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Riots of separation

In contrast to the 1980s, Jock Young sees the recent riots bearing the hallmarks of exclusion and segregation.

The recent riots in Bradford and Oldham are of a different nature than the widespread disturbances which occurred throughout Britain in the 80s. These riots were riots of inclusion, a fight back against the whole catalogue of social exclusions: police racism, unemployment, political marginalisation and impotence. They were not propelled by racism but against racism.

In contrast these more recent disturbances have a more sinister aspect; sections of the community have become pitted against each other, racist stereotypes and ethnic prejudice have been mobilised and the aim on both sides has, at times, been to exclude, separate and divide. Whereas the uprisings of the Eighties were never remotely race riots, those of today teeter on the edge of this category. Such events create dangerous opportunities for the parties of the far right, but they are the beneficiaries rather than the causes of such inter-community conflict. Of course unemployment and economic exclusion lies behind both the events of the Eighties and today. But the shape of the disturbances is very different and it is here that problems of identity and multiculturalism have had their impact.

In his comparative study of the comparison between Woodlawn in South Chicago and La Courneuve in the outer ring of Paris, Lois Wacquant, notes the dramatic contrast between the extreme segregation of Chicago and the mixed population of Paris. "Racial enclaves", he notes, are "unknown in France and in all of Europe for that matter". The diverse populations of the great European metropolises are one of the most significant achievements - however unintended - of late modernity. In the London Borough of Hackney, for example, there is probably not a majority population - it is a constituency of intermixed diversity, an enclave of minorities. But Wacquant's observations, however true of great sections of our cities and reinforced by high rates of intermarriage and friendship, are not true of certain areas where housing provision, schools and the fears of racism have begun to create segregation and mono-culturalism. Bradford and Oldham are examples of this, as are the more exceptional situations in Belfast and Derry.

In America the exceptional degree of spatial segregation has been underscored by an ideology of multiculturalism and communitarianism. Writers as diverse as Zygmunt Bauman, Robert Hughes and Tod Gitlin have pointed out, conventional notions of multiculturalism, however liberal in their intent, have potentially reactionary consequences. In a late modern world, where people increasingly create their own sense of identity and culture, multiculturalism encourages exactly the opposite: to go to your roots and find your "true" self. Such a fixed essence is then contrasted with 'Others' (Catholics against Protestants, Islam against non-Islam, White against Black) and allows prejudice to be based on notions of fixed differences. A multiculturalism which seeks tolerance paradoxically creates the conditions for prejudice and intolerance.

One solution to this problem is communitarianism, a mosaic of separate communities, each homogeneous in their own values, and secure in their own identities. But as the US experience has shown the mosaic constantly frays at the edges, there is, in Tod Gitlin's haunting phrase, a 'twilight of common dreams', each community sets itself up against each other, competitive, exclusive and prejudiced in their attitudes.

What can be done? First of all we need to solve the problem of economic exclusion which fuels the antagonisms between the communities. Secondly, we must tackle the very notion of multicultural communities which underscore so much of conventional thinking - left and right - and which facilitates such antagonisms. The rational solution to dividing the world into binaries - them and us - as the New York radical philosopher Nancy Fraser has stressed, is to deconstruct the binaries - not to shore them up. This involves setting our goal on a new sort of multiculturalism - a multiculturalism of genuine diversity.

A diverse society is one where there is genuine choice, where there is a mix of traditions, where the stress is on the ongoing creation of culture rather than the inheritance of a weighty tradition. A diverse society is not Oldham or Bradford, where fixed and monolithic cultures confront one another, nor is it the neo-tribalism of Northern Ireland where tradition is glorified and the problems of identity are seemingly solved by consulting the fixed geographical contours of an atlas. In contrast, genuine cultural diversity is about creating new lifestyles and values; this involves the hybridisation of culture rather than the pursuit of a fake authenticity. It is, in fact, the actual lived culture that young people in schools which recruit from a wider range of ethnic and class backgrounds create everyday of the week. The enemy of this diversity is segregated housing policies, single faith schools, backward looking community leaders, and, above all, the glib allocation of people to fixed ethnic categories.

This is not the old story of assimilation where the 'host' country absorbs the immigrant minority. It is not Melanie Phillips' prescription for the riots: a new assimiliationism - a melting pot - where everyone comes out culturally 'white' and terribly English. In the politics of diversity everybody changes and the hallmark of progress is a multiculturalism which overlaps, blurs and merges, which does not constantly reinvent the past but looks forward to the future.

Jock Young is Professor of Criminology at Middlesex University and author of The Exclusive Society, Sage, 1999.


September/October 2001