Is anyone listening?

Christopher Husbands

  • Racial Consciousness by Michael Banton
    Longman, 153 pp, £12.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 582 02385 8
  • Beyond the Mother Country: West Indians and the Notting Hill White Riots by Edward Pilkington
    Tauris, 182 pp, £10.95, September 1988, ISBN 1 85043 113 2
  • Under Siege: Racism and Violence in Britain Today by Keith Tompson
    Penguin, 204 pp, £3.99, September 1988, ISBN 0 14 052391 X
  • A Pakistani Community in Britain by Alison Shaw
    Blackwell, 187 pp, £19.50, August 1988, ISBN 0 631 15228 8
  • Behind the Frontlines: Journey into Afro-Britain by Ferdinand Dennis
    Gollancz, 216 pp, £12.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 575 04098 X
  • Black Youth, Racism and the State: The Politics of Ideology and Policy by John Solomos
    Cambridge, 284 pp, £27.50, October 1988, ISBN 0 521 36019 6
  • Integration or Disintegration? Towards a Non-Racist Society by Ray Honeyford
    Claridge, 309 pp, £15.95, November 1988, ISBN 1 870626 80 X

Many observers of race relations in Britain have felt that this country’s postwar experience has been quite distinctive when compared with that of other countries in Western Europe. There has, however, been less agreement about what it is that marks Britain out. One approach has been to draw analogies with the economic situation of immigrant workers in France or the Federal Republic of Germany: this approach has emphasised variations in economic integration and pointed to the different sectors of the labour market to which these groups of workers were drawn. Another view claims significance for the different civic experiences of black Britons by comparison with those of immigrant workers in most Western European countries (e.g. access to the franchise), although it is worth pointing out that in the Netherlands settlers from former colonies have been more favourably received than the immigrant-worker population.

Non-indigenous populations are not a recent phenomenon in Western Europe. There have been substantial minorities of foreigners in several countries since long before the First World War. France, for example, has imported labour from elsewhere in Europe since the late 19th century, and by 1921 nearly 5 per cent of its population was foreign-born; even as early as 1920 more than 10 per cent of the resident population of Switzerland was foreign-born, more than a third of Italian origin. These and most other foreigners were not very different to look at from the native population, but they often spoke different languages and had different religious attachments – facts that did cause some assimilation difficulties. There were serious anti-Italian riots in working-class areas of Zurich in the summer of 1896.

However, it was Britain’s early experience of post-war black immigration, dated by many very precisely – probably too precisely – from the arrival on 22 June 1948 of the SS Empire Windrush, which made some observers see this country as a testing-ground where the difficulties of assimilation associated with non-white immigration first occurred and where their solutions could be attempted. If mere passage of time were to be associated with increased inter-racial tolerance, Britain might be expected to have moved further along this path than other countries in Western Europe, whose importation of non-white immigrant labour was concentrated in the Sixties rather than the Fifties. The evidence, however, is far from convincing. As Michael Banton points out, there has been some reduction between the Sixties and the Eighties in standard social-distance scores, measured as willingness or otherwise to accept black people as neighbours, friends, fellow workers. He regards this as a reason for optimism, but only some of these hypothetical relationships show very marked reductions in social distance. In 1964, only 35 per cent of the adult population would accept a black superior or employer, whereas in 1981 the figure was 63 per cent. In 1964, only 15 per cent would accept a black son-in-law: by 1981 the figure had risen – but only to 35 per cent. It is true, even when one takes into account the racist politics of the Seventies, that Great Britain was spared a surge in racism to compare with what was recently seen in France or experienced earlier in the Eighties by the Netherlands, where a National Front-like party, the Centre Party, won more than 8 per cent of votes cast in Rotterdam in the 1984 European Parliament elections. However, the reasons for the electoral failure of the NF in the Seventies have more to do with politics – policy co-optation by the Conservatives, the low political credibility of the NF’s leadership and the influence of the first-past-the-post electoral system – than with any increase in racial tolerance on the part of the British electorate. Certainly, in those strictly comparative surveys of attitudes to immigrants and immigrant workers that have been conducted simultaneously in numerous Western European countries, Britain does not emerge as a paragon of tolerance. In a study conducted in the spring of 1984 respondents were asked questions about the number of immigrant workers in their own country; the British emerged as perhaps marginally less rejecting than the French and West Germans, though noticeably more so than the Dutch.

The books under review provide different insights into how far along the path to interracial accommodation Britain still has to travel. A major theme is racial attacks, which may be seen as the most serious threat to contemporary urban race relations. Not that they are of very recent origin. As Pilkington makes clear, they have been part of the experience of black people in Britain throughout most of the post-war period. Others have gone back to point out the similar experiences of Jewish immigrants in British cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Irish immigrants had identical experiences in the 19th century. In fact, phenomena analogous to what are now regarded as racial attacks have been a feature of British cities at least since the Middle Ages. All the standard histories of London discuss the threats to their physical safety experienced by foreign minorities.

However, the long-lasting tradition of xenophobia in British cities should not obscure what is so important and serious about contemporary racial attacks. Although the matter is confused by the usual debates about the reliability of the statistics, many observers (including some who, like Banton, are in general optimistic about race relations) are convinced that the past few years have seen a genuine increase in the number and (more disputably) the seriousness of racial attacks – it is not merely that official statistics are extending and improving their coverage. The Metropolitan Police recorded 1733 incidents in 1986 and 2179 in 1987, the Commissioner claiming that much of this increase consisted of less serious incidents. Racial attacks now occur not merely in London but also in other cities, as well as smaller towns and suburban areas. The fact that they have assumed such serious dimensions is an indication of how far Britain has to go before mutual acceptance between racial groups is achieved. Despite the decline in the public activities of the Far Right, despite the expressions of concern from within the Home Office, despite the promises of deterrent action by many urban Police Forces, despite the vigilance of monitoring groups and the role assumed by anti-racist protection groups (such as the one in London’s East End described by Tompson), despite – one might think – the now comparatively settled nature of Britain’s black population – despite all these factors, there seems to have been no reduction in the prevalence of the problem.

In the early period of immigration, when immigrants were arriving in large numbers, when patterns of residential settlement were changing rapidly and competition for housing was intense, serious inter-racial hostility mainly took the form of what Pilkington calls the ‘white riot’. The same thing is referred to in some of the relevant American literature as a ‘communal’ or ‘contested-area riot’ – the Chicago riot of 1919 offers one of the most spectacular examples. Pilkington’s description shows that the events in Notting Hill of August-September 1958 were another classic example of a communal riot. A build-up of tension, with attacks (some verbal, some physical) on individual blacks, was followed by the riot itself, and episodes of resistance when the black population fought back.

Around this time and subsequently there were other instances of rioting by whites against blacks, although not all of them were communal riots in the strict sense, since the latter by definition entail an organised black response. At the same time as the Notting Hill riot there were disturbances in Nottingham. In August 1961, there were more than three days of rioting in Middlesbrough, when an attempted lynching turned into a riot involving local whites and the Police. In Accrington in 1964 there was an outbreak of rioting, with groups of whites attacking individual blacks. However, events of this kind, involving large numbers of whites, became increasingly rare, for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most important is that the Police, whom the events in Notting Hill had taken completely by surprise, learned the requisite techniques for anticipating and preventing subsequent outbreaks. Full-scale communal riots more or less ceased to be an option for those whites inclined to racial violence. One might therefore say that these riots belonged to the ‘immature’ phase of urban inter-racial relations in Great Britain.

Racial attacks – i.e. specific incidents involving a relatively small number of perpetrators and, as victim, an individual, a single family or a small group – have been the characteristic reaction of hostile whites to black attempts at residential integration in the ‘mature’ phase of urban race relations. I am not saying that residential patterns are now completely fixed, but that the changes are now more gradual – a few black families moving onto a hitherto totally or largely white council estate, others moving into an owner-occupied street which had hitherto been inhabited only by whites. In fact, it is precisely because these changes are localised and gradual that they are seen by some whites as encroachments. Shaw’s book on a Pakistani community in Oxford, for example, describes the hostile reception which evicted a family who moved onto a local council estate.

Racial attacks, being less visible than fullscale communal rioting, are a ‘safer’ expression of hostility, less likely to evoke a major response from law-enforcement agencies. Their perpetrators tend to be young, male and (more contentiously) from working-class backgrounds. It may be appropriate here to invoke the concept of a ‘surrogate racial attack’: the anonymous bogus tip-off to a social services department or an environmental health officer about purported child abuse or excessive noise that is maliciously made by those whose age or social class exclude them from the ranks of conventional perpetrators of racial attacks. Only a small proportion within a local white population actually engage in any of these activities, but it is an open question to what extent non-perpetrating whites in a given locality acquiesce in their commission by others. Tompson claims that one can often persuade law-abiding white tenants on council estates to turn against the racial attackers in their midst: on the other hand, there are localities, especially in some parts of London’s East End, which have such a strong tradition of hostility to outsiders that one doubts whether his assertion can be generally true.

Whatever the degree of wider tacit support, there is no doubt that, because of the low public visibility of racial attacks and the consequent absence of the kind of moral panic associated with some other acts of criminality, it can be extremely difficult to convince local police officers that they should take these crimes seriously, despite the now frequent adjurations from some of their superiors that they should do so. Law-enforcement officials these days tend not to be based in the localities where they grew up; an English version of Manhattan Melodrama or Cry of the City is thus unlikely. Even so, many police officers share some of the general values of the white populations of the areas where they are stationed, and this is surely a major reason why many complaints of racial attacks are treated with indifference.

It may well be that many incidents which are reported to the Police as racial attacks by those who have been their victims do not even find their way into the official statistics. In June-August 1986, the London Borough of Newham commissioned the Harris Research Centre to conduct a survey of the victims of crime and racial harassment in the borough: 116 black respondents (about a quarter of those blacks in the sample) reported experiencing 1550 incidents within the previous 12 months, 85 of which they said had been reported to the Police as racial attacks. Given that these 116 individuals represent a larger population of perhaps 12,500 potential black victims throughout the borough, one would have expected something in the region of 9200 separate incidents to have been reported to the Police. In fact, the Metropolitan Police recorded 229 racial incidents in Newham in 1985 and 208 in 1986 (up to 2 December), which would mean about 240 incidents for the entire year. Even allowing for the possibility that some respondents cited a racial motive to Harris’s interviewers and not to the Police, or that they claimed to have reported incidents when they had not in fact done so, or that the Police recorded as single events what were reported in the survey as a cumulation of numerous separate incidents, a discrepancy of more than 39 to 1 does give cause to wonder about the Police’s commitment to effective action in this matter. At the very least it seems that what we’ve got here is a Cool Hand Luke syndrome.

The difficulties encountered by those seeking redress is the major reason why racial attacks are such a serious problem for sections of the black community. Sir Kenneth Newman’s Annual Report for 1986 claimed that victims’ unwillingness to offer evidence frustrated prosecutions: this may well be true, but there are also innumerable cases of police unwillingness to initiate prosecutions where there had been no such difficulty. The ability of victims to fight back in the face of official indifference is frequently limited by their physical isolation from ethnic peers and by the consequent difficulty of organising a collective response. Tompson describes a programme of protection in London’s East End, but it is hard to believe that such actions have made more than an incidental impact. Even the monitoring projects seem to have a limited effectiveness. The Newham Monitoring Project has been established since 1980 and has a strong Asian ambience. Yet in 1986 only 12 per cent of Asian residents in Harris’s survey had even heard of a victim-support scheme run by volunteers.

A culture of resistance in communities well-known to be black, such as Dennis and Solomos write about, in Brixton, Handsworth or Liverpool 8, is of little practical help to Asian (or Afro-Caribbean) families struggling to lead the semblance of a normal life on some inhospitable council estate on the urban periphery. Nor is anti-police rioting of the type seen in 1980, 1981 and 1985 of much relevance to them: in fact, it may well be counter-productive if it merely confirms suspicions already held by the Police about lawless tendencies in the black community.

Probably even less helpful in stopping racial attacks than the culture of resistance is the position of the New Right, in the form offered by Ray Honeyford. He and his ideological peers adopt the naive view of the reasons for the presence in this country of black settlers: not for them any concession to the political economy of labour migration, a perspective accepted by all other serious analysts of this subject, nor any apparent recognition that many settlers might have preferred to stay where they were, had their domestic economic circumstances been more favourable. Instead, Honeyford opts for little more than the lay misconception of why black people came to this country, precisely the sort of view that has fuelled so much hostility towards black settlers among the British public. To Honeyford the matter is simple: ‘the immigrant is in Britain from choice’, hence ‘natural justice dictates that he has the major responsibility for adapting his outlook and behaviour to fit in with existing ideas about the individual and the state.’ Thus Honeyford proceeds along a circuitous route that celebrates a sort of cultural integrationism which has been absent from educational policy since the Sixties; as he goes, he offers lateral potshots (not all of them undeserved) at multiculturalism/multiethnic education, at the supposedly monolithic ‘race relations/anti-racist lobby’, at a number of marginal individuals and organisations to whom he ascribes bête noire status, at the Swann Report, and at much else. Even were his particular integrationist agenda desirable on other grounds, it is not convincing that the success of such a project would repress the visceral racist reactions which induce some whites to attack black people.