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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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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain