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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .

New Ethnicities and Urban Culture
Les Back

(London: University College London Press, 1996)
288 pp. Index. Bibl. ISBN 1-85728-251-5.
Pb.: 12.95; ISBN 1-85728-252-3.

As a former youth worker operating in multi-ethnic communities, Back perceived the models he encountered to address racism tended to be ineffective and overly simplistic. Most models neglect to take into consideration the myriad complexities of racist and non-racist sentiments and behaviors. Consequently, this simplistic model sets up a dynamic whereby young whites are either praised for behaving like a "saint" or punished for behaving like a "sinner." Back challenges the status quo by suggesting that the highly centralized and moral approach to counter racism is limited at best, and moreover fails to examine how racism first enters the lives of young people. Back has a keen interest in understanding and accounting for the emerging forms of cultural practice and identity formation within metropolitan contexts. He describes the writing of this book as a commitment to engage with the world of "vernacular" culture. His expectation is that by examining how identity formation, racism, and multi-culturalism is manifest in everyday life, he and other scholars may gain a broader and more accurate perspective on the racial, ethnic, and cultural dynamics of post-imperial London.

This book is organized around three central themes: the nature of community; the social identities of young people within the community; and their experience with racism. These themes are described and explored within the context of two communities. Although the subject matter is interesting and critically important with regard to understanding ethnic identity and its role in conflict, this text is somewhat disappointing. Back has identified a variety of interesting concepts, such as "white flight," locality, nostalgia, and the preservation of privilege, neighborhood nationalism, social context and racist practice, and transculturalism and the politics of dialogue. Unfortunately, in his attempt to cover all of these concepts and the underlying nuances, he fails to provide the reader with a comprehensive and coherent discussion.

Wanda Wigfall-Williams, ICAR, George Mason University

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