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Racism rearing its ugly head

Complacent assumptions about Scotland being an inclusive, welcoming country must be revised with the news that racist incidents reached a five-year high last year.

This is a 10% increase, reversing what had been a downward trend and undermining the hope that bigotry and prejudice were firmly on the way out.

Despite people of Asian origin, including many second and third-generation Scots, playing a vital role in increasingly diverse sectors of society, they still suffer the most racist abuse. Of the 44% of victims who were of Asian origin, the largest single group was Pakistani, accounting for 23%. Nevertheless, incidents against people of Pakistani origin do show a welcome decrease with the 1357 victims last year a significant drop from 1883 in 2005-6.

But new questions about racism in Scotland are raised by the biggest change revealed by the statistics on racist incidents last year. They show the second largest ethnic group of victims was white British, accounting for 22%. Last year, 1295 white British people suffered racist incidents which were recorded by the police, compared with 826 in 2004-5.

What does not emerge from the figures is what proportion of these were English people subjected to abuse because of their origins. However, there is more than enough anecdotal evidence of verbal abuse of English people to dent Scotland's reputation as a wholly inclusive, welcoming country. Regardless of the precise details, the fact is there has been an unacceptable increase in bigoted behaviour.

A separate rise among other white victims (including Gypsy travellers and Poles), from 130 in 2004-5 to 700, accounts for 12% of the total. This is equally worrying, suggesting that Scotland's growing population of Roma and other immigrants from eastern Europe are subjected to racist abuse.

That the vast majority of perpetrators (83%) were white and British indicates that we have an ongoing problem in need of a determined response. It is particularly disappointing, however, that 40% of perpetrators were aged 20 or under. These young people are growing up in an increasingly diverse world where any lingering prejudice should have been dispelled by the reality of learning and living alongside people from different ethnic groups.

Discrimination on grounds of race, gender or religion has long been illegal and the Scottish Government has brought in legislation to make sectarian provocation an offence. It is deeply troubling, therefore, that 21% of the perpetrators of racist incidents were under the age of 16, suggesting that they are isolated from mainstream attitudes and are instinctively antagonistic towards people from a different background. This contrasts with a recent survey of attitudes towards race in England that showed, for example, only one in 20 of those aged under 30 would feel uncomfortable about a family member marrying someone of another race.

National and ethnic identity are increasingly fluid. In Scotland people define themselves as having more than a single identity, such as Asian, Scottish and British.

The only crumb of comfort to be squeezed from the increase in racist incidents is that this may indicate a greater confidence in reporting abuse. Nevertheless, there can be no let up in the battle against racism.

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