Dominic Lawson: We need to talk about the influence of cultures

  • @indyvoices

David Cameron and Ed Miliband are agreed: wickedness is bad and something must be done about it. The Prime Minister yesterday attacked those showing "indifference to right and wrong, people with a twisted moral code, people with a complete absence of self-restraint", while the Labour leader fixed his rhetorical sights on "greed, selfishness and immorality ... our whole country is held back by irresponsibility".

These unexceptionable strictures are their considered response to the looting and riots which terrorised the residents and shopkeepers in some of our largest cities. Naturally Cameron and Miliband have a difference of opinion, not in thinking that immorality is a bad thing, but on the causes of such "absence of self-restraint" and "irresponsibility". The man of the right links it to family breakdown and the acceptance of "bad choices as just different lifestyles"; the man of the left links it to the behaviour of "the bankers who took millions while destroying people's savings".

I tend to agree with Cameron that delinquent behaviour is intimately (though by no means invariably) connected with fractured homes and an absence of solid family life; but if you think that children have been looting shops because they have instead been taking lessons in greed from bankers, suit yourself.

Yet even if you do believe that our young have fallen victim to a moral infection emanating from the City of London, or that they are being unjustly maligned for the consequences of their own relative poverty, you must also have noticed the startling inarticulacy of so many of those now being dragged through the magistrates' courts.

Dr David Starkey has created the controversy he covets by blaming aspects of black culture for the blight of what might be described as "anti-learning". "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 that is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that's been intruded in England."

The offence here was not so much Starkey's sentiments, however provocatively expressed, but the fact that it was David Starkey saying it. Last week I had a call from a friend whose family came here from the Caribbean; he told me that it was "ridiculous to discuss the riots without any reference to black culture".

As ever, we are well behind the American curve. In 2004, in an address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People marking the 50th anniversary of Brown v The Board of Education (which abolished segregation in US schools) the black comedian Bill Cosby launched an eviscerating attack on "gangsta" culture and lingo: "It doesn't want to speak English. I can't even talk the way these people talk: 'Why you ain't where you is go ra?' Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can't land a plane with 'Why you ain't...' You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth. Brown v Board of Education – these people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education and we got these knuckleheads walking around who don't want to learn English."

Cosby, in his rage, was making the point not just that this degraded patois was betraying the original civil rights marchers, but that those who didn't want to learn wouldn't get jobs, and if they didn't get jobs then they were doomed to a choice between poverty or (if they went with the bad guys) crime.

For all that, I agree with Starkey's critics that the problem in this country goes far, far beyond the gangsta culture. While 50 per cent of 14-year-old black Caribbean boys in the UK have a reading age of seven or less, an astounding 63 per cent of white working-class boys are equally illiterate – there is no other word for it. You can blame poverty as the cause rather than just the consequence of low educational outcomes, and cite the fact that white and Caribbean boys eligible for free school meals, on average, do much worse in exams than their better-off peers. Yet how then do you explain the fact that there is no such difference in educational outcomes within Britain's Chinese community? The poor Chinese do as well as the better off Chinese – and indeed, the poor Chinese do much better than wealthier white children.

These figures come from a report by the Black Training and Enterprise Group (BTEG), entitled "What more can we takeaway from the Chinese Community?". Two of its main observations are that "only 15 per cent of British Chinese families with dependent children are headed by lone parents, while 47.8 per cent of Black Caribbean families share the same experience" and that "there is a working-class, popular culture, especially in relation to youth culture, of ...pubs, clubs and binge-drinking. It is a dominant culture... Asian parents have little credence in this domain and try to limit their children's exposure to it."

Over the weekend I spoke to Jeremy Crook, the director of BTEG. He told me that no one from Government had responded to his requests for a meeting, when his report came out last year: "It is beyond me why they weren't interested in discussing it, but they weren't." Perhaps they will be now.