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29 May 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Same Oldham story?
When Oldham is painted as a hotbed of racism where whites hate Asians and Asians hate whites, it can't do much for community relations.

by Brendan O'Neill

According to reports, the clashes between Asians and the police in Oldham over the weekend were the 'worst race riots for a generation'. Yet in other parts of Oldham, spring bank holiday celebrations went ahead as normal without interruption.

According to some journalists, things have got so bad in Oldham that Asians have set up 'no-go areas' where whites are not welcome. Yet according to Oldham Labour councillor Riaz Ahmad, 'There are definitely no no-go areas - I've shown journalists around and they haven't been able to spot any no-go areas'.

So what's going on?

One thing is clear: it is impossible to tell from the media coverage what is really happening in Oldham - except that some of those petrol bombs were well-aimed. There seem to be two different worlds: one where angry young Asians were involved in a localised riot that turned into a clash between young people and the police, as these things always do. And the other world of the media's coverage.

Some in the media seemed barely able to contain their excitement when the riots broke out. In the midst of the dull, routine general election campaign, here at last was a news story reporters could get their teeth into.

The Liberal Democrats' Simon Hughes made headlines by pointing the finger of blame at the inflammatory language used by William Hague and co on the issue of asylum. There might be a lot that we can accuse Hague of, but starting the Oldham riots is probably not one of them. (Though the Tories' and New Labour's joint responses that asylum has nothing to do with race anyway are laughable - is it just a coincidence that all those 'asylum seekers' are Arab and African rather than Australian or Norwegian?)

But while politicians and the media talk about the 'shame of Oldham', somebody should point out that they helped pave the way for the clashes in the first place.

'Being seen as the race-hate capital of the north of England doesn't help', said Philip Hirst, manager of the Oldham Evening Chronicle. Hirst has accused the BBC of 'exacerbating racial hatred' in Oldham with its coverage of the riots. While it might not be fair to single out the BBC, Hirst has a point. When Oldham is painted as a hotbed of racism where whites hate Asians and Asians hate whites, it can't do much for community relations.

Consider the response to the attack on Walter Chamberlain. At the end of April, 75-year-old Chamberlain was beaten up by Asian youths, and the assault held up as a warning of Oldham's deep racial tensions. Yet Chamberlain's family doubt whether the attack was racist. 'It was a violent assault on an elderly man', said Chamberlain's son Steven. 'As a family we don't think it was a race issue at all.'

It used to be the far left that was accused of stirring up riots. Now it's the far right
But Greater Manchester police insisted that 'the attack would still be treated as racially motivated', and the media still refer to it as the 'racist attack' that released Oldham's tensions. After the Chamberlain attack was plastered across the papers as racially motivated, it was hardly surprising that more trouble flared up when the British National Party (BNP) marched through Oldham with placards showing Chamberlain's bruised and bloody face.

Greater Manchester police are committed to treating attacks on whites by Asians and Asians by whites as racially motivated - even when they are not reported as such. When every encounter between people from different communities is viewed with suspicion, as potentially racist, community relations can only suffer. The obsession with seeing racism everywhere becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy - as the weekend's riots, hot on the heels of Oldham being referred to as a racist hell-hole, demonstrate.

There is one thing that everyone seems to agree about in relation to the riots - that the far right is to blame. Local Asian communities and the Greater Manchester police both accused far-right organisations of stirring up racial hatred - and the media and politicians agree, with Tony Blair blaming the 'bad and regressive motive of white extremists' for the violence.

There was a time when the far left was accused of stirring up race riots. Now it is the far right that is accused of starting the violence. Where politicians once denounced violent blacks, today they are more likely to denounce violent racists. The establishment no longer relies on traditional British nationalism, but is more likely to talk in the language of anti-racism.

But predictably, laying the blame on the far right will only lead to more tension. Already, the BNP has hit back by saying the real problem is young Asians, and that it plans to continue marching in Oldham over the issue of 'Asian-on-white' violence. No doubt this will be reported as the latest example of race hatred in a racially torn community.

When every issue and incident is racialised and seen through the prism of race, it is not surprising that people start to see their problems in racial terms. The end result can only be more division and more conflict.

Politicians are exploiting the plight of the people of Oldham - and not just the far right. Blair is using the race issue to help forge his new moral community, where you prove your decency by denouncing extremists like the National Front and the BNP. But it doesn't say much for this moral community when what unites them is being against a handful of 'neo-Nazis' - a pretty low standard of common morality.

Nor does it tell us much about what's really happening in places like Oldham.

Brendan O'Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

Who's afraid of the far right?, by Mick Hume

Who divided Oldham?, by Brendan O'Neill

Oldham: unasked questions, by Brendan O'Neill

Why banning the BNP is bad for democracy, by Brendan O'Neill

British racism - a new original sin, by Frank Furedi

spiked-issue: Race

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