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Examining Class in the CourtrooM

A British Pakistani author and lawyer considers whether his community, which is one of the poorest minority groups in Britain, has access to the club of Britishness.

Rising to begin cross-examination, a knot of discomfort tightened in my gut. As a barrister, I had a job to do, but I felt deep unease about prosecuting the young Pakistani teenager in the witness box. If it weren’t for my ivory wig and black gown, he and I would look quite similar. And yet, we stood at opposing ends of this wood-paneled London courtroom.

Almost half of all Pakistani children in Britain grow up poor — one of the highest proportions of any ethnic group. This number included the defendant and it also included me: Both of us were raised in public housing and attended failing schools. Our starting points in life were not so different but, through a combination of hard work and luck, I became the first from my school to study at Oxford University and then went on to join the legal establishment as an associate at a top law firm, a clerk at the Supreme Court and then a criminal barrister.

After the cross-examination was done, and I had successfully undermined his version of events, the teenager whispered “traitor” as he passed me on his way back to the dock. How could I and this teen be so far apart?

For a number of Pakistanis, race and ethnicity lie at the heart of their exclusion from claiming a British identity. Much of the country’s racist history has, up until recently, gone untold. The slur “Paki” started life in the mid-1960s as an epithet against immigrants and “Paki-bashing” became a favored pastime of racist thugs. As recently as the 1980s, forced busing, an instrument of the American civil rights movement, also took place in parts of Britain.

However, according to the historian Shabina Aslam, in the Britain, Black and South Asian children were bused for a different reason: not, as alleged by local authorities, to enable them to access better educational experiences, but to prevent their numbers from discomfiting whites in their local communities.

Ms. Aslam, whose first memories of life in England are of being bussed out in the early 1970s, founded an oral history project on the dispersal of ethnic minority children. They would, in her view, start the journey as passengers on a bus, “but when it arrived at the other end of the city, it became the ‘Paki-bus.’” In its attempts to integrate Pakistani immigrants, the country denied them access to Britishness by treating them differently because of their skin color.

Racial issues, though, cannot alone shed light on why I had access to Britishness in a way that the teen I was prosecuting might not. Understanding our class positionalities, however, can. Pakistanis, the second largest ethnic minority group in Britain, are, by several measures, the poorest. According to a 2021 parliament report on racial disparity, Pakistanis have the lowest employment rates, the lowest pay (including for graduates), the lowest income and the highest rates of poverty. We are also, by some distance, the most likely ethnic group to live in the poorest parts of the country.

In Britain, class matters. The opening line of the government’s Social Mobility Commission annual report recognized inequality as being “deeply entrenched.” Only 7 percent of people in Britain are privately educated and less than 1 percent attend the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge universities. Yet, as the commission found, power rests within this narrow segment of the population.

This is not a new state of affairs. “The empire was run by a particular grade of upper-middle-class person, and this ‘club’ of people is still running Britain,” said Sathnam Sanghera, the author of “Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain.” “Given that empire was, in the 19th century at least, also an exercise in willful white supremacy, the modern British ruling class has a history of racism that can be felt today. For some, this history informs what it means to be British.”

I was a “traitor” because, although I would never be white, through upward mobility I had collected the knowledge, affluence and vernacular necessary for a place in the ruling class that Mr. Sanghera describes. In doing so, I had proved myself a worthy member of this club we call “Britishness.”

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London whose parents migrated from Pakistan in the 1960s, is confident about the community’s contribution to the country. “From food and fashion to the financial sector and sport, the impact British Pakistanis have made on this country has been positive and profound,” he said in an interview. “I think we’ve helped to shape what it means to be British today.”

However, he also acknowledged that “​​if British Pakistanis were on average better off, if their material conditions were improved, and if they had access to the education, opportunities and resources that other groups within British society benefit from, then there’s no doubt in my mind that they could make an even greater contribution to our city and our country.”

Rags to riches stories are heralded as examples of the triumphs of British multiculturalism. As well as Mr. Khan, successful British Pakistanis include the actor Riz Ahmed and the singer Zayn Malik. But celebrating exceptional individuals disproportionately, indeed fetishizing exceptionalism, risks denying the real difficulties experienced by other members of the groups they represent.

“Race and class are completely intertwined issues,” said Ashraf Hoque, a lecturer in social anthropology at the Institute of Education whose research focuses on British Muslims.

Describing the picture as “very bleak” for Pakistanis, Dr. Hoque explained how socio-economic barriers create challenges when trying to embed within British society. “You’ve got ghettoized communities being educated and schooled in those ghettos, trying to find ways out, getting blocked in trying to find ways out and coming back into those communities and engaging and mobilizing resources that exist within those communities and staying within them. So there is a forced insularity that happens, which is all about the nexus between race and class.”

Back in the London courtroom after the guilty verdict was returned by the jury, I felt dejected. “This teen had committed a crime and rightly been prosecuted,” a colleague said. “You have nothing to feel guilty about. You and he are very different.”

But were we? This teenager represented the people I shared a playground with, the people I was related to. I felt gratitude for the educational opportunities afforded to me and all the subsequent doors that had opened. But I also felt guilt, because these doors were not equally open to my fellow Pakistanis. Ultimately, this guilt contributed to my decision to leave the criminal bar last year. I had decided that the courts were showrooms for British inequality and watching this inequality pierce the lives of vulnerable people took its toll.

How can the poorest racial minority in an unfair, class-entrenched society be full members of a club, when it is seeing few of the benefits? British Pakistanis are prevented from claiming their British identity by the absence of whiteness and of wealth. Having one of these attributes can be enough. With both, you are almost always the poster child for Britishness. But for members of my community who have neither — that is to say, for a vast majority — the term “British Pakistani” risks becoming an oxymoron.

Originally published in The New York Times

Photography by Kalpesh Lathigra


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