20th Century History of Asian and Black Culture in the UK

British culture in the media and movies is often associated with its past monarchies, colonialism and its royalty. However, everyday UK life and experience is anything but a perfect alignment with its history from the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, modern culture in Britain is a highly detail mix of backgrounds, people, thought, religion, politics, economics and more. Two of the biggest influences in this mix from an immigration perspective have been Asian and black migrant populations since the 1950s.

Very much like the United States and modern Germany and France, today’s Britain is the product of an ongoing evolution of cultures. Due to immigration and the influx of peoples from different parts of the world, what Britain is today share quite a bit of influence from black and Asian cultures which have emigrated to the island country in the last 40 years. These significant changes are first felt in the big cities, but as generations grow and expand, the influences filter out to the suburbs twenty years later. As a result, today’s Britain is often a hodgepodge of different background, ethnicities, and histories in one place.


Much of the black and Asian immigration to Britain has been driven by the same reasons it occurs in other countries, to escape political or religious threats, to find a better way of life, to succeed in ways not allowed in other countries, or to start over in a new place. However, despite a yearning for the new, multiple cultures bring their ideas, religions, ways of living, and mannerisms with them to Britain as well. As a result, influence happens down the daily life level in the form of interaction, education, music, food, communication, entertainment, religion and more.

Two main groups are considered part of the Asian and black migration influence on Britain. Black immigrants are predominantly from the Caribbean, although in recent years many black immigrants are instead from Africa and the Middle East. Asian immigrants are predominantly referenced as those from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and similar. The common theme in both groups are that their home countries were part of the British Commonwealth.

20th Century Immigration History

The idea of immigration to Britain by other cultures has been around for centuries thanks to the British Empire during colonial times. What went out often came back to Britain due to trade and exploration. 774,300 Irish had emigrated to England for work by the 1870s. However, large-scale immigration definitely began in the 20th century, first due to the ravages of the World Wars across Europe, and then due economic demand for workers. Even former prisoners of war stuck around after the conflict was over. Of the 334,000 German and Italian POWs, 16,700 stayed in England instead of returning home. Finally, a second wave arrived as those in first waves brought their families and relatives over to follow in footsteps. The same migrations happened in Germany and France as well. Yet, where those countries could start barring new people from coming in, Britain had a complication; its Commonwealth approach allowed people to enter due to having a British passport even if they were born in India or the Caribbean.

Yet, if asked, many British point to the 1950s and 1960 as the bulwark of immigration to the island, primarily from two areas: South Asia and the Caribbean. This view, of course, ignores the mass movement of Irish workers during rebuilding after World War II and Jewish resettlement into England from the War as well. Yet Asians and black people stood out and were noticed more, predominantly due to visual skin appearance. While Irish and Jewish people as well as Germans could generally blend into British homogeneity of white Caucasians, the other two groups could not. Ergo, most British point to visible signs of immigration first before historical facts.

Like most infusions of new cultures, Asian and black immigration into British life was considered a novelty at first. Most immigrants lived almost predominantly in the big cities, so their lifestyle and culture were weekend and all-nighter adventures for homogenous British. No surprise, food and music were often the first interactions people had with such cultures on the weekends and evenings. Many of these experiences have worked their way into common British diet as a result. Younger British were particularly interested in interactions, already prone to doing something different than their “stuffy” parents. Ska, northern soul, reggae and similar music, for example, were all outgrowths of Caribbean culture and entertainment. In this respect, the Caribbean immigrant influence dominated. Caribbean and African stars also became leaders in sports, often being the critical players to win contests for England and major cities in soccer, track and field, and rugby.

However, while the Asian immigrant influence was definitely seen in food, it had a more profound effect on British economy and science. Many Asian immigrants focused on education and work, with a high number looking to find entry either into scientific work or opening their own businesses. As a result, a large portion of British science and small businesses success today can attribute direct thanks to Asian entrepreneurs and scientists for their hard work and perseverance. In fact, much of the efforts and work of Asian immigrants leading all migrant groups has been recognized in government studies noting an overall gross domestic product contribution to the UK as a result of immigration.

Eventually, immigration began to cause friction and outright fighting as Asian and black populations in-country grew. Birmingham, West London and Nottingham became infamous for race riots due to the influx of immigration and fear of a growing black population. In 1972 England passed a new law requiring an entry, even a Commonwealth member, to have a work permit or be able to show a parent or grandparent was born in Britain itself.

By the 1980s, the economy had turned sour for Britain as a whole, and the immigration numbers were far higher than that of the 1960s, with still more people coming in. What were a few thousand non-white people then became 1.4 million non-whites by 1970. Now people were fighting to hold onto jobs and finding themselves sharing and competing for the same limited resources as Asian and black populations already well-established in Britain. The ugly appearance of race riots began again during this time, with the most notable clashes in Brixton, the Midlands and Liverpool. Extreme politics didn’t help, adding kerosene to the fire of anger and people looking for something to blame their ill will on. As a result, Asian and black immigration influence in British lifestyle can, arguably, be seen as a catalyst for the growth of white racist groups as well (i.e. the National Front).

British politics were finally officially influences by black and Asian culture when four non-white candidates were elected to Parliament in 1987. Since that time the number has grown to 12 ministers of parliament. However, many critics would note a fair representation of current populations would be closer to 55 members. That said, far-right politics haven’t gone away either. The National Party won two of its own seats in Parliament in 2002.