The racists have lost: Britain has risen above patronising portrayals of identity

Race, crime and the media: an essay.

Part One: Alan thinks rather too much about David Starkey

On 12 August 2011, Newsnight covered the riots that had swept Britain that month, and invited three guests - the historian David Starkey, the journalist Owen Jones, and the author Dreda Say Mitchell, to discuss them. The exchange would spark outrage from the public, the media and front bench politicians, and would arguably end Starkey's broadcasting career. You can’t view the whole thing on YouTube, but to be honest you're better off watching him lay down some deep bars in this remix.

These were the words which caused such a kerfuffle: "I've just been re-reading Enoch Powell," Starkey said. "His prophecy was absolutely right in one sense. The Tiber didn't foam with blood, but flames lambent wrapped round Tottenham and wrapped round Clapham. But it wasn't inter-community violence. This is where he was absolutely wrong."

Then he gestured towards Owen Jones: "What has happened is that a substantial section of the ‘chavs’ that you wrote about have [sic] 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." I’m not going to analyse whether or not Starkey’s a racist. Most people will have a view either way and mine’s no more interesting. I will argue, however, that he’s guilty of two serious crimes for an academic: poor expression and sloppy thinking. The poor expression is obvious. His words imply a simple dichotomy between black and white, as if the first is "destructive" and serves only to infect the other. In fact, he was trying to describe something he saw as a minority sub-culture - black in origin, but subsequently adopted by a minority across the skin colour spectrum. And this diagnosis is at best simplistic and at worse utter arseclap.

The implication was that this "nihilistic gangster culture" was directly responsible for the scenes we saw on our streets that month. As you've seen, he'd go on to cite gangster rap lyrics, and very unintentionally amusing it was too. Now this is where I do have some insight. I’ve spent a lot of time with kids in gangs, and rap just ain’t that big a deal for many of them. “Who listens to studio gangsters?” one once said to me. Now this is a cheap point (of course there are plenty who do like it), but it leads to a serious question: what, exactly, is the “gangster culture” Starkey’s talking about? Because he doesn't define it in any detail, simply conjoining slang language with violent lyrics. Cultures are often a lot more nebulous that they appear.

Is this about violent films? Is, say, the violence in the latest Die Hard better because that’s a white dude killing terrorists whereas something like Kidulthood’s bad because it’s closer to home, even if it shows violence in a less positive light? Or is it about the music? Is Dizzee Rascal a bad influence when he talks about being a black guy doing street robberies and if so does that cancel out the verses he has about trying to live a positive life? Does Pac count when he’s rapping about his mum? Do kids even listen to Biggie these days? Or maybe this is about slang language - but then there are thousands of kids in London who talk the way Starkey’s describing and don't break the law.

Here’s a theory - maybe the “culture" exists as a subjective intersection of all these things, and because we adults who debate this stuff aren’t the primary consumers, we don’t really understand which of them’s important, and how much influence (if any) they have. But you know what? Let’s cut Starkey a break. Let’s pretend that we do know exactly what he’s talking about: “Weeell…it’s that bling bling and rappers round the back of the Corn Exchange (pace S Lee) and shanks and and Justin Bieber getting tattoos. Stop the negative films and music, stop the violence. (Gordon Ramsay glare). DONE.”

Fine. But now we have to consider this old chestnut: "To what extent can cultural products - art, language etc - be said to influence the behaviour of those who consume them, and to what extent are they merely a reflection of pre-existing behaviour?" On the one hand, you have Model A: The simplification that a bunch of white guys in the Middle Ages read the Bible, went to the Holy Land and killed some less white guys. Model B seems more believable: the fact we were stoving each other's faces in with clubs long before the Anglo Saxon poets started dropping rhymes about it. And if you look at art that concerns itself with violence, it's often saying how much said violence sucks. Certainly true of hip hop, if not Anglo Saxon poetry.

Now if you've got art out there that glorifies and/or justifies violence, of course it's unhelpful – but you’ve got to ask how powerful its impact is, and more importantly, why. As a teen I listened to Warren G non-stop back in Southsea circa 1993, and hardly regulated anyone. Yes, it’s more likely to affect the kid living in an estate full of gunmen, but you know what? I just don’t know if it’s the biggest pressure on him in terms of committing crime. So let’s look at areas where there’s a lot of it.

Part Two: Alan annoys the racist middle-aged white guys who comment on his blogs

There’s always been violence in our cities. It was there before the first black immigrants came here, it was there when their kids were born, and it was there when their kids were born. If you look at crime figures – you’ll see a slow, gradual increase – and big spikes in certain areas - throughout the latter half of the Twentieth Century.

"Aha!" Pipes up the racist middle aged moron who perpetually infests my blog comments. "But those areas have something else in common don't they? A whole bunch of black people living in them. Have you not considered that the biggest factor might be something in their nature?"

And here's the problem. You can't tell this soulless goon he's flat-out wrong, because black people are over-represented in the criminal justice system. But the problem is, he's sliced the statistical cake in a certain way, such that he can see a gooey layer of jam that proves his point, but he can't see the five layers of sponge behind it which don't. We have a problem which affects countries across the developed world where there's been an element of ghettoisation. Over the last 30 years, some of us have got richer and some of us have got left behind, and due to the fact that poverty is self perpetuating, and successive iffy housing policies, the people who got left behind have moved geographically closer.

The areas in which they've been congregated have been areas where the amount of crime has gone up. Now in London, Birmingham and Manchester, many of those areas have tended to be high in immigrants. But here's the really important fact: in those areas of the country where white people got left behind, you see exactly the same crime rates and attendant culture. There's a reason when I was researching youth violence that I spoke to white kids in Grimsby rather than black kids in Oxford, and it wasn't that I like the Transpennine Express.

Exhibit A: have a look at this video. It's about gangs in Wythernshawe, and features the kid who famously made a gun sign at David Cameron. There's been violence here for years. But black people? Not so many. Likewise, you get beaten up in Croxteth, you got your beats from a white dude. Same for Bermondsey, and so on. For what it's worth, if a cap gets popped in your ass around Brick Lane, I'm putting money on the fact a Bengali did it. And if you're going to get killed in the UK, the chances are you got stabbed by a Caucasian, because that’s how most violent murders happen in this country.

But in London almost half of all people in poverty are from BME backgrounds. Our media is Londoncentric. Our crime coverage is Londoncentric. QED. There's a really, really stupid school of thought that says the large number of young white criminals outside the capital is somehow still the fault of "black culture" - that these guys picked up a rap CD or watched The Fresh Prince of Bel Air or whatever the hell its proponents think black culture is and decided to start stabbing each other; but that ignores decades of poverty, unemployment and poor educational standards, and I just struggle to buy it. What I'm saying is David Starkey put the cart before the horse - in fact, he put one of the apples that was in the cart in front of the horse, and expected it to drag the horse, the cart and decades of socioeconomic problems all the way through a Newsnight appearance.

And there's one other thing about all this, which is that over the years the media has messed up our perspective of crime. Look at black gun crime, which we all know is a big deal, right? There were 39 gun homicides – white and black – across the country last year. Now admittedly it’s come down, but that leaves roughly 1.8 million (minus, assuming the distribution’s remained the same, about 20) black people across the country whose biggest worry last year was probably getting Olympic tickets. And what about something really big, like the riots? What do they say about our society? Is it collapsing? Well, there were nearly 2,000 rioters brought before the courts, of which just under half were black. So yeah, there’s over-representation there, but there’s also getting on for a couple mil black people barricading their front door and hiding under their bed just like I didn't.

I'm not pretending violent crime and gangs aren't a huge deal for some people in some areas - after all, I've written a book about it - I'm just saying that it's a geographically specific problem, and if you're going to claim it's entirely due to elements of black culture you may as well start saying that murderous GPs or celebrity paedophiles are the result of elements of white culture: there may be smaller risk and protective factors at play buried away in terms of how people act (absent fathers the one to which the media most often turns), but it's a reductio ad absurdum.

Part Three: Alan fails to check his privilege; probably pisses everyone else off

I think the saddest thing about the above argument is that a whole bunch of black people have bought a different narrative, and I think a whole bunch of well-meaning white people have helped sell it to them. I want to turn my attention to the baby-faced firebrand sitting opposite Starkey: Mr Owen Jones.

Now, I feel bad picking on a small time journo like Jones who's clearly struggling to make a name for himself, but that guy was sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I speak as someone with a pretty illustrious history in this regard. He'd later admit he was "paralysed" by Starkey's words - in the video you can hear him stammering something about how black people have made a big musical contribution, which isn’t what you’d call a zinging comeback.

In a series of follow up pieces the next year, Jones visited areas that were hit by the riots. It was largely a good series. But I was struck by the way he started it. The first man quoted in his opening piece is a guy called Stafford Scott, "a race advocacy worker and a friend of [Mark Duggan's] family for nearly 30 years.” Scott’s beef is that “We still don’t know what happened” with regard to Duggan. Later on, he talks to Jones about being arrested under Sus laws in the 1980s, and about the persecution black kids feel due to constant stop and searches.

I’ve never met Scott, but I’ve heard him talk: he’s an impressive guy who's had to put up with some terrible shit as a black Londoner living in the period he has. A lot of cops in the 80s were racist thugs. And a minority of them still are, according to friends I have in the force. But if you’re a left wing hack and you go to a guy like that straight off the bat, you’re setting your parameters pretty early.

No doubt Jones was influenced by the findings of the Guardian’s “Reading the Riots” survey. I was always worried about this one. Journalistic ethics and academic ethics just aren’t comfortable bedfellows. A decent sociological report into a huge epidemic wouldn’t usually generate a headline. Yet there it was in 24pt bold: Blame the Police: Why the rioters say they took part. You can’t reduce the cause of the riots to police behaviour. Any fool could tell you that.

Of course anger at bad policing – perceived or real – was a factor. And you don’t have to read far down the front splash before you see – shock horror – the report found it was just one among many. I suppose the Guardian would argue that the extent to which anger at the police was a factor is an important story. But they’re missing the point. Of course there are too many stop and searches, insensitively carried out, often by young officers or the Territorial Support Group, and they’re humiliating and frustrating for those upon whom they’re imposed. But the thing is, there are cops out there who do understand the needs of the communities within which they work – who are, believe it or not, at least respected by the kids. I know it for a fact. The ‘police’ in that report seemed to be one homogeneous, racist, brutal mass – the “biggest gang” (a line which has been used since, ooh, at least 1990).

The rage at the cops that the researchers’ interviewees are talking about was a symptom of a much bigger, less dramatic malaise, one which usually doesn’t manifest itself in smashed shops and burning buildings. During another debate on Newsnight (5th Dec), Nick Herbert MP said it was hardly surprising the rioters didn’t like the cops – 75% of them had committed crime before. This reading likewise skirted round the biggest factor: the dissociation from mainstream society which happens when areas become ghettoised – when high crime, poverty and welfare dependency become clustered.

You see it all the time if you’re involved in any kind of social work in these areas, and whatever colour most people are, it's the same shit in a different bucket. You see it in the mum telling the council social worker to fuck off; in the dad telling his son he should never snitch or bother going to school. You see it everywhere from Brixton to Salford. These people aren’t rioters or even criminals – but they feel hugely distanced from mainstream society. Riots – and gangs for that matter – are just patterns of behaviour which form the deepest shades on that spectrum - a spectrum that doesn’t care for skin tone. Oh, and there’s the other problem: “racist police” is a much easier answer to give than “I just got caught up in the excitement.”

You can do all the research you want, but if you choose to take a simplistic line on something like this, it’ll get the sanctimonious, clueless big mouths on the right a-huffing and a-puffing, it’ll be lapped up by the ratchet-jawed gasbags on the left who see the conclusions they wanted to see, and all you’ve created is a whole load of artificial racial division that doesn't need to be there.

I'm sick of hearing white middle class hacks in the left-wing media talk about the "black community" like it's one of those alien races that turns up at the Federation AGMs in Star Wars with whichever “community leader” is flavour of the week sitting in one of those pods as its representative. I know for damn sure that some of these guys do NOT speak for everyone in their area (memories here of a well-known "leader" who was always on the local news mouthing off about the cops, while his son was a leader of one of the worst gangs in South London: buddy, if you’re the answer, we’ve really got to think about the problem).

The trouble is, it’s pretty attractive, this vision of black Britain. Or is when you consider the media’s alternative - you know, the “bravery” of occasional Millwall forum contributor Rod Liddle, who blubs about the overrepresentation of black people in the criminal justice system but offers no context whatsoever, just a nod and wink as to why all this might be the case.

It’s a nasty little pincer move; stuck between the choice of perpetrators or victims. It means the media portrayal of the black “community’s” concerns have in recent years ended up set by a few vested interests and some middle class white men who know nothing about their lives (remind me how many black journalists are on newsdesks again). In fact, the reality - whether it’s in arts centres, schools or sports clubs, is a lot more positive. The version we see in the left wing media is less a movement and more misery porn for the coffee shops of Crouch End. What’s that - I’m preaching myself? Well, that makes a change. At least I’m admitting it.

Part Four: Hello young people

And all this patronising bullshit causes endless self-flagellation from black teachers and writers: why are black kids struggling at school and ending up in prison? What are the cultural factors? What about absent fathers? Is the education system racist? What IS to be done? Where’s Katharine Birbalsingh when you need her?

Look, I'm not saying we need to ignore these questions. But I'm pretty certain that my first answer is exactly the same as it would be for the rough ends of Liverpool, Portsmouth and Newcastle: society needs to get fairer. Wage differentials need to be decreased and the quality of state education for kids in poor areas needs to improve. All those other questions are worth asking, but if you prioritise them over those two main ones, I worry you're doing the same thing Starkey did with that apple.

You know the funny thing about all this? I’m talking a lot about poverty and misery, but I’m trying to put out a positive message. You realise what’s happening in our society? We’re getting each other, more and more, day by day, making connections at a rate that’s never been seen before, understanding where each of us is coming from a little better - and a big part of that is social media. Day by day the internet’s bringing home to us exactly how much we can multi-task in terms of our identities. If you do want to be a member of the “black community”, it doesn’t stop you being friends with some ponce from the New Statesman in another tab and posting on the Coldplay message board in another. We can be all these people at once, and it pisses off people who for various reasons would rather the differences between us were emphasised.

They loved the riots. They could say: “we were right”. They don’t speak for the face Britain presented to the world at the Olympics, they don’t speak for most young people, and they sure as hell don’t speak for me. Over the course of the next few weeks I’ll be hanging out with a black girl who acts like a diva, some Australian guys who can’t handle their beer, a Polish guy with a tiny dick and any number of other friends I could wind up by describing without naming them. That’s my community. That’s just how it is for most Londoners in this day and age. It’s fine.

And that’s what upsets the racists who love to come to my blog and kick up a stink: the fact they, and their bitter little prejudices, are dying. So if you’re young, black, white, maybe eggshell and cinnamon, grab your friend, whatever colour he or she is, and step out into the sunlight. You are beautiful, and this is water.

 

A woman walks past a broken cafe window in Clapham Junction after the 2011 riots. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Show Hide image

Is our obsession with class is propping up the powerful?

Are we really all middle class now? Lynsey Hanley finds has fresh ideas about old ideas in Respectable: the Experience of Class.

Class is no longer banished from mainstream discussion, but it remains an uncomfortable topic for most mainstream media. The background to this is straightforward. The media all too often discriminate on the basis of parental wealth rather than talent: from unpaid internships to expensive postgraduate journalism qualifications, the routes into the industry are difficult to traverse without parents able to offer financial support. But most of us want to believe that our successes are personal achievements: that if we do well, it is because of our own ability, intelligence and determination. To realise that actually, you have queue-jumped, in effect, because of your parents’ bank balance: well, that would provoke insecurity and defensiveness. And so journalists and columnists are often disinclined to understand why society is stacked in the interests of some, but not others. Even raising the issue of class is felt as a personal attack.

That is one reason Lynsey Hanley is such a crucial voice. When she writes about class, she is writing about lived experience. Her new book, Respectable – the belated follow-up to her seminal Estates, published in 2007 – is a powerful investigation into the psychological impact, and cost, of shifting from class to class. She compares it to “emigrating from one side of the world, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life”. The case study? Hanley herself. The Personal Is Political would be as appropriate a subtitle for this book as any other.

Respectable compellingly (if sometimes erratically) weaves autobiography with academic research. Hanley grew up on a council estate in Chelmsley Wood, a 1960s ­new-build area of Solihull, in the West Midlands, a few miles from Birmingham. Her childhood, she says, would once have been labelled “respectable working class”: far removed from middle class but not “quite classically working class either” – rather, “foreman class” or “skilled tradesman class”. It feels wrong to infringe on Hanley’s right to self-define, but she does seem to have a very restrictive view of what being working class entails, so much so, that she isn’t entirely convinced she belongs. There has long been a clash between those who define class as a cultural identity and those who believe it has more to do with economic relationships (and those who think it is a combination of the two).

At Hanley’s school, “people didn’t do A-levels”. The high achievers ended up at the gas board or the Rover works and the word “university” evoked “something as distant as Mars”. Her school had 600 unfilled places, “effectively . . . abandoned by the community as much as by the local authority and by central government”. Hanley has always felt like an outsider: she struggled to make friends, found the limits of what was expected of someone from her background suffocating, and when – against the odds – she made it to sixth form, it seemed “one minute I was struggling for air, the next I felt as though I’d entered a large bubble of pure oxygen”. She looks to academics to help explain experiences she found difficult to navigate at the time. Her sense of isolation, for instance, can be illuminated by the sociologist Angela McRobbie’s exploration of “the ‘hermetically sealed’ nature of working-class culture in Birmingham”. The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic, is her Bible; she feels he “could have been writing about my own childhood”.

Aged 17, Hanley was juggling five ­A-levels with four jobs: working at Greggs, selling Avon products, delivering newspapers and “making cakes and chocolates and selling them door to door”. But she became a professional journalist. When she was a teenager she visited Aldi to buy margarine and glacé cherries; now she comes back with “cold-pressed rapeseed oil and Pinot Noir”. She says “lunch” where she used to say “dinner”.

This is a well-crafted book full of insights. Hanley is determined to challenge the assumptions of left and right. She refers to socio-linguists such as Basil Bernstein, who examined how middle-class forms of communication were given preference over working-class expression but not because they were innately superior. Those who made the leap from working class to middle class found themselves assimilated by the new world. Many found it increasingly difficult to relate to the world they grew up in, and the people they grew up with.

Hanley thinks the approaches of both left and right to social mobility are problematic. Whereas the right uncritically worships the idea of “social mobility” – of parachuting the “lucky few” into the middle class without challenging the structure of society – the left, she says, believes that “social justice and social mobility are mutually exclusive”. In other words, she is questioning that old socialist maxim: “Rise with your class, not above it.”

Hanley assails those – including me – who place support for populist anti-immigration movements in a broader social context. She believes that we are downplaying the extent of racism in working-class communities, reducing it to fears over housing and jobs. We are robbing people of agency by letting individuals off the hook for their prejudices, she argues, stressing the casual racism she encountered on a daily basis. Disturbingly, she found that racism was often seen as a “sign of respectability”. She remembers sentiments along the lines of “Only common people hang out with darkies” and so on. My parents met through the Trotskyist movement; my father eventually became a white-collar local authority worker, my mother an IT lecturer at Salford University, and I was always by far the most middle-class of my friends. I’m not going to wish away the casual racism I encountered growing up in Stockport (and I’m white), but I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by Hanley’s argument. Why is there an anti-immigration party with mass support now, yet there wasn’t one in the 1950s, when bigotry was far more open and widespread? Surely something has changed, and rising job, housing and general economic insecurity have had a role to play? And will a strategy of criticising people for voting Ukip – or even for the far right – win them over?

My main problem with Hanley’s book is this. Those of us who want to transform society so that it is not run as a racket for a tiny elite need to build a broad coalition. I’m a political activist who writes; Hanley is someone writing about reality as she has lived it. But her book surely challenges attempts to build unity between the working and middle classes. She writes of how middle-class people both hog and deny their “social and cultural capital”, and believes that those who argue in favour of a “99 Per Cent” under attack by an elite help entrench middle-class privilege. The middle classes pretend they have the same interests as the working class, while using their sharp elbows to keep them down.

I wonder if there is a third way. Abolish unpaid internships; introduce scholarships; invest in education at an early age; automatically enrol the brightest working-class young people into top universities; deal with social crises, such as the lack of affordable housing, which help destroy opportunity for the less privileged; have a proper living wage. And so on. But if those who believe in social justice fail to build a coalition of supermarket worker and schoolteacher, cleaner and junior doctor, factory worker and university lecturer . . . well, we will fail. From the low-paid against the unemployed, to private-sector against public-sector worker, to indigene against immigrant, there are enough divisions exploited by the powerful as it is.

Nonetheless, Respectable is of vital importance: a searing indictment of a chronically unjust society in which our opportunities are granted or denied from the earliest of ages. The book may not offer clear prescriptions, but it is incumbent on all of us to fight for a just and equal society – one that currently does not exist. 

Owen Jones’s Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class is newly republished in paperback by Verso

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley is published by Allen Lane (240pp, £16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism