Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Race is involved, but not as David Starkey imagines


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Well done Starkey, you splendid old chap, for fearlessly voicing your obtuse and racist views on the riots, and exhuming old Enoch to be your witness and prophet. As he sizzles in Hell or flaps his wings through fluffy clouds, the politician must wish he were here today when vulgar chauvinism well enunciated by learned Englishmen has become such a badge of patriotic honour. In his time (well before the PC armies took over these isles) Powell was banished from the Tory front bench by Ted Heath.

It was on Newsnight that David Starkey CBE, shared his perverse opinions. The BBC certainly knows how to pick them. The ill-tempered, snobbish presenter is a Tudor historian and therefore clearly has much to tell us about street action, inner-city life, policing, fractured lives and localities and the distempers of modernity. It's all happening, he says, because white kids have turned "black", are wearing low-slung pants and have absorbed the mutinous ways of Caribbeans and Africans. Jamaican patois, too, has "intruded on England" and made England a "foreign country".

Inevitably, Starkey has been roundly supported by the right and now claims he was talking about the culture of "nihilistic" black gangs not race, as if racism is only ever that extreme revulsion some feel about dark pigment. We should discuss culture specific crimes and behaviours – like honour killings and indeed black violence, or poor education and drug dealing which is the main business activity in some ethnic enclaves. Starkey didn't do that. Instead he blamed black people for white anti-social behaviour. So, the endless, ugly Catholic/Protestant wars in Scotland and Northern Ireland are the fault of people like Ms Dynamite. And violent football fans would be purring pussycats if that dratted MV Windrush hadn't docked.

We now know that a celebrity academic can be stupid and a careless carrier of unattended, infectious bigotry. I suppose this furore does compel us to consider the impact of race and ethnicity on the troubles. These weren't race riots in the good old-fashioned sense. Racial disadvantage still blights prospects in Britain, though there has been much improvement since the early 1980s. Some of the young Britons of colour who came out last week, might have been protesting with terrible inarticulacy against a destiny that never changes. But most of the other rioters came from a variety of backgrounds. It wasn't an uprising by black Britons against discriminatory police action either, even though the trigger was the shooting of a young black man by police. Nor was this a conflict between different ethnic communities or yet another episode of endless strife caused by disaffected Muslims.

The murder of the three Muslim men in Birmingham, allegedly by black men, was prevented from becoming internecine war by the exceptional moral behaviour of bereaved families. So far, the city has avoided catastrophic hostilities of the past between black youths and Asian shopkeepers.

We can't afford to be so divided, mistrustful and prejudiced against this group or that. The millions revolted by what just happened had better understand that to bring greater national unity we need to hear less from the likes of Starkey and more from wise people like Tariq Jehan, father of one of the dead men in Birmingham who talked so movingly about our collective humanity. But, as they would say on Newsnight and other political programmes, where's the story in that?