London’s Calling But Are We Listening?

Last year, on my second day on the job as the new Senior Director of Economic Programs for the NAACP, I went to London with our President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous to attend a conference on Global Youth Employment. Eight months later I, along with the rest of the world, am seeing images of economically disenfranchised youth throughout England rioting and rebelling.

The ignition for these rebellions appears to be the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, a young Black man, by the police. Youth rioting and rebelling in economically disenfranchised areas in relation to possible racial discrimination and police brutality is that which most Americans are all too familiar.  In a video clip from BBC where Black English migrant, Darcus Howe, is interviewed about the riots, Mr. Howe states that what is happening throughout England are insurrections similar to those throughout the Arab world where youth have been a leading force in street protests demanding change from their government.  Where I agree with Mr. Howe is that these incidents of riots and rebellions from economically disappointed and disenfranchised youth is not something that is limited to the context of London or even England. 

During the 2010 Global Youth Employment Conference  in London, England sponsored by the NAACP, CNBC, The Blackstone Charitable Foundation, the International Youth Foundation and others the crisis of global youth unemployment was highlighted.  Between the years 2008 and 2009 global youth unemployment increased by almost 7 million. This is about 35 times the increase in global youth unemployment that occurred before the recent global recession.  As Business Week wrote in it's February 2011 article The Youth Unemployment Bomb "an economy that can't generate enough jobs to absorb its young people has created a lost generation of the disaffected, unemployed, or underemployed - including growing numbers of recent college graduates for whom the post-crash economy has little to offer."   The relationship between youth unemployment and long term social and economic disenfranchisement coupled with austerity budgeting, which threatens to lessen the opportunities and support provided to the youth of today, reminds me of the words of Dr. King "the people will rise up and express their anger and frustration if you refuse to hear their cries.  A riot is the language of the unheard." 

Laurie Penny in her article "Panic on the Streets of London" writes that:

The people running Britain had absolutely no clue how desperate things had become. They thought that after thirty years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen. They were wrong. And now my city is burning, and it will continue to burn until we stop the blanket condemnations and blind conjecture and try to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain. 

What is happening in Britain today and what happened in France in 2005 and 2007, or Israel with some of its largest demonstrations focused on growing economic insecurity can serve as a warning to the United States.  We must recognize that our current economy is one that can also breed despair which can easily turn to rage.  The record breaking global youth unemployment rate of 13% is far below the 2010 youth unemployment rate in the United States of 19.1%.  Similar to England, youth of color have even worse unemployment numbers.  In the U.S., about 22% of Asian American and Latino American youth are unemployed.  For African American youth the unemployment rate was 33.4% representing just over a third of all African American youth in the labor market.   

There is a consensus as to how to address these types of challenges.  In a 2010 International Labor Organization report on employment trends, it notes that comprehensive training plus programs that include class room and on the job training, technical and non-technical assistance, financial support for the employer and employee, and job placement services have all been shown to have the most success in advancing youth employment.  These type of programs require private/ public sector partnerships in order to properly function.  Recently such a program has been announced in New York City.  Mayor Bloomberg recently announced a $130 million project focused on Black and Latino men that will be funded by two private foundations and the New York City budget.  This program will invest in job training, educational classes, paid internships, and paid mentorship positions all aimed at young Black and Latino men.  This type of local initiative is important but must be replicated on the national level and throughout countries across the globe.  The Global Recession must be met by a global investment into our future and this will mean targeting economically disenfranchised and often times youth of color.  The NAACP and its new Economic Program department is dedicating itself to these type of initiatives and in this globalized 21st century recognize that  bridging racial and economic disparities is not a domestic challenge but an international one.

Dedrick Muhammad is the Senior Director of Economic Programs for the NAACP.