she was a cleaner.

She felt that being made to stand outside in the dark to get on with her assumed duties, being refused a chance to explain herself while the wine started pouring inside, was a far more hurtful experience than being called a racist word by a passing thug.

Last week a white media personality tweeted that now is a “good time to be black”.

She offered no data, but her assessment seemed to be based on a simple definition of what racism is - one which differs to the lived experience of many black and Asian people in Smethwick.

Things have changed, but perhaps our expectations have changed much more.