Posted on September 1, 2011

Race and the Riots: A Reckoning

The Economist, September 3, 2011

If there was any consolation to be had from the recent English riots, it was that they did not pit one racial community against the police (as in Brixton and elsewhere in the 1980s), or one such community against another (as in Bradford and elsewhere in 2001). Yet the density of black people among the rioters suggests that race played some part, even if few politicians are keen to contemplate it. {snip}

Black people make up slightly less than 3% of the British population. But in the CCTV snaps of rioters that the police in London, Birmingham and Manchester have put on the internet, slightly more than half seem to be black. Many of the areas in which rioting took place, such as Tottenham, Hackney and Brixton, are largely black. In Scotland, Wales and north-east England, which have small black populations, there was no rioting.

Poverty can only be part of the explanation for this pattern. While blacks are, by and large, poorer than whites, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis are poorer still. There was no disorder in areas with large Asian populations, including in London; CCTV pictures suggest there were few Asian looters. {snip}


The third issue, which is particular to ethnic minorities and perhaps black people above all, is racism, or the perception of it. The unrest in Tottenham began at a protest against the killing of an armed black man by police; some blame police racism for the ensuing violence. At the Samuel Lithgow Youth Centre in Camden, north London, Jessica, a black 13-year-old girl, says her brother was searched twice on a recent shopping outing: “It doesn’t look as though they’re going for any other race.” Stephanie, a 17-year-old girl of Bulgarian origin, concurs. When she hung out with a mixed-race bunch, the police used to search the black boys and nobody else, she says. Official figures lend some credence to these anecdotes: in instances unrelated to terrorism, blacks are five times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites by London’s Metropolitan Police.

Even if the police are more likely to pick on black boys, both the police and society as a whole are far less racist than in the past. Yet history lingers. A teacher says, “Everybody in the black community is told constantly that they’re victims. Parents think the police are racist, the teachers are racist and the establishment is racist. And they tell that to their kids.” If people believe the law to be racist, some may not regard breaking it as morally wrong.