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Category: International Date: 22 Jul 01


“I’m a bit racist,” said Lee, 19. “I’m being honest - I know it’s a bit bad.”

What does it mean to Lee to be English?

“You have to be white, and born in England.”

Excerpt from an article in The Guardian Weekly.

 

Lee is one of 4,151 people in this Lancashire town of Burnley Wood who voted for the British National Party (BNP) - a far right racist party that calls for repatriation of non-white ethnic minorities that picked up 11.2 per cent of all votes cast in the last election in this area.

 

Multiply the “Lees” attitude in the form of hundreds of racist white men, and plunk it in the middle of towns where clusters of Asians live (used in the UK to describe Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis); add a young, angry generation of Asian youth who are fed-up of being called “Pakis”, fed-up of having their fathers’ shops vandalised, their brothers being beaten up, sisters and mothers and grandmothers harassed and taunted; mix it up with poverty, unemployment and dilapidated housing; sprinkle hostile relations between the police and the community, and you’ve got the kerosene formula for race riots.

 

Spill a little extra for good measure against the background of growing anti-immigration politics across Europe. All it took was one match, here and there, struck in June, to set northern English towns of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford afire for six weeks with race related riots that resulted in hundreds of injuries, and millions of pounds of damage.

 

In Bradford, the match sparked four days of rioting after a group of white “skinheads”, emerging from a pub, began shouting racial taunts at a group of Pakistani youth.

 

It was fuelled after 20 supporters of the National Front (NF) turned up for a march that had been banned, and they were confronted with hundreds from the anti-Nazi League who mounted a counter demonstration. CNN described it as “the scene of the worst clashes in years: crossbows, flares, sledgehammers and petrol bombs were all thrown, with cars set on fire and shops looted.”

 

In Stoke-on-Trent, 160 miles northwest of London last Saturday, a group of more than 100 Asian men gathered after rumours of another NF march.

 

Officers in full riot gear, wrote CNN, “came under a hail of bricks, bottles, and broken paving stones.”  Fifty persons were arrested.

 

In Burnley, the match was lit on June 23 after an “Asian” family asked white party-goers to turn music down. The answer came in the form of threats and an Asian taxi driver being hit in the face with a hammer, which broke his cheekbone. That began a three-day rampage by mobs of white and Asian youth - smashing cars, and shop windows, firebombing a pub and fighting riot police.

 

I have a couple of theories on ethic tension. One, that far right racist groups are not aberrations of a society, but a symptom of a general malaise - that of deeply in-bred and, in some cases, institutionalised racism. The BNP is a product of British society that is for some reason churning out racist skinheads.

 

The anti-immigration policies in Britain and wider Europe have emerged from mild-mannered liberals, but are no less despicable, being openly racist to non-white people.

 

The second theory is, in hard times, people need scapegoats, and it is easy to hate and separate people who talk, look, eat, worship differently. It is easy to dehumanise someone whose language you cannot understand.

 

One BBC on-line community report (that I found appalling because BBC parades itself as the epitome of fair-play, objectivity and reason), “profiles” the experience of different communities hit by racial unrest. The reporter begins with a “profile” of a white family in which the father, David Atkins, is interviewed.

 

“Mr Atkins was bitter at what he saw as the unfair division of resources favouring Asian areas. He said the predominantly Asian area of Manningham had received about £8 million for regeneration after the riots there six years ago. ‘Now they’ve rioted again - are they going to get more money? Is it all going to go to them again and we’re going to lose out on the estates?’ he asked.

“Both Mr and Mrs Atkins said few Asians lived in Fagley (a working class estate in North Bradford). Mr Atkins said he thought that was a sign they were reluctant to mix with other races.  He said: ‘It’s up to the Asian population to help us and integrate with us. At the end of the day, it’s our country.’”

 

No investigation as to whether that, in fact, is the case was done to balance this so called “profile”.

 

A Guardian Weekly article refutes the claim Asians get more funding, saying: “Asians are not getting more than whites... but, in a climate of suspicion and desperation, politicians willing to play on people’s fears can make headway with frightening ease.”

 

It also refers to a UN Human Rights Committee report that blames “British politicians and the media for encouraging racist hostility in their public attitudes towards asylum seekers”.

 

The rumbles of the volcano have been heard. The lessons are clear and kind to the world because they serve as a warning and give everyone - authorities and rioters - a second chance. There were no fatalities, despite the combination of crowds of rioters and armed policemen. The fact that over 400 policemen were injured demonstrates people are more angry with the State than they are with one another.

 

This is no time for stopgap measures. Britain has to investigate these clashes with a view to finding out why people are angry and move swiftly to do something about it because in towns where people are unemployed, semi-educated, living in substandard housing, with few recreational facilities and an absence of hope, it is easy to turn against one another over silly things, like the colour of someone’s skin, or the fact they speak another language or have roots in another country.

 

The sun may have set on the British Empire, but the British are finding out they now have a responsibility towards their former subjects. It may not be convenient to deal with immigrants now, but history is not convenient to everyone at the same time.

 

The Brits have a phrase for it: “Sods law”.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur