Did hip-hop culture play a part in last week's riots? And do you have to come from the inner city to discuss its problems?by David Goodhart / August 17, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Liberal Britain has declared, with relief, that the riots—whatever the hell they were about—were not about race. It is true that after starting black in Tottenham they became whiter as they moved around and then out of London. But the “original sin” of post-war English immigration—the rejection of the West Indians who arrived here, keen to fit in, in the 1950s and 1960s—still lingers like a bad dream over these events. Let me explain, but first a brief recap.
Some Prospect readers thought that in my first blog on the riots I overplayed the “post-political” style of the rioters and underplayed how much they were the bastard offspring of a crass, consumerist, unequal society. And it is true that a large scale riot of underclass youth is a political event even if they have no political spokesmen or demands, and their motives range far and wide (sheer excitement being pretty high up the list). Having had a few more days to watch and listen and read I want to develop some of my instant responses—especially in relation to the issues of race and “the culture of the ghetto” that have been debated since then.
The initial spread of the riots was mainly a result of the police holding back and briefly ceding control of the north London streets. But the fact that so many young people of all races were happy to pour through the breach and take advantage of the power vacuum is, in part, down to the anti-social culture of the inner city street. The “hoodie” culture of disaffection has told young people that their inchoate anger at the “power,” the system, the government, the rich (or their nearest surrogate the shopkeepers), the police—whatever!—is righteous.
Where does this culture come from? Clearly, there is a long tradition of “screw the system” anti-police, anti-authority, and anti-education attitudes at the rough end of the white working class, supplemented in recent decades by a “lumpen intelligentsia” of extreme leftists and anarchists. But the dominant imagery and symbolism of today’s inner city culture has its roots in the black American ghetto, subsequently crossing the Atlantic on the back of hip hop and rap culture in the late 1980s.