The epidemic of rioting and looting that hit cities throughout England between the 6th and 10th of August has its origins in the police shooting of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black male resident of Tottenham, North London.
The results of the inquiry into the Duggan shooting will have enormous consequences for relations between the police and the black community in Tottenham, where the 1985 riots remain a healing scar. But the racial dimension to proximate cause of the recent riots threatens to point us in the direction of a profound analytical error.
The Scarman Report into the 1981 inner-city riots found their causes in youth unemployment, exacerbated by two powerful factors: disproportionally high unemployment among young black men, and what Scarman called “institutional racism” among police officers.
Poverty, of course, remains the single most important indicator in the recent riots. An analysis of court data from post-riot Manchester by The Guardian establishes that the vast majority of those charged so far come from deprived areas of the city.
But, nationwide, those arrested have included school children, college students, a professional ballerina, an Olympic athlete, and even a trainee social worker. Nor was the rioting confined to poorer areas exclusively, with major incidents in affluent places such as Beckenham and Bromley.
But in terms of race, the rioting crowds were predominantly white in majority white areas, predominantly black in majority black areas. And the remarkable clean-up groups that sprang up spontaneously all over the country have been unselfconsciously racially mixed.
Clearly, we need to guard against any over-racialization of the riots that might stem from the initiating incident. But this does not imply that race and ethnicity have no bearing on the riots and their aftermath. An alleged hit-and-run killing of three young Muslim men by a black male in Birmingham threatens to reignite past tensions between the black and Muslim communities, though the response has been a remarkable peace rally. And, when community self-defense groups emerged during the riots, far-right anti-immigrant organizations in some cases tried to assume the leadership of those groups.
One notorious attempt to racialize the riots came from the historian and broadcaster David Starkey, who argued that the riots happened because young white people were “becoming black.” Equating black culture with lawlessness, Starkey argued that people are “white” or “black” in proportion to their criminality. The near-universal revulsion at his comments illustrates how far Britain’s discussion of race has progressed since the 1980s.
Peter Grosvenor is Associate Professor of Political Science at Pacific Lutheran University, and writes from Manchester, where he is on sabbatical leave.