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Monday, 2 July, 2001, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
Riots and the search for respect
Asian Youths
Asian youths were involved in the Oldham riots
The recent race riots in northern England say a great deal about Asian youth and its search for respect, according to criminologist Dr Colin Webster.

The disorders in towns in the north of England each have to be understood in their own terms.

But it is possible to discern an underlying pattern and history.

It goes back to the experiences and actions of the Asian Youth Movement in the 1970s and 1980s, in places such as Bradford and Southall.

Then, like now, the AYM aimed to prevent far-right racist groups such as the National Front marching into areas where Asian people lived and sought racial and ethnic justice and equality of opportunity.

Unlike now, the AYM were politically sophisticated and sought and found alliances with primarily white, anti-fascist and anti-racist organisations.

Unemployed fathers

Significantly, many ex-AYM members have since become upwardly mobile. One is an MP.

This success story has not been repeated for second and third generation Muslim British Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people, whose parents migrated to Britain from the poorer rural areas of Punjab, Mirpur, Kashmir and Syhlet.

Young Asains
Some young Asians have adopted a culture of retaliation
After the collapse of the textile industry between 1975 and 1985, their fathers became unemployed.

These young people currently experience the highest rates of joblessness, possess the lowest educational and training qualifications, and live in the worst housing.

They attend some of the worst schools among minority ethnic groups.

Despite aspirations for their children, parents generally possess low or non-existent qualifications and are often illiterate.

Whites living in close proximity compete over the same scarce resources of housing and jobs and share many of these economic and social characteristics.

This legacy of cumulative deprivation is making its impact felt.

It is not however the main explanation for the current disorders.

They are complicated by other factors.

Fight back

As racist violence, abuse and low-level harassment towards Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people living in poor areas dramatically increased throughout the 1980s, Asian young people retaliated.

Unlike in the 1970s, a pattern was formed whereby territory was defended or extended using ad hoc, loosely organised self-defence groups that reacted to racist events and threats as they occurred.

Previously, older white young people attacked younger Asians.

Perhaps for the first time groups could call on older Asian young people to fight back.

Throughout the 1990s this increased confidence and solidarity on the street involved retaliation against known violent white racists, and some who were not.

This period was formative and has influenced the recent disorders.

Stand your ground

The disorders constitute a search for respect and recognition from real and perceived adversaries, whether white young people or the police.

In poor areas respect is won through the ability to stand your ground and fight. Ironically some young Asians have adopted and adapted a white working class street culture of violence and retaliation, and turned it around to defend themselves.

This growing confidence has been portrayed in local and national media as associated with drugs, crime and disorder, and has engendered among some white young people a growing perception that they are victims of racist violence at the hands of Asians.

The long-term trend is that whites are willing to report to the police what they perceive to be racially motivated attacks on them.

Colour coding

Evidence from both Bradford and Oldham suggests that residential and social segregation is increasing, through whites leaving areas and schools perceived as "Asian".

This "colour coding" of areas becomes reinforced as Asians and whites defend "their" areas.

Meanwhile proportionally large numbers of under-qualified Pakistani and Bangladeshi young people are attempting to enter a restricted and depressed job market.

No doubt young people's behaviour is a proxy for adult concerns and anxieties about ethnic difference, job and housing markets.

However, feelings of a separate "Asian" identity are a direct product of long-standing and widespread white hostility in the areas discussed.

Find out more about the violence in northern England during the summer of 2001


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