A New Face Won’t Change the British Government’s Racist Heart

Protesters angered by the Windrush scandal outside Parliament this week.

LONDON — When a government is in crisis, a frequent tactic to limit damage is rebranding. New logo, new policy name — or new faces. Sometimes it works. It looks like a meaningful response. But more often than not, rebrands don’t mean substantive change.

This is what Prime Minister Theresa May is hoping the British public won’t notice with her appointment this week of Sajid Javid as the new home secretary.

Drafted to replace Amber Rudd, who “inadvertently misled” members of Parliament over targets for deporting undocumented immigrants, Mr. Javid has been given the job of sorting out the so-called Windrush scandal, revelations that the Home Office, which oversees immigration enforcement, had been deporting people who moved to Britain from Caribbean colonies in the 1940s at the invitation of the government. Some 70 years later, the Home Office has said these people no longer have the right paperwork to stay in the country. The revelations have laid bare the government’s incompetence and cruelty.

Within hours of Mr. Javid’s appointment, the BBC declared that “one advantage” he should have is his background. His parents came to this country from Pakistan. As he told one newspaper, they have something in common with the Windrush families: “It could have been me, my mum or my dad,” he said, “obviously a different part of the world, from South Asia, not the Caribbean, but other than that, similar in almost every way.”

Credit...Andy Rain/European Pressphoto Agency, via Shutterstock

It’s possible that Mr. Javid’s background will grant him more empathy than his predecessors had. But his family history alone doesn’t equal the change that Britain desperately needs when it comes to immigration policy.

The reaction to Mr. Javid’s appointment reveals a serious problem with how many people seem to understand politics. He is the first person of color to lead the Home Office; some cheered him for breaking that barrier. Of course, representation isn’t entirely inconsequential. But for too many, there is a desire to reduce anti-racism and anti-sexism to issues of representation: If we get more women or people of color into positions of power, society will become more equal. You could call this trickle-down equality — and like its economic counterpart, it doesn’t work.

There are two lessons to learn from Mr. Javid’s appointment: The fight against an unjust immigration system does not change with a new home secretary, and if we remain satisfied with representation as the sole means of progress, diversity becomes a shield for a government’s institutionally racist policies.

Hostility to immigration is at the heart of Mrs. May’s government. Before she became prime minister, Mrs. May was the home secretary. In that role, she pledged to get net migration down to the “tens of thousands.” Told it was unworkable, she stubbornly stuck with it. It was and continues to be her mission, in the words of the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto, to “bear down on immigration.”

It’s with this in mind that the government has fulfilled the pledge Mrs. May made in 2012 to create a “really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.” The state has denied people health care, jobs, housing and even a bank account if they don’t have the right papers. The Home Office has even denied visas to doctors from India recruited by the National Health Service to fill empty posts.

Mr. Javid was there when all of this was happening, supporting Mrs. May. His parliamentary record reads as unencumbered support for his government’s punitive immigration policies: He voted for the very changes that make up the “hostile environment.” So is there any reason to assume he would do anything other than continue to carry out cruel Conservative immigration policy?

It was the policies Mr. Javid voted for that removed protection for long-term residents from deportation and meant that without four pieces of evidence for every year they’ve been in the country, people of the Windrush generation were deported, denied potentially lifesaving medical treatment, lost their jobs and their homes, and were stripped of their dignity.

But rebranding is all the rage this week. With a new home secretary came a new policy title: Mr. Javid will ditch the term “hostile environment” in favor of the more pleasant-sounding “compliant environment.” The Windrush generation will be helped; the Conservatives will try to soften their image.

But the policies that led to this appalling affair will stay in place. People the government classifies as “illegal” will still be treated with contempt, and someone could still easily end up deported just because of a misplaced paper or a change in the rules — exactly what happened to the Windrush generation. This will deter people from speaking out if they fall into trouble, it will make people less likely to seek help for diseases, and it will continue to catch all manner of people in its net regardless of the specifics of their situation.

Changing the title of Home Office policy is not the same as changing how it works; neither is changing the minister. Without an end to the hostile environment and the government’s inhumane approach to immigration, which treats every person thought to be a migrant with suspicion, Mr. Javid’s appointment doesn’t alter a thing.

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