LEADING ARTICLE: A dangerous complacency about race

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The Independent Online
Race, as we all know, is an American problem. It convulses the body politic. In Britain, we are luckier. Or are we? Joy Gardner's death at the hands of the police and last weekend's Bradford riot should stir us from our complacency.

For many people, these events will be mere blips in lives which rarely feature a black face. Yet they go to the heart of a very human problem: how should outsiders behave and be treated in a civilised country? Mrs Gardner, being an illegal immigrant, was effectively deemed to have no civil rights. Last weekend, the Bradford rioters, in going on a wrecking spree, drew attention to their own sense of alienation, of being born in Britain yet still being regarded as foreign.

Mrs Gardner was not only Jamaican and black, she was an "overstayer". Being the lowest of the low, a deportee, she was treated as if she was a dangerous criminal rather than merely the violator of rules stating that she could not stay here. The authorities felt entitled to truss her up, tie 13 feet of tape around her head and so maltreat her that she died of asphyxiation. The Daily Mail dispensed with any sense of justice. The abiding scandal, it declared, was not her death, but "the ease with which the Joy Gardners of the world are still allowed to enter this country in the first place". In short, too many foreigners, not abusive authorities, was the lesson of the Gardner case. Whatever happened to the idea of human rights? The underlying meaning of this conclusion will be clear to anyone who imagines the Daily Mail's reaction if a white Briton, in the same position, was suffocated before being bundled on to a plane in Bombay.

In Bradford, a minority of the town's Muslim youth behaved disgracefully. They rioted, burned cars and partially destroyed a garage. Police behaviour, social deprivation and high unemployment doubtless all played their part. But these factors do not fully explain what happened.

There is an additional element. It lies in the isolated, outsider culture of many young Muslims in Bradford. These are the children not of open- all-hours shopkeepers or of a burgeoning Asian Tory-voting middle class that fled East Africa in the Seventies. Their parents are, in the main, Pakistani villagers, who came to work in the Bradford textile mills that are now long closed. Unlike East African emigres, these families did not arrive bilingual, culturally flexible, armed with professional and business skills. And they have remained by and large foreigners in Britain. Wives for arranged marriages continue to arrive from the Indian sub-continent in considerable numbers.

The result for young people has been alienation from the broader society and economic marginalisation. Many miss out on formal education, returning for months to their villages when air tickets are cheap. Their parents have been ill-equipped to help them with school work or provide them with role models for life in Britain. As a result, 50 per cent of children of Pakistani origin leave school with no qualifications, compared with 20 per cent of the general population.

These are the young people who are now claiming an Islamic identity, but not one defined by their elders and the Koran. They have, as youthful rebels, instead adopted the West's fearful, negative image of Islam in all its militancy and aggression. And so the slogan "Hamas" can be seen scrawled on walls around Bradford. This confrontational Islam, combined with social deprivation and fuelled by police insensitivity is an explosive mixture. It will be seized upon to justify Britain's Islamophobia and threatens to turn young Muslims into social outcasts.

So how can Britain tackle these problems of strangers in our midst? First, by talking about them. We must abandon our complacency about race. The treatment meted out to Joy Gardner had been handed down to other deportees. It just hadn't made the headlines. It was considered acceptable because police attitudes reflected general feelings towards immigrants, in particular those here illegally.

The broader issue is one of incorporating minority cultures. That will require imagination on the part of, for example, British Islam, which is in danger of becoming an introverted, victim culture. We could fund Muslim schools and give marriages in mosques the same legal status as other weddings.

But there is also the question of social justice. We set great store in this society on fairness. Only this week, Rugby school courted controversy by appointing its first headgirl and there was outrage at the suggestion that Oxbridge might once again become the sole preserve of the rich. Acres of comment are devoted to inequality caused by GP fundholding and by the unfairness of Cedric Brown's pay packet. But when it was recently revealed that 67 per cent of all black males in London are unemployed, what happened? Did Michael Portillo, the Employment Secretary quickly convene a meeting of major London employers and demand action? Was there uproar in the House? No. There was a resounding silence.

Will we wait until ethnic problems grow so great, like in Northern Ireland, before doing something substantial? Ulster is perhaps a model for winning back a lost minority. Today, Roman Catholics are at last taking their first steps towards shedding a debilitating sense of being foreign within Britain, while retaining their culture. But it has taken an enormous amount of will-power, of sensitivity and of leadership, on the part of government and agencies to achieve this. We now need to apply the same virtues to this side of the Irish Sea.