Magazine article Soundings

The Asian Youth Movements: Racism and Resistance

Magazine article Soundings

The Asian Youth Movements: Racism and Resistance

Article excerpt

For many today there is disillusionment and a lack of belief in the possibility of progressive change. But the Asian Youth Movements (AYMs) that emerged thirty years ago provide us with an example of the power of independent organisation and the possibility of fighting injustice and winning: as part of a wider anti-racist movement that changed the face of Britain, they spoke truth to power, gave black people a chance to challenge discrimination in their own voice, and expressed, at their most effective moments, the value of broad-based solidarities.1 So a reflection on their history can produce useful insights for those struggling against racism today.

The Movements formed from the mid-1970s in Bradford, Sheffield, Manchester, Coventry, Leicester, Birmingham and London, as well as in small towns such as Bolton, Burnley, Luton and Watford, with the aim of defending their communities from racist violence and campaigning against the racism of the immigration laws, as well as the racism of trade unions and employers. Adopting an anti-imperialist analysis of racism, they drew attention to racism as an exercise of power that was intimately linked to the development of capital accumulation across the globe. Inspired by the histories of resistance to racism and slavery in the US as well as the anti-colonial struggles in their own communities, and those across Africa and Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, they organised with a recognition of the link between their own struggles and those of peoples resisting colonialism and imperialist expansion across the globe. As such they provide an example of a movement that sought to create solidarities between oppressed groups: they were non-sectarian, and included individuals of all faiths and none.

By the end of the 1980s, however, the broad-based unity within which they had operated had been fractured; the rise of identity politics and shifting geo-political imperatives had encouraged attention to cultural and religious identities, and this had led to increasing sectarianism. Muslims in particular have been blamed for these shifts. They have been scapegoated as a threat to what is framed as a democratic and liberal West - a West in which, in the name of democracy and liberalism, we have seen a continual erosion of civil liberties and human rights. In an attempt to analyse this changing climate there have been critiques of multiculturalism not only from the right, which argues for the importance of integration, but also from the left, where arguments have been put forward in some quarters that multiculturalism has created fragmentation and disintegration, and that British society is 'sleepwalking to segregation'.

In these debates what has been pushed out of the central frame of reference is any understanding of racism as an articulation of power, formulated on the basis of physical characteristics such as colour, or social characteristics such as culture, language or religion. Yet today the consequences of racism are just as acute as in the 1970s and 1980s, if not more so. The death of Muhsin Ahmed in Rotherham in 2015, after he was attacked while walking to the mosque, is evidence of continued street-level racism, while the 12 Asian/Muslim men in Rotherham facing trial for violent disorder following unrest after a Britain First demonstration in the same city highlights the impact of continued police criminalisation of communities who defend themselves. And the fact that citizens have had to campaign to push the government to take in 300 unaccompanied child refugees from the wars in Syria highlights the draconian nature of immigration laws, driven by racism.

Today, however, despite these core issues remaining acute, Asians, Africans and the wider community of anti-racist activists have found it more difficult to build the kind of broad-based solidarities that were forged in the 1970s and 1980s. I would like to explore here what we can learn from looking back in history at the campaigns won by the AYMs, at the ways they organised, and the story of their disintegration. …

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