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Title Oldham & Asian Youth
Author Shahid Ashrif
Key Concepts Oppression, Anti-oppressive Practice, Racism, Media, Policing



Interestingly, the very first article I ever had published was in Multicultural Teaching in 1985, was about the uprising in many of our major towns and cities throughout the summer of 1985. Here I am again, writing about manifestations of Black protest. I presume the police, local councils and politicians would be interested in how such events can be prevented and what lessons can be learned from such events. However, it is unlikely ‘the establishment’ will take the appropriate steps to prevent repetition of such behaviour.

One aspect that we can all be thankful for is that the reporting of the events in the broadsheets was not as rabidly racist as in 1980/1, 1985 and 1995.  We did however, hear repetitions of the tired idea of ‘copycat’ disturbances following the first night of violence, as happened in 1980/1 and 1985. People do not copy this type of behaviour as if it was some sort of game. There has to be genuine grievances before people resort to such behaviour. Seeing other Black people responding to racist oppression can and does galvanise and inspire other Black groups to take action – but this is not about copying behaviour just for the fun of it. As in all cases of Black uprisings, there is usually a triggering event and in that, Oldham was no different.

Causes behind the disturbances

The media was quick to report the fact that unemployment among the Black communities in Oldham was high and disproportionate in comparison with the unemployment figures for White people in the area. Black unemployment in Oldham is also one of the highest in the country. Britain's African-Caribbean and Asian communities are being bypassed by the Government's welfare to work programme, according to a new report by the Social Exclusion Unit. The Social Exclusion Unit cited evidence showing White applicants were three times more likely than Asians with equivalent job applications to get job interviews (Wintour & Wazir 2000). Black men are up to five times as likely to be unemployed as White men, according to government figures, which suggest that ethnic minorities face widespread discrimination, looking for jobs. Among women, the worst affected are those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, nearly five times as likely as White women to be unemployed (Denny 2001). Furthermore, the Metropolitan police’s stop and search behaviour is now hitting Asians in a disproportionate manner (Hopkins 1999). Most students find work quickly after leaving university regardless of where they study, but African/African-Caribbean and Asian graduates still face discrimination from employers, according to an official report (Woodward 2001). Chris Myant, spokesman for the CRE, is reported as saying: "The old argument that black and Asian people don't get jobs because they don't have skills is masking a degree of discrimination in the area of skilled work which is particularly pernicious."

The disparity in employment rate among Black and White does not arise by accident but are a manifestation of racist employment practices and school underachievement. Teachers discipline Black pupils more harshly than their White counterparts for similar offences (Smithers 2001). Many of Britain's schools are 'institutionally racist', according to Ofsted, which cited evidence that Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean and Gypsy Traveller children are failing to make adequate progress (Smithers & Carvel 1999). The report went on to say teachers were often guilty of promoting racial stereotyping. Mr. Gould, Ofsted’s head of secondary education, cited evidence that some teachers had generally lower expectations of such pupils than they did of their White counterparts. The report urged schools and education authorities to counter racial harassment and stereotyping. However, nothing much will happen in this regard given Education Minister Blunket’s hostility to the findings of the Macpherson Inquiry. Or take for example, Leicester LEA’s re-inspection by Ofsted. One of the major criticisms of the LEA identified in the first inspection was that it was failing to provide for Black pupils. On the re-inspection, there were 22 recommendations made, including the need to set up procedures and mechanisms for reporting and recording racist incidents. This is in a city where at least 30% of the population is Black and in ten years will become the largest community. (Those naïve enough think a Black majority in the city will mean that White people will be treated badly as a consequence, need only to look to the U.S. and South Africa under apartheid, to realise that a numerical majority does not in any way guarantee a major say in decision making. Those who tend to hysteria at the mere mention of the term ‘Black Power’ ought to remember that Black people have been living with the consequences of White power for several generations – if one ignores colonial history, which was also an abuse of White power.)

It is difficult to gain employment without paper qualifications. This aspect affects White working class communities too, and in 1981 and 1985, it was noticeable that White youth were present among the protesters because of that shared experience. During both the 1981 and 1985 disturbances, the media and various pundits drew attention to this racial mix and concluded that what were witnessing was not a ‘race riot’. It was a race riot, overwhelmingly Black with some White young people joining in on a common cause. (It is important to draw attention to the fact that prior to 1981, previous race riots, whether in 1919, 1948, during the late 1950s, right up until the late 1970s were attacks by White people on Black communities.)

The cause of the disturbances in Oldham was not only unemployment. Police racism and inaction has been a major factor in previous uprisings. White working class youths also face a certain level of police harassment. However, Black people have and continue to complain that the police are slow to respond, particularly when racist incidents occur. The police often ignore the racist element in crimes. However, this is not new. The Policy Studies Institute’s Report in 1983 detailed the failures and racism of the police. The Institute for Race Relations has for many years been cataloguing police racism, including the number of Black people dying at the hands of the police while in custody. (The police have variously attempted to explain away the alarming and disproportionate number of deaths among Black suspects by claiming that Black people’s anatomy makes them susceptible to choking.) There have been organised protests about deaths in police custody, but not a single police officer has been prosecuted. When coroner after coroner rules that Black people have been ‘unlawfully killed’ the police investigations and Crown Prosecution Service have ensured that no one been prosecuted let alone convicted for such racist killings. Only last year, the CPS was under investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality for racism. (This is not the time to discuss the over-representation of  Asians and African Caribbeans in our prisons or given custodial sentences.)

Defending communities

When the police whose duty it is to protect all communities fail to carry out their responsibilities, what course of action is there but for Black communities to defend themselves? The police describe this as vigilantes taking over. It is nothing of the sort. Self-defence is no offence – as famously said in court by the legendary Black activist and lawyer, Rudy Narayan. Young Black men have spearheaded the process of self-defence. Interestingly, in the past, it has been these young defenders of their communities who have been target by the police for prosecution. This happened with the famous cases of the Bradford 12, Newham 7 etc. As reported by the media, generally the older members of the Black communities have supported this action taken on their behalf by these young people. The police are opposed to such self-defence moves because it points up the failures of the police.

The talk of no-go areas in Oldham for White people is both provocative and misleading. This type of reporting also occurred in the Guardian (April 20). Asian youths felt misrepresented by the White media and were prepared to give their side of the story to the Eastern Eye newspaper. These Asian youths gave a different perspective on the issue of no-go areas. Interestingly no one wants to discuss no-go areas for Black people. There are large sections of most of our towns and cities where Black people fear to tread. In buying a house in Leicester last year, I like many Black people had to consider which areas were likely to be relatively free of racist harassment and attacks. Given that according to the British Crime Survey’s estimate in 1995, that racist attacks were running at 32,000 per year, this aspects is an important consideration. It was also mischievous of the media to suggest that Asians perpetrated the majority of racial attacks in Oldham against White people. The massive under-reporting of racist attacks and harassment by Black people makes any police figures misleading. There are a variety of reasons why many Black people do not report racist attacks/abuse: they do not believe such action will have much effect; the racial nature of the crime is likely to be ignored (- even in high profile cases where the Black victim died as with Kwesi Menson and Ricky Reel); the reporting of crimes to the police is often a harrowing experience for Black people who are subject to questioning of their immigration status and being treated in a demeaning manner and even subject to arrest. (See ‘Policing Against Black People’ by IRR.) A further twist to this misrepresentation of crime statistics is the recent report in the Guardian about the backlash to the Macpherson Report. The news story reported that the police were encouraging White people to ascribe racial motivation when they were the victims of crime – all in an attempt ‘demonstrate’ that Black people were also racist. This flawed notion of reverse racism has always been an excuse for doing nothing about the attacks on Black people.

Notions of Asian passivity

If nothing else, the disturbances in Bradford in 1995 and in Oldham this year demonstrate once and for all that Asians are not passive. This racial stereotype has never been true – even in the days of the British Empire, when Indians spearheaded the breaking up of the empire by telling the British they had overstayed their welcome. One does not have to go as far back in time to verify that Asian will retaliate when provoked – not only were Asians well represented in the uprisings in our towns and cities in 1985, but earlier in 1979 in Southall (London) the Asian community came out in force to defend itself against the National Front. 

As with the uprising in Bradford in 1995, young Asians have not been subject to the level of control by their elders as the police and other sectors of the White community would have liked. The asinine comments of the Pakistani High Commissioner, interviewed on television in the wake of the Oldham ‘riots’ not only misrepresented the views and feeling of large sections of the Asian communities in Britain, but also flatly contradicted the overwhelming evidence of Britain as a deeply racist society. Recently Britain has been criticised both by the UN and by the EU for its racism. The High Commissioner  is both out of touch with the reality of the lives of the majority of Asians but there are also political and trade considerations for him to consider should he be tempted to criticise the police or White racists. However we cannot ignore the fact that the attitudes of the young regarding how racism is to be handled does often differ from that of their elders. The young do not consider White people as the ‘host’ community, as is commonplace among many of the older generation. Black people are not guests any more than White people are hosts. We are all co-tenants. As co-tenants, Black people also have a right to express how this country should be organised and administered.  Young Black people, including Asians, feel they are the equal of their White peers and are not prepared to overlook or accommodate racism as some older members of the Asian communities sometimes do. The Guardian described these Asian youths as ‘cocky’ but they are more accurately described as assertive. Their views about racism are clear and unequivocal. They also feel aggrieved that despite their qualifications, they are turned down for jobs. Meanwhile, they are aware that many of their elders are officially and unofficially liasing with local councils to supposedly represent the interests of the local Asian communities. While many of these community leaders have no genuine support within their constituency, such representatives often hold very conservative views, both personally and politically. Youth representation on committees in the Asian community is just as poor as in the White communities. Older people continue to speak on behalf of their young, without any real communication between the two groups. However, one thing is certain, the elders of the community will not be able to hold the young in check when these youths feel aggrieved. This was clearly demonstrated in Bradford and  in Oldham. (The police report into the troubles in Bradford in 1995 was rejected as a whitewash by the Asian youths and the senior police officer who presided over these matters was given the post of Drug Czar under the Labour government.)

Blaming outsiders

In the uprisings of 1981 and 1985 the police and the media blamed outside agitators for the violence. Apparently militants and troublemakers were necessary for oppressed communities to retaliate against racist policing and the differential impact of unemployment upon Black communities. The media does not dispute that the disturbances in Oldham were precipitated by a racist attack on Black people, but the media has misrepresented the role of the BNP/NF. There is no doubt that the BNP/NF has aggravated the situation not only through its presence in Oldham, but also in the manner in which these racist organisations have exploited the attack on the White old age pensioner that was prominently reported in the media. Even the Observer with its self-proclaimed antiracist credentials provided a report fairly typical of the media. But when was the last time that an attack by White youths on an elderly Black person received this number of column inches in the press? Black people are being attacked regularly and quite often murdered but the media generally ignores such incidents. The attack on the White pensioner also made mention of the fat that he fought for his country – but so did Black people fight for this country but we receive no such acknowledgement. The exploitation of this pensioner’s adversity by the BNP/NF is very similar to the strategy that these racist organisation used in the Isle of Dogs during the run-up to the local elections in 1993 when a BNP/NF councillor was elected for the first time in mainland Britain. The White youth in the Isle of Dogs also claimed there were no-go areas for White people. The media has such a short memory of even recent events!

The seriously misleading and potentially dangerous aspect of attributing the problem in Oldham to the BNP/NF is that it misrepresents the nature of racism in Britain. Racism is not an aberration that can be attributed to some extreme faction. Racism is a structural feature of British society. The majority of the racism faced by Black people, whether in Oldham or elsewhere, has been at the hands of ordinary White people, including local employers and local council employees. By ridding ourselves of the BNP/NF we will not rid ourselves of racism. The performance of the BNP/NF in local and national elections may be abysmal but the real success of such organisations is that many of their ways of thinking have sedimented into the public consciousness as well as into the outlooks of the main political parties. It is the racism of the Tory and Labour parties that worry me, not the extreme right parties like the BNP/NF.

The analysis by Simon Hughes of the Liberals, that the hysteria generated by politicians and media over the issue of asylum and refugees was linked to the troubles in Oldham, is essentially correct. However, the blame is not to be laid only at the door of the Tories. Interestingly, one of the few comments by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, on the disturbances in Oldham, was to rebut the arguments of Simon Hughes about the role of politicians in generating the climate that leads to events like those in Oldham. Yet every time a politician makes prejudicial remarks about refugees/asylum seekers, Black people pay the price. After all, can you distinguish between Black people who are legitimate residents and those who are refugees or asylum seekers?  Ironically enough on the Saturday of the ‘riots’ in Oldham, the Civil Rights Campaign meeting in Leicester, only emphasised the increase in attacks on Black communities whenever the media or politicians made negative pronouncements about asylum seekers and refugees. The dispersal scheme only serves to isolate refugees and make them even more vulnerable. (Those White people bemoaning the ‘generous’ treatment meted out to asylum seekers should try being a refugee/asylum seeker for a month. Live cut off from the people who can speak your language, feed yourself and your family on a pittance with food that is culturally inappropriate, despite being religious give up worshipping communally and put up with racial abuse from perfect strangers. Sounds like a picnic, doesn’t it?)

Politicians have been essentially silent about the disturbances in Oldham. Either the government is complacent about a major race disturbance, or too busy with electioneering to give the incident much space. Perhaps the New Labour thinks its colour-blind social exclusion unit will solve the problem. (See my earlier comments on social exclusion.) The government has failed to ameliorate the condition of White working class communities in the last four years. And Black communities are grossly over-represented among working class communities. Poverty and inequality has actually increased during the tenure of the Labour government. This government’s track record on tackling racism, whether it is the job prospects of Black people, school exclusions, under-performance of Black pupils or under-representation of Black people standing for parliament on behalf of New Labour, has been poor. The Macpherson Inquiry only occurred after many years of lobbying by the Lawrence family and Black communities. The outcomes of the inquiry have been resisted by many organisations, including the Birmingham Council and Birmingham police who have both declared they are not institutionally racist. The mere publication of the recommendations of the Macpherson Inquiry will not alter the situation. The government needs to systematically ensure that all local councils and institutions implement the recommendations. The political will for this is, not surprisingly, absent. Furthermore, New Labour has been complicit in generating a climate of racism with its immigration and asylum policies.

I took no pleasure in having been correct in predicting there would be further uprisings after 1981. The ‘riots’ are after all, the voices of the oppressed and unheard. So long as blatant racism in society and the police force remain and Black people feel excluded from the mainstream of society, there will be further eruptions of violence.

© Shahid Ashrif & Student Youth Work Online 2001

References & Recommended Reading

Back, L & Keith, M (1999) ‘Rights and Wrongs’: Youth, Community and Narratives of Racial Violence, in New Ethnicities, Old Racisms; Cohen, P.(ed); Zed Books 1999.

C.A.R.F. Southall: the birth of a Black community; Institute of Race Relations, 1981

Campbell H. Rastafari: culture of resistance; Race & Class Vol.22, No.1, 1980

Denny, C (2001) Racist firms keep black unemployment high; The Guardian: Thursday January 11

Fryer P.  ‘Under Attack’ Chapter 10 in Staying Power: history of Black people in Britain; Pluto Press 1984

Gordon, P. White Law; Pluto 1983

Policing Immigration: Britain's internal controls; Pluto1985

Hopkins, N (1999) Met stop and search 'now hitting Asians’; The Guardian: Thursday December 16

Howe, D. New Perspectives on the Asian Struggles: Race Today Aug./Sept. Nov/Dec. 1979

Institute for Policy Studies  Police in Action; PSI Report 1983

Institute for Race Relations Policing Against Black People; IRR 1987

Joshi, S. &  Carter, B  The Role Of Labour In The Creation Of A Racist Britain; Race & Class Vol. 25, No. 3 , Winter 1984

Joshua H. et al.  To Ride the Storm; 1983

Leech K.  ‘Racism and Violence’ Chapter 4, and ‘After Scarman: The Events of 1981 in Retrospect’ Chapter 6 in Struggle in Babylon: racism in cities and churches of Britain; Sheldon Press 1988

Race Today  Jan. 1986 issue (civil disturbances of 1985)

Sivanandan A.  From Resistance To rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean Struggles in Britain; Race & Class Vol.23,No.2/3, 1981(Institute of Race Relations)

Smith, S. J.  The Politics of 'Race' and Residence; Polity      Press 1989

Smithers, R & Carvel, J (1999)  Britain's schools dubbed racist; the Guardian: Thursday March 11

Smithers, R. (2001) Punishment for black pupils appears harsher; Guardian: Thursday March,1

Wintour, P & Wazir, B (2000) Job schemes bypass Asians; Guardian: Sunday January 30

Woodward, W (2001) University jobs figures reveal racial bias; The Guardian: Wednesday April 4

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