While the political class is broadly on the same sheet, the intellectuals are deeply divided with those on the Right suggesting that there was a racial dimension.
An American-style culture war has broken out among British academics and opinion-makers over the underlying causes of the recent riots in London and other cities. While the political class, despite attempting to sound “different,” is broadly on the same sheet, the intellectuals are deeply divided with those on the Right suggesting that there was a racial dimension to Britain's worst street violence since the 1980s because most of the rioters came from a particular ethnic group.
Some have blamed elements of Afro-Caribbean culture such as rap music for contributing to a streak of violence and “nihilism” among black youth. A “collapse of family values” and a “lack of work ethic” are some of the other factors cited by right-wing commentators for “restlessness” among the young of Afro-Caribbean descent.
Those on the Left reject this racial stereotyping of a whole community arguing that many of these problems are also prevalent among other groups, including white working class families. Instead of looking for glib explanations in race and ethnicity the debate should be about “difficult” social and economic issues — racial discrimination and a neglect of inner-city working class communities — facing Britain's black community.
Both sides acknowledge that there is a dearth of enough role models for black youth to look up to and this has resulted in a lack of aspiration among them. But they differ on why there is such a scarcity of high-profile public figures of Afro-Caribbean origin. The Right puts it down to an “inherent aspiration-deficit” among blacks while the liberal view is that it is a lack of opportunities — a “racial glass ceiling” that prevents black people from getting a break in the first place; and, even if they do, hinders further progress up the professional ladder. They are grossly under-represented in nearly every area of public life from politics to media, academia, and arts and culture.
The most controversial intervention on the Right came from historian and broadcaster, David Starkey, a colourful figure and a favourite of television producers. His attempt to import race into the debate has been likened to the behaviour of a “blustering old fogey” gatecrashing into a party where until he arrived everyone has been at their best etiquette.
Before Dr. Starkey's provocative intervention, the causes of the August riots had been discussed in the context of social and economic deprivation in the Afro-Caribbean community, with even the Tories avoiding a direct reference to race. Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been attacked for some of his shrill post-riots rhetoric, was careful not to be seen to be singling out and “criminalising” an entire community for the actions of a few. Suddenly, Dr Starkey popped up on the BBC to launch an attack on “a violent, destructive and nihilistic” black culture. The contagion, he warned, was spreading with members of the white working class embracing this culture.
“The whites have become black,” he declared with his trademark dramatic flourish.
In what one critic dubbed his “career-ending moment,” the former Cambridge academic approvingly quoted the late Tory politician Enoch Powell's 1968 speech warning that unchecked immigration would unleash “rivers of blood” in Britain. He said he had reread the speech in the light of the riots and found that Powell had been “absolutely right.”
“His prophecy was absolutely right in one sense. The Tiber didn't foam with blood but flames lambent. They wrapped around Tottenham and around Clapham,” he said. Gesturing towards his co-panelist Owen Jones, author of Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Classes, he said: “What has happened is that a substantial section of the chavs that you wrote about have become black.”
“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 which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that's been intruded in England, and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country,” he said.
Undeterred by Mr. Jones's protest that he was “equating black culture with criminality and anti-social behaviour,” Dr. Starkey went on to argue that “an archetypal successful black man” was more likely to sound like a white person. Referring to the Afro-Caribbean Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, he said: “Listen to David Lammy, an archetypal successful black man. If you turn the screen off so that you are listening to him on radio you would think he was white.”
Well-known black writer and education adviser Dreda Sally Mitchell, a guest on the programme, told him to “stop talking about them and us.”
“You keep talking David about black culture. Black communities are not homogenous. So there are black cultures. Lots of different black cultures. What we need to be doing is ... thinking about ourselves not as individual communities ... as one community. We need to stop talking about them and us.”
The big backlash, however, came from his own professional community. More than 100 academics and graduate students signed an open letter in The Times Higher Education Magazine denouncing his comments as “evidentially insupportable and factually wrong.” Dr. Starkey was guilty of “crass generalisations about black culture and white culture as oppositional, monolithic entities” and his remarks demonstrated a failure “to grasp the subtleties of race and class that would disgrace a first-year history undergraduate.”
At the street level and in the media, some of the reaction to Dr. Starkey's outburst shows that old racial prejudices still lurk under the veneer of multiculturalism and Britain remains a deeply divided society in its attitude to race. There is no dearth of those who believe that he spoke for them and said what they couldn't for fear of being labelled as racist.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, writer and broadcaster James Delingpole claimed that Dr. Starkey's argument was “indisputable.”
“Listen to how many white kids (and Asian kids) choose to speak in black street patois; note the extent to which hip hop and grime garage and their offshoots have penetrated the white mainstream; check out how many white kids like to roll …with their Calvins pulled up to their midriffs and their jean waistbands sagging …,” he wrote.
Not done yet, Mr. Delingpole concluded: “To pillory a man for pointing out such a glaringly obvious cultural fact just because he's white and Right-wing would have been quite wrong even before the riots. Post riots it is positively obscene.”
Outside the more doctrinaire Left-Right divide, there's the view that too many sensitivities around issues such as race, religions and immigration often hinder a rational debate on genuine problems of ethnic groups. Dr. Starkey's views may have been distasteful but in a free and open society there should be no “no-go” areas or “forbidden” territories. The Economist pointed out that the “density” of rioters from one ethnic group suggested that “the race played some part even if few politicians are keen to contemplate it.”
“Just what that role was is a matter of great concern to thoughtful black Britons.”
Libby Purves, a respected cultural commentator, wrote that Dr. Starkey's comments were, no doubt, “clumsy,” but “it would be a pity if his detractors, in their stumbling panic to announce their own non-racism, closed down all discussion of the animating lawless rhetoric of top rappers.”
Free speech campaigners such as John Kampfner, chief executive of Index on Censorship, complained that Britons were “too easily offended” and called for greater tolerance of “contrarian” viewpoints.
“At the risk of sounding old-fashioned, I suggest we dust off a phrase that probably hasn't seen the light of day since the 1950s: ‘I beg to differ.' That should suffice the next time someone sees Starkey talk about blacks on TV or reads (Jan) Moir (a right-wing journalist) in the Mail,” he wrote in TheIndependent.
The most charitable interpretation of Dr. Starkey's outburst came from the Booker-winner Howard Jacobson arguing that he was a victim of the “foolish vanity of a public intellectual.” Given a chance to pontificate, he got carried away by his own vanity and the more he was challenged by his co-panelists the “more he blustered.”
That, to some, sounded like giving too much benefit of the doubt to someone who has form on such matters.