Oldham riots in May 2001 as well as riots in other northern cities were the worst race riots in the United Kingdom for fifteen years. The aim of this chapter is to describe the course of these riots which were the culmination of deep social problems associated with racism and poverty within different ethnic communities. They came as a surprise as they were not expected in a multicultural society. The work also analyses the causes resulting in the riots and their immediate aftermath.
III. 1. The Oldham Borough
For understanding the reasons and the course of the riots it is important to know the history of immigration into the town as well as the present demographic structure and economic situation in Oldham. The work uses the basic data collected by the Office of National Statistics in the most recent Census 2001.
The key Statistics for Local Authorities from the 2001 Census quote 217,273 inhabitants, the population fell by 0.6 per cent since 1991. National Statistics give 2004 estimates, stating that Oldham local authority has 219,035 residents (“Neighbourhood Statistics”). “Females make up over half (51.7 per cent) of Oldham’s population, as is the case nationally. Oldham has a younger age structure than England, with under 16s making up 23 per cent of the population in Oldham compared with 20.2 per cent nationally. People aged 75 and over make up 6.8 per cent” (“Race Equality Scheme” 9).
The Census gives the estimated population data by ethnic group from 2004. The proportion of white people in Oldham is lower than in England. It is 84.9 in comparison to 89.5 per cent in England. The population of Asian or Asian British origin represent 12.6 per cent of population in Oldham, in England it is 5.1 per cent, then there are Black (0.8 per cent) and Chinese (0.5 percent) inhabitants (“Neighbourhood Statistics”). There is more detailed information in the Census: the Pakistanis are the largest minority group, forming 6.3 per cent in Oldham, this is followed by the Bangladeshis who are represented in Oldham by 4.5 per cent. As stated in the “Race Equality Scheme”, “both groups make up a higher proportion of Oldham’s population than nationally […] By contrast people of Indian origin (0.7 per cent) and Black ethnic origin (0.6 per cent) make up a lower proportion of Oldham’s population than is the case across England (2.1 per cent and 2.3 per cent respectively)” (“Race Equality Scheme” 9). The report also compares the figures with the year 1991 when the ethnic minorities formed 8.8 per cent of Oldham population in contrast to 13.9 per cent in 2001.
The 2001 Census also processed the data concerning religion. Christianity was the most represented religion (72.6 per cent), which was slightly higher than in England (71.7 per cent). It was followed by Muslim religion, which was professed by 11.1 per cent of Oldham population. The third largest was Hindu religion (0.6 per cent) and Buddhist religion (0.1 per cent). 6.5 per cent of Oldham residents did not state their religion (“Neighbourhood statistics”). It is hard to predict to what extent the figures from the 2001 Census could be seen as significant in the situation heading to the riots. However, higher proportion of Asian population in Oldham than in Britain and the increasing proportion of the ethnic minorities in Oldham population since 1991 might indicate further unrest and it definitely should focus the attention of authorities to the question of multicultural Oldham.
III. 2. History
Dating back to its history, Oldham became the centre of the cotton spinning during the Industrial Revolution. “In 1887 Oldham alone was responsible for 13% of the world’s production of cotton, Oldham was recognised as the greatest cotton spinning town in the world. Together with the growth in mill building came a demand for more steam engines and engineering in Oldham became an important industry in its own right” (“Oldham”). Immigration to this town is closely linked with the cotton spinning. As the work in that industry required no special skills and it was lowly paid, working conditions were not acceptable for the British. As Kundnani explains in his essay, “By the 1960s, the mills were investing in new technologies which were operated twenty-four hours a day to maximise profit” (Kundnani 2). This fact only supported the immigration from Pakistan (especially the area called Mirpur) and Bangladesh, as the immigrants were in need of any job and were willing to work in night shifts. The first immigration wave into the town was in the 1960s, when the men migrated and only later their families arrived (Ritchie 8). From the very beginning, the communities, their language, religion, and customs were totally different to those of white population. Working in the night shifts was another reason why the immigrants were isolated from mainstream British society.
However, after the first wave of immigration, the demand for the cheap labour force dropped as the technologies developed and the new machineries took over the work of men. Kundnani also points out that it is even cheaper to do the same work in Bangladesh than in England by Bangladeshi workers (Kundnani 3). The consequence of the decline of textile industry was high unemployment of both white and immigrant workers. Most of the people were employed in the public services, but due to the job discrimination, these positions were mainly occupied by the whites. “By the end of the twentieth century, a generation had lived with soaring rates of unemployment, reaching around 50 per cent, for example, among young Asians in Oldham” (Kundnani 2).
Another fact is that the textile industry to a certain extent brought the communities together. After its decline, the communities were more or less left to themselves which only deepened the segregationist attitudes. Segregation was especially visible in housing when the discriminatory policies of local authorities allocated the housing estates in favour of whites.
III. 3. Geographical distribution
As for the settlement, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have lived in neighbourhoods close to each other. It was more convenient to stay close to people who shared common language and practised the same religion, “there was the comfort of living with people whose customs were familiar in an unfamiliar environment” (Ritchie 8).
The Pakistani community first settled in Glodwick part of the town, where initially a substantial number of West Indians lived. These days the area consists of owner-occupied houses and it has become predominantly settled by Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, the number of whites and West Indians is very small.
The Bangladeshis first concentrated in Coldhurst/ Westwood, but as the community rapidly spread, they are more dispersed and there is a high density of the Pakistani population in Coppice and the Bangladeshis in Werneth and parts of Chadderton. The communities still tend to live together, one of the reasons is a phenomenon called ‘white flight’, meaning that the whites were not willing to live next to these communities (Ritchie 8).
The isolation in housing led to segregation in other areas of social life. The Ritchie Report also comments on the poor social interchange of the communities. Apart from the everyday contact in shops or restaurants, the people do not have many opportunities to meet with people from other ethnic backgrounds. The interviewers asked people about their attitudes towards different communities and the standpoint of many whites was that they had little in common and they would prefer that the Asians were not in Oldham. Asians feel that they live in an ‘alien environment’ where they are not safe and they feel the need to separate themselves. The outcome of the Ritchie Report is that these are not the views of the majority of people, nevertheless they are present in the society which should pay attention to them. The belief is that “the patterns of separate development now need to be challenged and alternative strategies adopted, if riots and other evils are to be avoided” (Ritchie 9). The report also stresses the creation of myths, the speculations which are the result of separate development.