On BBC TV’s recent Newsnight program discussing the London riots, David Starkey, a constitutional historian and honorary fellow of Cambridge University, who presented a popular TV series on the Tudors, claimed that “the problem is that 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 has been intruded in England and that is why so many of us have this sense literally of a foreign country,” he said.
Starkey used coded language to make “whiteness” a synonym for British middle-class values, for law and order and stability, while “blackness” signified the dangerous other, the outsider, the criminal. Asked point-blank whether he thought that “black culture” was responsible for the rioting, he replied obliquely: “Listen to the [language of the] text sent by the girl who had been the Olympic ambassador, who then engages in shocking acts of looting.” “It’s not skin colour, it’s culture,” he said. “Listen to David Lammy, an archetypal successful black man. If you turn the screen off, so you were listening to him on radio, you would think he was white.” (Watch the whole thing here.)
This provoked a storm of protest. But Starkey did not budge from his position. He told The Mail on Sunday: “I said until I was blue in the face on the programme that I was not talking about skin colour but gang culture. A large group of whites have started to behave like blacks. I think that is the most unracial remark anyone can make.” He added later: “David Lammy does sound white, so does [MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington] Diane Abbott, because they’ve had a white cultural experience. It’s one of the reasons they don’t have any street credibility. They have no contact with the young.”
The outcry that followed Starkey’s comments typifies the awkwardness of the British in talking about race. It’s usually discreetly suppressed, but whenever race is discussed openly the assumption of the superiority of British bourgeois values coded as “white culture” is expressed in a crude essentialist attitude.
Starkey’s racialization of culture was elaborated by right-wing commentator James Delingpole. “Listen to how many white kids (and Asian kids) choose to speak in black street patois; note the extent to which hip-hop and grime garage and their offshoots have penetrated the white mainstream; check out how many white kids like to roll like pimps or perps with their Calvins pulled up to their midriffs and their jean waistbands sagging below their buttocks. Is anyone seriously going to try to make the case that this isn’t black culture in excelsis?”
What has really happened, it seems to me, is that there has been a fusion both of languages and outlooks, of an unemployed or unskilled British working-class attitude which rejects middle-class norms of propriety with Afro-Caribbean assertions of identity expressed linguistically in British Creole. While some Afro-Caribbean second- and third- generation immigrants have risen into the middle-class through education and “speak like whites,” others identify with working class defiance of authority and elite cultural values. And white and Asian youth find hip hop and Afro-Caribbean cultural expressions a way to express their rebelliousness and social alienation, a way to oppose middle-class ideals which devalue them.
Starkey’s identification of blackness with a propensity for violence was repeated by another BBC presenter, Fiona Armstrong (otherwise known as Lady MacGregor of MacGregor). Interviewing long-time Afro-Caribbean activist Darcus Howe, she kept asking him if he was shocked by the riots, and when he attempted to explain the police harassment youth, including his grandson, faced daily, she objected “That is not an excuse for what has been happening over the last few days…”
At one point, she said, “You are not a stranger to riots yourself I understand, are you? You have taken part in them yourself.” Howe replied indignantly: “I have never taken part in a single riot. I’ve been part of demonstrations that ended up in a conflict. Stop accusing me of being a rioter and have some respect for an old West Indian Negro, because you wanted for me to get abusive. You just sound idiotic – have some respect.’”
As the guardians of public morality, the BBC later acknowledged it had been a “poorly-phrased question.” But the racialized views of a highly-placed academic and an upper class television anchor attempting to “otherize” non-establishment voices reflect the role of the BBC in reproducing bourgeois ideology. They are afraid that alongside Queen Elizabeth’s English we will also hear Queen Nanny’s.