Bradford: Asian Riots or White Mentality?

Steve Taylor 2001

My father, the most racist person I have ever had the misfortune to meet, plagiarises Thatcher, his idol, in describing his home city as "The People's Republic of Bradford". I've never heard him say it, but it would be of no surprise to hear him talk of the River Aire running with blood. He jokes that if one knocks down and kills a pregnant Asian lady, one will get more points on one's driving licence than if she wasn't pregnant - as an award; a prize for helping stem the tide of Asian birth in the city.

I freely admit that I was infected by my father's proselytism at a young age. I adopted his stance on "Paki's", "Niggers", and "Jungle Bunny's" without question, as did my siblings. His disdain was not reserved especially for anyone with the misfortune to have coloured skin - he also widely (and loudly) disapproved of "lefties", "liberals", "poof's", and "four-by-two's". (Considering that I'm a left-leaning liberal poof, it's no surprise we haven't spoken for four years.) He advocates the death penalty for most serious crimes, and thinks that the Hammurabian tenet of an "eye for an eye" is no bad thing - what better response to a thief's offence can there be than to remove his fingers and therefore the temptation to steal?

The intention of this article is to offer some explanation of the Bradford 'problem'. The recent 'riots' in the city, combined with a resurgence in right-wing politicians making ungainly comments about immigration, have brought race and immigration once again to the fore of the current affairs agenda. My father, with his Powellite comments on race, is sadly representative of the views of many white people in Bradford, and it is for this reason that I use his thoughts to illustrate the point.

He was born in Surrey in 1938, and moved to Bradford at age one where he has lived ever since. He remembers the severe bomb damage inflicted upon the city during the war, and also remembers the huge community effort in remedying the problems. By the mid-1950's, as in most of the rest of the country, the population were enjoying an increased affluence, and a higher standard of living than ever before.

With this increase in affluence came new opportunity. New businesses were becoming established across Yorkshire, gradually relegating the once-important textile industry down the list of mass employers. With the Windrush era came mass immigration to Bradford, and many took jobs in the mills that the white population no longer wanted. The immigrants moved into inner-city areas such as Manningham, Great Horton, Laisterdyke and Lidget Green, and predominantly Asian communities quickly developed.

Over the next two or three decades, up until the 1990's, this expansion continued and the Bradford skyline is now littered with Mosques as much as it is with church spires and mill chimneys. The first districts that became home to the first 'wave' of immigrants spread, and one would have to travel five or six miles out of the city to find a predominantly white district today. By the time of the 1991 Census, less than 5% of the population living within a mile of the city centre was white. It is no big gamble to suggest that the 2001 Census will reduce that figure still further.

The 2001 Census for the first time asked about religion. Despite the likely prevalence of Jedi Knights, the results will paint a much more vivid picture of Bradford today. Many people in the city and its surrounding areas are ignorant of the complex religious differentials that make up the area. Whilst it is true to say that there are significant Sikh, Moslem and Hindu communities, many white Bradfordians are under some kind of impression that they all live together in harmony; that their skin colour is their binding feature.

The predominant religion of the 95% living within a mile of the city centre is Islam. The Moslem community was most evident during the protests over Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses in 1989. The much smaller Hindu community is spread across the city - generally in more affluent areas - whilst the Sikh's have congregated in small groups within the Moslem areas. Harmony exists between the Sikh and Moslem communities, but there is significant antagonism between the Hindu's and Moslem's.

The reasons for this puzzle some people, and yet are relatively simple. The arrival of these three immigrant groups came in the late 1950's. No one group arrived en masse before any other. But over the four decades since the first arrivals in the city, the Hindu community has succeeded in business and is - in general - much more affluent than the Moslem community. Hindu's in Bradford live in bigger houses, drive bigger cars, and own bigger business, than their other Asian counterparts. The Hindu community, partly due to a liberal interpretation of their holy book, have 'westernised' much more than the Moslem's or Sikh's, and consequently find themselves more accepted by the white community.

The feeling amongst the Moslem community that they have been in some way 'betrayed' by the Hindu's is highly visible. As a result, the Moslem community has become even more closer-knit and internalised. This is not a criticism - such a response is human nature. But as a result, the Ghetto walls have been strengthened, leading to a feeling amongst the white population that they are excluded from whole areas of the city. This has led to a resurgence of racism and anti-Semitic feeling amongst the white population, at its most worrying and most evident amongst young people.

One of my father's most common arguments is that one only needs to look at the state of the predominantly Asian areas of Bradford to see how "they" have "brought the city down". It is true to say that these inner city areas are dirty, litter-strewn, and in many cases, an eyesore. But that is not the 'fault' of the Asian population - rather we should look at the failure of local authorities and agencies in tackling the self-exclusion that the Moslem community has placed upon itself. As I have said, grouping together is a natural human reaction when faced with adversity - and the failure to address the problem until relatively recently will take major work to remedy.

My father also cites the "crime-wave" that hit Bradford, and listening to him one would believe that crime figures shot through the roof as soon as the Asian immigrants arrived. Those people who employ such arguments seem to forget that crime has been consistently rising since the 1950's, and a cursory glance at criminal and police statistics shows Bradford to have broadly similar rates of crime to Worcester, a city with similar demographics but a far lower non-white population figure. In some respects, there is higher crime amongst Asian communities, but when faced with other adversity, such as higher unemployment, that is not surprising. Offending is more prevalent amongst unemployed people of all races and religions. To suggest that a person is more likely to commit crime because he is of Asian descent, is as ridiculous as Lombroso's assertion that criminals generally have bigger ears and longer arms than non-criminals.

Efforts are made to move towards a more cohesive and truly 'multi-cultural' city. The Bradford Festival, held each summer, is intended to celebrate the diversity of the different cultures mixed together in the city. The local council decorates the city centre with festive decorations throughout Eid, Ramadan and other non-Christian celebrations. Following the 1995 Manningham riots, the police now work proactively within the Asian community, rather than reactively outside it.

But this is not enough. Of the three schools I attended, only one - in a rural area some distance from Bradford - taught me anything about religions other than Christianity. Indeed, I could count on one hand the number of Asians at my Grammar School, only three miles from the city centre. Three years ago I worked for a company in Bradford with an employee base of over 150, but without any Asian employees. One started whilst I was there - but promptly left after being called a 'Paki' by a manager. I asked if the company had an equal opportunities policy and was laughed at. Despite recent improvements, the number of ethnic police officers remains staggeringly low, and trust in the police in Asian communities also remains low. Four years ago, working for the Ambulance Service, not one employee in the emergency control room was non-white.

The official tactic since the mass immigration in the 1950's has been of ambivalence, and it appears to be mirrored in other similar towns and cities such as Leicester, Wolverhampton, and Oldham. Faced with crippling budget reductions in the 1980's, local authorities conveniently 'forgot' about the time bomb in inner-city areas, and are now scratching their heads and trying to work out what went wrong.

Opinionated older generations - such as my father - represent a significant challenge in changing those opinions. But when most 'Asian' men under the age of thirty are as British as I am (however offensive the word 'British' might be), it is worrying that there appears to be a resurgence in the idea that white skin indicates some perverse superiority. I am frequently shocked when people, apparently rational in other opinions, suddenly break into torrents of comments about the "Black bastard" who owns the corner shop, or the "Paki" who pulled out in front of him when he was driving.

Bradford Council needs to do more than print their Council Tax demands in Urdu as well as English. For if they do nothing, the "civil war" that my father enjoys predicting might just become more than a prediction.