On August 4th, British police shot Mark Duggan, a black British criminal suspect, in Tottenham, London. A peaceful demonstration of Duggan’s supporters demanding to know just what happened and why policed fired at him quickly turned into violence and looting that spread to all major cities of England. Much of the media coverage of the events in Britain and abroad suggested that race was driving the malaise felt by looters and rioters across the country. However, soon writers could not ignore the diverse faces of rioters and looters on the streets of London and beyond, most obviously demonstrated by the London Metropolitan Police’s flickr.com site devoted to identifying criminals caught on camera. In a twist on the recognition of the multiracial nature of the 2011 riots, British historian David Starkey, in an interview aired on BBC, suggested that “the whites have become black”, attributing a negative, anti-society culture to black Britons that is now spreading to the white working class. Although Starkey’s racist comments were simplistic and offensive, they demonstrate that those on the left and right in Britain now understand that conflicts between police and young men in Britain are not limited to or even preponderant among black young men.
Aside from socioeconomic conditions, repeated police encounters like Duggan’s anger young men. However, in contrast to the United States, young white working class men in Britain also frequently experience random “stop and searches”. In my research with teens attending diverse secondary schools I found that both Afro-Caribbean and white working class young men in London were frequently stopped by police. In Chapter 4 of Balancing Acts: Youth Culture in the Global City, I describe how these encounters usually happened on the student’s public housing complex, and students perceived that their style—especially hoodies—had something to do with police perceptions. This finding contrasted with what I heard in New York, where black young men were overwhelmingly more likely to have been stopped by the police than their white and Asian peers.
The politics of race in Britain and the United States differ sharply, and those differences come into sharp relief in Balancing Acts. I found that students at a New York high school were much more racially divided than Londoners. They identified their school’s social groups by race and ethnicity, they were more likely to share friendships and date in-group peers, and they identified who they were comfortable with and uncomfortable with in racial and ethnic terms. Londoners, in contrast, were more likely to think about race-based styles and tastes. For example, one young woman in London told me this about the social groups at her school:
It’s like, there is all black in my group…There is one mixed race person and there is one white person, but the white person…she is more, like, you know, black. The way she behaves is like a black person, and she likes black things….And then you have the all white girls group. It’s mixed—it’s got, oh you might get a one black girl in it. She behaves like more like a white girl….
Race absolutely matters in Britain, and has played a role in social exclusion, for sure. But, it doesn’t always explain social phenomena the way we think it would from the vantage point of the United States.
Natasha Kumar Warikoo is Assistant Professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.