More on Race and the English Riots

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.


  1. Maria Chavez


    Thanks for this thought provoking analysis. You highlight the dominant role poverty plays in the recent riots, while neither letting the British “off” for the their history of or current racism, however your piece also does not let the analysis become an oversimplification of only racism. Witnessing the the riots first hand provides a complex view of the racially mixed civic effort at clean-up, but do you think that the fact that rioting crowds which were predominantly segregated highlights how both race and poverty are in combination important factors to analyze, even if race has evolved from the David Starkey variety? The “unselfconsciously racially mixed” clean up groups provide a lot of hope for me, but the continued poverty (so often along the color line) really must be addressed as well.
    Thank you!

  2. mpaneer

    Having lived in Tottenham; Walthamstow; Kensal Rise; and Wembley, and being an Indian I’ve experienced racism from whites and blacks. I’ve been mugged at knife-point in broad daylight, 3 times. All 3 times it was West Indian kids. Once in Walthamstow, a block from where I lived, another time in East ham when I was close to the subway, and the third time in Brixton. The last one was my fault. I mean, who in their right mind would risk their life to set foot in Brixton?

    When I lived in Manchester, the Fish and Chips place near my street was constantly harassed by the local West Indians. I remember the owner was stabbed as he was getting in to open the place. In the high school I went to in Manchester, the music teacher was locked in the bathroom and raped. The teachers were too scared to confront the big-ass West Indians. I remember walking around in a daze, always scared for my life. The snow fights were brutal. White kids would end up in hospital every year. Pakis and Indian tried their best to survive.

    In my opinion, blacks in Europe and in U.S. want the same equal rights and opportunities as their white counterparts but resent other minorities for their comeuppance. There is internal racism among blacks too. The darker skinned blacks are mocked and belittled. Nigerians, Nicaraguans, and Ghanians are disliked by the local blacks.

    The Police and public officials condone racism, and actively support it. Riots will occur more often because decades of socialism has done nothing to level the playing field. It has had the reverse effect in England. It is essentially a welfare state. Has been that since the early 80s. The manufacturing base has been completely wiped off. Sprawling cities like Manchester and Huddersfield have seen 25 years of urban decay. Get ready for more revolt!

    • Joe

      And a very key problem in US and probably in Europe is that many people of color, esp those who are not black, think about the world from the white racial frame…… Systemic racism is the underlying cause of rioting, as well as classism. Middle and upper class people generally do not riot…anywhere. At least over economic conditions.

  3. cordoba blue

    This post piqued my interest and I read an article about the “History of West Indians in Great Britain”. Interestingly, I just returned from a trip to the Caribbean. My first trip. We went to St.Thomas, Antigua, Tortola and Nassau. Tortola was the least “touristy” and I enjoyed having conversations with the local people. Apparently crime is very low there, and everybody knows everybody else. Especially during the “off-season” time of year, which is in August, the islands function as real communities rather than just photo opportunities and tourist attractions. Everybody I met was very courteous, although a friend of mine,(male) said he found the black islanders hostile to whites when he takes his sail boat around the islands. I have no idea where he got this idea, because I discovered the exact opposite. Anyway, I did notice some white tourists taking a “Oh..they’re just the locals” attitude toward the people who lived there. “Just the locals”? What does that mean? The Caribbean is their home. If they resent your presence, maybe you’re being obnoxious. It’s not like islanders are cardboard boxes put there for your entertainment..they are people and you’re guests in their country..not the opposite.

    “In the 1980s, a black presence was becoming more permanent in small cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and Bristol. In London, Trinidadians settled in Notting Hill, site of the famous Notting Hill Carnivals, and Jamaicans settled in Brixton, where a vibrant Rastafarian culture emerged. But the reactions of both the white British and the government to blacks made it clear that they were, as Walvin notes, “not overseas Brits, but blacks living in white society.” As one West Indian leader in Great Britain at the time explained, “The Notting Hill riots taught us one bitter lesson: we were black first and British last.”

    The article explained that England encouraged black people from its colonies in the West Indies to settle in England, especially during WWII when factory workers were needed as most of the white male population was fighting Germany.
    Following the war, when many West Indians decided to make England their home, many whites felt uneasy and immigration of people from the Caribbean was restricted. Many race riots have occured in England over the latter part of the 20th century. Apparently blacks were receiving many mixed messages: Welcome when we need you, But don’t stay.


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