Paul Vallely: Hating chavs is also a form of prejudice

Was media interest in the death of Stephen Lawrence sparked less by distaste for racism than by regard for his blameless home life?

Share
Related Topics

When I was at university in Leeds in the early Seventies, two policemen were put on trial over the death of a black man called David Oluwale who had been for several years the butt of racist attacks. The homeless rough-sleeper, who had a history of mental illness which began after the first police beatings, was routinely sought out and hit, kicked, urinated upon and mocked as a "lame darkie" by a police sergeant and an inspector. On the charge sheet, when they arrested him, they wrote "Nationality: Wog". After Oluwale, who was known to locals as Smiling David, was found dead in the river Aire, the two officers were charged with manslaughter, and though that charge was dismissed, they were found guilty of assault and jailed.

Certainly things have come a long way since the days of such overt racism, though a defender of the English judicial system might point out that even in 1971 it put the guilty men behind bars. But forgive me if I don't join the cosy consensus about how the conviction of the loutish murderers of Stephen Lawrence is some kind of watershed in British race relations.

The received wisdom is that the way white Britain empathised with a black family's suffering changed the way the nation thought about racism. It changed politics, society and the police. I'm not so sure. There were almost 40,000 race hate crimes recorded in the UK in 2010. Since Stephen Lawrence was fatally stabbed while waiting for a bus, at least 96 people have been murdered, the Institute of Race Relations says, in cases where racial hatred was either proven or suspected. "Racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country," Stephen's mother, Doreen Lawrence, said after her son's killers were found guilty of murder. "The police should not use my son's name to say that we can move on."

There is a faultline here, but it is not race. Polite society has never cared much about members of the so-called underworld killing one another. Attitudes which stretch back to the gangland wars over which the infamous Kray brothers presided, seemingly untouchable, in the Sixties, obtain still when "black on black" executions occur today among drug dealers in Moss Side, Toxteth or Brixton. If those kind of people kill one another so much the better, is the unspoken compact. And the disparagement extends far beyond murder down to the daily lives of the Shameless class with their won't-work, feckless, tasteless, fast-food culture. Let them live like that, polite society sneers, so long as they stay on their sink estates.

It is when they intrude into the lives of the rest of us – as they did so spectacularly during last summer's riots – that a line is crossed and disdainful tolerance ends. In the Lawrence case that happened not with the poor boy's murder, nor with his family's anguished response. It happened during the Macpherson inquiry into the original hopelessly inept police investigation of the crime.

When the five youths accused of killing Stephen left the inquiry, swaggering and vicious and spitting venom, something snapped in the mind of Middle England. These white youths were not "people like us". Rather they were dark doppelgangers who stood for everything Middle England feared in itself and rejected. They came from families with criminal backgrounds. The Lawrences, by contrast, were a paradigm of decent family life. Stephen was a Bluecoat boy who wanted to become an architect – and who, contrary to early rumours, was not in a gang, in possession of drugs, carrying a knife, involved in a dispute over a girl or any of the other initial stereotyped bar-room speculation. The anguished mother, Doreen, was an aspiring bank worker. The taciturn father, Neville, was a hardworking painter and decorator.

Serendipitously, one of his jobs was in the home of Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail. That encounter prompted a nodal piece of British journalism with a Mail front page that pictured the five suspects under the headline: "Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us." It was an extraordinarily brave piece of journalism. But it was not, as some have said, a sea change in British attitudes to racism. It was an explosion of an older polarisation of us and them, the deserving and the undeserving.

What distinguished the Lawrence case was the same thing that drove attitudes to the killings of Damilola Taylor (black), Anthony Walker (black), Rhys Jones (white) and in Salford on Boxing Day, Anuj Bidve (Asian). All were nice boys from nice families who encountered the uncontrolled appetites and careless cruelty of feral lawless peers who may have lived nearby but who came, metaphorically, from across the tracks – and had had the temerity not to stay there but had burst through into our world as violently as did the rioters.

So this is not, despite the knee-jerk divide-and-rule posturing of the hapless Diane Abbott, about race. It is not even about class. It is about culture. The historian David Starkey was groping towards an articulation of that when, on Newsnight during the riots, he attacked "chav" culture, though he got it egregiously wrong when he placed a race lens over his argument saying "the whites have become black. A particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion and black and white boys and girls operate in this language together."

The political excrescence of this is what we see in political movements like the English Defence League and the British National Party. Of course thugs such as Gary Dobson and David Norris are more than emblems of white working-class bigotry. As Owen Jones, the author of Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class – who appeared against Starkey in that television debate – has noted, people of all ethnic backgrounds work, socialise and sleep together more in working-class areas than in middle-class ones.

Yet it is inescapable that there is a problem with jobless, alienated youths – black and white alike – who embrace our consumer society's materialist values but reject our social etiquette, system of policing and political processes.

Middle England, above everything else, hates anarchy. So what is it to do with this alienated underclass, not just in its most violent manifestation, but in the festering culture amid which such violence is nurtured? The worst offenders we can lock up. But unless we can bring ourselves to care for the interests of the rest of them, they will continue to show their lack of care for what mainstream society holds dear.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, MVC-4, HTML5) London

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Web Develop...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Ellen E Jones
Scientists have discovered the perfect cheese for pizzas (it's mozzarella)  

Life of pie: Hard cheese for academics

Simmy Richman
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution