13 August 2011

There's a world outside of the Ghetto

Why is Britain rioting? Being a lefty-liberal type I predictably turn to inequality as an explanation, but the truth is perhaps a little more prosaic. Riots just happen, and have been happening for a long time. But this doesn't mean that radical efforts should not be made to bring the "underclass" back in to society.

Spoiler alert - what follows is a bunch of links, quotes, amateurish armchair anthropologising, and pop culture, with only a vague semblance of coherence ... but ... I'm struggling to digest this whole thing. 

The economics of riots

The cuts matter. Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth conducted a quantitative analysis of social unrest in Europe from 1919 to 2009, and found suggestive evidence that large government spending cuts increase the likelihood of riots. 

Edward Glaeser notes that rioting has actually been a fairly common occurrence in modern democracies, but that actually "across U.S. cities, there has never been much of a link between unrest and either inequality or poverty."

Tyler Cowen has more on the economics here (the comments are also good).

How does all of this apply to London? And where is the sociology of the riots? Durkheim anyone?

We don't really know why they happened, because nobody was listening to these kids.

Laurie Penny argues that ultimately;
The truth is that very few people know why this is happeningThey don’t know, because they were not watching these communities ... Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school. The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news. In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:
"Yes," said the young man. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?"
 "Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you."
 Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’ 
There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now.
This is true even for me. Being a global development obsessive I am somewhat dismissive of 1st world poverty. It just doesn’t compare to the chronic malnutrition and excessive mortality facing millions worldwide. But this violence got my attention.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of 2 charities working with thousands of inner-city youths, continues;
Working at street level in London, over a number of years, many of us have been concerned about large groups of young adults creating their own parallel antisocial communities with different rules. The individual is responsible for their own survival because the established community is perceived to provide nothing. Acquisition of goods through violence is justified in neighbourhoods where the notion of dog eat dog pervades and the top dog survives the best.
When politicians decried that these kids are destroying their own communities they were missing the point. These kids are not part of the community.

When attention is paid to this “underclass,” it is mostly in the form of mocking.

From the New York Times review of Owen Jones’ book; “Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class,”
“Sitting around the table were people from more than one ethnic group. The gender split was 50-50, and not everyone was straight. All would have placed themselves somewhere left of center politically.” Each guest “would have bristled at being labeled a snob.” Disaster arrived, as it always seems to, with the black currant cheesecake. That’s when the talk turned to the economic crisis. One of the party’s hosts joked: “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” The other guests tittered. Mr. Jones stewed.
 The word chav, if your subscriptions to British periodicals have lapsed, is a noun that essentially means “ugly prole”: loutish, tacky, probably drunken and possibly violent. The stereotypical chav is a hormonal 20-something lad in an Adidas tracksuit, sideways Burberry baseball cap and bling, but women can be chavs, too. Think of Snooki with a cockney accent.
 What angered Mr. Jones about the dinner party comment, he explains, is that the joke could easily have been rephrased thus: “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will the ghastly lower classes buy their Christmas presents?” This got him thinking. “How has hatred of working-class people become so socially acceptable?” he asks.
This social exclusion or broken society or whatever you want to call it has clear economic roots. But it is also seems in part to be a simple breakdown in communication. There is just no social interaction between these kids and the rest of society. There is a lack of empathy on both sides.

You can grasp hints of this from popular culture, when Dizzee Rascal, having made it out himself, calls back to his old peers “There’s a world outside of the Ghetto and I want you to see it,” 

a point supported by Emma Jones, a former teacher and resident of Tottenham, North London
what should be done? Most importantly, there must be an end to ghettoisation of poorer communities and the schools within them. Living only with people who have the same problems as you breeds collective anger and mutual resentment of the better off – just as living only with people who are as well off as you breeds collective underestimation of your own privilege, and mutual negative assumptions of the poor. Truly integrated schools and communities need to be developed so people can begin to understand each other.
 This is of course an enormous and long-term task. But things that can be done immediately include ensuring that children in urban schools attend frequent school trips. Too many young people never leave the square mile around their home, therefore it is no wonder that they grow up without prospects – they have no ability or desire to travel elsewhere for work or study. Teachers might occasionally take a class to Trafalgar Square, and are stunned to have half of their London born and bred pupils say they have never been there before.
The problem does not just lie at the bottom. Firstly as Peter Oborne comments, there is moral decay at the top of our society as well as the bottom, highlighting the "theft" by MPs through the expenses abuses.

And aside from morality, there is simply little opportunity or incentive for meaningful interaction between individuals from different social strata. David Cameron's 2006 "hug-a-hoodie" speech on social inequality was actually remarkably progressive (you don't hear much of this from him now though). He does attempt to empathise with urban youth. But what is really telling is that he gets his dose of empathy from a movie rather than an actual real personal encounter. He just doesn't know anyone who lives on a council estate. And why should he?

What is to be done?

Ed Miliband, Leader of the Labour Party, says that we need to give people
"a stake in society, and that we are one society and not two parallel worlds," but he doesn't really say how. 
Suggestively, middle class Alex Turner sings
“Well over there there's friends of mine, What can I say, I've known 'em for a long long time, And they might overstep the line, But i you just cannot get angry in the same way.” 
How does he know them? Probably from school. 

We can build communities through schools, by making sure that schools are socially mixed rather than divided.

The school that I went to had an intake stretching from inner-city Chapeltown out to wealthy suburban Roundhay. Which meant a real mix. Which meant that middle-class kids rubbed elbows with gangster culture, which I am confident was beneficial all round, if we are to have any hope of understanding each other, and any hope of being any kind of society. 

So how about a radical proposal - less parent choice, and more integration of schools across communities. Even if that interaction stops at 18 when the rich kids go off to university, there is immense value in that cross-cultural interaction. 

(And whilst we're at it how about doing something about funding? Average spend per pupil in English state schools is about £5,500, compared with fees for day pupils at private schools of £10,296. Just sayin.)

New Labour was supposed to be about equality of opportunity. Meritocracy. Whatever happened to that eh?

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