Breeding divisions in Lozells

The riots in Birmingham bore all the hallmarks of today's grim political culture.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

After the riots that rocked the area of Lozells in Birmingham, it’s becoming clear that there’s more going on here than poverty and deprivation. While the disturbances were fuelled by competing identities seeking official ‘recognition’, we need to examine why particular identities could prove so divisive. Why is it that some Asian shopkeepers allegedly disapproved of their black customers? And why did that unsubstantiated rumour, of a 14-year-old black girl being raped by Asian men, provoke two nights of violence?

According to reports from Lozells, some Asian shopkeepers haven’t a good word to say for their black neighbours. ‘They come in our shops, but can’t stop stealing’, says 26-year-old Makaveli. ‘They have a dirty gene. They are the lowest of the low.’ (1) Apparently some black residents have been on the receiving end of such prejudices too. ‘They throw the change at us as if we’re lower-class citizens’, said a Jamaican called Rob (2). Are such petty incidents isolated or a general shift in attitudes of some middle-class Asians?

From my experience as an FE teacher in inner London, there does seem to be low-level spats between some Asian and black students. The former sometimes make coded and not so coded digs about blacks, with references to criminality, lone parent families and drug dealers. Clearly, some middle-class British Asians view black people as lacking the right kind of moral fibre. Why are these petty grievances being articulated now?

In the 1970s and 1980s, reports of inter-ethnic squabbles were rightly greeted with suspicion and derision by anti-racists. This was for two reasons. Firstly, Asians and blacks more often shared a common experience of racial oppression under the authorities and freelance racists. Secondly, reports such as the Sun’s loathsome ‘Ten reasons why blacks and Asians hate each other’ were a transparent attempt to excuse official white racism.

In today’s climate, racial prejudice against ethnic minorities no longer has official backing. Without that common experience of racial oppression, fractures between ethnic groups can begin to emerge. As Josie Appleton has pointed out, this has taken the form of competing identities seeking official recompense and recognition (3). In Birmingham it seems there’s another cleavage at play too – social class. Many commentators have pointed out that while Asians have built up small businesses in Lozells, black people are more likely to endure low-paid jobs or unemployment. As a result there is a feeling of envy towards well-to-do Asians.

No doubt there is a grain of truth in this. But why do economic differences spill over into petty snobbery and then conflict? The degraded squabbles in Lozells are perhaps a microcosm of the current mood in society. Asian petit-bourgeois prejudices are largely indistinguishable from the prevailing petit-bourgeois outlook that dominates society. Preoccupations with personal behaviour, uptight morality and social status were once the hallmark of the small-minded shopkeeper. Now they are the values to which everyone is expected to adhere.

For the past year, the moral superiority of small businesses has been a constant feature of the liberal press. Tesco’s and other supermarkets are usually compared unfavourably to small local shops. Whereas superstores are seen as brash and vulgar thoroughfares for brash and vulgar people, local stores apparently extol the virtues of community and decency. With the petit-bourgeoisie elevated to paradigms of virtue, is it any wonder that some Asian shopkeepers might internalise this too?

In general, it is the white working-class who receive the most scorn. But in areas such as Lozells and inner London, where the black working-class are in bigger numbers, they will be seen as the ‘lowest of the low’ for their consumption habits and apparent immorality. Whereas middle-class whites are constrained to air such venom, well-to-do Asians are not. This is simply old-fashioned class snobbery distorted through the prism of race and multiculturalism.

The response from the black rioters in Lozells is even more degraded. But this is also a symptom of our degenerate political culture. It’s significant that black people rioted after allegations of sexual abuse against a child. As with the marginalised white working-class, taking a public stand against child abuse is the only way to claw back some moral high ground. ‘Whatever you may think of us’, runs the mindset, ‘at least we’re not child molesters and sexual perverts’. Who exactly is to blame for popularising the pecking order of the prison yard? The UK political class. And who suggests that no retribution against sexual abusers is too strong? Their mouthpieces in the media and beyond.

It was also significant that individuals were acting on a rumour from the internet. At a time when the police routinely act upon unsubstantiated rumours from the web, such as conspiracy theories on the ‘assassination’ of Princess Diana, it’s not surprising that some people may also take a similar stance.

At every turn in Lozells, we can see the grim consequences of Britain’s political culture. When some social groups are elevated beyond reproach, and others are beyond contempt, petty squabbles of this nature can only flourish. In the past appeals to unity would have been seen as common sense. Unfortunately, in a climate where we’re constantly told to expect the worst of each other, such divisions can only be intensified. After the riots in Lozells, it would be perhaps more useful to focus on our depraved politics than local deprivation.

(1) Observer, 30 October 2005

(2) Observer, 30 October 2005

(3) What’s behind the battle of Lozells?, by Josie Appleton

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Topics Politics


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