It was a steamy Saturday evening in June, and Mohammed Yasin watched in horror as hundreds of teenagers rampaged through the streets of Bradford, England, for the second night in a row. From the Pakistani restaurant where he works, Yasin, 23, saw the angry rioters--mostly Asian youths--lob bricks and homemade bombs at shops, cars, and the local pub until the police chased them off. "It was like a chaotic kindergarten out there," he says. "I don't think I saw anyone over 20."
Since those rampages in Bradford, riots have erupted as well in the working class towns of Leeds and Luton. Each incident had its share of hard-core troublemakers, but the riots also reflect grim economic realities: Most of those involved were poor, unemployed, city-dwelling youths with nothing better to do and no prospects to strive for. This volatile mix could just grow more dangerous as the British underclass swells. And the despair seen in the mean streets of Bradford and elsewhere will be a hot issue for the Labor politicians seeking to unseat the Conservatives from power.
In macroeconomic terms, Britain should not be a place where a culture of despair sets in. Unemployment, at 8.3% and steadily falling, is one of Europe's lowest. But the rate for 16-to-24-year-olds is a disappointing 15.8%; and among minorities, 29%. Black youth unemployment in Greater London is 62%. Says John Wrench, a University of Warwick research fellow: "We have a whole generation of disaffected youth."
Three decades ago, textile mills, coal mines, and shipyards would have been hiring these young workers. Jerry, 21, a Bradford native of Pakistani origin, says that easy work drew his parents to Britain in the late 1950s. "They were told there were so many jobs that if you left one mill in the morning, you could walk across the street to another and be working by the afternoon." Those jobs are disappearing fast. High-tech and financial service positions are being created at a rapid pace, but many of these jobs require special training and skills that many poor, young Britons lack.
Critics say the situation is made worse by 16 years of social-welfare cutbacks by Conservative governments, beginning with Margaret Thatcher and continuing under Prime Minister John Major. There is no minimum wage, for example. At a Bradford employment office, a job counselor flips through the day's batch of job postings. A typical one is for a part-time garment-factory worker, at about $4 per hour. Most young people have figured out that they can make the same on the dole, which can bring in about $74 a week.
Many critics also say racism helped fuel the sudden outbursts, which involved Asians in Bradford and a mix of Asians, blacks, and whites in Luton and Leeds. "Levels of discrimination are persistently high," says Commission for Racial Equality Director Jean Coussins. Minorities are less likely to get into the training schemes that produce the real jobs.
LIP SERVICE. It's not just the rioters or the unemployed who are feeling this. Mohammed Yasin believes he's a victim of race bias. At the now reopened Silver Jubilee restaurant, Yasin takes orders for Kashmiri chicken even though he has an electrical engineering degree. Like many of his peers, he can't get proper work. "As soon as you walk in for the interview, you know there is no hope," says Yasin, of Pakistani descent.
Unlike the U.S., where mandatory affirmative-action programs may be under fire but where voluntary programs have taken root in many companies, Great Britain has had a law since 1976 that forbids affirmative action, or "positive discrimination." A pessimistic government report concludes that employers pay only lip service to equal opportunity.
Ishtiaq Ahmed, director of Bradford's Racial Equality Council, thinks his city is symbolic of the tensions existing nationwide. "The government seems oblivious to our plight. They are sitting on a time bomb that could be ignited by any little thing." Britons wonder when the next blowup will come.