Black and White Lies

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Race in Britain

It didn't take long for this government's brief flirtation with Britain's Muslims to come to an end. No sooner had the war against Afghanistan been 'won', accompanied by convenient pictures of religious leaders on the steps of 10 Downing Street, than it was back to normal. Tony Blair tucked his copy of the Koran away, and out came the Old Testament figure of home secretary David Blunkett.

In a carefully constructed 'interview' with the Independent On Sunday in December Blunkett recast Britain's Muslims, and by implication all black people, as outside society. This was not, as some in the media kindly put it, 'a blunder', but a deliberate intervention to skew the ongoing debate about race and racism on the eve of a clutch of reports into the causes of the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford.

Blunkett may have convinced himself of the belief that he was having a tilt at 'liberals' and 'political correctness', but in reality his was a racist take on those uprisings. Blunkett's full interview demanded that 'immigrants' (code for Muslims) should accept British 'norms of acceptability' and demonstrate their 'Englishness'. I was angered when Blunkett subsequently backed the Cantle Report into the Bradford riot's proposal that 'immigrants' should sign an oath of allegiance and demonstrate their 'clear primary loyalty to this nation'.

In fact the immediate spark of the rioting was the presence of the Nazi British National Party, the National Front and Combat 18, protected by the police. And it was widely accepted that the principal roots of the riots lay in the decades-long economic decline of those ex-milltowns, and the all-encompassing poverty that had bred resentment and fed hostility. This had been compounded by the near-apartheid in housing, schooling and jobs engineered by local councils and employers, all of which was ignored by successive national governments.

But now we were expected to believe that the roots really lay in Muslims refusing to integrate. Blunkett's intervention must be another example of the Blairite 'Third Way', in which it is felt that the best way to tackle racism is to attack the victims and give succour to the perpetrators.

What a strange world the Blair government inhabits, where the immediate beneficiaries of a debate billed as about tackling racism are the racists themselves. The BNP says, 'Blunkett's attempt to steal the BNP's clothes will help us win seats! Labour are only confirming that whites have been getting an unfair deal, thereby proving the BNP have been right all along. So keep it up, Mr Blunkett...you're our favourite British politician at the moment.' The Nazis declared that they would be sticking Blunkett's quotes on their election leaflets in the run-up to the May local elections. Bill Morris of the TGWU rightly compared Blunkett's stance with that of anti-immigrant far right parties in Austria, Germany and Denmark.

Muslims and Jews

Britain's Muslims are on the way to being cast as the 'enemy within' in the manner in which Thatcher attacked the trade unions. The views of the Daily Telegraph editor, Charles Moore, that 'Britain is basically English speaking, Christian and white and if one starts to think it might become basically Urdu speaking Muslim and brown one gets frightened' have been taken into the mainstream. The general public are encouraged to look at Muslims, post 11 September, as religious fanatics. They are portrayed as inherently hostile to British society, living in self imposed ghettos, and shunning integration and discourse with their English counterparts.

Haven't we been here before? Blunkett's interview gives us a clue: 'The example that Jewish immigrants always give is to embrace the language and the nation they entered and flourish by gaining the tools to make that possible'. Leave aside the stereotyped notion that all Jewish people are successful business people--let's look at the facts. If the popular portrayal of Muslims in 21st century Britain resembles anything, it is that of the Jews of late 19th century and early 20th century Britain.

When Jews fleeing pogroms in eastern Europe came to the East End of London and other poor areas of our cities they were certainly not looked on as assimilationist success stories. They were seen as parasitic, carrying with them 'foreign' systems of thought (Bolshevism), labelled a threat to the 'British' worker, and accused of creating ghettos. As the East London Advertiser put it in May 1889, 'People of any other nation, after being in England for only a short time, assimilate themselves with the native race, and by and by lose nearly all of their foreign trace. But the Jews never do. A Jew is always a Jew.'

They were labelled 'Yids' because of the language they spoke. But their isolation from society was not a choice--it was the outcome of a combination of their economic position in society and anti-Semitism. They were crowded into the East End and places like Cheetham Hill in Manchester because slum housing was all they could afford and all that was on offer. They quite reasonably wanted to enjoy the traditions they brought with them--exemplified by the springing up of Yiddish theatres and other cultural associations--and they wished to practise their religion.

This was too much for the British establishment, which passed the Aliens Act in 1905 to keep them out. This in turn spurred the growth of fascist parties such as Mosley's Blackshirts. The anti-Semitism in the British establishment meant that at the start of the Second World War German Jewish refugees and anti-fascists were interned in camps.

We have a similar attitude being fostered towards Muslims--as it has been against black people in the past. I recall when Bradford previously rioted in 1995 talking to Pakistani youth hanging out at a video shop in Manningham. They were mystified at the cod-sociology pouring out of the pages of newspapers and the mouths of commentators, that they had rioted because of their cultural alienation from British society. Those young men shook their heads at papers that splashed pictures of rock-throwers wearing salwar kamiz, as though this image communicated something profound about them. They were insulted by the notion that they were 'immigrants' at odds with society's 'cultural norms'. In their broad Yorkshire accents they explained that they were born in England, felt as English as society allowed them to be, and went to work, followed football, watched television and enjoyed music like everyone else. What more did they have to do to be let in to British society, they asked? The idea that they had rioted because they had not 'a sufficient grasp of the English language', as Blunkett put it, was, and is, laughable.

Immigration laws

In fact they had rioted because they understood completely the racist epithets that came out of the mouths of local police who had been goading them. The notion that their parents had stopped them integrating because they spoke Urdu at home is nonsense. That older generation of Asians were the ones who took the brunt of racism in the 1960s and 1970s. They were the generation that sweated their lives away on production lines or in the mills, and battled to raise their families. They should be celebrated as the pioneers who fought to make their way in the face of hostility. They have contributed more than enough to society, and deserve better than to be branded backward and too lazy to learn English.

This is also the generation who suffered most at the brutal application of immigration laws. Under the Wilson/Callaghan Labour governments Asian women arriving here to take part in an arranged marriage were snatched from Heathrow airport by immigration officials, and driven to a detention centre or a London prison where they were internally examined by Home office doctors to see whether they were really virgins, and then put back on a plane and deported back to the subcontinent.

Blunkett's implied description of Muslim culture as defined by 'enforced marriages' and 'genital mutilation' was offensive in the extreme. The battle within Asian communities against 'enforced marriages' has been going on for some time, and very few would defend the practice. Blunkett also managed to confuse in the public's mind arranged marriages with forced marriages. But he did not condemn the arranged marriages that our royal family go in for, or those marriages of the upper classes that make sure the inheritance stays in the right hands.

The reason that many Muslims are concentrated in poor areas is not through choice--it is the direct result of racist housing policies in the same way as West Indians were forced to settle in Rachman's Notting Hill in the 1950s. My father, a Muslim from the West Indies who arrived here in the 1950s, still recalls the landlords who turned him away, pointing to signs in the window that said 'No Blacks, no Irish, no dogs'. Like many others in his position, he couldn't get rented accommodation or a council flat, so he borrowed some money and put down a deposit for a house. When my cousin came from Trinidad he stayed in our house (sleeping at the other end of my bed) for ages because he couldn't get somewhere to live.

Estate agents would only offer blacks and Asians properties in 'black areas', which is why my family ended up in a particular area of south London. To move out to the suburbs meant braving neighbours complaining of 'curry smells' and panicking that the sight of black kids playing in the street would somehow bring down house prices. This racism continued--in 1988 the CRE served an order on an estate agent in Oldham after an investigation showed that 'the firm tended to recommend white areas to prospective white purchasers and Asian areas to Asian purchasers, to accept instructions from white vendors to deter prospective Asian purchasers, and to offer mortgage facilities only to white clients'.

In any case, what does Blunkett mean by 'English culture'? Is he talking, for example, about the traditions of English law such as habeas corpus, by which someone accused of a crime has the right to appear in open court? If so, then why is he determined to end that right in his anti-terrorism bill? Is he talking about the age old right to a jury trial? If so, then why is he planning to abolish it for the majority of cases? Perhaps we should learn to celebrate a society that sees the rich (of whatever colour) getting richer, while the poor (of whatever colour) get poorer?

In the proposed test 'immigrants' (not ones from South Africa or the farms of Zimbabwe, one suspects) will take, will they have to learn that there is no such thing as an English 'race', and that the majority of people in this country are a mix of Celts, Brythons, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Norsemen and Normans--foreigners all? Will they have to know that George I neither spoke, understood nor read English, being a German prince from Hanover? Or that England's patron saint, George, is most likely to be of Turkish origin, or even that according to geneticist Steve Jones one in five 'white' British people have African blood relations due to co-mingling during the era of slavery?

Blunkett and New Labour have shamefully used a debate about tackling racism to drive more divisions between black and white. What else can we conclude when Home Office minister John Denham refers on Radio 4 to 'Asian culture' and 'white culture'?