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. Just what that role was is a matter of great concern to thoughtful black Britons.
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. (The fact that the trouble coincided with Ramadan might—or might not—be a factor in this quiescence.)
The black community suffers other, older and perhaps related problems, too. Black children are disproportionately likely to be excluded from school, and black adults to go to prison (see chart). African-Caribbean males are a special worry. African-Caribbean boys do much worse in school than African-Caribbean girls or African boys. The most recent available analysis of GCSE results by race and sex, which was done in 2009, shows that 56% of African-Caribbean boys got five A-C grades at GCSE, compared with 65% of African boys and 70% of African-Caribbean girls (for all pupils, the figure was 74%).
This is sensitive stuff. Many of the black leaders who are prepared to talk about it do not want to be quoted. They tend to home in on three issues, two of which affect white people too.
The first is family breakdown. David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham in north London, where the first riots broke out, and whose father left when he was 11, has spoken movingly on the subject. He points out that, while family breakdown is increasingly prevalent in white society, it is far more common among blacks: 65% of black Caribbean children in Britain grow up in a single-parent family; nine out of ten of those households are headed by women. Children brought up in one-parent families are more likely to take drugs, drop out of school and end up in prison.
A second concern is culture. Tony Sewell, whose charity, Generating Genius, promotes maths and science among black boys, fingers the rap and hip-hop music that MTV popularised from the 1980s: “Black popular culture used to be based on spirituality and social justice…Now we have a music that glorifies violence, materialism and sex.” Lindsay Johns, a writer who mentors young black people in Peckham, south London, adds another bugbear: “achingly PC educationalists, who call ghetto-speak ‘culturally rich’ and ‘empowering’. Rubbish. It’s a mashed-up, debased language that spectacularly disables our young people, because nobody will give them a job if they talk like that.”
The shortage of other role models and templates of success in the black community makes its youngsters especially susceptible to these influences. Yet they reach others too. “Black male culture is powerful stuff,” says Mr Sewell. Firms use black street culture to sell fashionable goods such as trainers. As a result, he says, it has far more sway among other ethnic groups than it did 20 years ago. “Youngsters in other communities want to be part of it; so if it is a problem for the black community, it becomes a problem for everybody.”
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.
These problems may be entrenched, but they are superable. Mr Sewell’s outfit has helped 40 black boys from tough schools to get into top universities. Leaders of Tomorrow, the mentoring scheme with which Mr Johns volunteers, has helped students get scholarships to some of the country’s best independent schools. Katharine Birbalsingh, an outspoken teacher, is trying to start a new “free school” to combat underachievement in Lambeth, one of London’s poorest boroughs. And, as Mr Lammy points out, “Tottenham has just had its best exam results ever. Most kids in Tottenham weren’t rioting. They were getting good GCSEs.”