Scapegoating Race in the London Riots

Analyzing the Issues Behind the August Violence

Blaming the London riots on race ignores the many other social and economic problems young people are currently facing there, writes Julie Ajinkya.

A demonstrator adds to a bonfire in London. (AP/Paul Jeffers)
A demonstrator adds to a bonfire in London. (AP/Paul Jeffers)

The recent outbreak of riots that spread from London to cities across England may not have been race riots in the traditional sense of the term, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that race discourse has still played a prominent role as people try to figure out exactly what happened. Contrary to arguments made in both England and the United States claiming we exist in a postracial era, various conversations concerning the cause of the riots point to the ongoing significance of race as a social division. For the United States, in particular, as we rapidly become a more racially and ethnically diverse country, the discourse over the riots may hold lessons. Specifically, it suggests that similar economic frustration could lead to class conflict that could also scapegoat communities of color. In response, we need voices who rise above these divisions and argue for our collective prosperity.

The unrest began after an initially peaceful protest over the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, a young black man from the London neighborhood of Tottenham. Before we knew it, any mention of Duggan’s death (and strained race relations with police in Tottenham) was eclipsed in the media as hooded youth, broken storefront windows, and cars ablaze took front stage. In the aftermath of the violence, race has once again emerged in the discourse, but this time as a scapegoat for mayhem that did not seem to have any clear racial undertones.

In contrast to England’s infamous race riots of 1981, 1985, and 1995, which also all began in frustration over what was euphemistically called “intense policing,” the 2011 riots did not seem to erupt over racial disparities in the serious social and economic problems of England’s inner cities. The 120 marchers who gathered outside the police station in Tottenham after Duggan’s death were members of his family and the community calling for justice and a police investigation into his death. Residents of Tottenham believed the shooting was just the latest in a long line of tense race relations with the police. One resident said, "We get pulled over all the time like criminals. If you’re wearing a black hood, [if] you’re a black man, they pull you over for no reason."

But about two hours after the vigil outside of the police station, the streets descended into chaos and multiple witnesses reported that people of “all colours and creeds” ran down the streets looting shops. Over the next few days, violence spread to other boroughs throughout London as well as other cities up north.

Analyzing the riot’s myriad causes

So why did the initially peaceful protest marching for justice degenerate into pandemonium?

Some residents of Tottenham argue that it still had to do with police behavior. The police force’s use of “stop and search” was not only criticized for racial profiling but for youth profiling as well. One youth worker in the area complained that the police “speak to the young people like they’re nothing” and “the only reason why people did what they did is because this is the only way we’re going to get heard.”

But tense police relations don’t quite explain why violence quickly spread to other parts of London and other English cities, and why they were carried out primarily by youth. While Tottenham might have had a history of tense community relations with the police, violence in other areas was less directed at the police and immediately seemed to prey on commercial properties.

Criminality was a popular explanation among politicians who wanted an answer to explain the decline into anarchy but who no longer seemed to have the predictable social division of race to blame—particularly as more young hooded white faces were captured on the ubiquitous British CCTV surveillance cameras. A common conceit reduced the violence to the behavior of organized criminal gangs, with the now-oft-cited reference to UK’s sales of baseball bats and billy clubs that spiked by 5,000 percent at the beginning of the riots.

In order to drive home this argument about reckless, criminal behavior, politicians were careful to underline that these riots were not due to tense race relations. Had this violence been labeled race riots, it would certainly point to the failure of the state’s multiculturalism policy, which allows diverse communities to retain distinct cultural beliefs while respecting those of others. In contrast, some argue that the riots were a macabre sign of multiculturalism’s ultimate success, since rioters came from all communities.

Prime Minister David Cameron, despite declaring earlier this year that “state multiculturalism has failed,” incongruously echoed this positive multicultural assessment of the riots when he denied the riots were about race, because both rioters and victims were white, black, and Asian. In the same speech, he also denied that government cuts were to blame, because commercial enterprises were attacked instead of Parliament, and he said attributing the violence to poverty would insult the millions of people who are also poor yet would never commit such violence against others. Instead, he drove home the point of criminality and pointed to the deplorable behavior of young individuals with a “twisted moral code.”

But why would youth descend into such violence? And why, if it’s insulting to the millions of impoverished individuals to blame this violence on poverty, is it not equally offensive to blame the riots on the entire young generation’s moral decay?

Many of Britain’s youth are experiencing a sense of disenfranchisement that was previously the province of communities of color and low-income populations. The Guardian’s exclusive analysis of the demographics of those arrested and convicted for their participation in the riots thus far shows the defendants are overwhelmingly young, male, and unemployed. It also shows that the London boroughs that were hit hardest by the violence were among the country’s worst unemployment blackspots. Liverpool University’s Alex Singleton overlayed the addresses of defendants with the national poverty indicators mapped by England’s Indices of Multiple Deprivation and found that the majority of people who have appeared in court live in poor neighborhoods. Indeed, 41 percent of suspects live in one of the top 10 percent of most deprived places in the country. The preliminary data also show that 66 percent of neighborhoods where the accused live got poorer between 2007 and 2010.

To be sure, impoverished circumstances do not inevitably cause rioting, any more than one’s membership in any race, ethnic, or religious group. But in the context of high youth unemployment, austerity measures, and social service cuts, it is clear a generation of young people is feeling more marginalized and socially excluded from any opportunities that could help them climb out of desperation. While the incoherent violence of early August cannot be attributed to a single cause, it should be a stark warning about what sort of mayhem may result when a country allows an entire generation to fall behind.

Voices against race-baiting

As complicated as these political, economic, and social issues behind the violence may be, some insist on scapegoating race in these riots. Historian David Starkey, a commentator on BBC2’s Newsnight program, was invited to talk about the cause of the riots, for instance, and immediately turned to a discourse about race. He blamed the disorder on “black gangsta culture,” despite the fact the majority of looters were actually white, illogically noting that “the whites have become black.” He also blamed the popularity of hip-hop and its glorification of such behavior.

A long list of historians signed a letter to the BBC and other broadcasters asking that they think twice before inviting Starkey, who has no record of work on race or class, to speak as an authority on these issues. Darren Chetty, a London teacher whose research focuses on antiracist education and is the coordinator of the Power to the Pupils hip-hop education project, explains his frustration over Starkey’s reductive remarks:

If someone involved in a riot dresses a certain way, or listens to a certain type of music, or speaks in a certain accent, it doesn’t in any way follow that they are rioting because of these things. (And of course I don’t accept that all those who rioted spoke in Jamaican patois anyway!). But I also sense that these things only come up with discussion of black people. I’m old enough to remember the age of football hooliganism in the late 70s and early 80s. This was an overwhelmingly white working-class male phenomenon—but I don’t recall anyone attempting to blame the music these people were listening to or the way they spoke.

BBC2 should at least be applauded for the selection of Starkey’s co-guests that particular evening. He was joined by authors Dreda Say Mitchell and Owen Jones, who both had a considerable amount to say about Starkey’s race baiting. Mitchell works on youth engagement issues and uses hip-hop to teach literature in the classroom. She told Starkey that it’s harmful to make such divisive remarks:

Black communities are not homogenous groups. … there are lots of black cultures. … we need to be thinking of ourselves not as individual communities, but as one community. We need to stop talking about them and us, we need to start talking about our children.

Jones recently published a book called Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, centered on the idea that class hatred is the last acceptable prejudice. The term "chav" itself refers to members of the working class but has also at times been used as an acronym for Council Housed and Violent (a reference to the British system of public housing called council estates). The term is clearly understood as a derogatory slur towards working-class people, as popular travel brochures evidently still market “chav-free activity holidays” and gyms advertise “chav fighting.”

Perhaps brought on the news show to discuss the class composition of the rioters, Jones also contested Starkey’s claims that black culture was the cause of the riots:

It’s utterly outrageous what you’re doing. … you’re equating black culture with criminality. … black culture in this country has made a huge contribution—music and a whole range of cultural ways. … there’s a dangerous climate right now, I think, where to even begin to understand the underlying social and economic causes is seen as justifying mindless thuggery. But it’s not to do that. We have a problem in this country. For example, one in five young people are now out of work … [and] it’s half of young black men. If you have a tiny proportion of people who feel they have no future, and that tiny proportion takes to the streets in the way that just happened, then that is enough to cause chaos on the streets.

While race may not have divided rioters from victims during the recent violence across England, it is clear that the “multicultural” nature of the chaos does not mean that the English have accomplished a postracial society. From police behavior in communities of color to conservative race baiting that blames unruliness on “black culture,” race still operates as an important social division. But we also know that race and class identities are often entangled at the margins of society. What remains to be seen is whether the growing economic frustration will instigate amplified racial and ethnic hostility, as social divisions are blamed for one another’s desperation. As we move forward, more voices like Mitchell and Jones will become crucial to underlining the fact that race and class identities can often lead to shared experiences of disenfranchisement and it does nothing to solve these problems by treating entire groups as monoliths and lost causes.

Julie Ajinkya is a Policy Analyst for Progress 2050 at American Progress.

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Julie Ajinkya

Policy Analyst