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David Starkey: lost in darkest England

August 17, 2011

When David Starkey blamed ‘black culture’ for the riots in England I almost choked on a mouthful of Belfast Ale. I’ve always thought of him as a right-wing buffoon, good for a turn on Question Time or Jamie’s Dream School, but not a serious commentator. He certainly takes himself seriously enough, I just never imagined anybody else did. So I was surprised to see him included in a Newsnight debate about of some of the worst rioting seen in the England in decades.

Starkey kicked-off the debate, and set the agenda for most of it, claiming that what lay behind the riots was that whites had become black, sharing a destructive, nihilistic gangster (or gangsta) culture.

He went on to say that a Jamaican patois had ‘intruded’ in England’, leaving many of ‘us’ with a sense of literally living in a foreign country.

He was careful to insisted that the issue was not skin colour but culture, as if that somehow made his remarks alright. But the racist cat was well and truly out of the bag when he said: ‘Listen to David Lammy’, the Labour MP, ‘an archetypical, successful black man, if you turned the screen off so that you were listening to him on radio, you’d think he was white’.

So, to summarise: Blackness = bad: whiteness = good. Simples!

Fuck, where to start with all that.

I’ll give Starkey the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think he’s a racist. He’s an idiot. Nevertherless what he said is racist.

His are the sort of racist remarks that you hear uttered casually by people who are ignorant of racial politics; ignorant of how offensive many careless, commonly held assumptions about race are; and ignorant about the hybrid, cultural lives of many young people in urban areas. His comments are all the more shocking because they are being made by an apparently educated man and not by your doddery aul’ aunt or uncle, who you might be inclined to forgive for not quite getting the nuances of race in the 21st century.

The problem with Starkey’s thesis is he’s way out of his academic field and intellectual depth. He’d prepared for the Newsnight debate by been re-reading Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, when he’d had been better sitting down with Stuart Hall or Paul Gilroy.

We can make the obvious point that there were riots and looting in England centuries before the Windrush generation. We can also make the point that there have been urban gangs and and secret rural associations long before gangsta rappers appeared. We could point to the complex, cultural relationship that white youths have with ‘black culture’. Black musics and styles have long held an exotic and erotic appeal for white British youths. Ali G offers a satirised version of this but the link can be traced back to the late 1950s-early 1960s and the birth of British youth culture.

Peter Meaden, The Who’s first manager, described the Mods of the 1960s as aspiring to be ‘neat, sharp and cool, an all-white Soho Negro of the night’. Hey, maybe Starkey can fabricate some link between ‘black culture’ and the beach fights between Mods and Rockers on bank holidays in the early 60s. Although, show Quadraphenia to a black American or Caribbean audience and I doubt they’ll make any sense of the peculiarly English phenomena at that time of sea-side violence between rival youth subcultures.

In the 60s white, English public school-boys would emulate black bluesmen. In the 70s there was  an alliance between punk and reggae, that laid the way for Two-Tone. The list goes on. What emerges is not white youths somehow becoming culturally ‘black’ but vibrant, cultural hybridity. That’s why Starkey is taking out of his arse when he says a Jamaican patois is intruded in England, leaving many of ‘us’ with a sense of literally living in a foreign country. Kids in London don’t talk Jamaican patois anymore than Madness play Jamaican Ska. There is something specifically English about both.

But I digress because this isn’t the point I really want to make, which is that there’s an interesting historical context within which to see Starkey’s comments about whites becoming black.

Alastair Bonnett points to how the white working class in Britain where initially marginal to the symbolic formation of whiteness. In an article for the Journal of Historical Sociology (Vol. 11 No. 3, 1998) entitled, ‘How the British Working Class Became White’, he argues that for middle and upper class Victorians, racial whiteness symbolised ‘a wide, and highly aspirational, set of social ideals; a synonym for healthy and vigorous civilisation and also, by extension, for ambitious and expansionist capitalism’. The domestic working class were almost entirely excluded from these social ideals and therefore the frame of whiteness. Instead they were seen as lacking the ambitions and virtues of their middle and upper class superiors and therefore frequently coded black.

One of the examples Bonnett sites seems particularly pertinent today, since Starkey has echoed it. In response to riots at the time, The Daily Telegraph (21st August 1866) referred to white working class rioters with as ‘negroes’.

There are a good many negroes in Southampton, who have the taste of their tribe for any disturbance that appears safe, and who are probably imbued with the conviction that it is the proper thing to hoot and yell at a number of gentlemen going to a dinner party.

Bonnett makes clear that this ‘was not a case of mistaken identity, but rather a self-consciously ironic application of an increasingly influential metaphor of social difference, namely colour’.

For Bonnett the inclusion of working class people is linked to shifts in capitalism. The later formation of popularist imperialism and welfare signaled a move away from to laissez-faire towards interventionist and consensual forms of capitalism. This was encouraged in response to growing trade union membership and militancy as well the growth of consumer orientated capitalism. In this context the gap between between the classes narrowed and the marginalisation of the working class from whiteness became untenable.

We might surmise then that the retreat from welfare, the collapse of working class representation and growing inequality has once again left sections of the poor marginal to an English national imaginary that continues to privilege whiteness? The comments of David Starkey and his apologists would certainly suggest that this is the case.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 18, 2011 10:04 pm

    Starkey opened the batting by making two points. His first was that these weren’t riots in the traditional sense of the word, i.e. civil disorder prompted by a political grievance. Rather, they were much less significant than that. They were simply “shopping with violence”.

    Nothing particularly controversial there. It was his second point that set the Twittersphere ablaze.

    “I’ve just been re-reading Enoch Powell,” he said. “His prophecy was absolutely right in one sense. The Tiber didn’t foam with blood, but flames lambent wrapped round Tottenham and wrapped round Clapham.”

    Now, that statement is vintage Starkey. He almost says something inflammatory – “Enoch Powell was absolutely right” – but, after pausing for a nano-second, pulls back from the brink – “in one sense”. He then went on to say what he thought Powell had got wrong – “But it wasn’t inter-communal violence. This is where he was completely wrong” – without saying what he’d got right (apart from the lambent flames). So it’s difficult to say which parts of the Rivers of Blood speech he was agreeing with.

    In any event, that wasn’t the particularly controversial bit. It was the next thing he said that set the cat amongst the pigeons:

    What’s happened is that a substantial section of the Chavs that you wrote about have become black. The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion. And black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together, this language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that’s been intruded in England, and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.

    Is that racist? That was certainly the view of Owen Jones. “What you’re doing is equating black culture with criminality,” he said. It was also the view of Emily Maitlis, who accused Starkey of “using black and white culture interchangeably as good and bad”. (Not exactly unchallenged, then, Mr Corbyn.)

    But I’m not sure Starkey was guilty of racism which, according to the OED, is defined as “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race , especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”.

    To begin with, Starkey wasn’t talking about black culture in general, but, as he was anxious to point out, a “particular form” of black culture, i.e. “the violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture” associated with Jamaican gangs and American rap music. Had he been talking about these qualities as if they were synonymous with African-Caribbean culture per se, or condemning that culture in its totality, then he would have been guilty of racism. But he wasn’t. He was quite specifically condemning a sub-culture associated with a small minority of people of African-Caribbean heritage. (Admittedly, he could have made this clearer.) Rather than being racist, he was merely trotting out the conventional wisdom of the hour, namely, that gang culture is to blame for the riots. The Prime Minister made the same point in the House of Commons on Thursday. (I wrote a blog post on Thursday in which I pointed out the shortcomings of this analysis.)

    In addition, Starkey wasn’t linking this sub-culture to people of just one skin colour, but condemning working class white people – “Chavs,” as he put it – who embraced it as well. “It’s not skin colour, it’s cultural,” he said. Again, if he’s not condemning a culture associated with one particular race in its entirety, but merely condemning a particular sub-culture that’s embraced by blacks and whites alike, then he isn’t, according the OED definition, being racist.

    He then went on to make an almost equally controversial observation about the Labour MP for Tottenham. “Listen to David Lammy, an archetypical successful black man,” he said. “If you turned the screen off so you were listening to him on radio you’d think he was white.”

    Owen Jones leapt on this: “You said David Lammy when you heard him sounded white and what you meant by that is that white people equals respectable.”

    But I don’t think that is what Starkey meant. Rather, he was simply reiterating the point that he wasn’t condemning African-Caribbean men per se. On the contrary, he was condemning a particular sub-culture, one that may have originated in parts of the African-Caribbean community, but which has now been taken up by some white people as well. Condemning a sub-culture that’s associated with certain people of a particular race, but is embraced by blacks and whites, may be provocative, but it isn’t racist.

    No doubt there’ll be people who take issue with this analysis. They’ll point out that Starkey’s “body language” and his “tone” were somehow racist. Perhaps they’ll even dig up other things Starkey has said. But if we confine ourselves to just those things he said on Newsnight last night, he wasn’t guilty of racism. It was just Starkey being Starkey – sailing close to the wind, but never quite crossing the line.

  2. August 19, 2011 12:37 am

    spiffing

  3. Rab permalink*
    August 19, 2011 7:34 pm

    Welcome Jerk,
    As I said in the post, I don’t think Starkey is a racist but he is an idiot and he demonstrated that perfectly by making one the most ill-judged and ignorant contributions to the debate surrounding the riots so far. And lets be clear there is some stiff competition for the most ignorant contribution.

    Your explanation of Starkey’s comments is fair enough, but I’m still left with the question: if Starkey thinks that gangs or gang culture are responsible for the riots then why didn’t he just say that? He didn’t need to mention black or white; there was no need to make reference to ‘us’ feeling like we live in a foreign country. Just say it was gang culture. Fair enough. Wrong. But fair enough.

    But that’s not what he said, I suspect, because knowing Starkey he was trying to be too clever by half when really he isn’t very clever at all, which is why I made the point that he was out of his academic field (and intellectual depth). He knows nothing about linguistics or youth culture as he so ably demonstrated with his comments about Jamaican patois. When he started to read out the text message sent by the young woman it was like watching your dad trying to disco dance.

    In the end, Jerk, I don’t think there is any getting around the fact that his intervention was clumsy and ignorant, and he did equate whiteness with respectability and blackness with criminality. I’ll leave the the question of whether it’s racist or not but his comments do recall the Victorian attitudes that Bonnett writes about in his paper in the Journal of Historical Sociology. It’s the return of those sorts of attitudes (if that’s what Starkey’s remarks are signalling) that I find really interesting.

    Hope to hear from you again. That was an interesting comment. Much better than Academic Anonymous’s ‘spiffing’ contribution which, I’m sure he won’t mind me saying, is a very poor effort for a man who I know has time on his hands.

  4. September 13, 2011 10:39 pm

    My 14 yr old came home from his Lambeth comp today with the news that he and his class had been subjected to the Newsnight Starkey interview in their Citizenship class. The very racially mixed class (the school is roughly 30% white, 30% black, 20% mixed race and 20% all sorts of things) had a pretty uniform reaction.

    They laughed at Starkey for not understanding a single thing about their world. They didn’t take him seriously simply because anyone so off beam wasn’t even worth being angry with.

    Just thought you’d want to know.

  5. Rab permalink*
    September 14, 2011 6:32 pm

    This is great news and has cheered me up no end. I still tend to work myself into a right old rage about Starkey everytime I think of him and his idiotic comments, but the laughter of school kids is a better antidote to Starkeyitis

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