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Diversity Tolerance

LEICESTER, England, Feb. 2 — Jitendra Vaitha, a 34-year-old jeweler, leaned across a glittering display of gold necklaces and sought to describe how life had changed for the large Asian population in this traditional city with its Victorian clocktower, medieval timbered buildings and Roman ruins.

"When I told my son that a white boy once beat me up in school, he asked me, ĀWhat was he, Dad, a bully?'" The father struck a wide-eyed look of happy astonishment. "He has no idea what prejudice is. He doesn't have a clue."

A group of black and Asian high school students in head scarves and embroidered caps interrupted their class to weigh a visitor's question about racial harassment. Had they ever experienced it? Some looked uncomprehending. Others searched the room with lowered gazes to see if anyone would speak up.

"No, never," said Rubuna Begum, 15. "They're used to us and our Asian clothes." A white classmate, Lisa Black, 15, said, "We have no problem living together." Ruhme Miah, 14, explained: "People here seem to understand. When I lived in York, they stared back at you, but not in Leicester."

Government figures have just projected that Leicester will become, in a decade, the first British city with a nonwhite majority. It would seem to be a candidate for the kind of cultural antagonisms and anti-immigrant politics that have occurred elsewhere in Britain and in Europe, where once homogenous white populations have increasing numbers of dark-skinned residents in their midst and more outside seeking admittance.

But the outcome here has been different. "Leicester defines itself as the tolerant, multicultural city of Europe, and I think I go a long ways towards agreeing with that," said Richard Bonney, a priest and professor who is the director of Leicester University's Center for the History of Religious and Political Pluralism. Staking Leicester's claim to be counted first among equals of diverse European cities, he added, "There is greater diversity in two or three square blocks here than anywhere I can think of in Europe."

Over at the intensely civic-minded Leicester Mercury, the nonwhite majority prediction did not rate the lead headline of the day. "I didn't think it had great significance by itself," said Nick Carter, the newspaper's editor-in-chief. "It's important only if you are frightened by the concept or triumphalist about it, and we didn't want to be either."

The attitude typifies Leicester, a hard-working city of just under 300,000 in England's East Midlands. "People find Leicester more genial," said Gurharpal Singh, 44, director of the Center for Indian Studies at the University of Hull, who came here in 1964.

Leicester was once Britain's center for shoe and boot distribution and a world center for the production of knitted goods. Industry here was light, not heavy, and civic pride was unassuming and rock-steady as reflected in its motto, Semper Eadem — Always the Same.

With its abundant jobs, Leicester was already a migrant's goal a century ago, drawing people from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and elsewhere in England. But tolerance for outsiders disappeared in the early 1970's when East African countries in the Commonwealth moved to evict their large Asian populations, and new refugees tried to join family members here.

The Leicester City Council placed an advertisement in the Ugandan Argus warning that housing, education and social services here were "already stretched to the limit." It concluded starkly: "In your own interests and those of your family you should accept the advice of the Uganda Resettlement Board and not come to Leicester."

The same panel, a third of whose members are now nonwhite, recently put out a document that spoke of "the joy of being a truly diverse city." Much of the reason for that upbeat assertion lies in the nature and circumstances of the people who came from Kenya and Uganda — they had already experienced being immigrants and learning to adapt.

In addition, they came in settled family groups, and they were skilled and educated, with a goal not just of survival but also of economic independence and social success.

Leicester had its share of skinheads and National Front marchers, and Mr. Vaitha remembers being called a "wog" and seeing "Paki Go Home" graffiti when he came here in 1975. But racial antagonism lessened when it became apparent that instead of taking away the jobs of working-class whites, Leicester's new arrivals were creating employment and services and a retail, wholesale and real estate economy of their own.

There was no panicked white flight. Whites had already abandoned the derelict Belgrave Road area that the Asians moved into and today have turned into a residential and commercial hub of the city known as the Golden Mile. A typical sight in Leicester are Gothic churches with stone crosses or Victorian-period red brick mills and factory buildings, now converted to Muslim community halls, Sikh and Hindu temples or small business centers.

Asians credit aggressive policing with keeping white militants out of their neighborhoods. "I'm sure they're still around, but I haven't seen them for a long time," said Freda Hussain, 54, principal of Moat Community College, who came to Britain from Pakistan in 1962.

Dr. David H. Clark, an associate priest of the Church of Saint James the Greater and the father of two adopted mixed-race children, pondered the question of how whites in Leicester had demonstrated greater racial tolerance than elsewhere in Britain. "They have had to by necessity," he said. "When you are faced with the persistent presence of what might be regarded as Āthe other' in your midst, you can be negative about it or you can turn it into a virtue. I think what Leicester has done is to say, ĀActually, there is a huge advantage in this diversity.' "

Even the residential segregation that Dr. Clark described as "not imposed, but de facto" may be breaking down. Thinking out loud about his own block, Dr. Clark listed neighbors including a Hindu accountant, a Sikh night worker, a Jewish professor of holocaust studies, and a church worker, businessman and member of the city council, the last three white.

The block has no blacks, one indication, Dr. Clark conceded, that Afro-Caribbeans may not have had the same access or success in Leicester. "It is a matter of great anguish," he said. The Asian immigration has been based on a white collar, self-employed, owner-occupied, suburban model, while the less numerous blacks have ended up more generally living in public housing and working in blue-collar, manual labor jobs.

"We're ignored," said Joe Allen, 49, the city council's first black member, who came to Britain in 1959 from Montserrat. "There are some beautiful Asians in this city, but look at their businesses, and you'll see that very few of our boys get employed by them."

A recent national survey of racial attitudes among the police showed that in Leicester, blacks are 11 times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites, one of the worst imbalances in the country. Erroll Powell, 37, a black youth worker, said he had been pulled over so many times and asked if his new car was really his that he now carried a laminated proof of ownership card whenever he drove. Herdle White, a 55- year-old black magistrate, said he had been stopped twice in his Mercedes.

The police force is now 5.5 percent minority, and it has pledged to increase that to 11 percent in the next 10 years. Inspector Charles Piggins of the Leicestershire Constabulary's Community Affairs Section said they were encountering recruiting difficulties in the high-achieving Asian community. "The Asians tend to be very friendly towards the police, but they don't view police service as the kind of profession they want their children in," he said.

Asians have become so established in Leicester that some of them are moving into the surrounding area of Leicestershire, a county with picturesque rural villages, grand country estates and — in a particularly English measurement of traditionalism — five separate hunts.

They often make themselves welcome by reviving dying main-street businesses. "When the Asian people began coming 30 years ago, it was a big shock to Leicester and people didn't know what had hit them," said Anthony Wessel, who lives in the village of Desford and serves as Leicestershire's High Sheriff, a royal appointment. "More have now moved into the county, and they've saved our High Street shops, and people have come to terms with it."

Ms. Hussain said that richer Asians were also buying properties in the suburbs, though she added in a confidential aside that they sometimes didn't stay long. "They leave to go hang out in large white posh houses for a while," she said. "But once they find they're no longer leaders of the tribe, they come back."

Aware that Leicester has achieved a more harmonious mix than other cities in Britain, Mr. Carter, the newspaper editor, is phasing out the Leicester Mercury's 11-year-old Asian edition. "The third generation thinks of Leicester City as their football club, they take part in the same leisure time activities as other people, they watch the same TV shows and take the same interest in national politics," he explained.

Dr. Bonney said he could see the younger generation's embrace of multiculturalism in his own home where his three daughters, ages 7 to 12, are growing up feeling most at ease in a mixed society. "Now when we go to parts of England that are white bastions," he said, "they're saddened at the absence of anyone from the Indian subcontinent."

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