Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Class antagonism & ethnic hatred in immigrant Britain (Nick Cohen)

The British left-wing journalist Nick Cohen has written this intelligent, worried, and provocative analysis of the recent outburst of Black vs. Asian rioting in Handsworth, "Politics of the Ghetto" (The Observer, Sunday 10/30/2005). In 1985 Cohen witnessed an earlier outbreak of mostly-Black rioting that hit Handsworth and other British cities. But this time, he reports, both the dynamics and social significance of the rioting were different--with some implications that he finds alarming.
In Brixton, Tottenham and Handsworth, the classic riot of the period began after a real or rumoured assault on a black woman by the police. The rioters were poor young men without a future. To say the violence had nothing to do with racism and the mass destruction of manufacturing jobs in Margaret Thatcher’s first recession was wishful thinking or Tory propaganda.

Twenty years on, I am back on the Lozells Road after another riot. Nothing has changed, but everything is different. The red-brick terrace houses are as pokey and dilapidated as ever. It remains a place where you can catch the smell of disappointment; a place where people stay because they’ve nowhere else to go.

Yet little else was familiar. The arguments of the Eighties about why young men took to the streets felt antique and irrelevant. Beyond repeating the platitude that workers with good jobs tend to be law-abiding, you couldn’t pretend the 2005 riot was a protest against unemployment. The economic and law enforcement policies of official society - ‘white society’, to stretch a point - had nothing to do with the violence. Racism was on display, but not between blacks and whites. So were religious tensions, which I’d never given a second’s thought in 1985.

What started the riot was not a bungled police round-up of drug dealers, but a racist rumour which swept black Birmingham. Everyone knew someone who could swear that an Asian shopkeeper had locked up a 14-year-old black girl he had caught shoplifting and then raped her with the help of his friends. The police have been investigating for a week. They haven’t found the girl or the crime scene or the rapists. Unless that changes, and my guess is it won’t, the rumour will be a grotesque libel that painted Asian shopkeepers as the bestial abusers of feminine innocence.

[....] Gangs hit each other and passers-by with petrol bombs and guns. One police officer and 35 civilians were injured. An Asian gang murdered Isiah Young-Sam, a 23-year-old black man [....]
As Cohen points out, all this fits into a larger, familiar pattern.
As striking as the violence were the wild statements on the radio and in internet chatrooms. There was plenty of talk of Asian racism, and all sides accepted that there are racist Asians as there are racist blacks, whites and whatever. Ligali, a black African pressure group, went further and damned everyone. It called for a boycott of Asian shops. Not of the shop where the crime took place - no one knew where it was or if it existed - but of all Asian shops. Pickled Politics, a website run by a sharp team of Asian writers, picked up an email which was doing the rounds.

Tellingly, it, too, was about Asian shopkeepers. When I knew Handsworth, there were black traders. But while many Hindu, Sikh and Muslim families have followed the classic immigrant path of sticking together and building a business, many blacks have fallen behind. The emailer blamed a conspiracy. Asians succeeded in taking over hairdressers for black women by forcing them ‘to buckle under unreasonable’ competition. ‘Black people need to realise that they are been shitted on by Indians who now supply them with the very food they eat, their cosmetics and health care.’

Theodore Dalrymple, the pseudonym of a Birmingham doctor and writer, noted recently in the Telegraph that the shopkeepers were facing a modern variant of European (and now Middle Eastern) anti-semitism. Once, white Christians accused Jewish traders of kidnapping their children and draining their blood; now, black Christians accuse Asian traders of kidnapping their girls and raping them.

These prejudices are incredibly powerful because they combine race hatred of the alien, class hatred of the prosperous and religious hatred of the infidel.

In World on Fire, published two years ago and which deserved far more attention than it received, Amy Chua showed how globalisation had created an explosion of racism in the anti-semitic tradition. The new wave of capitalism had raised the living standards of ordinary people by a little and the rich by a lot, her argument ran. The supporters of free markets and democracy thought everyone was benefiting and hadn’t noticed that their ideas helped fuel resentments in those countries where ethnic minorities dominated business.

Sectarian leaders from the Slobodan Milosevic mould were exploiting the double antipathy of race and class. Across the planet, you heard the same demonic accusations of blood-sucking, corruption and secret influence about the Chinese business class in south east Asia, the white farmers in Zimbabwe and South Africa, the Spanish ‘whites’ in Latin America, the Jews in Russia, the Ibo in Nigeria, the Croats in Milosevic’s Yugoslavia and the Americans everywhere.

I said earlier that the 1985 [he means 2005] Handsworth riots had nothing to do with government. That was true in all respects but one. With unforgivable recklessness, our leaders aren’t diminishing the importance of race, but fuelling sectarianism. [....]

The rest is here.

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Cohen mentions a valuable book by Amy Chua, World on Fire (he doesn't add the long subtitle, How Exporting Free-Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability). Chua (a Chinese-American law professor who writes here as a historical-comparative political economist & cultural sociologist) analyzes the explosive interplay between the capitalist market economy and mass-mobilizing politics in the context of ethnic differences and inequalities. I agree that this is a significant, thought-provoking, and illuminating book that is very much worth reading.

(Of course, many of the phenomena that Chua is describing will sound quite familiar to people who know something about the history of central and eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries--but most of the academics, journalists and others who write and talk about the contemporary "developing" world don't seem to fall into that category.)

I do have reservations about some elements of Chua's analysis, which I think is uneven. In particular, it's a pity that she weakens and dilutes her argument by trying to apply her core model to situations where it doesn't really apply (including Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia), or where its applicability is a bit strained. But no one is perfect. Chua's core argument highlights a range of genuinely important socio-economic and political phenomena that are pervasive in the current era--and not only in non-western societies, as Cohen brings out--but that tend to receive a surprisingly small amount of informed attention. And even in cases where Chua loses control of her argument somewhat, her accounts usefully bring out the significance of humiliation, contempt, resentment, and rage for understanding ethnic conflicts (and inter-group relations more generally).

(There is a good review of the book in Salon. It captures only part of Chua's analysis, but some of the rest comes out between the lines.)

--Jeff Weintraub


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