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How the Riots Are Being Made About Race

More than a week has now passed since areas of London, beginning with Tottenham, erupted in rioting and looting spreading to Birmingham and Manchester. Not much else is being discussed in the UK these days be it in the mainstream or through social media and the blogosphere. There hasn’t been much to add to the excellent analyses by Richard Seymour who has been providing us with daily takes on the riots from various perspectives. I am not the only one to have commented about the racial dynamics the riots are creating; Merlin Emanuel asks some crucial questions:

We the black community are not your enemies or the root of the problem. Those of you to the far right, I understand many of your concerns, but please put aside your legitimate reasons for anger and consider this:

Do blacks own poppy field and gun factories? Is it us that take your jobs, raise your taxes and leave you to struggle while the rich and powerful live in luxury?

Is it blacks that neglect your elderly or feed your children poisonous ideals and values?

Is it black people who outsource your jobs to foreign territories and then open up our borders to immigrants who will compromise your right to earn a decent living by working for peanuts?

Gary Younge, incisive as always, pointed to the seemingly incomprehensible anger felt by young blacks at a system they cannot penetrate, but reminded us that the roots of the riots run deeper than race alone. And indeed they do, but despite this the riots, in the way they are being intercepted and interpreted in the dominant discourse, are being made about race. Saying this leads to instant scepticism. In a discussion on Twitter, the novelist Linda Grant claimed that the riots could not be said to be racial because of the multicultural nature of the rioters. Indeed, the young people involved came from all ethnic backgrounds. The fact that the match struck in Tottenham was a reaction to the failure of the police to give adequate answers about the nature of the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan was, as Gary Younge pointed out, largely forgotten by the time the riots had spread to Hackney. These were not echoes of Brixton or Toxteth 1981.

Nevertheless, the push to racialize the events was there from the moment they erupted. On the BBC News at Ten O’Clock last week, the anchor claimed the riots were mainly gang related and that it was a result of wars between different ‘endz’, which she earnestly explained were ‘gangs’ (most people know that ‘endz’ in fact refers to neighbourhoods or postcodes). From then, we heard David Cameron pledge to crack down on gangs; everywhere you turn it’s gang culture what dunnit. While many have been at pains to place Cambridge historian David Starkey’s embarrassing remarks (above) on BBC Newsnight as beyond the pale, his claim that ‘the whites have become black. A particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion and black and white boys and girls operate in this language together’ were made in the context of the constant name-checking of ‘gang culture’.

The interview conducted by the BBC with veteran black writer and activist, Darcus Howe, which went viral on youtube, was not only about bringing the riots themselves back to race, but also saw journalist Fiona Armstrong displaying the worst kind of patronising, colonialist mentality in her rude questioning of Darcus Howe – a grandfather as he reminded her – whom she accused of rioting and dismissed as making unsubstantiated assumptions about the police killing of Mark Duggan. The fact that the BBC apologised for the interview does not excuse the fact that the line of questioning pursued by Armstrong was considered admissible within the context of what is largely seen as rioting by an out-of-control ‘underclass’ which if not all black, is seen as infused with the decadence of a ‘black culture’ synonymous with violence and irresponsibility.

The constant reference to a feckless underclass, lacking in morals and in need of discipline and punishment is anything but new and is discursively as racialized as the direct references to ‘black culture’. The European working classes, as Etienne Balibar among others has pointed out, were conceived of as a race apart in the heyday of the Golden Age of race of the late 19th and early 20th century. The eugenics movement was in large part aimed at keeping under control a feeble-minded underclass which if allowed to breed unchecked would infuse ‘the race’ with a weak strain which would lead to its ultimate demise in the ‘race war’. The interrelation of something being facilely named ‘black culture’ with the equally easy appeal of ‘underclass’ as totem reveals the extent to which poor whites are still thought of in racial terms by the British elite. The rampant use of animalistic language – ‘feral rats’ – demonstrates the ease with which the rioters and looters are portrayed as pests feeding on ‘our’ society, a society many see them as external to, or wish to banish.

Tragically, the deaths of Birmingham brothers Shazad Ali and Abdul Musavir and Haroon Jahan, mowed down during their effort to protect their neighbourhood from looters, is evidence of how the riots are also about the creation of interracial divisions. The English Defence League‘s capitalization on the riots and their claim to be protecting the streets were soon exposed as an excuse to foment further violence. In response to all this, the liberal establishment’s appeal to ‘local black leaders’ further reveals the attempts to racialize the riots. Where are the ‘local white leaders’? There is no such thing because clearly white people do not require local leaders because they are not out of control or in need of being reined in. White  leaders do not need to be named because they are of course the leaders, the government of the country. And as overwhelmingly white leaders they represent middle class white people like themselves outraged at and fearful of the ‘animal-like’ masses.

Which brings us to the question of where all this is going. Black people in the UK are no strangers to the heavy hand of the state. Stop and search, suspicion, harassment, brutality and death in custody or at the hands of trigger-happy ‘officers  of the law’ are nothing new. Impoverished whites don’t fare much better. What is changing, added to years of rolled back civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, is the acceptance that fascist approaches are a necessary evil to control a population seen through the lens of neoliberalism as utterly unable to keep itself in check. Already the rioters are being rounded up and sentenced to jail for the most minor of offences. Water canons and rubber bullets are being prescribed. Black-outs on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been suggested as ways of cracking down on communication between would-be rioters. The backdrop to this is the attack by Cameron on human rights which he has claimed have ‘been interpreted in a way that has undermined morality’. While the critique of human rights is well-founded, Cameron’s attack is all too clear within the racialized context of the post-riots Britain. Human rights for Cameron and his supporters means being too soft on those too different from ‘us’ – the holders of the nation’s morality – to enjoy our tolerance any longer.

Cameron’s pouncing on the opportunity to go towards undoing human rights legislation, something which has been on his agenda since coming to office, is apiece with a belief held by many throughout Europe that hegemonic western liberals have for too long been soft on racial/cultural others who, in turn, have taken advantage of this ‘generosity’. The result is either Muslim fundamentalism or the criminal immorality of cultures (races) destined to destroy us from the inside. The only answer, from this perspective, is to get tougher. The irony of curbing human rights while constantly preaching the moral high ground in the face of Middle Eastern repression or Muslim illiberalism is utterly lost on a ruling class so seeped in the belief of its  own supremacy that it feels justified to act with impunity against a population with which it has lost any shred of connection.

The desperation with which many liberals are attempting to make the post-riots story non-racial is testament to the success of postracialism in making us believe that ‘real’ racism is a thing of the past. Hence, for many David Starkey’s outbursts on Newsnight were utterly beyond the pale. However, beyond the fact that Starkey was merely giving voice to the beliefs of many of those who think that water cannons and rubber bullets are necessary, the racial reading of the riots has little to do with overt racism of this nature. Starkey and his ilk are far from extinct. The real racial subtext is less overt and thus more pernicious. It is about the externalisation of those seen as responsible for the riots, their portrayal as bestial and thus as expendable, extinguishable – necessarily and justifiably so. This has always been the aim of racism: a logic for legitimising the discipline, control and even ultimately the murder of those made utterly other.

Alana Lentin