An American Perspective on Race and Civil Liberties in the UK

I. I saw a programme today on the tele which interviewed young people about what they thought of a school programme that allows them to pay for their food with their fingerprint.  The fingerprint is hashed into a number, which is then stored in a fairly unsecure room on a server, according to a school official.  The school official said that it would be impossible to reconvert the number back into a fingerprint, which the show later pointed out has already been done by a team in Japan.  The government has also repeatedly lost large sets of data with people's personal information.

II. The police conducted 2 million "stop and search" adventures in the UK in 2006/2007.  Black people are 7 times as likely to be stopped as White people.  Asian people (that's South Asians in American parlance) are twice as likely to get stopped as White people.  The former head of the London police's homicide unit said that it is a wholly ineffective way to conduct policing, and was more likely to alienate people then to find people engaging in stabbings - which are the big issue here besides "terrorism."  A criminologist named Fitzgerald found that in the London bureaus that she looked at, 97% of stop and searches didn't result in finding a knife, and she questioned whether the police even have the legal authority to engage in continuous stop and search tactics across a city rather than what is provided for in law, which she said is more narrow.

III. I've been stopped twice in the past year.  The first time I put up an argument, asking the police officer every step of the way why he was stopping me, etc., why he needed information like why I was there or what my address was, etc.  He was quite nice.  I got a slip of paper that he informed me I could show if I were stopped again.

The second time, I was changing trains in York, and was stepping out for a cigarette.  This was clear racial profiling to me, unless it was my green duffle bag rather than my race or beard that triggered the police search.  They said they were stopping people going in and out of the station, but I was the only one that I saw them even try to stop.  They said "There's no particular reason we're stopping you" in the first few sentences - that's how I knew quite clearly that there was.  I didn't have the time or the emotional energy to put up a fight.  I'm collecting slips of paper.

My cousin gets stopped all the time too.  He says he feels like there's always a police officer nearby.  

IV. At the pro-Gaza demonstratin I went to a few months ago, there were a lot of young men.  They were throwing things at the police, climbing lampposts, and engaging in other forms of rebellion.  I wonder why ;)  I've started listening to 2pac.

V. The UK is the origin of punk culture for a reason.  The level of suppression of individuality here is, from my American vantage point, virtually unbelievable, with cameras everywhere that are used for nothing, an incompetent government policing apparatus that shoots Brazilian men in a panic and doesn't even cover it up properly.  Then you throw in a culture that stifles open and emotionally honest conversation about race, institutional and direct racism, and the death by a thousand paper cuts that Asian people, black people, Muslims, and many others here experience on a regular basis, and what you have is a recipe for occasonal massive riots.  Especially if they don't engage in the national sport of alcoholism.  

The only possible plus is that there are a lot of genuinely decent people here and the same social impulse that generates the suppression of individuality can also, imo, generate a culture of care for other people and their concerns in an ideological sense that is wholly absent in my experience in the U.S. where, imo, rebellion is a more useful tactic.  Even here, education and conversation and incremental processes frequently don't work out properly, but it is there, to take hold of and make something out of, if one is interested in doing so.

A short series of observations on life as a South Asian-American in the UK.

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Dr A, I'm sorry to hear about

Dr A, I'm sorry to hear about your experiences with racial profiling in the UK. I realize that the UK has its own history of multiculturalism (haunted by, among other things, the ghosts of colonialisms "past"), but what you've described sounds very much like what happens in the US. I don't think it can be chalked up to an ideological culture of individualism. (If anything, that might be the narcotic that stills the tooth.) The difference might be the relative position of (South) Asians/Asian-Americans in a racial hierarchy in these countries, and various locations within them. This hierarchy has been reorganized somewhat after 9/11, leading to a lot of searching for and demonizing of the potential "terrorist" among us-- especially if bearded, brown, and male (BBM). I'm sure we can all share countless examples of the latter. I'll share one.

A couple of summers ago, one of our BBM bloggers, his mother and I were on a Long Island harbour, watching the ocean.

I'm sitting on a bench, savouring some newly-bought chocolate. The other two are standing closer to the water, playing with a camera. A burly white man walks by, looks me up and down, and smiles. My moment of calm is gone. With an impassive stare, I wait a second for him to pass and narrow my eyes. He sees our blogger and his mother taking pictures of the sun setting on the water. He half-turns, and looks back at me. In that brief pause, something dawns. He says, to me,

"You know, you're not allowed to take pictures here. It's a federal offense."

He then turns to the others, and points to a crumpled HAND-WRITTEN SIGN that someone else has taped over an existing plaque. It says exactly what he has just told us. He then informs us, shouting over his shoulder as walks away, that if we don't stop taking pictures, he'll have to report us.


But I think there is still room for the "model minority" presumption in the US, which may be why these incidents appear all the more striking to you right now. I'm interested in your last paragraph, about " a culture of care for other people and their concerns in an ideological sense" that you don't find in the US. I think I understand, since most of my life has been spent outside America, but this is too abstract-- can you explain this further for those of us who aren't living in the UK? What does this mean, in everyday life?

kettikili, thanks for your


thanks for your comment - it is much appreciated! i definitely agree with you that the snapshot i provided doesn't cover the entirety of race and class relationships for south asian americans and asians in general in the uk and that what I am saying should not be taken to describe the entirety of either Asian (South Asian) experiences here, there, or anywhere else.

However, I do feel, again from what can only be a subjective vantage point, and which I hope others will contest as "objective" description vigorously like you did, that there are differences between my experiences in the UK and in the U.S.  What I'm interested in are the specifics of that, the dynamics that generate them, and the realities that they create.  The factors you pointed to - class, differences in specific place of Asians/South Asians in the hierarhcy - areimportant - as is that I never had a beard before and that maybe I'm a different person than I was 2 years ago!   But more broadly, it is, for example, a reality that there are cameras EVERYWHERE in London and not in New York - and that to me is reflective of a different conception of "civil liberties" and "the individual" and "privacy" in the U.S. than in the UK - and this fact is part of a larger complex.  but perhaps there are other explanatiosn for that - i would like to explore.

Similarly, it is a reality that a green card holder in the U.S. can't access what minimal welfare benefits remain (to generalize) while I was able to have access to free health care (something that middle class self-employed people in the United States are denied) in the UK on a 1 year student visa.  People in London strictly observe (and I mean strictly) a "stand on the right, walk on the left" rule for escalators in the underground, whereas in New York a) there are rarely escalators that I can think of and b) I can't imagine they would have that level of conformity.  People routinely look at me funny here when I go to work in a kurta; that never happened to me before in my life (in New York or New Delhi, the former being the more relevant comparison in this context). 

All of these things add up to something that I am coming to understand, vaguely, in some points specifics, and in other points in a more problematically essentialising way (because I am struggling to grasp with them) as "culture" - which even when I stumble towards it, I would say, unabashedly, is *real*  it doesn't explain everything, it certainly doesn't explain as much as the proponents of the concept of a "national" or even more nuanced kinds of concepts of a group "culture" would pretend, but it does help to inform some of the ways that we understand things.  that was mainly my point, no more no less.

"But I think there is still room for the "model minority" presumption in the US, which may be why these incidents appear all the more striking to you right now."

I think this presumption - which I would actually elevate to the category of class with Obama - the multiculti elite - and not just on race, but on gender and lgbt and other issues as well as long as you're not TOO far from the 'norm' - is actually extremely helpful in explaining the differences in what I am terming 'culture' in living in London and living in New York.  As it turns out, not all forms of anglo-american capitalism are the same :)  These incidents do not appear to be more striking to me-  it's that my LIFE is different - being who I am - so again, it's personal, but then macro social observations can only be built out of the accumulation of and refinement of understanding of subjective experiences, right?

To address your last question - the level of tolerance for arguments and practices that rely on conceptions of the social good is imo much higher here, i think - that includes both thigns like health care and things like stop and search (without requriement for reasonable suspicion).  For both good and ill.  I am struggling to conceive of the exact ways in which the dynamics of politics - the levels of ideological polarisation vs. a more administrative process in London can be best described, but eventually, after a series of posts like the above, i hope i will be able to communicate it better :)  but as you correctly point out, this does have to do with the shift in my social position simply by virtue of where and in what social and political system I am.

hope that helps - please say more! :)

Also: The first time I put up


The first time I put up an argument, asking the police officer every step of the way why he was stopping me, etc., why he needed information like why I was there or what my address was, etc.

Or where your papers are, or when you last spoke to people you don't even know, or what your stance is on x/y/z... Hm, feels like being a Sri Lankan of Tamil extraction in India. :P

i actually have no idea of

i actually have no idea of knowing what that is like :)  i am hoping you'll tell me :)



dr a

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