Socialist Worker

Who wants to keep people divided?

Four official reports were published last week into the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford last summer. Socialist Worker looks at the reports and the issues raised.

Issue No. 1780

Official segregation

The report on Oldham, whose economy centred on textiles, goes some way to acknowledging how racial segregation has happened over the last three decades. It describes how in the 1960s mill owners found it harder to 'recruit people for anti-social work such as night shifts.

'So people willing to work these shifts were encouraged to migrate, initially from Pakistan, later from Bangladesh, which laid the basis for the current Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in the town.' The mill owners played on the divisions between different ethnic groups on different shifts to divide the workforce.

Discrimination on long waiting lists for council housing meant the new arrivals ended up buying run-down terraced housing in areas such as Glodwick, close to the mills. Most white families gradually moved out into slightly better private housing or to council estates.

One in four white families in Oldham are council tenants, while less than one in 25 Pakistani families are. The report claims the segregation in housing is 'in the main' a consequence of the preferences of Asian people to 'live with their own'. But this process has been driven from above. As the report later admits:

'A formal investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality in 1991 found that the council were discriminating against Asian applicants by segregating them from white households into the centre of town and by placing them into lower quality housing in the Clarkwell and Waterloo estates. And in 1990, the CRE also found that some estate agents promoted segregationist policies by steering minority ethnic and white residents into different areas; the minority ethnic areas being poorer and ones with already high minority ethnic populations.'

The biggest survey of ethnic minorities in Britain, published four years ago, rubbishes the idea that people choose segregation. It found that the majority in each ethnic group, black and white, want to live in mixed areas. That includes more recent immigrants, who also want to be near friends and family.

It is the officially driven segregation that deepens racism, which in turn produces a feeling in ethnic minority groups that they have to stick together for protection.

Many of the few Asian families in Oldham who have moved into 'white estates' have been forced out by racist harassment. This is not the work of the majority of white residents. The report found that:

'Overall most people said they were happy to integrate with different communities, but they felt there were individual white families on their estates who were exacerbating racial tensions between white and Asian families.'

English not the problem

New Labour ministers claim that lack of fluency in English, especially among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, is the fundamental reason for a 'breakdown in community cohesion'. But the young Asians who fought back in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley against BNP-organised racists and the police speak perfect English with Lancashire and Yorkshire accents.

In Oldham they understood the words of white racist thugs rampaging though the streets threatening to 'kill Paki bastards'.

Among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis (the two main ethnic minority groups in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley) some 97 percent of young men between 16 and 24 speak English well.

Yet this group suffers the highest level of unemployment. It is not lack of English that is holding these people back. It is lack of decent jobs for working class people, black and white, and racism. And it is racism, embedded in powerful institutions in society, which is responsible for the segregation.

Employment and poverty

Economic crisis has devastated the textile industry and created deep poverty in the northern mill towns.

In Oldham seven out of 20 wards are in the poorest 10 percent nationally on the government's measure. Three of them are in the 50 most deprived wards in England. Some 60 percent of homes are old 'two up, two down' terraced housing, and there are high levels of overcrowding.

The single biggest employer in Oldham is the council. Its workforce is over 11,000 strong. Only 2.63 percent of the workforce are non-white. The council's employment policies, under Labour and now the Liberal Democrats, have created another area of segregation. The poverty, which hits black and white, produces deep bitterness that can fuel racism.

But 'regeneration initiatives', not least from the New Labour government, have not helped to end poverty. Instead they have created more divisions. First, the money available is pitiful. Even the extra proposed by the Oldham inquiry for housing is an insult.

It says that the aim should be to replace unfit private sector housing at the rate of 300 a year rather than 20. There are 9,000 unfit homes. So people are being told to wait 30 years for better ones. Second, regeneration money has been allocated by getting one area to bid against another.

That deliberately sets neighbourhood against neighbourhood. And when those neighbourhoods are already largely divided along racial lines the result is heightened racism.

The government blames local councillors for this. There is some truth in that. Some local councillors (everywhere in Britain) have always used their positions to do favours for the interest groups that support them.

It is nothing to do with their ethnic origin. Westminster council, run by white Tories, in the 1980s became a byword for corruption. But the government has created the divisive mechanisms which allow myths to spread that 'Asians are getting all the money'.

That has provided a breeding ground for the BNP. Its direct role in targeting the north west and stoking racism barely gets a mention in the reports. The most basic measure to undermine racism in Oldham and across Britain would be to make good the 25 years of cuts and attacks working class people have faced. Instead the government is at best talking about telling people to have a 'shared civic identity' and to take pride in cities, and in a country, which offer them less and less.

At worst it is blaming the divisions on black people in inner city areas who respond to racism by sticking together. The reports highlighted racism but offered no solution. The answer lies in black and white working people fighting together for resources and against racism.

BNP's 'favourite'

Home Secretary David Blunkett was not prepared to wait for the official publication of the reports last week. He gave an interview in the Independent on Sunday two days before. Blunkett heaped blame for 'historic divisions' and 'racial prejudice' on immigrants.

Blunkett oozed a saloon bar racist 'us and them' attitude. He said, 'We have norms of acceptability, and those who come into our home-for that is what it is-should accept those norms.'

Our home? Presumably those coming here to live are then guests. And guests, of course, can be made to leave.

No wonder the Nazi British National Party leapt on Blunkett's comments. The BNP announced that Blunkett was 'their favourite politician' and that they would quote him in their propaganda for the council elections in May. BNP Führer Nick Griffin said Blunkett 'is using the same thing we've been saying for years, and he's now jumping on the bandwagon'.

Religious schools foster divisions

The main report into the riots reflected the concerns of the majority of people in Britain that 'faith', or religious, schools increase divisions in society. Yet the government dismissed its limited recommendation that all schools, 'whether faith or non-faith, should limit their intake from one culture or ethnicity. They should offer at least 25 percent of places to reflect the other cultures or ethnicities within the local area.'

Tony Blair, who sends his own children to selective religious schools, is evangelical about the idea. He has the support of the Daily Telegraph, the Tories, the right wing former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead, and assorted crackpot opponents of comprehensive education.

Most parents and teachers are opposed to more religious schools-and rightly so. Blair tries to wrap his campaign in the wishes of some Muslim parents for Muslim schools. But most of the new religious schools planned have nothing to do with addressing the feelings of a minority of Muslims. They are about extending the hold of the Church of England over education and further undermining comprehensive state education.

The figures for existing religious schools are staggering. There are about 26,000 state schools in England. Of those, the Church of England-the established church in Britain-runs 4,716, almost one fifth. That is more than twice the number run by the Roman Catholic church, which has 2,110.

The Methodists run 27. There are 32 Jewish schools and 13 run by what the Department for Education calls 'minority faiths', including just four Muslim schools. In Scotland the entire education system has historically been dominated by churches, and split between Protestant and Catholic schooling.

The same is obviously true of Northern Ireland, where there is also the 11-plus. The images of Catholic parents escorting their children past Loyalist mobs to Holy Cross Primary School in Belfast recently brought home how religious-based schooling reinforces sectarian divisions.

The report into Oldham highlighted how religious schools in England also foster division.

There are four Christian secondary schools in Oldham, two Church of England and two Catholic. That itself is a product of the division between Protestants and Catholics whipped up by bosses in the 19th century to undermine working class solidarity. The schools now serve to segregate whites from Asians. The two C of E schools restrict entry to Anglicans, though one allows a small number of other Christians.

To qualify as an Anglican a child has to have attended church 'with a parent for a period of years'. There are no Asian children from Oldham in those schools. One of the Catholic schools has a limit of 10 percent of pupils from non-Catholic families. The other is 100 percent Catholic. The biggest scandal is the Blue Coat C of E school. It is located right next to the main concentration of Asians in Oldham. But none of them can go there.

The main reason parents give for sending their children to religious schools is that they believe they produce better results. That is Blair's justification too. But that is true only because such schools are often in a position to select pupils from better off families who are already likely to do well in exams.

There are some C of E and Catholic schools in inner cities which have an intake of children from poor families and have virtually no religious ethos. But religious schools on average take fewer pupils receiving free school meals. When that is taken into account, religious schools actually perform worse than comprehensives in raising children's attainment.

But the existence of so many Christian-run schools, and the pro-Christian bias in many non-religious schools, has led some Muslim parents to demand Muslim schools on an equal footing.

It is only a minority. Most Pakistani and Bangladeshi parents say they want an ethnic mix for their children's schools. The argument that Muslim parents should 'have the same choice as C of E parents' sounds like equality, but is being used to increase division and fuel the drive for more religious schools, mainly C of E.

So the reorganisation of schools in Bradford this year has created three religious schools-one Muslim and two C of E. There is racism in the education system. But separate schooling does not challenge that racism.

Tory and New Labour attacks on comprehensive education have already produced a polarisation in education, with increasingly selective schools in middle class areas and poorer schools for working class children.

Improving children's education would mean reversing the government's policies, and ending the privileges of the C of E schools. Every school should provide facilities for children of all faiths. But to do that no one religion can be prioritised over the others.

Instead the government is creating future divisions where poor and oppressed groups blame each other, and those most oppressed suffer the most.

The right wing press has been full of attacks on 'multiculturalism' since the riot reports were published. It is music to the ears of the Nazi BNP, which wants to drive every black person out of Britain.

Papers such as the Telegraph, Daily Mail and Sun do not go that far. But they say immigrants have to assimilate into the 'dominant culture in Britain'. There is an immense divide in Britain in the way people live. It is not between different 'national cultures', but between rich and poor. The editors and owners of the press will sit down for Christmas dinner next week and exchange presents.

The rich will not think twice about spending tens of thousands of pounds. The majority of working class people will struggle with the cost. Is this really a shared aspect of 'our culture'? Our rulers want us to believe in a national culture that dates back centuries. That is not even true of Christmas. 'Traditional festivities' date from the 19th century. They are drawn from German, Dutch and other influences. This mixing is true of the whole of 'British culture'.

All sorts of people in Britain have blended together over the centuries-Celts, Anglo-Saxons, Romans, East Europeans, French, Germans, Italians, Jews, Africans and many others.

The English language itself has changed as a result. Some of the words we use come from India.

Immigration since the Second World War is a continuation of a long process. The right wing dresses up its attack on 'multiculturalism' in the language of unity. It says the way for immigrants to be accepted is to take on the 'national culture'. But the whole idea that there is a superior British culture generates racism.

It was the fight against racism, particularly in education, that led to what is usually meant by multiculturalism in the 1970s. That meant pupils learning about different religions and customs practised by people from other parts of the world.

The result is overwhelmingly positive. The majority of people recognise that their lives have been enriched by the different kinds of food, music, festivals and entertainment now in British cities.

Even institutions that are riddled with racism feel forced to claim that they 'respect all cultures'. The Metropolitan Police seem to send a special squad of bad dancers to the Notting Hill Carnival every year. But this official lip service to 'multiculturalism' has little to do with challenging racism.

And it can reinforce divisions between people under the cover of 'respect for national cultures'. The most reactionary forces in society understand this.

That is why the anti-Catholic Orange Order claims that its intimidating marches in Northern Ireland are a legitimate expression of 'Protestant culture'. The BNP pretends that its racism is simply about 'defending white culture'. Real discrimination can lead oppressed groups to emphasise aspects of their 'culture', particularly those that are seen to be under attack. Many young Muslims in Britain feel that way about Islam today.

Socialists understand that and have a different attitude to groups responding to oppression from those who are perpetrating it.

But we do not accept that people are divided into separate national cultures. Neither do many young people today. Aspects of 'culture' are more shared. Young men in Britain wear largely the same type of clothing. People listen to music that is blended from sources across the world.

Racism does throw up divisions, but there is a process of integration. Under capitalism this is market driven and limited. People in many parts of the world are living similar lives.

But that means the same junk food, exploitation by the same multinationals, and the same pressure of mass advertising to buy goods most of us cannot afford. Modern capitalism is soulless and dehumanising. It can lead people to turn to what they take to be their 'national culture' as a source of comfort.

Middle class leaders, even of oppressed groups, have an interest in playing up cultural separateness. This often means concentrating on the most backward elements, which are present in any 'national culture'.

Socialists have a different vision. It is not about telling everyone they are culturally separate, or about crushing everyone's individuality. It is about taking the best aspects of the way people live all over the world and bringing them together in a truly human culture.

That is a challenge not only to the 'British culture' championed by the right, but also to the whole system that divides people one from another.

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Sat 22 Dec 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1780
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