Racism: 14 Years Can be a Long Time in Politics

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One of the most striking aspects of The New East End is the picture it paints of virulent racism. The authors note, "of the white respondents, a majority expressed an often bitterly negative attitude towards foreign immigrants, and particularly towards Bangladeshis".

If true, this is a very divided society on the verge of turmoil. But many of the interviews have a dated feel. One example, which immediately stands out, is an interview with a white respondent who complains of allegedly preferential service offered to Asians, "last Saturday at the children's hospital in Hackney Road". This hospital, a few hundred metres from where I live, closed in 1998.

A closer examination of the book's research methods reveals that the interviewing process began in 1992. It hardly needs to be said that 14 years can be a long time in developing social attitudes. A year after the interviews started, the British National Party's (BNP) Derek Beackon was elected in the Millwall ward of Tower Hamlets - a year later he was defeated after a massive anti-racist campaign.

It was a time of swirling views about race, certainly one in which it would be hard to draw settled convictions about what people felt.

In the 1992 general election the BNP took 1,310 votes (3.6 percent) in the Bethnal Green & Stepney constituency and BNP leader, John Tyndall, got 1,107 (3 percent) in Bow & Poplar. In an attempt to capture a racist vote, the Liberal candidate for Bethnal Green travelled to Bangladesh to tell people that there was no more room for them in Tower Hamlets. The Tory candidate issued a leaflet calling for compulsory fingerprinting of Muslims.

In 1997 the BNP got 3,350 votes (7.5 percent) in Bethnal Green, and 2,849 (7.3 percent) in Poplar. But in 2001 this fell to 1,211 votes (3.2 percent) in Bethnal Green and 1,743 (5.1 percent) in Poplar. Last year the BNP did not even stand in either constituency - while Respect won one of the seats and came third with 17 percent in the other.

So racist attitudes tend to be fluid, and what a lot of people felt in the 1990s is not necessarily what they feel a decade later.

None of this is to deny the very real existence of widespread "common sense" racism. It could hardly be otherwise given the constant propaganda about "scrounging immigrants" from the press, the main parties' willingness to witchhunt asylum seekers and immigrants, and government policies which legitimise racist views.

In addition, some people who feel their lives breaking apart (through unemployment, lack of decent housing, and the fracturing of social networks) can be persuaded to turn on immigrants as scapegoats for their pain.

From 1986 to 1994 a particular local factor was the Liberal-led council's policy of devolving housing allocation to neighbourhood offices - they implemented a "sons and daughters" preference scheme which discriminated against Bangladeshis.

But there are also counter-tendencies of mixing, common class experience and unity.

You get hardly a hint of any of these factors in the book. And even if the figures were not outdated, they do not support the authors' conclusions that whites are overwhelmingly racist.

Overall the research finds 41 percent of whites hostile to Bangladeshis, 18 percent "mixed" (reflecting some racist ideas but also being positive towards individual Bangladeshis), 11 percent positive and 30 percent indifferent.

Younger people (under 34) were much less likely to be racist, with 27 percent hostile and 34 percent mixed or positive. Whites who were themselves new to the area were least likely to be hostile (19 percent), while those who had many ties to Bethnal Green were most likely to be hostile (70 percent).

The groups which are most likely to be hostile - older people and those who have lived in Bethnal Green for generations - were shrinking, and those with the most multicultural views were growing.

In 2006, racism is a reality in Bethnal Green - and the main actors are the state and the police. But it is not true that most whites and Asians are at each others' throats. It is one of the achievements of the anti-war movement, Defend Council Housing and Respect that they have offered arenas of mutual activity which have brought Bangladeshis and whites together and united them against their real enemies.

The confrontation with the Blairite views expressed in this study can offer further opportunities for active unity. The hope offered through successful struggle is the most powerful antidote to racism.