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Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Race played a part, but not as Starkey imagines it

Historian now claims he was talking about the culture of black gangs not race. He blamed black people for causing white anti-social behaviour

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Monday 15 August 2011 00:00 BST

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 apparently 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".

Such ignominious racial and ethnic scapegoating is embedded in Britain's past. Years back, in his sober study, Race, Policing, Lore and Disorder in a Multi-Racist Society Michael Keith wrote of earlier civil disturbances in Britain: "People conceptualized rioting as a form of pathological contagion, commonly associated with black communities, a contagion that threatened to spread from those points at which disorder had first erupted." In one of the most disrespectful interviews I have ever seen on television, the black activist and broadcaster Darcus Howe was accused of being a rioter in the past by a BBC presenter. Of course the usual suspects have come out to blame migration and that new term of abuse, "multiculturalism".

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. And those drunken weekend skirmishes on our streets, well that's just Englanders expressing their melancholia caused wholly by the sight of darkie gangstas roaming their green and pleasant land. And was Dianne Abbot – not accused of any expenses fiddling – the real reason why moralists like Michael Gove and David Cameron claimed what they should not have for expenses?

We now know that a celebrity academic can be stupid and a careless carrier of unattended, infectious bigotry. Well, let me not be too hard on the "national treasure". 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 hardest times back in 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 troublemakers came from a variety of backgrounds. It wasn't an uprising by black Britons against overtly discriminatory police action either, even though the trigger had been the shooting of a young black man by police officers. Nor was this a conspicuous 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 turning into internecine war by the exceptional moral behaviour of the bereaved families. So far, the city has avoided the catastrophic hostilities of yesteryear between black youths and Asian shopkeepers. But, truth to tell, race, religion and ethnicity still stain the way people feel, act and try to understand what has happened.

Why, they ask, are people described as "Asian" when they behave nobly (as they did in Birmingham) and "Muslims" when the story is negative? And, there are complaints from the area where the dead men lived. A Muslim resident told a newspaper: "One black man is killed and there are riots across the UK. Three Asians are killed and you don't see an MP." A young Brummie Asian woman with a black boyfriend has gone into hiding: "They now are sure all blacks are animals when before they just thought that. They will kill us both."

The same antipathy is evident elsewhere. Young black men say they are treated like scum by Arab, Turkish and Asian businesses. It is worrying, too, that some anti-riot groups are identifiably exclusive, like the white battalion in Eltham where Stephen Lawrence was murdered by racists and the muscular Southall Sikh troop, who said they would see off any rioters. Beware of self-made enforcers – vigilantism is volatile and tribal. Consider too the way society has reacted to recent breakouts. When young black men are killing each other, or deeply dysfunctional estate kids of all races tyrannise their neighbourhoods, it is their problem, and few give a damn. Now that they have broken out, sometimes enthusing well brought-up white kids, everybody suddenly takes it very seriously. Race and class determine everything, even when they seem not to.

We can't afford to be so divided, mistrustful and prejudiced against this group or that. The millions who are 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?

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