Tensions between non-white minorities have been persistently ignored
Following footage circulating online of a black woman accused of theft being physically restrained by a male Asian-heritage shopkeeper in the south-east London district of Peckham, the matter of community cohesion in England’s diverse inner cities has once again been thrust into the spotlight.
Tense community relations between elements of Britain’s wider Asian and black populations are nothing new. The 2005 Birmingham riots — specifically in the relatively deprived Lozells and Handsworth areas — were primarily between people of Pakistani origin and Black Caribbean heritage. The riots were sparked following rumours that a teenage black girl had allegedly been gang-raped by a group of Pakistani-heritage men in a beauty parlour. The unsubstantiated whispers were presented as fact by two pirate radio stations, contributing towards a major escalation. The riots were connected to two fatalities: 23-year-old Isaiah Young-Sam and teenager Aaron James.
However, much like south-east London in the present, there were simmering tensions between Asian-origin business owners and local black residents in Birmingham. The acquisition of many local businesses by Asian-origin entrepreneurs had reportedly unsettled members of African-Caribbean communities, and this was exacerbated by complaints of mistreatment against Asian-heritage business owners by black customers. Those who ran the enterprises responded by accusing members of the African-Caribbean community of envy for their socioeconomic progress and ownership of assets. More serious allegations included theft, with one Pakistani-heritage shopkeeper referring to black people as “the lowest of the low”.
Fast forward to September 2023 and virtually identical dynamics have taken root in south-east London — racial friction based on socioeconomic status and business ownership, a breakdown of shopkeeper-customer relations along ethnic lines, and a fundamental lack of neighbourhood policing enforcement to maintain public order. In places such as Peckham, the local black population comfortably outnumbers the Asian one, yet a significant number of small-to-medium-sized enterprises which cater to the former, wider demographic are owned by the latter.
Social interactions which could optimistically be viewed as opportunities to build trust and mutual respect between groups have instead been rendered toxic by an intensifying competition of resources, ethnic prejudice, and growing business-customer resentment. This is worsened by the absence of a well-respected model of neighbourhood policing which covers areas with a high concentration of street shops.
The latest events in Peckham highlight the utterly redundant nature of the “Bame” acronym, which tends to mask the reality that some of the sharpest social fault lines in modern Britain do not involve the white-British mainstream at all. A report published in August 2020 by Hope Not Hate found that twice as many so-called “Bame” respondents agreed (40%) than disagreed that there is more tension between Britain’s minority communities, when compared with those between white and non-white populations.
This was followed by a February 2021 HJS-ICM study which found that black British respondents were more likely to have an unfavourable view of Pakistani-, Bangladeshi-, and Indian-heritage people (11.2%, 11.1%, and 8.7% respectively) than white Britons (7.9%).
While apparently progressive politicians in the inner cities continue to repeat empty platitudes such as “diversity is our strength”, the failure to integrate ethnically diverse communities carries significant risks to public order. This threat is further complicated by ethnic differences in socio-economic status and the de facto decriminalisation of low-level crime in many urban areas.
Social and economic tensions in Peckham between non-white communities does not constitute a recent phenomenon. Rather, these serve as yet another reminder of the complexities of modern Britain and the fact that diversity is by no means an unadulterated good. As it stands, far too many in positions of national and local leadership are sleeping at the wheel.