Almost a month ago the apparent calm of the British Midlands erupted into race riots. As if the British establishment had decided en masse to sit on this "dirty secret", there was very little reporting – and even less analysis – of the root causes of the pent-up grievances at work, a rage that triggered the disturbances and shattered the back-slapping complacency of this "multicultural" society back to the reality of anti-black institutional racism in this country.
And, just in the nick of time, too, the riots in France by disaffected immigrant youth – which saw the French capital and other cities metamorphose into veritable battlegrounds peopled by angry youth and beleaguered police – came to not only kick the riots off the news agenda, but to also provide the establishment with cover under which to chuck their fine heads into the sand. Not even Trevor Phillips (left), chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) had anything meaningful to say.
Let me say this loud and clear: Britain has nothing on France as far as the treatment of minorities is concerned. The French, adhering to their republican ideal of not acknowledging that differences exist between their citizenry, may not gather indices on the level of social exclusion migrants and their descendants face, but the British – who do – do not essentially treat their minorities any differently.
That is the lesson that should have been learnt from these riots that occurred within weeks of each other. But, sadly, this opportunity may have gone forever. The news agenda has moved on, but not before the black community had had it hammered into their heads that all the riots had achieved was to expose the deep and abiding envy they felt towards more successful immigrant communities, who were more hardworking, more cohesive, more family-oriented and therefore more deserving of the fruits of success.
Business as usual
The spark that lit the flames of last month’s disturbances in the Lozells area of Birmingham was reports (some say rumours) that a 13- or 14-year old Jamaican girl was gang-raped after she was caught shoplifting in a Pakistani-owned store.
According to police, all attempts to establish the veracity of the reports – which gathered momentum after being broadcast by alternative radio – have met a dead end: the alleged victim has failed to come forward despite appeals, neither have any witnesses, while forensic examination of the alleged scene yielded nothing. At the end of the riots one man was dead, the victim of one of four stabbing incidents, there were 12 gun attacks, including that on a police officer, and widespread destruction of cars and Asian-owned shops and other property.
While the French have set up an inquiry into the root causes of their riots and promised more resources for education, jobs and housing for their migrant communities, their stiff upper-lipped British counterparts – in the shape of Prime Minister Tony Blair (right) and Home Secretary Charles Clarke (left)– have swept this minor inconvenience under the carpet and it is back to business as usual.
This piece is not being written, weeks after the disturbances, as an afterthought – nor because we couldn’t get round to it. One wanted to see what would be done by officialdom in the aftermath of the riots, to see the responses to this cri de coeur. There has been none so far, at least not in the way one would have expected. Or, perhaps, that has been all-too-predictable!
Failure by the BBC
Take the media coverage of the disturbances. For almost a week the BBC and others failed to tell their audiences exactly what was happening in the West Midlands. Sure, we were told that there were riots taking place and that they were ethnically-based. But the fact that they were inter-ethnic in nature was nowhere to be found. A visitor from Mars would have thought some disaffected ethnics were once again railing against a discriminatory state apparatus, as they did in the 1980s and more recently in Bradford and Burnley.
Take this classic from the Guardian, presumably Britain’s premier left-leaning daily: " ’Outsiders’ tried to barge into a church during a brief meeting for the Afro-Caribbean community." Who were these "outsiders"? Why were they trying to barge into the church? Had the people inside the church provoked this barging? We were left none the wiser.
Instead of actually asking why the riots took place and attempting an honest analysis of the internal dynamics at play, this usually reliable paper chose to report that questions were being asked: "But questions are being asked about the state of relations between Birmingham’s African-Caribbeans and Pakistanis and why so much violence erupted on the basis of an unsupported allegation." Of course, people will ask questions. That is what people do. You, dear reporter, are supposed to pose even more poignant ones and attempt to delve beneath the purely superficial and provide insightful answers.
To crown it all, the report was written jointly by a black and an Asian reporter, the not-so-subliminal message here being that there is really no problem between our two communities: you see, we have even collaborated on this piece in the spirit of one-ness. That was the message you could read both in and between the lines of all the column inches written in Britain about the riots.
The dirty little secret that institutional discrimination in British society had spawned, wittingly or otherwise, animosity between minority races must not be allowed to see the light of day.
Inequality in treatment between the races
An integral tactic in this strategy was to blame the violence on the work of a small number of "criminal elements" in the African-Caribbean community. Again, let’s go to the Guardian, which quoted a senior policeman as saying: "Between 30 and 50 people were responsible for 80 offences in 75 minutes of clashes." However, to be fair to the paper, it did report one relevant comment, albeit it would have been nice had it been followed-up: "Black people say that we are taking over, including the African shops that sell beauty products to black people. These used to be run by black people. They want to shut us down," a shopkeeper was quoted as saying.
There is definitely a problem here; it may appear different to that in France, but the dynamics are the same: a perceived inequality in treatment between the majority white and minority ethnic population, compounded by a perceived institutional bias in favour of people of Asian/Muslim descent and against black people. Trying to cover it up, or denying its existence tantamounts to a pernicious form of intellectual dishonesty that will do more harm in the long term. The fire next time may not be so easy to put out.
This is not to deny that non-black minorities are also disaffected. Any serious analysis of the problem, not to mention attempts to ameliorate the situation, must of necessity have as its point of departure the perceptions of the disaffected, in this case the black community.
While France’s republican model refuses to see differences between white French citizens and the "new" French, Britain’s "multicultural" model refuses to see any differences between its minority groups, categorising all non-Caucasian, "visible" minorities under the rubric "black and Asian"; in some cases – to the dismay of many blacks (and Asians themselves) – using the term "black" to include both blacks and Asians. Thus when officialdom addresses social problems, say, unemployment among minorities, the unit of analysis is the "black and Asian" category. This focus so often glosses over the fact that blacks are relatively more disadvantaged in many spheres of society. So, when the media report improvements in unemployment among blacks and Asians, the picture is not a true representation of reality.
Similarly, initiatives to assist minorities set up in business fail to acknowledge that blacks are many times more likely to be turned down for business finance and mortgages than their Asian counterparts. Furthermore, Asians have a more secure foothold in the business world – a fact which initiatives to help "black and Asian" businesses need to tailor into their programmes. All are agreed that racial stereotyping has played and continues to play a major role in this.
Asians are the acceptable face of minority Britain
In many ways, the Asian part of the "black and Asian" category has become the acceptable face of minority Britain, a realisation that is not lost on disaffected black youth. Take a perfunctory look at personnel and managers in the professions, business, media and the race relations industry itself and this fact is brought into bolder relief. In education, black children are more likely to be excluded than any other group in society. Now, what are these kids to think, when in the aftermath of the London bombings in July, when all the official talk was of the state providing more opportunities for disgruntled Asian/Muslim communities. More likely something along the lines of, "Oh God, here they go again!"
Just after the Birmingham riots a rash of statistics was churned out by sundry official bodies – and trumpeted by the media – claiming, among other things, that Britain was becoming more racially integrated, "minorities" were gaining more places in academia and that discrimination in the workplace was becoming a thing of the past; in a word, the sun was shining with a vengeance on Britain’s "minorities".
Those researchers may have found less discrimination in their survey samples, but tell that to the socially-excluded, unemployed and underemployed young people on the sink estates of the disaffected black. More integration? Sex is not integration. If it were, then since over 50% of all African-Caribbean men are living with white partners, they would be among the least discriminated-against minorities – and Asian men would be manning the burning barricades.
But instead of dispassionately appraising these issues and constructing informed strategies to tackle them, polite society is more likely to label you an envious black racist if you attempt to even mention them. The dirty secret must stay in the closet. Hence the self-censorship of black people – though not this one.