Since when was it OK to target Asians?

Last Updated 02 September 2009, 16:16 IST

After keeping them waiting for several hours, staff called the police, who arrested them and put them in separate cells. They were fingerprinted, and forced to take a drugs test and give DNA samples for the national DNA database, having been told that while in theory it was optional, in practice, refusal would result in a charge. After three hours, during which they were not allowed to call their parents or a lawyer, police verified their passports with the Home Office and they were released.
It is difficult not to see a racial element. Had they been two young white men with British passports, would the same really have happened? The bank manager maintained that he had reason to suspect the passports were forged, although he admitted that he had checked on the internet before calling the police and had found no supporting evidence.

We live in a climate of suspicion, and much of that suspicion is indisputably directed at young men who look Asian or Middle Eastern. In the first month after the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, official figures showed that people of Asian appearance were five times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
I was told about another young Asian man who was arrested during the hysterical aftermath of the 7/7 attacks because he was sweaty after running for a bus and had "the look" of someone agitated. The most troubling aspect was that this was an entirely lawful detention. Another man, stopped and searched at his local tube station, was quizzed about why he was carrying a lighter but no cigarettes (he had run out) and told that he was not allowed to get on the tube.
Some argue that in the fight to keep our streets safe from terrorism, these instances are justified. In 2005, in the aftermath of the London attacks, Ian Johnston, chief constable of the British transport police caused uproar when he said that "we should not waste time searching old white ladies".
Speaking to the home affairs select committee earlier that year, Hazel Blears said that "if a threat is from a particular place then our action is going to be targeted at that area … it means that some of our counter-terrorism powers will be disproportionately experienced by the Muslim community," although she later backed down from these comments.

That Asians are deserving of suspicion is an increasingly accepted viewpoint, with the Pew Survey of Global Attitudes in 2008 finding that a quarter of Britons described themselves as hostile towards Muslims.
As this perception becomes entrenched among members of the public and in the media, incidents of harassment by police and other authorities are becoming endemic, and, more frighteningly, are normalised and accepted.
In the aftermath of the 1981 Brixton race riots (the immediate catalyst for which was police harassment of the black community), Lord Scarman's inquiry described the "racial disadvantage that is a fact of British life".
Nearly 20 years later, when the Macpherson report in 1999 identified "institutional racism" in the police, Tony Blair promised a "fundamental shift in the way British society deals with racism". Another decade on, let's hope that this shift is not simply towards a new scapegoat.

(Published 02 September 2009, 16:16 IST)

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