What can Britain do to prevent more of the street violence that is so uncharacteristic of the British scene? It can provide swift and sure justice for accused lawbreakers. And it can accelerate efforts already underway to get at the problems of unemployment, police relations, and racial discrimination that are reported to underlie the riots in south London on the weekend and in Bristol a year ago.
Worsened economic factors receive most of the blame for the situation that erupted into looting, arson, and clashes with police over the weekened. But racial aspects enter in more than they used to in a country that has only lately become "multiracial."
Current economic hardships fall heavier on the blacks, a term which some Asian nonwhites have begun to apply to themselves in an effort to stand together with the blacks against bias they also feel. Blacks consider themselves a particular target of the "sus" law under which a "suspected person" can be arrested even when no crime has been committed.
In Brixton, where the south London riots occured, the proportion of nonwhites is much higher than the 3 to 4 percent to which it has risen in the population as a whole. So, whatever the variety of underlying causes -- and the number of whites participating -- the appearance was of black youths battling white policemen in what headlines called "race riots."
Citizens of more racially mixed societies, such as the United States, can sympathize with the strains of matching practice to ideals in matters of civil rights and economic opportunity. For many years Britain was in the position of absorbing nonwhite "immigrants" and seeing them in that light. But the immigration has virtually been stopped, except for family members of persons already in Britain. More than 40 percent of Britain's blacks and Asians are now native born.
Hope for constructive accomodation of all Britain's people lies both in specific steps such as youth employment programs and in general attitudes based on improved understanding among Britons. The latter was stressed in a letter to this newspaper just last month from John Wheeler, chairman of the House of Commons Select Subcommittee on Race Relations and Immigration. He noted that, although Britain has had race relations legislation since 1965, "we are increasingly coming to recognize the disadvantages which black people are continuing to experience in our society." He told of his parliamentary committee's close study of the whole question of racial disadvantage. He said that the "central and long-term problem" is that of unconscious racial assumptions:
"By this I mean not only those irrational beliefs about what people of different races are capable of, which can affect the employment and education opportunities of the ethnic minorities, but also the failure to recognize that the minorities may have different needs or different priorities."
An encouraging start has been made. Mr. Wheeler cites polls consistently showing that a majority of Britons "accept that we have a multiracial society." He declares that "we know where we are going and that is to a racially just and equal society."
The goal is not easy. But no lesser one would do for a land that means to the world what Britain does.