Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures

Visceral Memories of Race: Coventry in the 1970s and 80s

In Fall 2019 I taught a course called Race, Religion and Caste in India and the USA (AS334) for the second time. Several students in the class wanted to carry on the discussion, so they sent me a set of questions which I shall be answering in series of posts which further examine some of the themes we discussed in relation to the class and to the broader themes of race, religion and caste. I begin here with the following question:

Question:  Can you shed some light on the background factors that led you to construct this course? In other words what motivated you to teach a course that brings together these three things: Race, Religion, Caste? 

Answer:    The main motivations for constructing this course were existential and intellectual. For me, the lived experience of racism and my intellectual interest in it are intertwined, so its difficult to separate them. To start with the existential aspect, let me try and recount one or two of these experiences from earliest memories of migration to more recent issues.

So my parents migrated to the UK in the 1960s and settled in Coventry (UK) during the 1970s and like countless other children of migrants experienced my fair share of color prejudice. Up to the age of 11 much of what I experienced was either in the somewhat rough working class neighborhood where my parents bought their first house, or at school which is really where the internalization of race and racism really happened for me. From an early age I remember that apart from the more overt forms of racism, an everyday or semi-casual racism was always in the air. You could see it clearly in 1970s sitcoms such as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, or Love Thy Neighbor and Mind Your Language in the 1980s, which cajoled people of color into identifying with the stereotypes depicted in these shows. 

Or, it would be on the news cycles which were either reacting to, or inadvertently projecting, fears of immigrant hordes made popular by the ultra-conservative politician Enoch Powell. Not only did Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech create a backlash from the left, but it created a mini-hysteria which propelled the conservative government to power with a surprise victory in 1970.

On the streets I remember always having to be alert about my surroundings. There could be hidden dangers even when walking to nearby grocery stores or coming back from school. I was subconsciously scanning the streets at least 100 yards ahead and trying to figure out whether the silhouettes of people coming toward me were likely to pose a threat or not. In my neighborhood white males walking large dogs posed a particular threat, as some would let the dogs loose on you just for kicks. This was kind of routine so the habit of surveying the landscape and people’s gait in a few glances became so ingrained that I still do it today, even in relatively safe spaces. Saturday afternoons, which were match days, called for extra vigilance particularly between 1 pm and 5 pm. Our house was close to Coventry City Football club and it was imperative never to be on the streets right before or after the match when football supporters often turned to ‘Paki-bashing’ if they couldn’t find a rival gang to fight with.

If my memory serves me correctly, racism peaked in the early 1980s with 1981 being a particularly really bad year for people of color in the UK. It seemed as if Powell’s predictions about blood flowing in the streets of Britain was coming true. Unemployment among working class whites had peaked to over 3 million, and Coventry was hit particularly badly as it was also the largest car producing city in the country. The song “Ghost Town” by the two-tone band The Specials (which hit No. 1 in the UK charts in the summer of 1981) summed up the hopelessness and racial tensions fueled by mass unemployment throughout the country but especially in Coventry.  The neo-Nazi National Front movement was particularly active and skin-heads were everywhere.

During the summer of 1981 race riots had hit major cities like Liverpool, Birmingham, London and in Coventry alone, 3 South Asian men were brutally stabbed and murdered by skin heads in the city center in full view of horrified onlookers. One was a doctor (Dr. Dharry) who was accosted by skinheads outside his surgery in Earlsdon, and the other, which made national headlines, was the case of Satnam Singh Gill, who was chased through the city center before being stabbed multiple times, again, by skinheads.

Having said that the socialist movements and the Labour Party were still strong in those days, so there was also a lot of militant resistance against the activities of the far right and most colored people identified as working class and found a source of support in the left. There were marches for Racial Harmony all over the country and I vividly remember taking part in one such march in Coventry during the summer of 1981. It was a joint effort between the colored communities and the local Labour Party with our local MP, Dave Nellist being a vocal figure of support for embattled minorities and mesmerizing speaker. What sticks out in my memory is the strong presence of Sikh communities in these anti-racist marches. Of course that’s not surprising given that Sikhs were more ‘visible’ than other minorities.

Almost 40 years later, the fear of those early years is still palpable – it never leaves you, especially the little incidents that happened at school. Things improved in the late 1980s aided by a strong legislation and a fervent anti-racist intellectual movement which saw the rise of race studies, postcolonial and cultural studies in British universities. By the early 1990s Britain had begun to experiment with, if not embrace, a multicultural model and seemed to have left the worst behind. I’ll talk about this in the next post.