Britain casually stereotypes its poor, urban youths as a criminal underclass, but this damaging act of alienation should not go as unchecked as it currently does.
One of the strangest features of our society’s enourmous, expanding middle-class – which the majority of us now see ourselves as part of – is its bizarre attitude towards Britain’s poorest citizens. It seems to be acceptable in an unsettling number of circles, publications and people’s mindsets to stereotype poor, inner-city dwellers as ‘asbos’, ‘hoodies’ or ‘chavs’.
This outrageous offence implies criminal activity on the part of people who are not convicted, and is highly alienating. The middle class was utterly dumbfounded that some of their fellow citizens could be so alienated that they could enact chaotic vandalism during this summer’s riots. But this same class has spent years alienating them, by enforcing – both explicitly and implicitly – the pernicious division that has been developed between our poor, urban families and the rest of society.
If ethnic or religious groups were treated with a fraction of the negative assumptions and stereotyping that poor, inner-city young people are, there would be outrage. Just because a prejudice is less familiar does not make it any less obnoxious, dangerous, or socially divisive.
Unfortunately, Britons tolerate the propagation, by certain newspapers, of an unremittingly negative depiction of inner-city youth, based loosely on few facts. In an awful example of newspapers’ irresponsibility, this summer The Express printed a picture of Mark Duggan’s mourners reaching out in prayer towards his coffin.
Their inflammatory caption was “in chilling scenes, youths… lined Tottenham’s streets with their arms outstretched in a ‘gangsta salute’ to ‘fallen soldier’ Duggan”. A measure of the success of these newspapers’ smear campaign is that Britain now thinks David Cameron, who insists that our society is ‘broken’, is the best man to lead us.
In everyday life, our nation also tolerates mockery of its poorer citizens: an equally discriminating and alienating offence. Comic characters such as Vicky Pollard make us laugh at poor, uneducated, ill-mannered people for the sole reason that they are poor, uneducated and ill-mannered.
If comedians mocked the unusual dress and strange mannerisms of African immigrants, we would not be so acquiescent in their use of discriminatory humour. So why are we when it comes to mocking the poor?
A Tory-led government seem likely only to reinforce the division. In a shockingly divisive statement after the riots, Ken Clarke did not condemn criminals specifically, but Britain’s “feral underclass”. No government should ever be allowed to be so alienating to any of its citizens.
Our society seems to have become structured so that a comfortable majority resents and mocks a poor minority. If we allow it to continue, we should expect to see more of the crime, political apathy, dissolution of communities and spectacular vandalism that this unhealthy division has already caused. Alternatively, we could stand up to this prejudice and tackle it.