This essay, on an assault on a Syrian refugee schoolboy, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the CRISPR baby). It was published in the Observer, 2 December 2018, under the headline ‘I know all about being bullied by racists. That’s the Britain I grew up in’.
I cannot recall ever being ‘waterboarded’. But nor can I recall many days when, as a schoolboy, I did not return home without a bruised lip or a bloodied nose. Sometimes, I got a hiding at home too. ‘You should know better than to get into a fight.’
Not getting into a fight was not, however, a choice in 70s Britain. Not if you were Asian in an age in which ‘Paki-bashing’ was almost a national sport. You either stood up for yourself, and got into fights, or you got picked on even more.
So when I saw the viral video of a 15-year old Syrian refugee, Jamal, being assaulted by a fellow schoolboy in a Huddersfield school, I felt more than shock and outrage. I’ve been where Jamal is and understand what he must be going through.
The incident raises questions about attitudes to refugees. It raises questions, too, about the role of social media. It is just the latest in a series of racist confrontations caught on camera and exposed online. From a bigoted rant on a Croydon tram to racial abuse on a Ryanair flight, social media has helped bring attention to unacceptable behaviour. It can also distort perceptions. It is easy to regard such incidents as expressive of everyday life in Britain. One of the reasons they are so shocking, though, is that Britain has changed so much from the nation of my childhood.
There was no such thing then as social media through which to expose racist bullying. But even if there had been, such incidents were so embedded in the social fabric that it’s doubtful they would have caused outrage or even been seen as newsworthy.
Racism remains a problem and hostility to refugees is an issue that needs tackling. Jamal’s sister was apparently also abused at the same school, her hijab forcibly removed. It’s not just in Huddersfield that asylum seekers have faced brutal attacks. Nevertheless, such incidents are not characteristic of British society today in the way they would have been a generation ago.
Social media exposure can also lead to people piling on to individuals, including children. The alleged racist has received death threats and his family forced to leave their house. It’s easy to say: ‘He’s a racist, he deserves what he gets.’ But however nasty the assault, do we really want to encourage the corrosive effects upon public space and civic life of social-media-driven mobs? Whether online or offline, it’s not just racists who are targets of such fury.
We are witnessing, too, the emergence of a culture in which it is acceptable passively to record deplorable acts to share online rather than actively to intervene to aid the victims. One reason for this is the ubiquity of phone cameras. But social changes are important, too. A more atomised society and a safety-first culture have both helped blunt our sense of moral obligation to others. When a senior policeman thinks it acceptable to lock himself in a car rather than intervene in a terrorist attack on parliament, is it surprising to see the rise of what the defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, called the ‘walk-on-by society’ in a Newsnight interview following the Huddersfield attack?
In the Westminster terror attack, Ellwood showed great courage in trying to save the life of PC Keith Palmer, fatally stabbed by Khalid Masood. He has the moral authority to castigate the tendency of people to stand on the sidelines. But not to pronounce on attacks on refugees.
‘Where does this bully get his ideas from?’ Ellwood asked on Newsnight of the alleged schoolboy attacker. One can only gasp at his lack of self-awareness.
Ellwood serves in a government led by a prime minister who, as home secretary, celebrated the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants considered illegal. Her policy nurtured a climate of suspicion in which people were deemed guilty unless they could prove themselves innocent. It dragooned teachers and doctors and landlords to act as auxiliary immigration officers. It created an environment that incubated the Windrush scandal. And one that nurtures the hostility to refugees that sometimes spills over into violence.
What is surprising is not that such attacks take place but that, given the political rhetoric about migration and the character of government policy, they are relatively infrequent. ‘It’s not the welcoming, friendly Britain we are supposed to be,’ Ellwood wrote in a now-deleted tweet after the Huddersfield attack. If he wants to understand why, he should look closer to home.
The image is Oswaldo Guayasami’s El Grito No 2.