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Feral savages: post-riot labelling of British Blacks

'Underclass', 'feral', 'feckless': these terms have gained new currency after England's August riots. Although not explicitly racist, together they form a coded language that casts working class and Black communities as the 'enemies within'.

Carl Hylton Bertha Ochieng
18 November 2011

In Britain during the 18th Century any working class group of people demanding radical social or political change were termed ‘the mob’. These were the dangerous ‘masses’ that were particularly feared in England, especially after the 1789 French Revolution. From 1898, according to Geoffrey Pearson in Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears (1983), “troublesome youths who had previously been known more loosely as ‘street Arabs’, ‘ruffians’ or ‘roughs’ – were labelled with an Irish name, ‘Hooligan’, and came to represent actions categorised as ‘un-English’ or ‘un-British’ ”.

Today, the ‘underclass’ are the enemy within, as are ‘radicalised’ Muslims. Bound up in this is the coded language that can be interpreted as indicating people of African/Caribbean descent – in effect, Black.

We are not surprised or shocked by the use of these negative labels and coded language – all or nearly all of the terms used today have been used before; for example, to stigmatise migrant communities such as Irish Catholics and the Maltese. It is largely forgotten that, during the 1950s and early 1960s, prior to the main focus on migrant Caribbean men as the canker on Britain’s body politic, Maltese male migrants were labelled as ‘pimps’ and ‘gangsters’ – as recorded by Geoff Dench in his PhD thesis, Maltese in London (1975). Two terms, however, stand out as having passed into popular discourse after the August 2011 social uprisings that swept across English cities in the week after the death of Tottenham Broadwater Farm resident, Mark Duggan. These are: ‘feral’ and ‘feckless’. 

These terms were of course in use before the English riots of last summer. Jilly Cooper’s popular novel Wicked, published by Banton Press in 2006, has a working-class Black character named ‘Feral Jackson’. A Telegraph review at the time described the character well: “Feral Jackson has learning difficulties and a crack-head mother, but is a 'natural athlete' and lives with his yardie, paedophile uncle. You’ll never guess the colour of his skin.” The term ‘feral’ when linked to human-beings is traditionally used to describe someone who has been raised by a non-human animal – or cut off in some way from the usual human physical, social and psychological contacts and influences – perhaps imprisoned, isolated and deprived of human social interactions. Collins English dictionary (2006) describes ‘feral’ as: “of animals and plants – existing in a wild state especially after being domestic or cultivated”. The word comes from the Latin ‘ferus’, meaning ‘savage’.

In the post-riots context, the term is used to imply wild youths, who are ‘uncultivated’ and outside of ‘our civilized’ English/British society. It is calculated to insinuate that Black youths and by inference, their families and their communities, are savage, implying 17th and 18th Century European colonial concepts about people of African descent while claiming not to be employing a language of race. 

After the social uprisings, David Cameron called for a crackdown on “the 120,000 most troubled families in the country” who have created a ‘broken society’ leading to ‘moral collapse’, which he believes directly led to the ‘riots’. The Daily Mail and other tabloids have been at the forefront of labelling these ‘troubled families’ as ‘feckless’. The term ‘feckless’ has a long history from the 15th Century – where ‘feck’ means vigour, energy and efficiency. With the addition of ‘less’ to become ‘feckless’, the word implies weakness, helplessness, ineffectiveness and futileness. Individuals from ‘feckless’ families (according to Collins) are, ‘irresponsible and lacking character and determination’. There are clear links here to familiar media labelling around Black men, particular fathers and absent fathers. 

The notion of the enemy within the British state changes over time and needs to be re-invented, repackaged and relabelled to clearly distinguish ‘them’ from ‘us’; the cultivated ‘moral law-abiding majority’. The emergence of terms such as ‘feral’ and ‘feckless’ after the August uprisings is part of an ongoing call to stir the ‘moral’ majority into action. While also clearly targeting poor working-class Whites, such language is a short, sharp and coded way to get a set of racist ideas and arguments into popular discourse to aid the implementation of social policy changes that will further marginalise, isolate and penalise Black communities.

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