Sunday, 14 August 2011

Was David Starkey's argument on Newsnight racist?

Having watched David Starkey’s appearance on Newsnight, I’m not at all surprised that people have reacted with outrage… as they seemingly do in response to everything these days. Rather than carefully considering his comments and ensuring that they’ve accurately interpreted the point he was making, they’ve heard the words “black” and “white” and cried “racism”.

While I concede that Starkey didn’t articulate his argument well – mostly his own fault, but partly the fault of the others for interrupting him – I feel that it was perfectly discernible (though still not necessarily correct) given a little thought. His argument was that there is a particular black subculture which some white people have now adopted, and that the values of this subculture might have played a role in the recent riots. Perhaps I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, but I really did not perceive that he was arguing that there is a unitary “black culture” to which all black people belong and that this culture is violent.

His argument (at least as I have perceived it) is not a racist one. A racist argument would be that black people inherently have a greater propensity to commit violent crime. He did not make such an argument, or anything like it. The view that most black people are decent, non-violent, and law-abiding is perfectly compatible with his view that there is a particular subculture (which is traditionally black, but to which most black people do not belong) that has destructive values.

Aside from twisting some of his words to portray them as racist, some people have ignored his other comments on the programme which showed that he wasn’t making an argument from race at all. For example, he said “it’s not skin colour, it’s cultural”. He also said that Enoch Powell was “completely wrong” about inter-communal violence, which is the opposite view to the BNP who have been portraying the recent riots as “race riots”.

It is quite sad to see people calling for the end to someone’s career and livelihood on the basis of a misinterpretation.  People like Owen Jones (who was on the show too) seem concerned that Starkey has “opened a floodgate of racism”, but if others misperceive his argument to be about race, then they are merely making the same mistake as Jones himself.

The real question people should be asking is whether Starkey was right to implicate the particular subculture he was referring to as having an important role in the recent riots. 


  1. Amazingly articulated, you should be a journalist; as a 20 something Caribbean law student living in London, I take my hat of to you. Reading the telegraph I became enthralled in this race argument, your use of the word sub-culture was particularly inspiring as you got the whole picture. Thank you Mark.

  2. Starkey is a man with a tendency to be prejudiced. To show how hardcore prejudiced he is, or probably as a cover up for his racism (who knows), he even supports discrimination against himself, as a homosexual. To get back to the point, however, take a couple of his comments. "Listen to David Lammy, an archetypical successful black man, if you turned the screen off so you were listening to him on radio you’d think he was white". This is as if to say the sound of an educated reputable person is synonymous with the sound of a "white" person, and that this class generally excludes "black" people. Those who achieve or have this educated, reputable sound are an exception to the rule that white is good and respectable and black is not. Then he goes on to say what is the flip side of this, that the whites involved in the riots are therefore disowned and have become the horrible thing, which is a person who behaves black. While you don't agree, I think it is very important that Starkey used the word black to refer to the trouble causing group, and made comments like "you don't sound like them", as opposed to specifying that he was talking about a particular subculture, which even if he did specify this, he would still need to clearly define it. He can't just throw out comments against Jamaican patois as if to classify people that speak like this exclusively with the group that is behaving violently and lawlessly, and to imply like I said before that the people who aren't with this group have escaped the judgement by behaving "white". Why is that when hooligans behave like hooligans it can't be that they are hooligans? Why must it be that you have some black or "from another country originally" hooligans and then some decent white British people who were influenced to behave in such a shocking and horrific manner? *Gasp* I can't believe there were white people out there rioting too. How could this be? Well, they're not white anymore, they're black now. The power of words is very important and in a sensitive situation like this, a non racist person would need to be a lot more careful about those generalizations such as those Starkey made. For this to come out in the open was good though because it shows what a lot of people were thinking and feeling even if they did not openly admit before. If this is the underlying emotional climate, don't you realize what's going to happen if people are taking Starkey's viewpoint over this incident? There will be an awakening of xenophobia and racism whether subtle or overt, because this is how the human mind works. The emotional charge of comments like Starkey's will surface in those who agree with them before any rational thought. For example, will people now be increasingly profiled and suspected because they are black and poor, or maybe because they speak Jamaican patois? Not intentionally by those who do not see themselves as racist, but it will probably happen.

    Sawyers, I hope you are not Jamaican.

  3. I think his comment about David Lammy demonstrates that he is arguing from culture and not race. He is pointing out that a black man has reached a level of success and assimilation into English culture that would only allow someone to identify him as black by looking at him. A racist would never accept that a black person could assimilate into English culture in this way.

  4. Even paraphrased or rephrased that still sounds racist. Why is it such an achievement that David Lammy sounds 'white', if indeed he even does? The way in which Starkey said it, oh my gosh, it was as if the man should be applauded for breaking out of the scourge that is sounding like a black person, having reached this "white only" level of success and education. I don't know about Starkey but what is sounding black or white? Let's accept that "you'd think he was white" is what Starkey said, not "successful and assimilated into British culture", so you can't go putting non-racist words in his mouth. And, if like you say, this is what he meant when he said white, don't you see the preconceived notion lurking there? I still think its racist to equate sounding white with sounding good and educated, respectable and British. Are all white people who Lammy apparently sounds like successful and respectable? Are the no successful, respectable black persons in England who sound "black"? The only way a racist could not accept that there are successful black persons is if he or she is in denial of facts that are a matter of mere observation. And what is this assimilation into British culture that you speak of? I'm sure there are different ethnic groups that make up the citizenship of Britain and they have brought diversity to the culture, not being foreigners squatting in Britain but Brits like the white citizens. The people who have not realized or recognized this yet need to just accept that the culture has evolved and there are both awesome and horrible contributions from all the racial/ethnic groups. I don't think its fair in this day and age for whites to take ownership of the English culture like that and treat everyone else like they are just being tolerated there and not a part of the British identity. In fact, its rude, and racist to the other cultural groups that contribute to the nation.

    A black man cannot cease to be black no matter how white he sounds, and even if he does not sound white or is not as successful as Lammy this does not mean he subscribes to that negative subculture being blamed for the rioting. I warned you about the generalization...but if I were to take your use of the word black here, in all instances in your comment, as referring to that subculture with the negative connotations, then your comment makes little contextual sense. Can you tell a hooligan/violent person by just looking at him? Is he black skinned or white skinned or what do you see on him that makes you know he is that type of person, and how is it not absurd for him to be that successful and/or "assimilated into English culture" and still be a hooligan for someone to identify? Then again, that is what Starkey's good English whites who have become black are, that very paradox, if indeed the black culture, and not the rioting people, is to blame for the riots.

  5. Its quite easy for someone (Starkey) to clean up their argument when they realize how they sound and that they are on international television. But by the time he began to intelligently tone down the racism towards the end of the interview, he had already given himself away and there's no denying it Mark. You can defend him all you want but you end up sounding a bit racist too because some of his comments esp the one about Lammy were just plain racist.

  6. You think it didn't occur to Starkey that airing a genuinely racist view on TV wouldn't sound bad? Sorry, but I do feel that you're keen to perceive racism where it doesn't exist.

    The definition of racism is this:

    "a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others."

    As I've shown, Starkey at least doesn't believe the first part. If David Lammy (a black man) can only be identified as black by sight and white people can adopt a traditionally black subculture, then clearly Starkey doesn't believe that there exist inherent biological differences between races which determine cultural or individual achievement.

    The problem is that you're not using the word "racism" as it is defined. Maybe you could attach some other word to his views ('cultural chauvinism'?) or maybe just call him a 'nasty man' or something?

  7. According to Oxford racism can be defined as
    1)the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race , especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. This is similar to your definition. Somewhat archaic, I'd say. Who really thinks like this anymore (consciously at least), especially concerning the inherent biological differences? It takes a certain amount of plain ignorance that's hard to find in people who don't live under a rock these days.
    2)prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person(s) of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior:
    Though not a perfect definition this gets closer to the racism we are dealing with in the 21st century. Overt racism might have declined, or gone into hiding over the years but the motivations that underlie racism still exist and show up in many people on occasion, prime example being Starkey.
    Another definition, describing a less overt form of racism, which is still racism to me until I've found that anthropologists coined a new word for it: inherent but sometimes unconscious discrimination, negative feelings, beliefs or value judgements towards person(s) because they are of another race, coexistent with the denial of any personal racial prejudice.

    We could continue to define this thing but I'm tired of this debate with you. I still think Starkey made some racist and offensive comments. To me its not a question of whether or not he is racist but just how racist, on a scale of overt to aversive.