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Ties that Bind

12/12/01

Last July, a sleepy industrial town in West Yorkshire became the scene of Britain’s worst race riots in two decades. When members of Bradford’s 20% minority population marched in protest of the National Front, a party calling for the expulsion of immigrants, a band of white youths answered with racial insults. The exchange escalated, and long brewing animosity boiled over. For four days, rioters roiled the city, burning cars and ransacking businesses. Before police regained control, firebombs and street gangs had injured 200 and caused $35 million in damage.

The incident wasn’t isolated. Through Britain’s long hot summer, similar riots broke out across the northern rustbelt - in Oldham, Leeds, Manchester, and Burney. Local authorities blamed “disaffected young people” -- deprived drug-users “lacking adequate youth facilities.” But the problem runs deeper than a dearth of midnight basketball. This week, in a flinty new report, the Home Office diagnosed an ailment far more grave: a profound lack of common national identity.

Admitting that Britain’s ethnic communities live “polarized”, “parallel” lives, the report calls “self segregation” an “unacceptable basis for a harmonious community,” citing separate schools, places of worship, and business districts as evidence of a the deepening divide.

Castigating politicians who have for too long “tiptoed” around race issues, the 79-page report says, “A meaningful concept of citizenship needs establishing and championing which recognizes the contribution of all cultures…but establishes a clear, primary loyalty to this nation.” Among its 67 recommendations, a British loyalty oath, modeled on Canada’s, that would include a clause pledging that “use of the English language…will be rigorously pursued.”

The backlash was predictable as sunrise. Maggie Chetty, director of the West of Scotland Racial Equality Council called the oath of allegiance “a terrible idea.” Habib Rahman, CEO of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants dubbed it “divisive,” and a spokesman for the Scottish National Party branded the proposal “offensive, ill-advised, and unworkable.” Even the Deputy Mayor of Oldham, the scene of May riots, calls the idea “irrelevant.”

But proof of cultural breakdown outlives the summer. According to a report in the London Telegraph, a British radio station recently conducted a poll of 500 20 to 45-year-old Muslims, largely Pakistani, living in the greater London area. Some 91% see the war in Afghanistan as a showdown between the Christian West and Islam, and 98% said they would not fight on England’s behalf. However, 48% said they would fight for bin Laden or Islam. Missing from the equation was any common sense of national loyalty or British identity.

We are not so different. We’ve had no Bradfords since the LA riots, but in our urban centers, America nurtures the same explosive conditions. Chic multiculturalism, in its war with the nation’s sense of itself, draws political clout by convincing minorities that identity is a function of color rather than citizenship. Thus countries rise within our country, disconnected from the greater society. For these, our history is irrelevant, our heroes illegitimate, and loyalty stops at the end of the block.

Home Secretary David Blunkett frets that British immigrants are failing to learn “acceptable norms.” Envy Britain for still having norms to accept. In America, as President Bush said in his Inaugural Address, “Sometimes our differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country.” As England is learning before us, bridging that divide does not require isolation or homogenization. Rather, it depends on minimizing difference by shared allegiance to something greater. The alternative is that beast that spent four days terrorizing the streets of Bradford.

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