Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Autocritique: Race and the Riots.

In the wake of the 2011 riots David Starkey appeared on BBC Newsnight in a set clash with Owen Jones and Dreda Say Mitchell. It was pure spectacle of course. I wrote an article on the media spectacle not long after. I wanted to deal with the comments by Starkey, such as "the whites have become black", but in retrospect I feel I didn't do so sufficiently. My conclusion from the outset is that we have to engage critically with the pervasive notions of racial identity with which we still live.

The historian made some nondescript comments and described the riots as 'extended commercialism' and 'shopping with violence' (actually not a bad way of summing them up) before injecting race into the discourse. The segment was swung into a discussion over Starkey's comments. Neither Jones nor Mitchell made their positions clear as they were put on a reactive game. It was another success for the Right in terms of obfuscating the lines of debate and pushing the bounds of acceptable opinion. Starkey wanted to ward-off any criticism of the market society in which we live, as well as any commentary from a black perspective on the riots. The debate became a matter of whether or not Starkey's comments were 'really' racist instead of the serious questions that should be asked in times of unrest: consumerism, poverty, police brutality and institutional racism. I made this point at the time and I stand by it.

The use of the terms 'white' and 'black' in Starkey's remarks required much more rigorous critical evaluation than what I originally mustered at the time. He identifies a 'nihilistic gangster culture' with black people, particularly Jamaican Patois, all the while insisting that it is not about 'skin colour, it's cultural'. Starkey said that David Lammy, the black Tottenham parliamentarian, "sounds white" if you hear him talk on the radio rather than speak on telly. So of course he could agree with Mitchell's come-back that there is little homogeneity across the black community, not one black culture but many cultures. Yet Starkey overtly equates respectability with being 'white' while projecting criminality onto a 'black culture'. It's the same reason people are surprised by 'articulate' black people in the public arena. The conception of race slides into cultural dimensions rather than biological in these words.

The little historian can even nod his head to the comments made by Owen Jones in regard to the socio-economic conditions that Black Britons face: higher rates of unemployment, discrimination in and outside of work, and a lower share of the national income. These symptoms of social deprivation, as well as racial and class oppression are perfectly compatible with the kind of cultural racism peddled by Starkey. The cultural reconfiguration of racial categories can leave the same assumptions of scientific racism intact. In cultural terms Starkey reasserted a white racial identity in the clean-cut, well educational and socially mobile figures such as David Lammy, an 'archetypical successful black man' who "sounds white". This is not unprecedented. In colonial Brazil a man could buy his way into the 'white race' regardless of his pigmentation. The objectivity of race is in social relations, not in cultural or biological terms.

However, this is not the full story as we have to critically engage with the social constructs we take to be neutral in common parlance and interaction. The presupposition in Starkey's comments is towards a collaborative relation of classes as 'white people' against the nonconforming hordes engulfed by 'black culture' as he puts it. The 'shopping with violence' is externalised to the difficult classes who aren't really 'white' anymore even if they look like it. It's not linked in with the class society of 'aspiration' and 'hard work' fetishes of a self-aggrandizing elite. If consumer culture is endemic to capitalist societies then so is the violent underbelly of consumerism. Appeals to race in this way are necessary to turn systemic aspects of the economy into aberrations. The exactitude of the distribution of the social product, the ownership of the means and the relations which uphold them are cleared from the field of discourse.

The common interests of the working-class are obscured in this way, class-consciousness is blocked by a white racial-consciousness. Months after the riots there was another race scandal worthy of excavation. It was in January 2012 just after two of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence were finally sent down (not an insignificant coincidence). It was a Twitter storm over the comments of Diane Abbott, the first black Labour MP, who tweete"White people love playing 'divide & rule'. We should not play their game." Abbott was attacked by many conservative moralists as a 'racist' and eventually she apologised. Really the only problem with her tweet is that it was imprecise, it's the existence of 'white people' which is about social control. As Noel Ignatiev puts it "whiteness does not exempt people from exploitation, it reconciles them to it. It is for those who have nothing else." The hubbub over Abbott's comments further proved the case as so many white commentators and tweeters were dying to play the victim.

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