Getting the London Riots Wrong

Dinner at the pastor’s house for the council grand pooh-bahs and their partners. I was riding the GalPal’s coattails, concentrating on not being first in the buffet line (fail) and not embarrasing her with my sometimes (most of the time?) childish meal-time antics.

Talked turned to travel, foreign countries, the London Riots. As Scooby Doo was known to say, “Ruh roh.”

World Traveler said the problem was Islamic immigrant youth. Then WT pontificated on his predictable thesis. It would be easy to write him off as a parochial, ethnocentric “the world resolves around me and my country” American, but the odd fact of the matter is he’s traveled the world extensively for work and play.

Strangely, experience abroad doesn’t always result in heightened inquisitiveness, humility, and cross cultural understanding.

Not that they’re infallible, but here’s what the NYTimes is reporting about the riots:

Widespread antisocial and criminal behavior by young and usually unemployed people has long troubled Britain.

. . . the riots . . . reflect the alienation and resentment of many young people in Britain, where one million people from the ages of 16 to 24 are officially unemployed, the most since the deep recession of the mid-1980s.

The riots in London began when protesters gathered outside a north London police station after the shooting of a local man by officers. The police have long had troubled relations with racial and ethnic minorities in Britain and have sought to repair these relations, although the protesters have come from all backgrounds.

The article begins and ends with a case study of 19 year old Louis James who is not an Islamic immigrant.

In many ways, Mr. James’s circumstances are typical. He lives in a government-subsidized apartment in northern London and receives $125 in jobless benefits every two weeks, even though he says he has largely given up looking for work. He says he has never had a proper job and learned to read only three years ago. His mother can barely support herself and his stepbrothers and sisters. His father, who was a heroin addict, is dead. He says he has been in and out of too many schools to count and left the educational system for good when he was 15. “No one has ever given me a chance; I am just angry at how the whole system works,” Mr. James said. He would like to get a job at a retail store, but admits that he spends most days watching television and just trying to get by. “That is the way they want it,” he said, without specifying exactly who “they” were. “They give me just enough money so that I can eat and watch TV all day. I don’t even pay my bills anymore.”

Mr. James’s plight reflects a broader trend here. More challenging students. . . have not been receiving the attention they should as teachers, under pressure to meet educational goals, focus on children from more stable homes and those with greater abilities and social skills. Disillusioned, those who cannot keep up just drop out.

Many would no doubt criticize James and there are lots of policy debates to engage in, but shame on me for standing silently by while my fellow church member freely spread his fear of Islam.

I should have said economic dislocation, poverty, broken families, institutional racism, and ineffective schools don’t justify the violence, but explain it far better than your “Islamic immigrant youth” belief. Why scapegoat Islamic immigrant youth? Were they behind soccer hooliganism in the 1980s and 1990s too?

That would have made the dinner conversation a bit awkward, but it probably wouldn’t have damaged the GalPal’s standing on the Council too terribly much.

8 thoughts on “Getting the London Riots Wrong

  1. Yep, the conservatives can’t say they just need to “get a job”, could they? Not everyone can have that entrepreneur spark. Worker bees depend upon the queen bee to give them something to do. Without her there would be chaos.

  2. “…teachers, under pressure to meet educational goals, focus on children from more stable homes and those with greater abilities and social skills. Disillusioned, those who cannot keep up just drop out.”

    As a teacher in the UK, I am deeply offended by the NYTimes’ comments as this is simply not true. The problem is rather that, despite making a concerted effort to help weaker, disillusioned children, and despite working hard to engage them, it is a complete waste of time when there is absolutely no support from ineffective and, dare I say it, bad parents. (See my blog for more details on that issue!)

    • Thanks for weighing in from the inside. This dilemma, how to successfully engage students whose families often don’t emphasize academic achievement, is of course highly relevant here too. Interesting that you’re not denying that teachers have given up on many students. If I understand correctly, you just want credit for having tried hard and you want the blame placed on the parents. I’m not sure how to get more parents to value education and care more deeply about their children’s progress in school, but I do know labeling them “bad parents” won’t accomplish anything.

  3. No you misread me…

    Obviously there will always be some teachers who will have given up on students – can you blame them? From my own experience, being told to f**k off and being called a bender (among other things) by students with a total lack of respect is extremely demoralising.

    I don’t think it’s wrong to want credit for trying hard, do you? And yes, I would like some blame aportioned to parents; there is a very prevalent culture in the UK at the moment which is intent on expecting teachers to raise children whilst parents sit back and do nothing. Primary school teachers have even become expected to potty train children and teach them to clean their teeth!

    Of course, as a teacher, it is my job to do as much as I can to engage students, but I am working within limitations; growing class sizes and mixed-ability classes do not help this. Yes, I have a responsibility to engage my students, yes I am responsible for their academic achievement. I am not, however, responsible for their poor level of socialisation, lack of respect and absence of motivation to work.

    I agree that labelling some parents as ‘bad parents’ won’t accomplish anything… but why is it that society seems to find this unacceptable when it is ok to label a teacher a ‘bad teacher’? All I’m saying is, let’s look to the parents before we start blaming schools for producing the likes of Louis James.

    • I understand and I sympathize. Parents tend to delegate too much to teachers here too. The teacher-parent divide or parent-teacher divide is large and lots of rhetoric is applied to it, but very little substantive work is being done to close it. Little progress will be made until both sides understand each other’s unique challenges and built-up frustrations. Until lower income single parents in particular feel teachers “get it” and feel respected, I don’t see much changing. And until teachers feel greater respect from society more generally, I don’t see the brightest, hardest working, most able young people choosing to enter the profession.

      • Exactly – I entirely agree.

        Obviously this is just one small aspect behind the causes of this week’s troubles. But what is needed is not school reform – it is exactly a way of bringing parents into our confidence as professionals and working with them in the interests of our country’s young people. Unfortunately, experience tells me that no matter how often I hold out that olive branch, there will always be some parents that will not take it.

        Incidentally, I think we should beware of relegating this problem to ‘lower income’ parents – I think that this is a much more far-reaching cultural problem; some of my most engaged parents are single mothers on a very low income, whilst some of the least helpful are middle class couples.

  4. I am not at all sure about the causes of social unrest. But Daniel Hannan* blamed the out of control riots on the Metropolitan police force. As televised coverage showed burning buildings, and the police just standing by, all it took was twitter and tweets, and large numbers of youth bent on crime congregated. Accordingly, the riots were opportunism, enhanced by digital media. Another interesting fact about British law: If police inaction contributed to the escalation of violence, they are liable to pay damages ensuing. If insurance companies are going to pay for damages, the riots need to be labeled as civil disturbances with 11 or fewer participants. Of course, the MET makes the laws. So we might be seeing some debate as to who was at fault in the next few weeks.
    *Daniel Hannan is a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the European Union is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free.

  5. Thanks Suzanne. I especially appreciate your first sentence. My wife thought I may have been too critical of her colleague and maybe she’s right. I simply wanted to convey frustration because A) he wasn’t familiar with the context and B) he was so self-confident in his analysis. It would have been understandable if he had said, “I wonder if disenfranchised Islamic immigrants have played an integral role or not.”

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