One year after the riots, there are still reasons to
be optimistic about race, even in towns like Burnley,
but a failure of leadership has allowed racist myths
A year ago this week I lay in a hospital bed, handcuffed
and guarded by two police officers after having been
assaulted by some of their colleagues. And all this
while playing a peacekeeping role during the Burnley
riots - a rude awakening indeed for someone who had
began to believe his own rhetoric, namely, that 21st
century Britain was a society at ease with its diversity.
Prior to the riots, Burnley had been famous for two
things, its cotton, and of course its football. It was
said that the weavers of Burnley wove for the country
before breakfast and the rest of the world after breakfast.
And in terms of football, who could forget the FA cup
final victory where we beat Liverpool one 1-0. Admittedly
that was 1914.
Burnley's riots were of course preceded last summer
by Oldham's race riots, and followed by those in Bradford,
where some 140 police officers were injured. Just when
we hoped it couldn't possibly get worse, May's elections
we saw the BNP capture three council seats in Burnley
- with a staggering near 1 in 3 Burnley people voting
Even for the most hardened band of eternal optimists,
and I still count myself as one, the last twelve months
have proven to be a profound test of faith.
During this period, issues of race, immigration, asylum
and national identity have been both confused and often
confusing - either due to attempts to conveniently merge
them or to pretend that they are mutually exclusive.
No-one would attempt to suggest that these are anything
but complex issues which demand a sophisticated
and mature discourse, and yet we are having to endure
a deluge of simplistic debates, false debates and
sometimes no debate at all ??
Sadly it appears that all this is an action replay
of the kind of race discourses we had in the 60s and
70s, which also lacked width and depth. Equally depressing
perhaps has been the lack of any real will to act on
the part of many in local leadership positions, paid
or elected. Inertia and paralysis rule.
We are told that the problem is apparently that we
are segregated society in terms of race and faith and
that " blacks lead parallel lives". And the
rocket science solution - integration. Of course the
headlines could quite easily have read "whites
lead parallel lives", but here, alas, lies the
crux of the tension - do we want integration or is the
objective simply the assimilation of various ethnic
minorities into the ethnic majority culture.
If the latter, then what is this majority culture?
Politicians will often speak about the need for ethnic
minorities to adopt British norms. Stop and ask fifteen
white people on the street, what are these British norms,
you will invariably get fifteen often very different
responses. The reality is that there is a need to assimilate
all cultures into a new as yet undefined and ever evolving
Integration of course is part of the solution but in
isolation it can be meaningless. As a commissioner to
the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland I can tell
you that there are many educational institutions which
are mixed, and yet the propensity for individuals to
engage in sectarianism is no less prevalent. Merely
squashing people together will not work.
If we are serious in terms of education then our curriculum,
materials, teachers and senior management need to reflect
the local community in all its diversity, and help develop
a common set of core values that draw young people together
and turn them into healthy adults.
The biggest obstacle to racial harmony in this country
is the pervasive institutional racism that exists, while
we don't appear to have a responsible and committed
local leadership that can challenge it.
During the Burnley and Oldham riots, one of the key
issues was regeneration funding and how it was alleged
to disproportionately target ethnic minorities. The
reality in both areas was that nothing could be further
from the truth. Unfortunately nobody bothered to tell
the people of Burnley and Oldham this.
Yes, it has to be said that the local media was at
best over-zealous in putting to print the malignant
voices of right wing discontent - it makes for good
print. But blaming Burnley Express or Oldham Chronicle
is too easy - the reality is that local leaders had
failed to rebut the lies and half-truths that had become
endemic. Failure to crush myths ensured they become
a reality for far too many people.
Progressives have not won the argument about our society.
We have not created an environment where people are
happy allow public funds to go to deprived areas - irrespective
of the ethnic origin of its inhabitants. The issue here
is not one of preferential treatment or positive discrimination
or political correctness - whatever that means. It is
about creating a society that accepts that public funds
should prioritise those in greatest need and that, when
we successfully do so, we all benefit.
So one year from those damaging race riots - what is
the impact on community life? Some four weeks ago the
leader of the BNP in Burnley was quoted in the local
press saying that racist chanting was harmless and part
of the spectator sport of football - responding to Burnley
football club's laudable decision to dish out life bans
for anyone caught using racist chants.
And the response from the local leadership? Well we're
still waiting for it. Sadly, this has become the depressing
norm for far too many in local leadership positions
across the country - either because of the fear of challenging
the far right or because they subscribe to the deeply
flawed belief that the best way to deal with the likes
of the BNP is to pretend that they don't exist.
This unwitting collusion between local leaders and
the far right over a sustained period has delivered
handsomely for the BNP at the ballot box.
If we are to defeat the far-right then our leaders
must challenge them at every opportunity. The real battle
for hearts and minds is on the doorstep and that means
leaving the comfort of the armchair and shifting from
the esoteric discourse with those already onside.
The message must be simple - we need to create a
society where people have only two options: either
you're racist or anti-racist. In other words, if
you fail to condemn, well then you 'wittingly' condone.??
In spite of everything that has happened this year,
perhaps we can find a glimmer of hope, not least from
football. The beautiful game has for far too long the
BNPs recruiting ground of choice - in part because it
habitually excluded Britain's ethnic minority communities
from both its pitches and its terraces.
The World Cup has been a revelation with Japanese England
fans outnumbering our own, with turbaned Sikh's flying
St Georges' flag from their cars, with British mosques
saying special prayers for the England team - itself
a powerful image of a multicultural nation united. Can
the connection be made? It will require much stronger
leadership on race than we have seen so far.
Send us your views
Email Observer site editor Sunder Katwala at
with comments on articles or ideas for future pieces.