A a customer requests a refund for products she purchased but no longer wants. The store owner refuses and instead offers a credit note. The client takes other goods, apparently as a reward. The store owner tries to prevent him from leaving the premises. She appears to hit him and assault him, putting her hands around his throat to strangle him. Police arrest the customer, then later, after a video of the incident goes viral, question the store owner as well.
Put this way, most people would view the incident as an argument that got out of hand and would likely view the store owner as having used unacceptable force. But when something like this scenario happened in a store in Peckham, south London, last Monday, perceptions were colored by an extra ingredient. The store owner was Asian and the customer was black. Suddenly, an out-of-control argument was seen as a racial conflict.
Many local black residents were outraged not only that a black woman would be assaulted, but also that Asians would own stores in a predominantly Afro-Caribbean area. “Racist Asians go to hell Patel,” read one of the handmade signs outside the shuttered store. “Parasite merchants outside our community“, reads another. Meanwhile, many Asians gave vent to their own prejudices, calling black people criminals, lacking a “work ethic,” suffering from “insecurities”.
And then there were those who could only see the incident through immigration lens. “This is not what the Londoners who suffered in the Blitz fought for,” claimed a tweet. As if sectarian violence only arrived in Britain with the Empire Windrush, or that this country had never witnessed communal strife, from pogroms against Jews to anti-Catholic violence.
Racism is real, black women are often attacked and traders can be exploitative. What the Peckham incident shows, however, is the consequence of the redefinition of disparities of class and economic power over differences of race or ethnicity. There is a long history of this, the cost of which has been both the entrenchment of sectarianism and the undermining of struggles for economic improvement.
Jews, for example, traditionally forced to become traders or moneylenders due to their exclusion from many professions and occupations, have often been targets of the ire of other minority groups who, particularly in the context of anti-Semitic tropes describing Jews as rich and powerful, saw their own lack of resources as a product of Jewish wealth. It was necessary to “confront Jewish economic interests in our black communities,” wrote black nationalist scholar Harold Cruse in his 1969 essay “My Jewish Problem and Theirs.”
More recently, other groups in the United States have faced the same kind of anger. The Los Angeles riots of 1992, in which 2,200 Korean businesses were damaged or destroyed, revealed the extent to which Koreans now played a “middleman” role in that city and the antagonisms that resulted.
In Britain, in some areas, Asians came to serve the same function. During the era of empire, Indians were used in Africa as indentured laborers to build railways and other infrastructure and as a middle-class buffer between British rulers and the local population. This inevitably stoked resentment that was exploited by nationalist demagogues, ultimately leading to the expulsion of thousands of Asians from Kenya and Uganda in the 1960s and 1970s.
Many came to this country, forming a second wave of postwar immigrants. The first wave, in the late 1940s and 1950s, was largely working class. Those in East Africa were more middle class and able to use their resources to create shops and services, often in poorer inner-city areas, with more affordable premises. Only a small proportion of Asians could play such a role. Nevertheless, stereotypes about “Asian traders” developed, as well as a sense of resentment in many communities, particularly those with a black majority.
In 2005, while making a documentary for Channel 4, I visited Lozells in Birmingham. In October of that year, friction between the black and Asian communities escalated into a weekend of riots. A false rumor that a black teenage girl was gang-raped by a group of Asian men at an Asian store selling Afro-Caribbean hair products led to protests, calls to boycott Asian businesses, and ultimately violence , during this period. in which a young black man, Isaiah Young-Sam, was attacked by an Asian gang and murdered.
When I attempted to interview black community leaders, most refused on the grounds that I was Asian and therefore “on the other side.” The one who agreed to speak wanted me to report on what he saw as the crimes of the Asian community. “Asians have always had a weakness for the black man,” he told me. “It was like that in Kenya and Uganda. And that’s how it is here. It’s in your blood.
Not only imperial history, but also local politics helped to exacerbate this racial antagonism. In response to an earlier riot – in neighboring Handsworth in 1985, one of the last inner-city conflagrations of the 1980s – Birmingham City Council had created nine “umbrella groups”, organizations based on ethnicity and faith, such as African and religious groups. Caribbean People’s Movement and Hindu Council.
The aim was to represent the needs of different communities. The reality, as Joy Warmington of the Birmingham Race Action Partnership, an equality advocacy group, told me at the time, was to “force people to have a very one-dimensional view of themselves,” leading them to “pressure for resources on the basis of their ethnicity”. Each group could only view the others as competitors for council largesse, deepening divisions, particularly between blacks and Asians. The end point was communal violence.
Exploitation exists in all communities. Exploiters do not care about the color or culture of those they exploit. Black employers or business owners are just as likely to take advantage of black employees or consumers as Asian or white people.
The problems facing people in Peckham, like those in Lozells, do not stem from Asians stealing money from black communities, nor from black people’s lack of work ethic. They result from a lack of resources, from policies that deepen inequality rather than alleviate it, and from the exploitative actions of employers, landlords and business owners of all stripes. Considering exploitation in racial or identity terms amounts to fragmenting the possibilities of solidarity and therefore making its challenge more difficult.