Race, Space and Fear: Imagined Geographies of Racism, Crime, Violence and Disorder in Northern England

By Webster, Colin | Capital & Class, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Race, Space and Fear: Imagined Geographies of Racism, Crime, Violence and Disorder in Northern England


Webster, Colin, Capital & Class


This paper describes and analyses the wider mechanisms, processes and contexts of the riots that took place in Northern UK cities and towns in the Summer of 2001. It examines these events and the imagined fears that aided the hardening of boundaries between violently opposed groups. It is noted that a long-term entrenchment of various forms of racial discrimination and racist violence in Oldham, Bradford and Burnley areas was connected to the long-term economic decline of the textile industry. Localised deindustrialisation, it is argued, generated a community discourse of nostalgia and cultural decline that was articulated via twin motors of race and ethnicity. As a result geographical concentrations of fear, risk and insecurity aided the likelihood and intensity of racist violence and disorder.

Introduction

The immediate events leading to the serious public disorders that took place in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford in Spring and Summer 2001 appeared to be a confused series of well publicised violent 'racist' clashes and attacks against people and property involving Asian and white young people. The context was a climate of fear and rumour within Asian communities that the British National Party and/or the National Front were going to march into Asian areas despite banning orders authorised by the Home Secretary. The National Front had visited Oldham from all parts of the country to demonstrate their 'support of the white population against racist attacks', and the relative electoral success of the British National Party in Oldham and Burnley seemed to affirm significant support for ideological racism (Clarke 2001). The overall effect was to alert many Asian and white young people to the possibility of being attacked and the need to defend themselves and in some cases attack others.

This article describes and analyses the wider mechanisms, processes and contexts of these events and imagined fears as well as the specificity of the places in which the events took place, and casts a critical eye over recent reports that attempt to understand the disorders and propose policy solutions captured by the term 'community cohesion'. The article notes that a long-term entrenchment of various forms of racial discrimination and racist violence in the areas effected by the recent disorders is connected to the long-term economic decline of the textile industry generating a community discourse of nostalgia and cultural decline seen through the prism of race and ethnicity. Secondly, it argues that geographical concentrations of fear, risk and insecurity predict the likelihood and intensity of racist violence and disorder and that these fears arise from the level of general crime and violence, the degree of ethnic concentration and segregation, and perceived and real relative deprivation among contiguous and non-contiguous areas that are perceived ethnically. Thirdly, it is argued that declining housing markets within Northern textile towns trap residents in area-based ethnic and class immobility in ways that concentrate and heighten imagined geographies of fear, ethnic conflict and resentment.

In addition, it is empirically demonstrated that these arguments about how concentrations of fear, risk and insecurity by ethnicity and social class are linked to racist violence and ethnic segregation by comparing the common social, economic and demographic features of Oldham, Bradford and Burnley. An example of the geography of racist fear found in textile towns drawn from my study of young people living in Keighley, West Yorkshire completes the empirical case studies. Moreover, this paper critically examines the subsequent reports about their causes. The concluding discussion asks whether ethnic separation amounts to segregation and whether policy responses to the disorders encapsulated in the term 'community cohesion' have coherence and meaning (Back, 1996).

Antecendents

The proximate causes of public disorder in Northern textile towns need to he balanced with local histories of entrenched racial and ethnic enmity that have characterised these towns. …

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