Déjà Vu All Over Again in Britain

The United Kingdom has endured civil unrest before. This time, multiculturalism is the scapegoat.

Aftermath of the Brixton riots of 1981 (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty)
Aftermath of the Brixton riots of 1981 (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty)

The peaceful protest against the police killing of a black citizen that led to violence and looting in the United Kingdom seems like déjà vu all over again. Trouble has been brewing for decades between the police and black communities in North London. It is the scene of the most recent riots in Tottenham, and the site as well of previous unrest, including the Broadwater Farm riot in 1985, sparked by the stroke-related death of a black woman after conflict erupted between her family members and the police as they searched her home. And the Brixton riots of 1981, 1985 and 1995 — after protests over unwarranted lethal force by police — are an ugly reminder that South London also hasn’t been spared its share of convulsive disputes between cops and citizens.

Like their American offspring, our British kin simply haven’t come to grips with inflamed racial and economic tensions that are ready to ignite at the slightest social provocation. In 1981, Brixton was ravaged by high unemployment and poor housing during a national recession that fed a beastly crime rate. In 2011, during an even more crippling recession, the same factors hold sway, exacerbated by spiraling black unemployment, huge economic inequality and the lowest social mobility of developed countries.

Predictably, few of these factors color the pronouncements of most British politicians and pundits about the riots. Prime Minister David Cameron assailed “the culture of fear” promoted in the street by “thugs” and threatened to curtail social media in the propagation of “violence, disorder and criminality.” Conservative journalist Damian Thompson blamed multiculturalism for the belief among educational elites that gang culture is an “authentic expression of Afro-Caribbean and Asian identity,” saying that his fellow Brits are “seeing a lot of black faces on our screens tonight; it’s a shame that the spotlight can’t also fall on those white multiculturalists who made this outrage possible.”  

But neither Thompson nor Cameron, who earlier this year blamed multiculturalism for the rise of Islamic extremism in the U.K., bother to account for why multiculturalism became such a demand of minorities to begin with: the oppressive exclusion of people of color from the economic and societal fruits of their labor in a European culture that drips with fear of “the other” in its teahouses, think tanks, parlors and Parliament. When black folk and other people of color aren’t featured nightly on the “telly” looting local businesses, they don’t routinely show up in more ennobling roles.