A brief look: UK historian under fire for ‘racist’ comments on causes of riots

By Rebecca Davis 15 August 2011

Top UK historian David Starkey’s statements about the cultural source of the riots have caused outrage. But are they racist, as critics claim? By REBECCA DAVIS.

Prominent English TV historian David Starkey sparked controversy on Friday night with an appearance on the BBC’s current affairs programme, “Newsnight”, where he claimed the blame for the UK riots could be pinpointed to the fact that “the whites have become black”. The specific flavour of “blackness” he suggests that white youth are imitating, Starkey characterises as a “violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture”.

His remarks have, predictably, caused a furore. Fellow “Newsnight” panellist Owen Jones, who wrote “Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Classes”, said afterwards he considered Starkey’s comments to be a “career-ending moment”. BBC business editor Robert Peston was quoted as saying that “David Starkey’s nasty ignorance is best ignored, not worthy of comment or debate”. Chat-show host Piers Morgan restrained himself to commenting pithily that Starkey was a “racist idiot”.

Watch: David Starkey at Newsnight.

Yet Starkey defenders have also emerged. Author and commentator Toby Young suggested Starkey should be exempt from the charge of racism by virtue of the fact that he was not criticising black culture in general, but a “particular form”. Conservative writer James Dellingpole also rode in as Starkey’s knight in shining armour, saying that “the cultural point he is making is indisputable”.

So were Starkey’s comments racist? In short: yes. For a start, if you want to be treated as making an objective, neutral point, don’t refer to notorious right-winger Enoch Powell, as Starkey did. (Powell was a Conservative MP from 1950–1974, best known for his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, where he suggested that allowing immigration to Britain would cause the rivers to foam with blood.) Starkey said on Friday that he had been re-reading Powell and found his views “absolutely right”.

Starkey also criticised the “Jamaican patois” adopted by many black and white working-class youth, urging them instead to adopt the plummy tones of black Labour MP David Lammy: “If you turn the screen off, so you were listening to him on radio, you would think he was white”. In this statement we South Africans can easily discern the echoes of every racist in this country who comments with visible surprise: “That Lindiwe Mazibuko is so well-spoken”. DM

Read More:

  • David Starkey claims ‘the whites have become black’, in the Guardian.

Photo: Rioters stand in front of a burning barricade in Liverpool August 9, 2011. Violence flared in English cities and towns on Tuesday night but London, where thousands of extra police had been deployed, was largely peaceful after three turbulent nights in which youths rampaged across the capital virtually unchecked. REUTERS/Phil Noble.


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