The Vaguely Racist and Xenophobic Attitudes of Dog Walkers in Leeds

My fellow dog-walkers at East End Park in Leeds are a warm, caring and good-natured bunch who generally talk sense on most of the issues of the day. But when it comes to “them immigrants,” the normally sensible dog-loving denizens of Leeds turn into raging, misinformed xenophobes, tossing aside any sense of compassion and replacing it with a toxic mix of fear, loathing and envy.

“Have you seen them new flats down there? Have you seen how nice they are? They’re not for us lot you know. They’re for them, them immigrants. They don’t pay nothin' for ‘em,” said one dog walker to the ‘hmm’s’ and ‘yeahs’ of the others.

I would ignore these routine musings were it not for the fact that I think that they extend far beyond the gates of this park in Leeds. As European leaders held late-night talks in Brussels this week, agreeing to relocate across the EU tens of thousands of migrants who have arrived in Italy and Greece, the UK opted out of the plan.

We live in a country where the vaguely racist and xenophobic attitudes of ordinary people - fueled no doubt by recent images of stowaways in Calais - are shaping the political process. It’s time to think about redefining racism and xenophobia so that there more latent forms are no longer acceptable.

we are not going to win the argument over immigration if we see the person opposite as a fascist or a race-haterMany of us crumble with empathy for the thousands of migrants crossing the Med in vessels about as leaky as a half exploded wheelie bin - the local kids like to ignite fireworks and leave them inside - 47% of Brits don’t want Syrian refugees to be allowed into the UK, according to a poll by YouGov. 

The British Social Attitudes Survey 2013 showed that one in three people declared themselves as prejudiced in some way, an increase from the 2001 of 25%. The report suggested that the highest levels of prejudice were found among the older generations, the less well-educated and those in less skilled occupations. Alison Park, the research group director at NatCen, the body responsible for the British Attitude Survey, stated that, ‘Racial prejudice, in whatever guise, is still undoubtedly part of the national psyche.”

My fellow dog walkers certainly fit into these categories. Some are unemployed, one is a nurse, and many have retired from very labour-intensive professions like bricklaying or plumbing. Not one of the regular dog-walkers has any kind of private pension provision.

The anti-immigration rhetoric espoused by my fellow dog-walkers blends with upset over their current economic circumstances. ‘My auntie Pat sees them all moving in across the street, all on benefit you know, and they can barely speak English.’ This was what Sue, a 50 year-old unemployed woman said to me one day last week. ‘When they come over they get a house straight away but then they all just stick together, they don’t get involved,’ said Kim, a 32 year-old nurse said that same day.

While the use of the word “they” often betrays a distrust of newcomers to the UK, concerns surrounding immediate access to benefits, integration and strains on housing and public services are more widespread and perhaps more justified. An Ipsos Mori poll in May showed that 76% of those surveyed believed that Immigration had a negative impact on public services. And a YouGov poll in March showed that 62% of Brits supported a ban on immigrants receiving benefits for two years. The Labour Peer Bhikhu Parekh, former chairman of the Commission on the Future of Multi Ethnic Britain, has also identified a “fear of loss of identity.”

The dog walkers of East End Park are generally an amenable, warm and funny bunch; they like animals and love a good laugh. Are they racist? Not, perhaps, in the way we normally think of racism. But then the concept of racism has undergone a change of meaning. It’s not the racism of blackshirts tearing up the East End of London or skinheads using the N-word at football matches but a gentler, quieter form prevalent among run-of-the-mill dog walking folk. That’s not to excuse it - these views poison the debate on immigration and they need to be confined to the past. But we are not going to win the argument over immigration if we see the person opposite as a fascist or a race-hater. If we remember they are just someone like those Leeds dog walker we will be able to find some common ground from which we can start to unpick those fallacies about migrants.

More about the author

About the author

Leon Zadok writes on politics with a focus on opinion and analysis, and tea. Being a recent graduate in law from Leeds Beckett and having written for the local press and online, Leon is sure he has got it all figured out. Previously contributing to Column F, The York Press, The Wakefield Express, and The Yorkshire Post, to name a few, Leon works on a freelance basis and writes regularly for Disclaimer.

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