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Britain's recent riots have given much food for thought on the racial tensions present in Australia.

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Wednesday, 5 October 2011


The domestic challenges unrelated to security that have arisen since September 11, 2001, revolve around moderating racial and cultural differences into a cohesive society. A core weakness of liberal democracy is its weak collective identity amid unprecedented diversity. These challenges remain at the forefront for Western governments, highlighted in recent months by riots in Britain and mass murder in Norway.

When the first sprouts of violence emerged in the London riots, the initial hypotheses revolved around the contributions of race. Shadowing these riots were those of Brixton 30 years ago, when clashes between people of Caribbean descent and the police superficially mirrored the events of recent weeks.

It has become clear that race did not explain these extraordinary developments in Britain. Several commentators have jokingly called the riots a triumph of multiculturalism, given that white, black and Asian faces took part. David Goodhart wrote in Prospect magazine that: "These are truly post-political riots, style riots, boredom riots, feel-good riots, look-at-me riots, riots at the end of history."

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In spite of these trends, race still permeates much of the discussions. The uncomfortable question has been the degree to which tensions between different ethnic communities and the wider issues of race and cultural alienation have played a part in some areas.

The incoming police adviser, Bill Bratton, whom David Cameron recruited from the US, has already suggested racial tensions remain a key contributor to crime and disaffection in Britain.

During a television discussion on the BBC, the renowned British historian David Starkey suggested part of the problem was that "the whites had become black", by which he meant the nihilistic grievance culture of the black inner city, fanned by parts of the hip-hop/rap scene and copied by many white people, had created a hardcore subculture of post-political disaffection. His comment brings to mind the famous Ali G phrase, "Is it cos I is black?", which is funny precisely because it hits a nerve.

The disaffection is mainly unjustified. It is as if the routine brutalities and racist humiliations of the past have been preserved and channelled into anger for what is just an adolescent pose.

The closest parallels to Australia may be the Redfern riots in 2004, when the death of 17-year-old Thomas "TJ" Hickey sparked clashes with police and the torching of the police station. The so-called race riots in Cronulla in 2005 also had parallels, with sections of Lebanese youth routinely posturing in the streets with false machismo, taught by community leaders that they were the victims of racism.

Recent trends in Britain have great relevance to Australia, given there is a risk our leaders want to follow in the footsteps of our British cousins in policing racial vilification and exclusion more aggressively. Helen Szoke, former leader of the Equal Opportunity Tribunal in Victoria, was appointed last month as Australia's first stand-alone Race Discrimination Commissioner for more than a decade. The government is also attempting to implement the National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy.

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Australia is in the unusual position of being called racist more often than just about any other developed Western country. It occurs internally from among progressive groups and externally commonly from visiting humanitarian leaders. Most recently, Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, suggested Australia had an undercurrent of racism.

Pillay highlighted her South African heritage and her subsequent attunement to racial discrimination. Racists and anti-racists are alike in one way - driven to view everyone through the distorting lens of race rather than as individuals.

In Britain, despite years of official exhortations to "celebrate diversity", many people retreated into their ethnic camps. This was apparent during the riots, where ethnic groups, whether they were looting or protecting their communities, were often segregated into their specific groups, be it Asian, West Indian or white.

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on September 24, 2011. Tanveer Ahmed's first book The Exotic Rissole will be published this week by New South ($32.95).



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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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