Parallel communities

Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST

The investigation reports on racial clashes in Britain last year reflect a disturbing picture.

THE respective investigation reports on last summer's violent trilateral clashes involving Asian and white youths and the police in the North English towns of Bradford, Oldham and Burnley make grim reading, not least for this author who grew up near Burnley and represented the town in the European Parliament for a decade.

Although the reports blame criminal elements for instigating the disturbances - the ones in Burnley were apparently ignited by turf battles among rival drug dealers - the fact that race relations were so poor as to be so readily ignited is quite an indictment of the state of race relations in towns suffering widespread urban decay.

Central to the problem is the unwillingness of the British authorities to tackle the issue of race; instead they prefer to couch the issue in euphemistic language and to assume that by the very passage of time, differences will be smoothed over and racial harmony will automatically emerge. Official government documents talk of the "Black and Asian" communities - assuming that being "black" is sufficient to signify commonality among Africans and West Indians, whereas being "Asian" signifies commonality across a vast and diverse continent. What "Blacks and Asians" do have in common is that all are subjected to degrees of racial intolerance endemic in Britain. However, the generic catch-all description disguises the fact that there are huge differences within and between. For example, the highest achiever group in all races at British schools are Indian girls and the lowest achievers are Muslim boys - both "Asians".

Moreover, it is no longer fashionable - especially in the politically correct parlance of New Labour - to use a more accurate measuring guide to achievement, which is "class".

The overwhelming evidence of underachievement and lack of prospects which have provided the kindling for resentment and alienation, points to poverty and not race being the main problem. Burnley is somewhat euphemistically referred to as a town "in slow transition". The town had a dynamic history of textiles, coal mining and engineering, all of which have suffered drastic collapses in employment levels. For the last two decades, the ability of local authorities to stimulate growth, or at least offset decline, has been severely curtailed by government restrictions in finance, and a sorry circle of lower personal real incomes has been coupled with the township's lack of resources. What resources have been coming in have been concentrated on the poorer areas, where the original immigrants live, giving rise to the widely held misperception that "the Asians get all the help", a frequently quoted complaint from neighbouring poor whites. The bitter resentment expressed by alienated white youths has found an echo in the fascist British National Party (BNP) which targeted Oldham and Burnley during the 2001 general elections. In a recent council byelection in Burnley, the BNP polled an alarmingly high 20 per cent in a low turnout.

However, perhaps the most depressing and revealing aspect of the report with regard to Burnley is the assertion that the communities are living "parallel" lives with little or no interaction. The social services are criticised for employing Asians to look after Asian youths and whites to look after white youths. In many Lancashire towns now there are "Asian" cricket teams, even "Asian leagues" to cater for the youth long exasperated at being unwelcome at local, indigenous teams.

In actuality the "Asians" of Burnley are Muslims of Pakistani origin and it is the present generation, those born in Britain, who have most problems of identity. Many Asians I have spoken to over the last decade have the same sorry experience. The endemic racism in British society makes them at best feel uncomfortable and at worst unwanted. Yet as any generation does, they move away from the traditional household customs and habits. If they return to Pakistan they feel little affinity with that society; the word most commonly used to me to describe their view of the ancestral homeland is "feudal". Some have even defiantly taken to the pejorative term "Paki" as a badge of honour and for many the siren voice of militant Islam does offer a sense of solidarity and identity. Indeed this militancy, often no more than rhetorical or declamatory, has risen in direct proportion to the rise in anti-Muslim feelings engendered in the Gulf Wars and latterly after September 11.

Who actually speaks for these communities has at least, and at last, been questioned by the reports. The Burnley report points to the fact that local "Asian leaders" are frequently self-appointed and often unrepresentative. The unstated but implicit criticism is levelled against local politicians who have been unwilling, often for their own selfish vote-garnering purposes, to challenge the authority of such "leaders".

British Home Secretary David Blunkett's reaction to the reports has been criticised for laying emphasis on the need for change in the immigrant community, which should, in his words, "adopt British cultural norms" in order to fit in better. His tirade against "forced marriages" overlooks the fact that it was his own Labour predecessor and now Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who scrapped the so-called "primary purpose" rule which said that immigrants had to prove that their arranged marriage was not one that was entered into in order to facilitate entry into the country. "Runaway brides" and violence to women inside marriage are some of the great taboos in the race relations dialogue, but are clearly signs of stress when British-raised Muslim women find themselves in marriages brokered in a manner that is at odds with their own aspirations.

Actually a more radical improvement in race relations is likely to occur because of a recently enacted legislation, rather than because of any exhortations arising from the reports on the disturbances of last summer.

The Race Relations (Amendment) Act of 2000, passed in the light of the finding of the inquiry into the death of the black teenager Steven Lawrence, has changed the emphasis of race relations from prevention to cure, hopefully. The old piece of race relations legislation prohibited discrimination, while the new one places a responsibility on all authorities not only to stop discrimination but also to "promote" good race relations. To succeed will necessitate drawing communities together to consult them on how to end Britain's "parallel" lives. The alternative seems to be the summer race riot becoming as much a part of British life as cricket.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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