Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Belfast and Johannesburg: peas in a racist pod?

I long to live in a society where there is no racism but, living between Belfast and Johannesburg, this is impossible.

About a year ago, xenophobia in South Africa hit the international newspapers. Foreigners, mainly from Africa, were driven from their homes, with over 50 people being killed. Over 100 people have been prosecuted for the attacks. But recently information surfaced that local businesspeople in some townships have been meeting secretly to ‘look at’ how to rid the community of businesses owned by immigrants. Sporadic attacks continue.

Belfast recently featured in international papers with a similar storyline. Some 100 Romanians were forced from their homes by mobs of young people claiming the immigrants were taking their jobs and houses and stealing from the local community. The attacks seemed to take on a neo-Nazi feel, with swastikas and Nazi salutes being prominent. Most of the Romanians have now left Northern Ireland.

However, attacks against foreigners in Northern Ireland are not new. They have been a consistent feature of the society over the last decade.

In 2004, for example, Bill Rolston, at the University of Ulster, highlighted attacks against Pakistanis, Chinese and Zimbabwean immigrants, besides others. He also reported on incidents where local minorities were greeted at night by masked men robbing their houses and telling them: “You won’t be needing these; you’ll be leaving soon.”

Police statistics show that, in 1996, there were 41 racist incidents recorded; in 2006 and 2007, there were 1 047. Research by Neil Jarman, of the Institute of Conflict Research, has found that such incidents, although perceived as taking place largely in working-class Protestant areas in Belfast and linked to far right groups, have been documented in Catholic areas and recorded in all major cities, towns and villages in Northern Ireland. Perpetrators of such incidents also vary and are not restricted to rightwingers and paramilitary groups, as some believe.

Of course, the increase in incidents of racism can reflect the growing number of immigrants, improved reporting rates and the increased visibility of the issue. But the numeric increase is undeniable and the figures are also under-representative because many incidents go unreported. Weighing up the research on the issue, the conclusion is clear: racism is a serious problem in Northern Ireland.

The public response has been interesting. As in South Africa, the majority have condemned the xenophobic violence, and a range of antiracism protests have been organised. These actions are commendable. However, there also seems to be social distancing from the problem. Routinely, commentators and the public make reference to “groups of thugs” being responsible and are at pains to point out that the majority are welcoming and want foreigners in the cities.

I agree that the incidents are the work of relatively small groups, but there also seems to be a lack of acknowledgement that prejudice is deeply ingrained across the society, as it is in South Africa. People in Northern Ireland, like those in South Africa, tend to take notice only when problems explode. In the times in between, most of us, including politicians, ignore low-level violence and racism. This reinforces the idea that there is an ‘acceptable’ level of violence and that some racism is tolerable. This creates the foundation for extremism.

I am yet to meet an African living in Belfast, myself included, who has not, at some point, been abused for not being from the society. Such incidents are generally not life threatening and most people are indeed friendly, but the hatred must be coming from somewhere and cannot be overlooked or seen as concerning specific individuals only.

In this context, surely, the majority of the population’s general avoidance of issues until they reach mammoth proportions, the ongoing use of segregated schools and housing, which inculcates a propensity for division, and the fact that most political parties continue to appeal to voters using narrow, single-identity politics and, in some cases, anti-immigration rhetoric, cannot be helping the situation.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 10 July 2009 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

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