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It matters if you’re black or whit­e

Segregated communities are the norm in the US and they seem to be spreading, aggravating social ineq

The consensus at Ian's Bakery, where the scones seem to take their inspiration from the Rocky Mountains framing us, is that the police should have shot back. Footage of the riots in England played for days on the news - a rare penetration of British news that isn't about the royal family into mainstream American consciousness.

A woman in London whose shop had been ran­sacked was shown pleading for police protection. The response was unanimous: give her a gun. "What the hell they doin'?" asked one man. "Shoot 'em." Admittedly this was the Mid­west, where the baker shoots bears in his spare time and hands out the roasted meat free with the breakfast burritos. Still, these people reflected a healthy dose of American opinion that simply would not have put up with what they were watching. They couldn't believe the shop owners were not allowed to defend them­selves, and shook their heads in amazement when I said the police were banned from shooting, too - not even plastic bullets or water cannon.

Another man, a retired army officer studying post-colonial literature - no honky-tonk cowboy - racked his brains to recall disorder of this sort in the US and came up with the Watts riots of 1965. There has been plenty of rioting in the US since then, but it largely occurs around colleges and in poor inner-city areas, so he had not noticed it. The reason why is evident in the suburbs, where I'm writing this: mile upon mile of tasteful clapboard, a low-density sprawl that the writer Eric Schlosser has described as "the architectural equivalent of fast food".

Over the past 20 years, immense subdivisions of small towns have sprung up all over Colorado: "the houses seem not to have been constructed by hand but manufactured by some gigantic machine, cast in the same mould and somehow dropped here fully made. You can easily get lost in these new subdivisions . . . without ever finding anything of significance to differentiate one block from another - except their numbers. Roads end without warning, and sidewalks run straight into the prairie, blocked by tall, wild grasses that have not yet been turned into lawns."

Here is where the white people live, segregated from black America. More than half of America lives in suburban areas; in Europe, two-thirds of us are urban. In tidy houses in neat suburbs, policed by small private armies of security guards and homeowners' committees, white America insulates itself from black.

House rules

With the new suburbs come rules: rules about the size of your trash can, the number of Christmas lights you may display, the colour of your curtains, the weight of the family dog. Professor Setha Low, a former president of the American Anthropological Association, says these rules entrench middle-class values. "Middle-class families imprint their landscapes with 'niceness', reflecting their own landscape aesthetic of orderliness, consistency and control," she observes in Behind the Gates: Life, Security and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America.
This homogeneity in effect excludes ethnic minorities. "Racist fears about the 'threat' of a visible minority, whether it is blacks, Latinos, 'Orientals', or Koreans, are remarkably similar. This is because many neighbourhoods in the US are racially homogeneous. Thus, the physical space of the neighbourhood and its racial composition become synonymous."

You can gate without putting in gates - property prices, residents' associations and just knowing one another's business act as effective barriers to outsiders. "Quiet laws" and indirect economic strategies limiting the minimum lot or house size, cul-de-sacs that allow for easy monitoring of who is where and social regulations complete the separation. In major metropolitan areas of the US, half of all new housing is built and sold as part of a collective regime, with privatised rubbish collection and security, and covenants regulated by governing bodies. One man was fined because his car leaked a spot of oil on the street. A woman was threatened with expulsion for kissing her boyfriend in the driveway. I may not hang out any washing, nor can I leave the rubbish bin out except on Fridays.

The zenith of this "nice, happy" American suburban living is the physically gated community, a "purified" environment where outsiders can be spotted immediately. A third of all new communities in southern California are gated, as is a similar proportion around Phoenix, Arizona, in the suburbs of Washington and parts of Florida. In Tampa, Florida, four out of five home sales valued at $300,000 or more are of prop­erties in gated communities. They come with gates, swipe cards and tight security. And they largely isolate the white middle and upper classes from poorer blacks.

Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans six years ago was an eye-opener for middle-class America. One Midwesterner bemoaned to me the television pictures of all those people "sitting on their fat black asses" and waiting for government help. A more liberal man noted that it was a "wake-up call" to white America, which did not normally see inside the black inner cities.

In the US, as in Asia, Latin America and South Africa, the separation and gating of communities is an accepted symbol of vastly unequal societies in which the winners must be physically protected from the losers. Figures from the US Economic Policy Institute show that, in 2009, the median net worth for white households in America was $97,860 (a fall of 27 per cent in five years); for black households, it was $2,170 (a fall of 84 per cent over the same period).

Black America is finding ways to fight back, with a trend towards flash-mob attacks in upscale department stores and the restaurant districts of cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago. On 29 July, two dozen youths, one as young as 11, beat up and robbed bystanders in central Philadelphia. The city has imposed a weekend curfew of 9pm for minors. In Chicago in June, up to 20 young men violently robbed people in Streeterville, a usually trouble-free area dominated by upmarket shops and skyscrapers. These forays into middle-class white American territory are rare, but becoming less so.

In Europe, we segregate less - and we are less unequal. Median total wealth per household in the UK, according to last year's National Equality Panel report, is £21,000 for black Africans, £76,000 for black Caribbeans and £221,000 for white British. For Bangladeshis, it is £15,000; for Muslims, £42,000; for Indians, £204,000. The figures are not directly comparable with those for the US, but the relative poverty levels are: black America is far poorer relative to white America than black Britain is to white Britain.

Not that we have anything to be smug about. The Equality Panel reported that, by 2008, the UK had the highest level of income inequality since soon after the Second World War. And the average household wealth of the top 10 per cent, at £853,000, was nearly 100 times higher than the wealth of the poorest 10 per cent, at less than £9,000. These figures include property, savings, cars and pension rights.

Geographical segregation, too, is increasing in the UK, not just between north and south, but within regions and local authorities. The north might be far poorer than the south - household wealth in the south-east is 1.7 times that in the north-west - but the variation in wealth is higher in the south and especially stark in London. There is some evidence that the social marginalisation of poorer wards is increasing all over England, with the gap widening between these areas and their locality in terms of health, education, employment and income.

Urban paranoia

The degree of geographical segregation and privatisation of public space in the US will never be matched in England. First, we do not have the space. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge point out in The Right Nation, the US has enough land to give every household an acre and still populate only one-twentieth of the continental United States (excluding Alaska). Second, we do not have the same culture of privatisation, even though our security-patrolled shopping centres mirror the trend and gated living is becoming more popular. The research is mixed as to whether it makes people feel more secure; some say their segregated communities make them feel safe, others have become more paranoid about strangers.
So, without segregation and without guns, what is to be Europe's solution to civic unrest in the face of soaring economic inequality? David Cameron has reached for an answer in the shape of Bill Bratton, the former New York City police chief hired to advise the Prime Minister. Bratton is associated with falling crime rates in US cities due to a "zero-tolerance" approach that Cameron has said he will adopt in the UK. He may be disappointed.

The economist Steven Levitt has conducted research suggesting that the decline in New York's crime rate had more to do with rising numbers of (armed) police, a higher prison population and the legalisation of abortion than Bratton's methods. The drop began before Bratton was appointed, Levitt argues, and other cities that did not employ his style of policing experienced similar falls in crime, once police numbers were taken into account.

Bratton may be a good headline, but he is not the solution. That leaves Cameron with the options of spending more on police and prisons
to match incarceration rates in the US, where black people are three times as likely to be jailed as in England and Wales. Or he could tackle inequality: in inherited wealth, in employment, in wages, in opportunity. But that, as Labour can painfully attest, is the hardest headline to win of them all.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The answer to the riots?