Youth Riots: Urban Rioting and Racial Aspects

Often ‘riots’ are misidentified as uncontrollable outbursts of mindless violence, driven by ‘human wickedness’ or a ‘greed for looting’ (Benyon and Solomos, 1987). In some instances, they are viewed as expressions of a deficient black and ethnic minority culture (Gilroy, 2002). This presentation of ‘black criminality’ shapes public fear and anxiety by creating a ‘riot’ narrative that presents images of black lawlessness, crisis and chaos. Yes, there are ‘race riots’ – this is where large numbers of ‘rioters’ share a racial or ethnic background, i.e. consider Toxteth in the 1980s. But often these events become misunderstood as solely raced events, largely because of media misrepresentations and biased reporting, as well as the ordinariness of racism which means that mainstream society too easily constructs black and minority ethnic populations as problematic. This leads to the ‘riot’ being presented as an event caused by racial faults, i.e. ‘the enemy within’; ‘feral rats’; a deficient black and minority ethnic culture rooted in a proneness to violence, lower IQs or a clash of cultures. For example, consider David Starkey’s appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight programme on 12th August 2011, where he attempted to blame the 2011 Summer disturbances on ‘black culture’.

What remains unacknowledged is how these events are about social injustice. Taking from Benyon and Solomos (1987), I argue that we must view these ‘disorders’ as last-resort eruptions of anger emerging from continued experiences of broader political, social, cultural and economic injustice – some of which may be rooted in racial discrimination. Anger emerging from social injustice simmers away in the minds and lives of its victims. The eruptions (‘riots’) are often the result of a particular sparking event (Benyon and Solomos, 1987). For instance, the spark in the 2001 case of the Bradford disorders was the alleged racist murder of a local Asian youth, but underlying the disorders was the accumulated despair and anger at the racist, class biased and gender discriminatory social injustices felt by the ‘rioters’ over the years (Patel and Tyrer, 2011). ‘Riots’ in this sense then are about frustration, challenge and resistance – albeit not always pursued through legitimate or legal means, and often occurring in ways that appear frightening. But are they maybe a last-resort means for a marginalised population to be heard? I argue that yes, this is exactly what they are, and in this sense we must always consider the wider pre-riot context. For example, consider the case of Brixton in 1995, when no attempt was made to humanise or mark out as significant the death of Wayne Douglas (Malik, 2002). Douglas was the black African Caribbean man who died in police custody prior to the ‘riots’; his death is viewed as the ‘spark’ to the ‘riots’, but behind this were the long-standing accusations about police abuse victimisation of black African-Caribbean youths in the area; the tinder of social injustice.

In addition though, following direction from Patel and Tyrer (2011), we need to question how ‘riots’ are often used to validate crude notions of racial difference and a ‘clash of cultures’, and the ways in which this leads to specialist intervention measures that attempt to civilise these supposedly unruly bodies. This involves an examination of how and why the State responds with harsher forms of policing and punishment when faced with ‘rioters’ of a particular racial or ethnic background. For example, consider Bradford in 2001 where the State responded to the 500 ‘Bradford rioters’ by sending in over 1,000 police officers, many of whom were from riot patrol. Similarly, we saw stark clear practices of over-sentencing of the Asian youth involved in the Bradford events (Alexander, 2005). In this vein, I ask: Why are ‘riots’ still presented as being racially loaded? The answer: because racial divisions sustain power imbalances. It allows blame on an already demonised population: a black and minority ethnic population who are seen as ‘flawed psychologically, morally and socially’ (Owusu-Bempah and Howitt, 2000: 95). This serves to promote a discourse of ‘racist commonsense’, which allows public support to generate in other areas of social control, i.e. immigration. This also serves to divert attention away from the crimes and problematic behaviour of the powerful ‘white’ ruling elite.


Alexander, Claire (2005) ‘Embodying Violence: ‘Riots’, Dis/order and the Private Lives of the Asian Gang’, in Claire Alexander and Caroline Knowles (eds.) Making Race Matter: Bodies, Space and Identity’. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan. pp 199-217.

Benyon, John and Solomos, John (eds.) (1987) The Roots of Urban Unrest. New York: Pergamon.

Gilroy, Paul (2002) There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. Introduction to the Routledge Classics Reprint. London: Routledge.

Malik, Sirita (2002) Representing Black Britain: Black and Asian Images on Television. London: Sage.

Owusu-Bempah, Kwame and Howitt, Dennis (2000) Psychology Beyond Western Perspectives. Leicester: The British Psychological Society.

Patel, T.G. and Tyrer, D. (2011) Race, Crime and Resistance. London, Sage

*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society

Tina G. Patel

Tina G. Patel

Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Salford

Dr Tina G Patel is a lecturer in Criminology at the University of Salford. Her interests relate to 'race', racism, exclusion, police and violent behaviour. Amongst other work, she is currently undertaking research into ethnic profiling in the North West of England, within a counter-terror context.

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