In the midst of one of the worst social crises to hit mainland Britain since the war, historian David Starkey provoked a wave of criticism when he claimed on the BBC that an explanation for the mindless rioting and looting was, effectively, that the “whites have become black”.
In doing so, he referred to Enoch Powell and appeared to vindicate his racially controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech from 1968, in which Powell lambasted the mass migration from commonwealth nations to Britain. Starkey’s outburst earned applause from Nick Griffin, among others, who was ‘wondering whether to make David Starkey an honoury Gold Member for his Newsnight appearance’. The positive and great contributions migrants have made over the decades, to both our economy and the social enrichment of our culture, were nowhere to be found on Newsnight.
Like Powell, Starkey is an articulate individual respected within his field. He represents a dangerous, growing phenomenon of racism and bigotry masquerading as intellectualism. Starkey’s comments and the notions underpinning his beliefs are a part of the current anti-immigration tradition; to convey the mindset of racist viewpoints, yet shroud them in flowery sophistry so that they are different only in expression from the EDL and the BNP.
Starkey’s characterisation of blacks came to take on such an offensive meaning to the point that anything positive could not possibly be attributed to black culture. He conveyed this through the medium of David Lammy, who according to Starkey, would be presumed to be white if only he was heard and not seen. He supplemented this with the temerity to suggest to the black panellist that she, too, was not ‘like them’ – ‘them’ being the blacks he had been denigrating.
The most ridiculous aspect of Starkey’s tirade was to conflate all aspects of a diverse group with criminality, suggesting a cultural conditioning predisposed towards lawlessness.
It was a relief to many to see someone as young and intelligent as Owen Jones rightly debunking his racialised comments and the tenuous links he had drawn between race, culture, language and crime. Jones was entirely correct when he said that making dangerous racial prejudices at such a time was not wise, distancing the discourse from a race-based summation of events. In fact, what the riots have shown is a trend whereby highly complex issues have entered the public sphere at a moment of intense public outrage and emotion. The current debates on benefits, housing and criminality are unfortunate not in the discussion of the issues per se, but in the highly charged moment in which these issues have been engaged.
What Starkey failed to understand is that black culture isn’t a homogenous one and his sweeping generalisations ignored the myriad of black cultures and identities. There is no such thing as a uniform black culture, just as there is no ‘white’ culture, and no ‘female’ culture; these groups defy simple classification through being broad and wide ranging, with nuanced sub-divisions, pointing more to the inadequacy of the term than to its efficacy.
Some have found Starkey’s comments shocking but not surprising: the media reporting on the riots has been saturated with subtle racial assumptions, giving the impression of mostly black youths behaving in a feral manner. Such reporting was widespread across all media formats, with a general consensus that whilst such things could be expected in the predominantly deprived black communities of Tottenham, their infiltration into the ‘leafy suburbs’ of white Clapham proved beyond all comprehension.
It should be stressed that the rioters and looters were from all walks of life. In fact, people from a range of nationalities and heritages partook in the wanton destruction. As Diane Abbott highlighted, black youth have their problems and issues, but to carelessly claim that this is something confined to black people, is false and dangerous.
Starkey singled out the ‘foreign patois’ apparently spoken by the rioters as an issue inextricably linked with criminality. To suggest that the only common factor amongst the rioters was that they all talked in the esoteric language of ‘black gangster culture’ is insulting and degrading. Language is codified by culture, environment and society, and it was highly ironic that Starkey overlooked the marginalisation of many youth, particularly through the exact kind of language he was employing, as a possible factor in the eruption of the riots. Indeed the youth may not speak with the flow of his verbal trills, but they choose to express themselves in their own terms; being spoken down to, and identified as ‘undisciplined’, ‘violent’, ‘scum’ etc is unlikely to be a solution to anything.
I am not at all justifying what the rioters have done. It was clearly the livelihoods of their communities and fellow neighbours that were terrorised and destroyed. But it is telling that riots tend to happen under Tory governments. The political ideas of the ‘big society’, the distrust of multiculturalism and the smokescreen used to make drastic cuts to the very services that can help such a situation, all happened under the Tories.
It has to be said that the way the rioters are being spoken about by the political class in this climate is unfortunate. It suggests that discussion of the root causes are unlikely to be explored. The political elites, especially the Conservatives who generally don’t have a good history when it comes to taking care of those less fortunate in society, will now be using the shameful acts of the last couple of days to further their own political aims, while at the same time not addressing the issues, nor making any meaningful changes.
It is clear that in this era of austerity cuts and economic doom, this attempt at a “revolution” of the underclass, a futile one at that, has also paved the way for increasingly racist and fascist view points, setting a precedent for other high profile speakers to come out and air their vitriolic ideologies. It hasn’t been long and already Toby Young has come out in defence of Starkey, and no doubt other political commentators will be coming out to fully support this apparent voice of reason.
For a significant portion of people on the right, Starkey may become a martyr against liberalism and multiculturalism. After justice has been served to the guilty parties, it would be a great disservice to British society if all that is achieved after the riots is a government that penalises young people and minimises any form of legitimate protest. These are exceptional times, and as such, require an exceptional response in understanding how and why events unfolded as they did. We need a meaningful debate about the inequalities in our society at a time where the gap between the rich and poor is ever increasing, with the UK surpassing all nations in Western Europe in this measure.
As Nicholas Nassim Taleb has remarked, these black swan situations are predictable. At the height of the Greece riots a few months ago Taleb was asked by Jeremy Paxman whether it was normal that Britain had not yet seen riots. He replied that what was not normal was fathoming how riots were not taking place everywhere, including Britain. We live in bleak times – and things have just got that little bit bleaker.
Graffiti artwork by Banksy
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.