The race for respect and recognition

Britain's attitude to ethnic minorities is in the spotlight with a vengeance. Bhikhu Parekh examines three key cases
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The Independent Online
Three events have occurred during the last 10 days that give us important insights into the current state of race relations in Britain.

Linford Christie, one of the greatest sportsmen Britain has produced, announced his retirement, claiming that neither the British media nor the author of his unauthorised biography had treated him or his achievements with the respect they deserved. When the press celebrated his triumph in the Barcelona Olympics, it repeatedly drew attention to the contents of his "lunchbox" and the Sun filled its pages speculating about the size of his genitals.

When he drove around London in one of his three Mercedes he aroused police suspicions and was occasionally stopped and asked to prove his credentials. His unauthorised biography concentrated on his brushes with journalists, questioned his competence to be Britain's team captain, and failed fully to bring out either the man or the magnitude of his achievements. Respect has been Christie's constant demand, and not surprisingly his management company is called Nuff Respect.

Joy Gardner, an illegal overstayer, had lived in Britain since 1987. Mounting a quasi-military operation, two police officers accompanied by an immigration officer pulled up in a convoy of cars outside her house, broke into her flat, pulled her to the floor and physically overpowered her. They then handcuffed her, attached leg, thigh and body belts to her, and gagged her with 13 feet of sticky tape wrapped seven times round her head. She died four days later as a result of extensive brain damage caused by asphyxiation brought about by obstruction to her mouth.

The Bradford riots had a more complex origin, but they were primarily triggered by a neighbour's complaint concerning boys playing football in the street. Two youths were arrested, and incipient trouble prompted the arrival of police enforcements, allegedly resulting in the ill-treatment of an Asian woman and a police car running over of an Asian youth's foot. The irate Asians reacted strongly, and things soon got out of control.

Each of these three incidents forms part of a complex narrative. Christie's case shows the way in which black athletes are "infantalised" and vulgarised, and their heroics feats trivialised. They are expected not to boast about their achievements, nor to make money, nor to lead a high life, and in general to conform to the norms white folks have set for them. If they violate these norms they are said to have chips on their shoulders, to be difficult, to behave like uppity niggers.

Joy Gardner's case highlights the now notorious British obsession with illegal immigration. Of course every society has a right to control immigration and to guard against illegal immigrants. However, illegal immigration occurs in every society. The United States has over a million illegal immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere. India has thousands of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and Germany attracts a large number of them from Eastern Europe, Turkey and elsewhere. While dealing firmly with illegal immigrants, most societies appreciate that those who have managed to live in the country for several years or to strike roots deserve to be treated with understanding and compassion, and that even illegal immigrants are human beings who deserve to be treated as such.

Sadly, the British attitude is quite different. One only has to think of the notorious virginity tests on young girls, internal examinations designed to establish the marital status of the woman, radiological tests on young children, the primary purpose rule, the war on so-called marriages of convenience which research has shown to be far less widespread than government propaganda suggests, meanness in relation to asylum seekers, and so on. Thanks to all this the illegal immigrant is demonised, presented as a mortal threat to British society, and all attempts to get rid of him, however brutal they might be, are considered legitimate. Such a view blunts our moral sensibility and we lose our capacity to appreciate the moral enormity of the measures we take to deal with an illegal immigrant.

In Joy Gardner's case the fault lay not so much with the police as with the Home Office, which has for years dehumanised the illegal immigrant and authorised the use of body-belts, gags and all the rest of the brutal technology. It was widely known that Joy Gardner was desperately anxious to stay on in Britain, had no relations left in Jamaica, had been reported to the authorities by her husband for dubious reasons and would do everything in her power to resist deportation.

The Home Office had two alternatives: to deport her with all the brutality that the occasion required, or to take pity on her and to allow her to stay on. The latter course of action posed no threat to the British national interest and would additionally have earned Britain the abiding gratitude of a confused and sad individual. Instead, the Home Office chose to deport her in full knowledge of what this was bound to entail. In the process it brutalised its police officers, tarnished Britain's reputation, reinforced the climate of paranoia about outsiders, and rendered a seven-year-old child motherless.

We need to ask ourselves how we have reached such a sorry state when we can contemplate and mete out such cruel and degrading treatment to a bewildered woman. Something has surely gone seriously wrong with our collective moral life. Insistence on legality at all cost hardly behoves either a government, many of whose members have cut legal and moral corners on several occasions with apparent impunity, or a country that thought little of illegally breaking open other countries' doors for over three centuries. Furthermore, we have always had a small number of illegal immigrants; for example, US draft dodgers in the Sixties and Seventies, and even some Australians. The fact that none of them aroused public concern and the fact that most forcibly deported immigrants have been black speak for themselves.

The Bradford riots sprang from insensitive policing against the background of racially disadvantaged Asian youth. It was striking that within only a few minutes of its occurrence, a facile but politically convenient explanation was initiated by certain interested circles and picked up by the media with remarkable alacrity. We were told that the riot occurred because of the generation gap within the Asian community. The Asian youths, most of whom were born and raised in Britain, were said to be alienated from both their parental and British cultures, and this constituted a combustible material ready to explode at the slightest provocation. The explanation was silly and deeply misleading. No evidence was adduced in support of it, and much evidence to the contrary was ignored.

It was striking that such an explanation has often been advanced in relation to the ethnic minorities but never the whites, thus revealing its racist assumption that the ethnic minorities are somehow different and that their behaviour is not amenable to the kinds of standard explanations used to explain white youth behaviour.

The explanation in terms of the generation gap had obvious political advantages. It shifted attention from insensitive policing and the reality of racial disadvantage and blamed the victims themselves. Depending on how the generation gap was defined it was all either the fault of the Asian parents for failing to socialise their offspring, or of the latter for failing to embrace the Western culture or to make up their minds about how they wished to integrate it with their parental culture.

In either case the wider society was not only absolved of all responsibility for the behaviour of the Asian youth but was also presented as its passive and innocent victim. Inter-generational differences of views and values occur among the whites as well, but they do not lead either to a generation gap or to inter-generational alienation because our educational institutions take care to transmit parental culture to the next generation whose differences from their parents occur against the background of a broadly shared cultural framework. In the case of ethnic minorities our mono-cultural education does not transmit parental culture to children; what is worse, it positively demeans it and alienates children from it.

Not surprisingly, inescapable inter-generational differences paved the way for a measure of inter-generational alienation and conflict, a fact for which a divided society must accept most of the responsibility

In Linford Christie's case the media show little respect for his ethnicity, achievements, and his manner of relating to them. In Joy Gardner's case the Home Office and the media showed no respect for her humanity and moral claims. In the case of Bradford youths the police officers involved showed little respect for their rights and feelings and treated a complaint against them as an occasion to put them in their place. All these reveal in different degrees a spirit of resentment, a refusal to accept ethnic minorities as legitimate and equal members of British society. It is hardly surprising that in all three cases the individuals and groups involved repeatedly complained of lack of respect for them and remarked that they were treated and talked about in a manner in which their white counterparts would not be.

Again, in all three cases we see a remarkable refusal by British society to take a critical look at itself and to ask if its dominant attitudes and practices do not require radical revision. In Christie's case his arrogance is blamed, and not the way in which the media "infantalise" him and expect him to remain within the straitjacket of the expectations whites set for blacks. In Joy Gardner's case the concentration is on illegal immigration, and not on our obsession with a few illegal immigrants and our willingness to resort to the most brutal measures to deal with them. In the case of Bradford the concentration is on the alienated youths, and not on our role in creating and accentuating inter-generational tension.

The earlier generations of ethnic minority immigrants were largely content to improve their economic prospects. They largely kept themselves to themselves and did not much care whether they were treated with respect. All they wanted was an end to discrimination in employment, housing, and other areas of life. Their offspring are different. They were born and raised here, and are mercifully free from the colonial sense of racial inferiority. They mix in the wider society, strike up inter-generational friendships and marriages, and entertain no doubts about their existential legitimacy. They do, no doubt, demand an end to discrimination and ask for equal opportunities; they also demand equal respect. Since British society is their sole point of moral reference they demand respect and recognition from it.

Respect and recognition are complex concepts. They require that ethnic minorities should be accepted as fellow subjects fully qualified to speak for themselves and to participate in all decisions affecting their lives, including the norms by which they are to be judged. Respect and recognition go beyond equal opportunity and call for a profound change in the white society's attitude to ethnic minorities.

The language in which we have discussed race relations so far needs to be revised. We have entered a new phase in the history of race relations and neither our current vocabulary nor our moral approach has kept pace with the change.

By and large British society has shown considerable sensitivity to the problems and needs of ethnic minorities. There is no reason to despair of its capacity to meet the new challenge.

The author is professor of political theory at the University of Hull.