To Each His Own: Ethnic Relations and Political Culture in Britain

By Baumann, Gerd | Harvard International Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

To Each His Own: Ethnic Relations and Political Culture in Britain


Baumann, Gerd, Harvard International Review


GERD BAUMANN is Professor of Social Anthropology at the Research Centre Religion and Society, University of Amsterdam.

When the ship HMS Windrush brought the first African Caribbean settlers to fill the labor shortage in Britain's battered post-war economy in 1948, no one could know that the following three decades would produce unprecedented levels of immigration from both the Caribbean and South Asia. As disorientating as the resulting challenges turned out to be, the project of a multicultural society was approached in strikingly distinctive ways. Both the noticeable failures and the most subtle successes of the multicultural project are rooted in a political culture of astonishing peculiarity.

To recall the many conspicuous crises in community relations, one need only think of the chronicle of "race riots" that started in London's Notting Hill district in 1958, which reached violent peaks across Britain in the "hot summers" of 1981 and 1986, and then turned into the riots and conflagrations surrounding the Rushdie Crisis which began in 1989. One might think of the violent anti-immigration campaigns which forced successive Conservative and Labour governments from 1962 onwards to respond with more draconian anti-immigration laws. If all one had to rely on were newspaper headlines, there would be little cause for optimism.

The stories as headlined in the media construct a continuity of friction and strife between what they termed minorities and the majority, especially between minority youth and the police. One will always ask what makes a youth riot against police into a "race riot": when local youth of all possible backgrounds turn against the police in protest against heavy-handed law enforcement, such as the criminalization of "hanging around" street-corners, then the ensuing battles may not be about "race" at all. They may have far more to do with a clash of views on public order, on the legitimate use of force, and on relations across generations. Truly racist attacks are not unknown, it is admitted with shame; but as soon as they become public knowledge, the near-universal reaction is one of uncompromising condemnation. Witness the case of the unresolved race-motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence, an African-Caribbean teenager killed by street thugs in 1993. Over the past six years, his image, according to BBC TV News, has become "an icon of the nation," and there have been several official inquiries into the police's failure to bring suspects to court. The case has united British public opinion, as well as the interests of divergent establishments in reaffirming a very traditional line: it is considered un-British, regardless of skin color, uniform, or politics, to "put oneself above the law."

And the law is stricter, even on the level of verbal incorrectness or subjectively unintended discrimination, than anywhere in the United States or the European Union. The law known as the Race Relations Act (1976), and the state-financed agencies and citizens' initiatives that bring case upon case to ensure its implementation have seen to that. Hate speech is not, in Britain, a matter to be squared with the First Amendment: it is treated as a criminal offense and prosecuted as such. Yet Britain is unique among Western countries in the sheer levels of conflict and confrontation that are tolerated as normal in the public sphere, be it in labor relations or at football matches, community relations or environmental campaigns.

At the same time, Britain has shown enormous success in harmonizing community relations through the decades of economic contraction, mass unemployment, and political polarization. Notting Hill, the scene of the first "race riot," is now the site of Europe's most vibrant multicultural carnival; the multiethnic districts of London and Birmingham,Manchester, and Glasgow resound with a creativity that has produced Asian Bhangra Beat, Asian Rock, Caribbean Rap and House music, and innumerable cultural crossovers in theater and poetry, fashion and language use that have spread far beyond their original ethnic milieus. …

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