Despite a decade of official anti-racism in Oldham, racial tensions have worsenedby Munira Mirza / September 22, 2010 / Leave a comment
In summer 2001, the northern towns of Oldham, Bradford and Burnley witnessed rioting by young Asians. To some observers, this brought back memories of the race riots which had flared up across Britain in the 1980s in places like Brixton and Toxteth. Ted Cantle’s report into the northern riots described a worsening relationship between white and Asian populations in these towns, who lived “parallel lives.” It seemed that nothing had changed; racism was a fact of British life.
In fact, between the 1980s and 2001 a great deal had changed. Twenty years before, racism and inequality were relatively low priorities for the main political parties. By contrast, the 2001 riots followed more than a decade of official anti-racism and diversity policies at local and national levels. Tagged by the media as the “race-hate capital” of Britain, Oldham had seen a raft of policies tackling racism. Rather than a repetition of history, the riots marked something new. Was Oldham so tense because of the way anti-racist policies had placed so much stress on ethnic difference?
I grew up in Oldham and have conducted research there in recent years. Today, despite the well-intentioned efforts of council officials, teachers, police and local charities, there is heightened tension and suspicion between communities. While there was racism and ignorance about Asians in the 1980s, there was also the opportunity to mix with white people at school. Now Pakistani and Bangladeshi pupils in Oldham account for around a third of the primary school population, but some eight out of ten of these children are in “mostly non-white” schools. My old school, Breeze Hill, which is more than 90 per cent Asian, will be merging this year with Counthill, which is more than 90 per cent white, to try to tackle the divide.
Both whites and Asians were angry that summer of 2001 following a series of media reports about alleged “no-go areas” in parts of the town and a sharp rise in racist incidents from previous years. The local police force had adopted the definition of a racist incident from the Macpherson report on the Stephen Lawrence murder (and endorsed by the Association of Chief Police Officers) as “any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person.” They went into communities and sought to increase the reporting of such incidents. Thus, while reported racist crime in Oldham was fairly steady…