Posted on October 31, 2005

The New Colour of British Racism

Mark Townsend, Observer (London), Oct. 30

Maybe his compassion was exhausted, but the reality suggests that Makaveli had always disliked black people. Either way, within hours of arriving from Pakistan after helping survivors of the Asian earthquake, he was brawling with African-Caribbeans on the streets of Birmingham. It felt natural; all his friends agreed with him that these people were the lowest form of humanity.

‘They come in our shops, but can’t stop stealing something. Niggers can’t help it, they have a dirty gene. They are the lowest of the low,’ hissed Makaveli. The 26-year-old spat furiously at the pavement and nodded east along Lozells Road, beyond the huddle of Asian-owned shops, to where the Rastafarians sometimes gathered.

Inside Simply Veg, a group stood beside huge spears of sugarcane, papaya and jars of Ethiopian myrrh. The mood was tense, the talk of slavery, oppression, of a black community without hope. But their stories suddenly sounded different. Their oppressors were no longer solely white. Now they felt subjugated by another race; the Asians.

‘We’ve had centuries of slavery. Now the Asians want to take over here,’ said Rob, a Jamaican, slamming the grocery counter. ‘Black people need a break, but things are getting bad.’ Outside, across the bustling Lozells Road, down into the red-bricked terracing of the local estates, lies a reminder of what bad can actually mean. On the doorstep of 59 Carlyle Road, lilies and carnations smother a plastic sheet weighed down with bricks.

Here, 23-year-old Isiah Young-Sam was stabbed to death during last Saturday’s race riots as he wandered home; the yellow petals are a dark pointer to the new reality of race crime in Britain. The worst riots to afflict Britain’s second city for 20 years challenge the most fundamental assumption of multicultural Britain — that racism is principally a white vice. Almost 40 years after Enoch Powell talked of ‘rivers of blood’ just two miles from where Young-Sam was murdered, a community has broken down. Powell’s inflammatory rhetoric warned that immigration would inspire strife, but few predicted that the immigrants would turn on each other.

Only a few experts had observed that the scramble for the scant resources of Britain’s deprived inner cities was a catalyst for conflict between competing communities. For the vast majority, particularly the government, racism remained a strictly black and white issue. Even the Commission for Racial Equality has failed to research the issue of inter-ethnic racism. For its part, the Home Office is accused of ignoring repeated warnings of conflict between black and Asian communities from its most senior strategist into race relations.

Marian Fitzgerald, now a criminologist at the University of Kent, identified the fracture lines that led to last weekend’s clashes, not just in Birmingham, but throughout the UK. The rioting around Lozells Road, which left two dead in more than 200 separate violent incidents, followed a single, still unsubstantiated, rumour that 18 Asian men had gang-raped a 14-year-old black girl in a beauty parlour.

The allegation may have been the catalyst, but in Lozells Road they had been predicting a bloody night for years. Thirteen months ago a message that appeared on a black website warned that ‘Birmingham’s Asian and ethnic African are becoming increasingly polarised’. The author felt Asians were becoming ‘more aggressive’ and that the ‘daily spiritual, and sometimes physical, face-offs’ between the two communities had left ‘indelible scars on the soul’. Violence, the emailer concluded, was inevitable. For years Lozells had been hailed as a vibrant example of the melting pot that defines urban Britain. Yet for many who lived in the tight terracing north of Birmingham’s bright new centre, the area had become a racial tinderbox.

As with most previous riots, the tension had its roots in the trivial. For the black community of north Birmingham it was the manner in which Asian shopkeepers handed back their change. Already smarting over the fact that most local businesses had been snapped up by Asian entrepreneurs, a common complaint among African-Caribbeans was the treatment by shopkeepers.

‘They throw the change at us as if we’re lower-class citizens’. Rob raised his left arm above his head and flung a 10p into his right palm. ‘Like that. They won’t even touch us.’

Those beside him in Simply Veg nodded. To the Asian community, such complaints are mired in envy. ‘We can work 16-hour days. We pay tax. We own the shops. They’re jealous,’ Makaveli said.

That the everyday rituals of capitalism became such a source of discontent is apt; experts agree that the rioting stemmed from the economics of inequality. For decades, the African-Caribbean community watched as the Asian community bettered itself. Of the 50 or so stores on Lozells Road, 90 per cent are Asian-owned. But the competition runs deeper. Amid the deprivation of Lozells, the two communities scrap for dwindling government support in housing, jobs and community projects. Asian shopkeepers rarely employ blacks; similarly, the few African storeowners can wait days for the next Pakistani patron.

In response, the African-Caribbean community of Lozells is calling for a total boycott of Asian shops. Dani arrived in Birmingham from Jamaica in 1960. He remembers when he had Asian friends. ‘They became millionaires, we became beggars,’ the 65-year-old said wearily.

That community elders are encouraging tension is no surprise to those monitoring the situation. Frank Reeves, of Race Equality West Midlands, describes a meeting between community leaders last week that was riven by self-interest rather than reconciliation. A cycle of rumour, bigotry and suspicion has intensified in the wake of the riots. For every story of a black schoolboy beaten by 20 Asians there is one such as that from Makaveli’s best friend, Abdul, whose brother was killed two years ago; caught in the crossfire of a shoot-out between black gangs in the nearby streets.

So endemic is gangland culture that when several doctors from the nearest hospital were required for front-line medical duty during the Iraq war, they already possessed the skills required for treating gunshot wounds.

Further violence appears a question of when, not if. ‘I get the impression people are getting tooled up,’ Reeves admits. The police presence suggests as much. Around 600 police a day have been drafted in to keep order on the maze of streets around Lozells Road. Recent website postings earmark Eid, the Asian festival this Friday that signals the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, as a flashpoint.

One entrant on a black power website reads: ‘Pakistanis are marked for death. The blacks have had enough of Pakistanis running things up there.’ The bigotry is never exclusive. One Asian site glorifies the alleged rape: ‘Big up the Pakis dat tapped the nigger bitch in Brumland. We had the upper hand on them ever since the abolishment of slavery.’

Even now, it is unclear where the rape allegation originated from. Suggestions that it was concocted by the black community are unconfirmed. What is certain is that the rumour was perfect for a riot; a poisonous Chinese whisper that gained horror and currency with every repeat. Reeves describes the allegation as a ‘textbook classic’ and that it was no accident it centred around a shop run by Asians selling black beauty products.

The supposed victim was an illegal immigrant who will not come forward, a detail that also tapped into African-Caribbeans disquiet over immigration laws. ‘The British took us as slaves to the Caribbean and now they won’t even let us in,’ said Paul, 40.

Similarly, the allegation seemed to corroborate a long-standing suspicion among the black community that Asian men gang-rape their women. ‘They have been raping black girls for centuries,’ said Maxine Goldman, 28. ‘They make them wear hijabs, wrapping them up to their eyeballs.’

Despite a police investigation finding no evidence of the rape, the black community is adamant it is true. In turn, the Asian community believes the ‘rape’ was conceived as an excuse to attack their shops.

Whatever proves true, half the community is complaining that its traditional voice — pirate radio — is being persecuted. DJ Warren G made the mistake of broadcasting the rape allegations he had heard in a barber’s shop. The price would be personal — within days his former schoolfriend Young-Sam was dead — and professional as police continue to investigate claims that his repeating of a rumour was incitement to disorder.

But little may change; the 1985 riots in Handsworth proved that. The people of Lozells agree that the carnations of Carlyle Road will not be the last.