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Why Britain is so divided

This article is over 22 years, 6 months old
A series of reports into the background to riots in the north west of England earlier this year were released on Tuesday, as Socialist Worker went to press. Days earlier home secretary David Blunkett had told journalists that immigrants must try to be more \"British\" and that they should \"accept our norms\".
Issue 1779

A series of reports into the background to riots in the north west of England earlier this year were released on Tuesday, as Socialist Worker went to press. Days earlier home secretary David Blunkett had told journalists that immigrants must try to be more ‘British’ and that they should ‘accept our norms’.

He implied that the problems immigrants face are of their own making through their alleged refusal to mix or failure to speak English. In reality black and Asian people suffer from the way they have been forced into low paid jobs, crushed into miserable housing, and subjected to racism from the police, employers and the state.

People who speak perfect English and have done everything possible to be ‘British’ are still treated differently because of the colour of their skin. Government policies have then increased the divisions between people. Politicians have played upon racism as a way to distract attention from the real problems in society.

Within towns and cities, areas are forced to compete against one another for scarce government funding. This can lead to myths about what other groups receive and to seeing other working class people as the enemy.

Do people want to be separate?

Official institutional racism meant that black workers were pushed into the lowest paid jobs (even where they had good qualifications) and into the worst housing when they arrived here after the Second World War. Still today in Bradford, for example, black people make up about 20 percent of the population, but only 2.24 percent of council tenants.

The result was black people concentrated as significant minorities in poor inner cities, which many white people moved out of as they got council housing. That provided the basis for the myth that the black people moving into an area would lower the quality of housing.

It also provided the basis for segregation. That was further reinforced in northern mill towns such as Oldham by deliberate segregation in employment. It was common for mill owners to employ white workers on the day shift and Asian workers on the nightshift. They fed into racial divisions and gained from the disunity that resulted.

Those divisions can lead Asian people to feel that they need to live alongside one another for fear of racism. But that is not the cause of black and white people leading ‘parallel lives’. It is the result.

Most black and Asian people say they want to be an accepted part of British society. The problem they face is lack of acceptance by a police force, criminal justice system, employers, immigration service and other institutions that are riddled with racism.

The young Asian men who rioted in the summer spoke perfect English and dressed just like their white counterparts. They were reacting against racism which means they are still treated as second class citizens despite this.

Not mistaken identity

Racism is not simply about one group disliking another or ‘having mistaken perceptions’ of them. It is systematic discrimination against ethnic minorities. According to the government’s Labour Force Survey, black people are twice as likely to be unemployed as white people.

For white people the unemployment rate stands at about 5 percent. For black people as a whole unemployment is 12 percent. Unemployment for all ethnic groups in the north of England is higher than the national average.

People face not only a lack of jobs, but low pay and insecurity too. A survey of jobs available in Burnley job centres in 1999 found that the average pay on offer was £4.37 an hour. It also found that:

  • 41 percent of all advertised jobs paid less than £3.86 an hour.
  • 53 percent of all advertised jobs paid less than £4.20 an hour.

A similar study for Oldham last year found that 43 percent of jobs paid less than £3.99 an hour. Some 61 percent of jobs were below the Income Support rates for a couple with two young children.

The problem that confronts people, black and white, in Oldham, Burnley, Bradford and other northern towns is not that one group is being pampered at the expense of another. It is that everyone is facing a struggle to make ends meet, with racism ensuring that black people face added suffering.

‘There are many fascists and racists who will perversely draw comfort from David Blunkett’s comments.’
SHAHID MALIK, Labour NEC member

Different treatment for some

Asian people make up around 12 percent of the population of Oldham. Just 1.7 percent of the council’s workforce are Asian. In Burnley only 24 out of the council’s workforce of 672 were non-white at the time the riot took place.

Such figures are a condemnation of the parties which run these councils. They also refute the claim made by the BNP Nazis that councils are giving special privileges to Asian people.

Police are part of the problem

The police force in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham did nothing to stop Nazis whipping things up before the riots. When the Nazi National Front (NF) planned a ‘Rights for whites’ protest in Oldham in March police officers even went out of their way to give the NF the cloak of respectability.

Police sergeant David Cooper of the Racial Incident Unit in Oldham said of the Nazis from the NF, ‘The group appeared to be well organised, well disciplined and coordinated. There was nothing particularly racially inflammatory about what they said.

‘They demanded positive action, and asked the Asian community to extract the small number of hooligans from their community.’ Police in Oldham released figures to the press of 572 racist attacks in the city last year. They claimed that 60 percent were against whites, mostly carried out by Asians.

But, as Saleem from Oldham said, ‘if someone beats up an Asian then it’s just another crime and hardly gets reported, but if an Asian beats up a white person it’s on the front page.’

A massive BNP ‘Save our country’ banner was left hanging from an industrial chimney in Burnley town centre throughout the general election campaign. After the riots in Burnley and Oldham the police allowed the NF to come to Bradford. It planned to carry out a march in defiance of a government ban. Even David Appleyard, a longstanding fascist activist, was allowed to go to Bradford.

He was only arrested and charged with racially aggravated violence after Asian people fought back.

Language of racism

‘The graffiti in these areas of segregation do not attack ethnic minorities for their inability to decline verbs properly. They attack on the basis of skin colour. The white gang that stabbed Stephen Lawrence did not shout about his failure to know when to use the subjunctive. They shouted, ‘What, what, nigger!’
Vikram Dodd, in the Guardian

Faith schools will keep children apart

Most Asian parents say they do not want separate schools. The vast majority say they want a mix for their children which reflects the towns they live in. The biggest reason given by the minority of Asian parents who do want separate schools is racism in the education system, not a desire to keep apart. Privatisation and free market policies have polarised schools.

That has resulted in a two-tier education system, with poor working class schools on the one hand and better funded schools in better off areas. The working class Asian population are in general poorer than their white counterparts.

So class divisions created by the attacks on comprehensive education lead to racial divisions. These are intensified because New Labour, following the Tories, has destroyed the ability of councils to compensate for segregation in housing by bringing children from different neighbourhoods together in schools.

The drive to create more Church of England schools (the majority of the 200 new faith schools the government plans) will further increase divisions. The main Church of England secondary in Oldham draws white children from outside the town, but has next to no Asian pupils.

Tension from competition for scarce funds

Burnley’s housing stock needs at least £150 million invested in it, according to local Labour MP Peter Pike. The government’s regeneration budget before the riot gave just £3 million. That is just 2 percent of the minimum needed. And it comes through a system of forcing different estates and neighbourhoods to bid against one another for the limited cash.

So government policy is to starve councils of the money they need, force them to turn to privatising services and selling off housing, and set communities against one another.

Then government ministers have the cheek to blame local people for the tensions that are created by this process.

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