Tottenham Riots: It's Time for England to Confront Its Race-Related Issues

There are some deep issues which must be handled here if we are to avoid a repeat of this type of violence. Hopefully we can use this as a teachable moment.

In 2011, it's shameful that any of England's citizens feel that violence is the best way in which to express frustration. Watching live online footage of yesterday's rioting in Tottenham from America, I was thrown back to yesteryear.

This is what happened in Tottenham in 1985. Then, it was the Broadwater Farm riots which came about as a result of the death of a black woman, Cynthia Jarrett, who suffered a stroke while police conducted a search of her home. It was also what happened in Brixton that same year, shortly before the Broadwater Farm riot, when Jamaican Dorothy Groce was also shot (and subsequently paralysed) by police. I was five years old, but I remember watching the riots on TV at the time.

One would have expected that, over 25 years on, there would be more effective ways of dealing with such tensions and frustrations. The trouble is, there aren't. And while it is shameful that some of Tottenham's residents responded to the shooting of Mark Duggan by rioting, it's also disappointingly unsurprising.

Although I am a black Britain who is based in the US, I continue to be concerned about the future of the black population in my home country. In 2011, as in 1985, the underlying issues - in particular a sense that black Britons are routinely ill treated by the establishment, the police especially - still have not been resolved. Tensions between black youth and the police in the inner cities have not dissipated. On the contrary, suspicions are endemic. Black leadership is desperately lacking, and the country refuses to tackle these major challenges in any substantive way.

Black people - youth especially - around the country are being left high and dry. The result? Growing violent crime (with black men being overrepresented as both perpetrators and victims) and increasing social and political disaffection. If you re-read reports from the riots of the late 70s and 80s, the very same factors are still at work. The bottom line is that the UK still does not take its issues related to its black British citizens seriously and it is paying the price.

An example of the unwillingness to confront what's really going on here is evident in the commentary that has been provided about last night's Tottenham riots. Many have talked about social disadvantage, disenfranchisement and dissatisfied youth. While that's important, they have however, missed a vital element. These riots were about more than that. These riots were about the social disadvantage, disenfranchisement and disaffection of black people in particular.

Mark Duggan was not just another man - he was yet another black man who was shot and killed by the police. The commentators keep on talking about "the community" without specifying which community they are talking about. And while I understand that "community" is a broad term, let's be straight - this riot relates mostly to Tottenham's black community, a disproportionate minority of which is, as we saw last night, enough to cause significant trouble for the rest.

Tottenham - one of England's most deprived areas - is a troubled area with high rates of violent crime and poverty. But it's not just Tottenham that fits that profile. There are several parts of London that fit this type, and several parts of other English cities that do the same. This unwillingness to deal with deep rooted challenges will continue to undermine England's very progress as a supposedly melting pot nation.

Considering that black Britons have now moved from being recent immigrants to British-born and -raised nationals, these are not issues that will go away anytime soon. For as long as England continues to be ignore or really deal with the serious issues regarding its black inhabitants, its disenfranchised ones especially, there will be more Tottenham-like riots.

The English - and Londoners in particular - prefer not to talk about race. Little weight is given to the experiences of being black in Britain, nor is racism or the intersection of race and class discussed in any meaningful way. Many find race-related topics uncomfortable and believe them to be unnecessary. After all, England does not have US-style segregation. This ignores however, the very real and shocking statistics about what it means to be black and British today. Black children - boys in particular - continue to be at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to education. They are over represented in crime statistics and in prisons. The majority of black populations live in the UK's most deprived areas. It should not take extreme incidents like this for people to wake up to what's happening under their very noses.

This is not just an issue for the government either. As I said, black leadership has failed massively. Apart from a few like MP's David Lammy and Diane Abbott, those at Operation Black Vote and some notable others, many black people are simply silent on these issues. Where are the young people coming up and saying they will not stand for this? Who are we expecting to repair this damage? Who are we expecting to deal with our frustrated youth? Who is setting out and outlining a vision for the future of our young people and holding anyone accountable?

One of the things that I like most about the US - something that stems from their history of having to be self reliant and fight against segregation - is that there is a willingness and a sense of duty and responsibility in some circles for black people to stand up and take ownership and make a difference for their own. Consequently, there are prominent black leaders - activists, intellectuals, politicians and even vocal entertainers like Bill Cosby - who can be counted on to take issues to task. This is a vital, yet missing, facet among black Britons - young ones especially - that is hindering us collectively. We seem to be afraid, perhaps ashamed, disinterested or just plain unwilling to take any ownership which leaves me to ask "if not you or I, then who?"

There are some deep issues which must be handled here if we are to avoid a repeat of this type of violence. Hopefully we can use this as a teachable moment. We don't seem to have learned much since 1985. The only question is, what will be different this time around?


What's Hot