What a difference a week makes. I wasn’t scared by the rioters, I went to a picnic in Wood Green last Sunday and to a club in the West End on Tuesday, I was not going to give them the power of stopping me living my life. It was sad to see the fear spread across the country because of the actions of relatively small groups of young people, who were taking advantage of a temporarily passive policing approach. Working amongst young people who have done even more terrible things, I know that they are not demons or super villains, so once the authorities decided to take control I knew the unrest would quickly fizzle out. The riots caused enormous damage, lives were lost, homes were burned and businesses were destroyed, and people understandably want to see the perpetrators brought to justice, which is happening. As is usual after terrible events, the humanity of the great British public was quickly displayed, a positive reclaiming of the streets, people coming together to clean up and donations and support given to those who lost everything.
Ironically, it was around this time that I started to feel uneasy, there was a trickle of posts on a football message board I use that laid the blame full square on “the Blacks”, it’s not the first time that I’ve seen such sentiments expressed there, but more people seemed to be saying it without being challenged. “Enoch Powell has been proven right”, they claimed. Some of the comments on articles on the websites of reputable newspapers were overtly racist. Then it was Twitter and Facebook, where even people on my Friends list were laying the blame in part, on immigration. I didn’t get it, the riots were clearly multi-ethnic, and though in London many of those involved were Black, there weren’t that many Black faces in the riots over student fees last year or over the G20 summit in 2009. It reached a peak, that it has not yet come down from, with David Starkey’s hand grenade on Newsnight and every platform that he has been given since. The problems, he says with surety, are that “large group of Whites have started to behave like Blacks” and speak like Blacks. While his words have been condemned by many, there a lot of people who agree with his sentiments. So what do I behave and speak like? Answers on a post card, please.
Factors such as the reported higher degree of absentee fathers in the Black community are being trotted out, but if those figures are not broken down to take into account socioeconomic factors, they give a very distorted picture and suggest a view that I strongly dispute that Black men are either genetically predisposed or have programming that causes them to be more likely to abandon their children than other races. At my office there are 7 Black men, 5 of whom are fathers, 2 of the fathers are in happy marriages, 2 are full-time single fathers and the other has equal custody of his children, that’s the template for Black fatherhood I use. Why are the actions of few thousand rioters, not all of whom are Black, being used to negatively stereotype the 1.2 million Black people in Britain? It’s lazy and unhelpful. Like every other community, Black people are heterogeneous, we originate from different countries, have different religions, have different class backgrounds, you name it. What we do share, along with other ethnic minorities, is an “ethnic penalty”, which is that compared to a white person of the same age, with the same skills and qualifications and living in the same area, we were more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be in a more junior position and more likely earn less than our white equivalent.
We’ve seen this widespread vilification of a minority community in Britain, based on the actions of a few, before. One of the stand out things of the Blair years was how prevalent Islamophobia became, the worlds “muslim” and “terrorist” were so often put together that they became almost interchangeable. Just a few short weeks ago, the early reports here of the Norwegian massacres led many to think that the perpetrator must be a muslim, fortunately self-proclaimed Christian Fundamentalist Anders Behring Breivik was caught, before an innocent community faced another onslaught. Does anyone really think the treatment of muslims over the last decade has helped reduce the alienation they feel? Will the Cameron years see “gangs” be used as shorthand for “Black young people from the inner city” and so we then just write them off and seek only to punish and control them? We must not allow it. This is a great country, but the life chances of a significant minority of our population are determined by where and to whom they are born, their access to a good education limited and likelihood of unemployment high. If we tackle that, address the social inequality that is a growing blot on our copybook, we make things better not just for the dispossessed, but for all of us.