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Economics, Race And Riots: Putting The British Unrest In Historical Perspective

Looking back across urban uprisings of the past half-century, a French scholar of modern British history says the summer riots of 2011 show that the questions are above all about haves and have-nots.

London, last week, after a night of rioting. (George Rex)
London, last week, after a night of rioting. (George Rex)
Olivier Esteves

Watching the wave of violent, urban riots spreading throughout England, it is worth first looking back to 1958 in Notting Hill, the scene of the first real urban unrest after World War II.

The first comparison presents the difficulty of pinpointing an ethnic or racial cause of the current outbreak of violence. The racial identity of Mark Duggan, killed by the police on August 4, has hardly stirred any debate. The photos of the rioters, which the conservative, mass media have published in the well-used, British exercise of "name and shame," show faces of rioters that are decidedly multi-ethnic: some are white, others black, and still others Asian.

This is nothing out of the ordinary, even as "rioters' in the past were willingly labeled as "racial," though the branding does not stand up to a rigorous analysis of historical facts. Furthermore, after the 1981 riots, only about one-third of the people arrested were from ethnic minorities.

Nevertheless, in England's national memory, the neighborhoods of Brixton (London), Toxteth (Liverpool) and Moss Side (Manchester) immediately call to mind the racial identity of the troublemakers.

The English expression, "race riot," is very popular with the press, as the phrase undoubtedly sells newspapers. However, only the Southall (West End of London, 1981) and Lozells (Birmingham, 2005) riots consisted of a direct confrontation between two distinct ethnic groups.

Some might be tempted to consider Bradford (2001) as a race riot. In fact, more than 90% of the people imprisoned were youth of Muslim, Pakistani origin, directly attacking a majority-white police.

The events of Bradford in 2001, the most serious riot since Brixton in 1981, most notably demonstrated the failure of an approach that is based strictly on enforcing laws and punishing criminals within the "inner city" neighborhoods. As far as politicians and journalists are concerned, on both the left and the right, those studying the causes of these problems end up legitimizing the criminal behavior of otherwise suicidal thugs, which draws a theoretical alliance between social scientists and the lawbreakers, where the former are somehow the useful idiots of the latter.

From Thatcher to Blair

This reminds us of how much Margaret Thatcher, before asking Lord Scarman to commission a report, would hear nothing of the explanation of the 1981 Brixton riots. The most important thing for her was to severely punish the troublemakers. This seems to be the exact approach of David Cameron today.

Between these two conservative figures, Tony Blair assured an obvious ideological continuity, outlined in a1993 column in The New Statesman entitled, "Why Crime is a Socialist Issue." There he coined what would become the magic formula of the Labour party's zero-tolerance policy: "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime."

At times invoked and at other times denounced, this soundbite does not truly represent the new Labour approach. In fact, it is really meant to show the repressive approach to the violent, delinquent, and anti-social behavior of crime itself. As for the deeper reasons behind it, they are largely ignored, as demonstrated by the remark of Laurent Bonelli in his analysis of zero tolerance in France: one is hardly ready to find all of the reasons for the flare-up of violence in issues such as job insecurity, joblessness, discrimination, broken households, etc., even if they may be partially the cause of it.

In both countries, and beyond the superficial contrasts often established between two different models of integration, urban violence seems inevitable and cyclical due to the considerable inequalities of wealth that exist, which the economic crisis makes even more apparent. There is also the continuing decline in both countries of the welfare state, even if, whether in Clichy-sous-Bois in France or Tottenham in Britain, the riots didn't carry a clearly articulated political message.

The closure of so many Youth Centers in the U.K. due to budget cuts has accelerated the outbreaks of violence, in an English version (i.e., with hooded youth and violence) of the Italian theatre piece by Nobel laureate Dario Fo, Non si paga, non si paga! (No need to pay, no need to pay!). In other words, walk right out with merchandise from jewelry shops, supermarkets, and convenience stores. The owners of the latter tend to be members of an ethnic minority, and thus opt for self-defense since, just as in France, drastic budget cuts also affect the strength of the police force.

In the end, the inevitability of urban violence, just as in the United States where the inner-city neighborhoods have not burned for a long time now, brings up the issue of what some American historians and sociologists have come to call the "management of marginalization."

Read more in French from Le Monde

photo - George Rex

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