It always goes the same way. Someone high profile says something racist, they get called out on it, and then people swarm to defend them because whatever they said wasn't racist after all. Or at least, that's what they claim.
The defences usually go the same way too. "What's so racist about..." followed by the most sanitised version of whatever was said. We mustn't look at the actual words that came out of the accused's mouth, but the most charitable interpretation of what they might have meant. It's kind of a reverse strawman. In it's purest form, I suppose, is the old, "you can't even talk about immigration without being called racist," deal. You can easily talk about immigration without being called racist. You just have to not say anything that might be considered racist. It's not difficult.
We're seeing this again with David Starkey's appearance on Newsnight last night, in which he said Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech was right, that 'the whites have become black' and that if you heard David Lammy MP, a successful black man, without seeing him you'd think he was white. Even the Daily Mail isn't on his side on this one.
In the early hours of this morning, after watching Starkey's performance, I tweeted my surprise that he got such an easy ride after saying the most racist thing I'd seen on TV in ages.* I then got a reply from @mickeyfree53 telling me to watch the show again, assuring me nothing racist was said. This was odd since you know, quite a lot was. A bit later, he informed me that Starkey hadn't said much of any significance except that 'some whites try to imitate blacks in terms of accent'. Seems it wasn't me who needed to watch again.
Professional Gumby Toby Young has popped up in his Telegraph blog to make the same sort of argument. I'm going to go through it so I don't end up just shouting 'racist' without explanation. It's a bit crazy to have to do this in the 21st century, but I guess those are the rules.
After mentioning something that wasn't racist, Young quotes Starkey saying Enoch Powell was right and opens his defence with this wonderful gambit:
Now, that statement is vintage Starkey. He almost says something inflammatory – “Enoch Powell was absolutely right” – but, after pausing for a nano-second, pulls back from the brink - "in one sense". [...] So it’s difficult to say which parts of the Rivers of Blood speech he was agreeing with.Yes, very difficult. I wonder exactly what part of a speech about how allowing the immigration of black people will lead to civil unrest Starkey meant in a discussion about the causes of civil unrest. What could he have been talking about when he said Powell wrong in that the violence wasn't inter-communal because the whites have become black? If only there was some clue in the entire point of the speech, the entire point of the discussion he was involved in and the words he actually said with his mouth.
Having successfully dispatched with one of the most contentious things Starkey said by pretending what he was referring to is a mystery and declaring it not 'the particularly controversial bit' anyway, Young goes on to quote this bit of what Starkey said:
What’s 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.Here's why that's not racist:
But I’m not sure Starkey was guilty of racism which, according to the OED, is defined as “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”.Ah. So if i call a black guy a 'dirty n*gger' to his face, or turn down a black job applicant on the grounds that 'black people can be lazy', I'm not racist because I haven't stated a belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities or qualities specific to that race. Something tells me something's up with this particular definition.
Luckily though, there's a second definition in Young's link that he mysteriously decides not to quote, which goes, "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior". Does what Starkey said fit this definition?
Let's see. He's defined a particular culture as 'black' even though he's talking about white people being part of it. He even goes so far as to say that white people who are part of the culture 'become black'. He's pre-judging people who behave a certain negative way as being black, even if they're white. I think this fits pretty well actually.
Young deals with this by saying, "Starkey wasn’t talking about black culture in general, but, as he was anxious to point out, a “particular form” of black culture," and follows with my favourite bit of this defence:
In addition, Starkey wasn’t linking this sub-culture to people of just one skin colour, but condemning working class white people – “Chavs,” as he put it – who embraced it as well.Mysteriously, he leaves out exactly how Starkey condemns the working class white people who embrace this sub culture. As you probably know already because I've said it a few times by now, he condemned them by saying they had 'become black'.
Now, call me old fashioned, but I think that condemning someone by saying they've become black isn't the best evidence to use to show a person isn't saying anything racist.
Here's how Young deals with what I think was possibly the worst bit of what Starkey said. This one's a doozy:
He then went on to make an almost equally controversial observation about the Labour MP for Tottenham. “Listen to David Lammy, an archetypical successful black man,” he said. “If you turned the screen off so you were listening to him on radio you’d think he was white.”But this is apparently okay. It's fine to say white people who are part of a negative culture have 'become black' and that if you never saw him, you'd assume a successful black man was white. That's because:
...he was simply reiterating the point that he wasn’t condemning African-Caribbean men per se. On the contrary, he was condemning a particular sub-culture, one that may have originated in parts of the African-Caribbean community, but which has now been taken up by some white people as well.So, he was simply reiterating that he wasn't condemning African-Caribbean men, per se. By saying that he assumes someone who doesn't take up a 'particular sub-culture' is white.
Here's the definition of 'racist' from the dictionary Young used earlier:
having or showing the belief that a particular race is superior to anotherDo you think saying that being part of a particular negative, criminal subculture makes you black even if you're white fits that bill? What about when that's followed up by saying if you're not obviously part of that subculture, if you're successful, he'll assume you're white, even if you're black? Does this fit? I think so.
Young finishes with:
No doubt there’ll be people who take issue with this analysis. They’ll point out that Starkey’s “body language” and his “tone” were somehow racist. Perhaps they’ll even dig up other things Starkey has said. But if we confine ourselves to just those things he said on Newsnight last night, he wasn’t guilty of racism.I'm afraid this is absolutely wrong. You only need the words he actually said. You have to leave some of those out and stick like a limpet to one particular definition of racism to make that conclusion work.
To recap, here's what Starkey did:
- Opened a discussion on the causes of riots by saying a speech that said allowing black immigration to continue would lead to violence was right.
- Qualified this by saying that the speech was only wrong because the violence wasn't inter-racial. Instead, white people had become black.
- Followed this up with claiming that listening to a successful man who is not part of this subculture would make him (and by 'you', he does mean himself here) think he was white.
Credit to Toby Young where it's due. You have to really work very hard to try to dismiss this as not racist.
The thing that puzzles me is, why would you bother?
See also RuinPunk and Nathaniel Tapley.
*Don't really think he got such an easy ride after watching again. As @mikemantin said last night, when someone says something like Starkey, "it's the kind of comment that leaves you gobsmacked for 10mins before you can formulate a reply.
**UPDATE** After several people pointed Toby Young toward this post on Twitter, he eventually replied by saying it was too weak to reply to. I'm sure it was.* I don't know if that defence will fool many people, but it'll be tragic if it does. What would be more tragic is if it fooled Young himself.
*Sorry, that sentence isn't true.
(Also - I tidied some spelling and grammar in the post as I added that update).