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We’re in danger of not addressing the root causes of the 2011 riots

Posted by Vicki 05 April 2012 : BME , education , criminal justice ,

Today's blog post is written by Ojeaku Nwabuzo, a researcher at Runnymede

On Monday 6 August I read a twitter message from a close friend saying “riots are about to happen in Hackney”. At this point there had been two days of civil unrest in Tottenham and Brixton and I had a feeling it would eventually erupt in Hackney. Why? Well there was a pattern emerging. These were urban areas with high proportions of deprivation, unemployment and minority ethnic people that appeared to be reacting to the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police.

Over the next few months I worked on the Riot Roundtables project; one of the few in-depth inquires into civil unrest in England last year that asked if race was a factor in the disturbances. As part of this project we visited communities across England and overwhelmingly participants in our research said that racial injustice was an underlying cause of the disturbances in August 2011.

Many roundtable participants felt that the death of Mark Duggan, a mixed raced man, had awakened a deep and real memory of historical injustices and grievances that Black and minority ethnic (BME) communities have had with the police and the criminal justice system. Currently, we can see in America how the killing of Trayvon Martin has lead to outrage within the black community and as one commentator said his death “is finally lifting the lid on the US's racist underbelly”.

The Riot Roundtables project also found that racial inequality was also a reason why many people took to the streets. A recurring theme from the research was that high unemployment within BME communities contributed to building frustrations that erupted into the violent scenes we saw across England. Recently the Guardian reported that young Black men are being hit disproportionately hard by the recession and towards the end of 2011 unemployment of young black men rocketed to 56%.

Many have already pointed to public sector spending cuts are a potential cause of the riots. Roundtable participants in our project also spoke of how the loss of public sector jobs impacts on ethnic minorities. One participant said:

"When there is a whole atmosphere of cuts, people are very jittery because people think that it could be me next… Lots of people in Lewisham actually work in public employment in other parts of London. We have a very high proportion of people looking at the future and thinking it is going to be a bit precarious".

The Runnymede Trust will soon be publishing a paper on ethnicity and public sector employment during the current recession which will explore these issues in more detail.

Educational inequality has also been identified as a potential causal factor. In figures released by the Ministry of Defence in February 2012, a high proportion of those arrested for riot related offences were Black males and those identified as having a special education need. A recent report from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner revealed that Black Caribbean boys with special educational needs and on free school meals are 168 times more likely to be excluded from school than a middle class white girl without special educational needs. Furthermore, Runnymede research shows that that for every African Caribbean male undergraduate at a Russell Group University, there are three African Caribbean males aged 18-24 in prison. These statistics are shocking and arguably draw attention to a society that appears to be failing black men at all levels. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the riot roundtable participants cited frustration and anger at race inequalities as a factor in the civil disturbances.

The coalition government has responded to the riots in various ways, most notably referring to the disturbances as “criminality, pure and simple”, but as participants said during the Riot Roundtables if we do not tackle the root causes and work to end racial injustice the cycle of riots in England will come around again.