From April to July 2001, the northern English towns of Oldham, Burnley and Bradford saw violent confrontations between young Asians and the police, culminating in the clashes of 7-9 July in Bradford in which 200 police officers were injured.
The clashes were prompted by racist gangs attacking Asian communities and the failure of the police to provide protection from this threat. In the scale of the damage caused and the shock they delivered to the nation, the 2001 riots were the worst riots in Britain since the Handsworth, Brixton and Tottenham uprisings of 1985.
The fires that burned across Lancashire and Yorkshire through the summer of 2001 signalled the rage of young Pakistanis and Bangladeshis of the second and third generations, deprived of futures, hemmed in on all sides by racism, failed by their own leaders and representatives and unwilling to stand by as, first fascists, and then police officers, invaded their streets. Their violence was ad hoc, improvised and haphazard. It was no longer the organised community self-defence of 1981, when the Asian Youth Movement burnt down the Hambrough Tavern in Southall, where fascists had gathered, or when twelve members of the Bradford Black United Youth League were arrested for preparing petrol bombs to counter violent fascist incursions into their community. And whereas the 1981 and 1985 uprisings against the police in Brixton, Handsworth, Tottenham and Toxteth had been the violence of a community united – black and white – in their anger at the ‘heavy manners’ of the police, the fires this time were lit by the youths of communities falling apart from within, as well as from without; youths whose violence was, therefore, all the more desparate. It was the violence of communities fragmented by colour lines, class lines and police lines. It was the violence of hopelessness. It was the violence of the violated.
The end of labour
Colonialism has been interwoven with the history of the northern mill towns since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Cotton-spinning – on which the towns’ early success was based – was a technology, borrowed from India, which became central to the emergence of northern England as the ‘factory of the world’. Cotton grown in the plantations of the Caribbean, the US deep South, or the fields of Bengal was brought to Lancashire and Yorkshire to be spun into cloth and sold back at profit to the empire. This was a global trade before globalisation.
By the 1960s, the mills were investing in new technologies which were operated twenty-four hours a day to maximise profit. The night shifts, which were unpopular with the existing workforce, soon became the domain of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers who were now settling in the mill towns. But as the machinery developed, the need for labour diminished, and such labour as was needed could be got for less elsewhere. The work once done cheaply by Bangladeshi workers in the north of England could now be done even more cheaply by Bangladeshi workers in Bangladesh.
As the mills declined, entire towns were left on the scrap-heap. White and black workers were united in their unemployment. The only future now for the Asian communities lay in the local service economy. A few brothers would pool their savings and set up a shop, a restaurant or a take-away. Otherwise there was minicabbing, with long hours and the risk of violence, often racially motivated. With the end of the textile industry, the largest employers were now the public services but discrimination kept most of these jobs for whites.
By the end of the twentieth century, a generation had lived with soaring rates of unemployment, reaching around 50 per cent, for example, among young Asians in Oldham. Across the Pennine hills, from Oldham, Burnley, Accrington, Blackburn and Preston to Bradford and Leeds, a string of Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities were among Britain’s most impoverished 1 per cent, communities that had sunk well below the radar of a Blair administration that was more concerned with the welfare of members of the Asian millionaires club.
The textile industry was the common thread binding the white and Asian working class into a single social fabric. But with its collapse, each community was forced to turn inwards on to itself. The depressed inner-city areas, lined with old ‘two-up-two-down’ terraced houses which had been built for mill-worker families, were abandoned by those whites that could afford to move out to the suburbs. Those that could not afford to buy themselves out took advantage of discriminatory council housing policies which allocated whites to new housing estates cut off from Asian areas. Out of Bradford’s large stock of council housing, just 2 per cent has been allocated to Asians. And, in Oldham, the local authority was found guilty of operating a segregationist housing policy following a Commission for Racial Equality investigation in the early 1990s. Those Asians that did get council accommodation on predominantly white estates soon found their homes targeted, bricks thrown through windows, sometimes petrol and a lighted match through the door. The fear of racial harassment meant that most Asians sought the safety of their own areas, in spite of the overcrowding, the damp and dingy houses, the claustrophobia of a community penned in. And with whites in a rush to flee the ghettoes, property prices were kept low, giving further encouragement to Asians to seek to buy their own cheap homes in these areas. It was ‘white flight’ backed by the local state. The geography of the balkanised northern towns became a chessboard of mutually exclusive areas.
Segregation in housing led to segregation in education. In some districts, school catchment areas contained near 100 per cent populations of just one ethnic group. In others, where catchment areas ought to have produced mixed intakes, the mechanism of parental choice allowed white parents to send their children to majority-white schools a little further away. What resulted were Asian ghetto schools in which expectations of failure were common: poor results could be explained away by ‘cultural problems’. Asian girls would be married off anyway, so why bother? The minority of teachers willing to tackle these issues found themselves struggling against a mass of institutionalised preconceptions. With mainstream schooling mired in a culture of failure, some Asian parents looked to ‘faith schools’ – which would offer education within an Islamic framework – as a way of raising standards for their children’s education.
A generation of whites and Asians was now growing up whose only contact with each other was through uncertain glances on the street or through the pages of local newspapers. Mutual distrust festered. The local press, drawing on dubious police statistics, did their bit to promote the idea that young Asians were thugs hellbent on attacking whites at random. The regular racist violence against Asians was marginalised, while Asian crime on whites was sensationalised and misinterpreted as racially motivated. The segregation of communities, the roots of which lay in institutional racism, came to be perceived as ‘self-segregation’ – the attempt by Asians to create their own exclusive areas or ‘no-go areas’ because they did not want to mix with whites. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A new generation
By the 1990s, a new generation of young Asians was coming of age in the northern towns, born and bred in Britain, and unwilling to accept the second-class status foisted on their elders. When racists came to their streets looking for a fight, they would meet violence with violence. And with the continuing failure of the police to tackle racist gangs, violent confrontations between groups of whites and Asians became more common. Inevitably when the police did arrive to break up a mêlée, it was the young Asians who would bear the brunt of police heavy-handedness. As such, Asian areas became increasingly targeted by the police as they decided that gangs of Asian youths were getting out of hand. The real crime problems faced by Asian communities – not only racist incursions but the growing epidemic of heroin abuse – were ignored. Among young Asians, there grew a hatred of a police force that left them vulnerable to racism, on the one hand, and, on the other, criminalised them for defending themselves.
But this new generation had also been sold short by its own self-appointed community leaders. The state’s response to earlier unrest had been to nurture a black elite which could manage and contain anger from within the ranks of black communities. Where a middle class existed it was co-opted; where one did not, it was created. A new class of ‘ethnic representatives’ entered the town halls from the mid-1980s onwards, who would be the surrogate voice for their own ethnically-defined fiefdoms. They entered into a pact with the authorities; they were to cover up and gloss over black community resistance in return for free rein in preserving their own patriarchy. It was a colonial arrangement which prevented community leaders from making radical criticisms, for fear that funding for their pet projects would be jeopardised. The authorities hoped that if they threw some money at the bigwig blacks, they would stop complaining. And the community leaders proved them right.
The result was that black communities became fragmented, horizontally by ethnicity, vertically by class. Different ethnic groups were pressed into competing for grants for their areas. The poor and the still poorer fought over the scraps of the paltry regeneration monies that the government made available to keep them quiet. Money that did come in was spent, after empty ‘community consultation exercises’, on projects that brought little benefit, particularly to the increasingly restive youths. Worst of all, the problem of racism came to be redefined in terms of ethnic recognition so that to tackle racism was to fund an ethnic project, any ethnic project, no matter how dubious. As Sivanandan put it, ‘equal opportunities became equal opportunism’.
The confusion between anti-racism and ethnic recognition spread to the schools, too, where teaching other people’s culture came to be perceived as the best strategy to overcome segregation. Unfortunately the Asian ‘culture’ taught to whites did little to give them a meaningful appreciation of Asian life, based as it was on hackneyed formulae of samosas and saris. And since white working-class children were perceived as having no culture, their parents soon started to complain of favouritism to Asians in the classroom. Competition over ethnic funding was thus joined by competition over classroom time. Genuine education about other people, their histories and their struggles, was replaced with the grim essentialism of identity politics. A generation grew up who were not given the tools to understand how their own towns and cities had become increasingly divided by race.
Furthermore, as cultural protectionism replaced anti-racism, the cultural development of Asian communities was itself stunted. The community leadership tried to insulate their clans from the wider world, which they saw only as a threat to the patriarchical system on which their power depended. Internal critics were considered disloyal. Thus the dirty linen of the Asian communities – the deep-seated gender inequality, the forced marriages, the drug problems – was washed neither in public nor in private.
In the end, it was the benighted arrogance of the police that provoked the youths into uprising. When the police responded to white racists going on a rampage through the Asian area of Glodwick in Oldham by donning riot gear, arresting Asians and attempting to disperse the increasingly angered crowds of local residents, it lost any claim to be defending ‘the rule of law’. Rather, it was an invading army. And Asian youths responded as such, using stones, burning cars and petrol bombs to drive the police, dogs and vans and all, off their streets. It took the police six hours to regain control of the area. Similar events would later ignite Burnley and Bradford.
Yet in the aftermath of the riots, there was scant attention paid to the racism of the police. Just two years previously, in the wake of the publication of the Macpherson Report, chief constables had made soul-searching admissions that their forces were riddled with racism. But the possibility that institutional racism had now contributed to the riots was not a view that was aired. Instead, the prime minister and home secretary gave their full backing to the police, even offering to provide new toys – water cannons – if they wanted them. Just as Thatcher had wanted to see the riots under her regime only as outbreaks of criminality, not as the fractures produced by her own political programme, so too Blair spoke of ‘thuggery’, refusing to look beyond a narrow law-and-orderism, refusing to see in the riots the reflection of his own failed ambitions to tackle ‘social exclusion’.
Following in the government’s path, a hundred other voices rushed to condemn the rioters, while little was heard from young mill-town Asians themselves. The community leaders blamed a lack of discipline, a decline in Muslim values and the undue influence of western values which, to them, was a threat to their own authority. The Asian middle class in the rest of Britain, forgetting that their own secure place in society came about because of those who had taken to the streets in the seventies and eighties, blamed the ‘village mentality’ of Asian communities not as lucky as their own. The World Council of Hindus mixed class snobbery with communalism to publicly disown the Muslim rioters, hoping to make clear to whites that Hindus should not be tarnished with the same brush. Asian solidarity had died.
The popular press first blamed ‘outside agitators’, then blamed the community leaders who had failed in their allotted role: to control ‘their people’. Then it was the inherent separatism of Islamic culture that was to blame – these people did not want to integrate; they were ‘self-segregating’. A people that had been systematically cut off, shunned, dispossessed and left to rot, was now blamed for refusing to mix. There was talk of ‘forced integration’, perhaps a return to bussing Asian schoolchildren into white areas, the hated system used in the 1960s when fears grew that too many Asians were attending the same Southall schools. There was talk of new restrictions on immigration – involving English-language tests – which would remove the right to family union. The far-Right British National Party was the only beneficiary from this cacophony of disdain. It distributed leaflets around Britain calling for a boycott of Asian businesses.
A generation of Asians, discarded for their class, excluded for their race, stigmatised for their religion, ghettoised and forgotten, has found its voice – but is yet to be heard.
This article is an extract from The three faces of British racism