25 Years on from Wales’ Race Riots

by Yasmin Begum

This year is the 25th anniversary of Wales’ last set of race riots. These took place in Ely, West Cardiff in September 1991 and were known as the “Petrol Riots” or “Bread Riots”. At the time, Ely was the largest purpose built council estate in Western Europe. Riots broke out in the suburb of Cardiff following a dispute around the sale of bread between a Pakistani-owned shop, and a White owned shop. Three nights of unrest followed, involving 175 police officers in riot gear, fire services and forces drafted in from across South Wales.  25 years on from the riots and issues of inequality, structural racism and educational under-attainment are still present and still as pervasive.

It’s not widely known that Wales is home to some of the oldest continuous communities of colour in the United Kingdom. Most discussions about racialised people or race focus on larger English cities. However Cardiff was formerly the second largest port in the world after New York City. 4% of people in Wales are from Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) backgrounds. In comparison, 10% people are from BME backgrounds in England and nearly 50% of people in London are BME.

Out of this 4%, nearly half are concentrated in Cardiff. Other significant populations are concentrated in Swansea and Newport, other cities in South Wales. Cardiff was one of a handful of Welsh areas that voted to remain in the EU, with an overwhelming majority of the wider Welsh population voting to leave.

George Osborne warned of a “significant economic shock” to Wales if it voted to leave. Despite this warning, Boris Johnson speaking on behalf of the Leave campaign announced that the government would be able to make up European Union shortfalls on funding.

Parties such as Plaid Cymru laughed at Johnson’s insinuation. Leanne Wood, head of Plaid Cymru, dismissed it as “pure fantasy”.

It was forecast that Wales would vote overwhelmingly to remain in the EU: especially given the amount of funding the EU has historically given. Wales receives £1000 per person in EU subsidies: much higher than other areas of the United Kingdom. For example Ebbw Vale in South Wales has had millions of funding from the EU as part of a wider exercise to lessen social deprivation and poverty. Ebbw Vale voted to leave at 62%, the highest rate in Wales. Overall 52% of voters in Wales voted to leave the EU.

It was widely purported that BME communities could “make or break” the EU referendum. This was a response to immigration being a focal point of this discussion along with NF-style language asking to “take our country back”. Operation Black Vote held an event in Barry, South Wales. Only 3 people attended the event. Simon Wooley from OBV said that “BME people in Wales don’t think that this vote is for them”. There hasn’t ever been a BME woman elected to the Welsh Senedd. The Senedd, in fact, gained its first BME representative in 2007.

A quarter of people in Wales live in poverty, and one in three children grow up in poverty, the highest rate in the UK. Nearly a quarter of people in Wales don’t have any formal qualifications. Nine out of the poorest areas in the EU are in the UK, and Wales is home to some of the poorest communities found in Europe. Overall, poverty affects people from black and minority communities at a much higher rate than the average all across the UK and the poverty found amongst Welsh people of colour is dangerously pronounced.

Like the rest of the United Kingdom, Wales has had a marked rise in hate crime since the EU referendum. It rose 42% after the referendum in England and Wales, with some parts of Wales noticing a large spike. However reporting of hate crime from minority groups to the police is contingent on community trust being found in the police. Until just a few years ago, Cardiff was due to be home to the “biggest anti-police corruption case in the history of the United Kingdom” before official and integral police documentation on the Cardiff three went missing. This trial was surrounding the conviction of three black people for the murder of a sex worker in the city. Their conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal after it was decided that the police investigating the murder had acted improperly. The trial would have implicated up to around 25 currently serving members of the South Wales police force.

From 1993 to 2002, there have been six racist murders in Wales. Neil Evans in “A Tolerant Nation” writes that “this is a disturbing figure, approximately in line with its share of the UK population but far exceeding its share of the minority.” This means that despite there being significantly less people of colour in Wales hate crime is happening at the same rate.

At the moment, the BME attainment gap in Wales is the most pronounced out of anywhere in the UK. This year we were told that it is the white working class who is failing the most in our society. However from 2013- 2015, only 47.1% of Black Welsh students gained five GCSEs A*-C including English/Welsh and Maths: a gap of six percent compared to their Black English counterparts and a 12% gap compared to their White Welsh counterparts.

The tensions that erupted 25 years ago may be a distant memory but current problems and social anxieties around race, policing, education and immigration will only be exacerbated by a lack of funding post Brexit: an opportunity at which much of Wales has jumped, with little thought for its after effects.

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Yasmin Begum is a 20-something graduate from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She enjoys reading and writing.

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