A silly media row about racism just had to figure in the riots’ post mortem. Was the Tudor history expert David Starkey racist on Newsnight when he said:
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”
The Guardian reports the exchanges with video extract, while from the moderate right, Toby Young judges that “it was just Starkey being Starkey – sailing close to the wind, but never quite crossing the line.”
Racism itself is a basic stereotype as it reduces everybody to a low and false common denominator with added prejudice. But the fact that it exploits real characteristics can’t be avoided. The phenomenon of white kids talking black patois is real enough. It’s becoming a standard, like estuary. Why the denial? You could call it a form of integration instead. This kind of censorship reflex aggravates not averts racial tension by pretending to ignore the bleedin’ obvious.
Many groups have their own peer languages, accent and tone. Starkey ‘s camp posh might seem alien to his Lancashire working class forebears if they could hear him now. Aside from the Tudors and the constitution, Starkey is a professional controversialist. You might ask why Newsnight bothered to cast him when there’s more than enough unforced controversy around just at the moment.
But comment is free. This is no “career ending moment” for Starkey, as someone said on the panel . Often Art offers more insight than Current Affairs. I recommend the novel “On Beauty” by Zadie Smith for a brilliant witty working out of interracial themes including language, set in Ivy League academe in the States and fashionable north London. Leftish white Brit academic Howard rears a family with his beautiful black Jamaican wife Kiki. They find themselves uncomfortably intertwined with a more successful but very right wing academic Sir Montague who happens to be black. Things get very complicated, as Howard finds it difficult to keep his trousers up when Sir M’s daughter Victoria is around…Like Starkey, Howard, a dried up academic snob, hugely objects to his mixed race kids speaking the “patois” – and he is much closer to it than Starkey (or would be if he were real).
So chill, Newsnight critics; Starkey passes the Zadie Smith test.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London