Let’s talk about culture, Mr Starkey

Posted on September 6, 2012



In the heated and polarised debates that gripped Britain in the aftermath of the riots of August 2011, one statement stood out as particularly intriguing. Historian David Starkey, arguing of the need for “plain speaking” at such times of crisis, declared on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight, that “the whites have become black”. In a climate in which most right-wing politicians and commentators took the simplistic populist stance that – to use Prime Minister David Cameron’s words – the Riots were “criminality, pure and simple”, Starkey’s intervention was significant. When anger about such events eventually gives way to analysis, even the ‘law and order’ right need longue durée explanations that can rise above the commonsense language of individual actions and responsibility, and he was prepared to offer one.

Starkey’s explanation placed primary responsibility for the riots on a “particular sort of violent and destructive, nihilistic gangster culture”. He identified this as having originated within black Caribbean youth culture and, after being embraced by those of white and other backgrounds, expanding to encompass a significant proportion of inner-city youth. It was, in his view, an unforeseen and unintended consequence of post-War immigration and constituted a “profound cultural change” in modern British history. Perhaps distracted by Starkey’s clumsy language and his evocation of Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘rivers of blood’ speech, the statement was quickly condemned by many on the left as simply old-fashioned racism. Although standing by his analysis, Starkey went to great pains to deny these accusations. In a column in the Daily Telegraph a year on from the Riots, he claimed: “Actually, I never mentioned race at all, since, in its proper sense, of a group with fixed hereditary characteristics, I regard it, as all sensible people do, as eugenicist nonsense. But I do believe in culture and I talked about that a lot.”

The distinction is an important one. Biological explanations for poverty and criminality, whether racial or class-based, were prominent in European, Anglo-settler and Latin American mestizo societies during the first half of the twentieth century, but had been totally discredited by the end of the Second World War. (They may have enjoyed a small resurgence since Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein published their controversial book The Bell Curve in 1994 (1), but nonetheless remain a minority pursuit.) By contrast, ‘culturalist’ accounts like that offered by Starkey are widespread and continue to gain traction among politicians and voters.

The modern roots of such ideas lie in the debates surrounding Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reform programme in 1960s America and are worth revisiting if we are to understand the issues we face today. At the time northern US cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit, which had been built on industry and immigration, were witnessing important changes. Government-subsidised suburbanisation was gathering pace and the inner cities were beginning to depopulate and lose industrial jobs. The urban sociologists of the influential Chicago School had assumed that new migrant populations of southern blacks and Puerto Ricans would follow the pattern of successive waves of European immigrants, of gradually becoming wealthier and dispersing across the city. However, they increasingly seemed to have become trapped in their impoverished ghettoes. The years 1966-68 saw outbreaks of urban rioting across the country, bringing these issues to the heart of American political debate.

It was in this context that the anthropologist Oscar Lewis was fine-tuning his theory of the ‘culture of poverty’, developed during the 1950s in his work with peasant communities in Mexico. In his fieldwork with the Puerto Rican population of East Harlem Lewis observed what he described as a range of behavioural ‘pathologies’, such as violence, promiscuity, low aspirations, hostility to authority and weak levels of political consciousness. Lewis believed that these were manifestations of a self-perpetuating ‘culture of poverty’ and argued that “by the time slum children are six or seven they have usually absorbed the basic attitudes and values of their subculture”, and are subsequently “psychologically unready to take full advantage of changing conditions or improving opportunities that may develop in their lifetime” (2). His contemporary Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his 1965 report to the Labor Department ‘The Negro Family: The Case for National Action’, identified the dissolution of the black family unit as lying at the centre of a ‘tangle of pathology’ that he predicted would create increasing social problems in the ghetto in the years to come (3).

At the time both Lewis and Moynihan were criticised for ‘blaming the victims’ rather than the inequities of American society. The most forceful critique came from William Ryan, who argued that discrimination against ghetto populations led mainstream society to condemn and neglect them, thus perpetuating their poverty and isolation (4). We can now see that the medicalised language of ‘pathology’ and the assumptions about intergenerational transmission of poverty and cultural homogeneity in ghetto neighbourhoods were misguided. But Lewis and Moynihan’s analyses contained central insights that both Ryan, and later ‘culturalist’ models like Starkey’s have lacked. Both writers located the conditions of the ghetto in their populations’ historical experiences of poverty and exclusion and, even more crucially, in their contemporary position within the capitalist labour market. The low-skilled jobs that had kept poorly educated and discriminated against ghetto populations in work during the 1940s and 50s, were beginning to disappear. They may have seen the cultural practices of ghetto populations as more resistant to change than was actually the case, but Lewis and Moynihan also believed that at root these practices were shaped by economic factors and could not be addressed without economic solutions. This view underpinned the significant investments in healthcare, education and anti-poverty measures undertaken by Johnson’s administration.

Years later the black American academic William Julius Wilson lamented the failure of the American left and black rights movement to learn from the insights of writers like Lewis and Moynihan (5)(6). Instead, following Ryan’s lead, they had wandered off into the desert of identity politics, elevating issues of discrimination above economics and prioritising ‘equality of opportunity’ over improving conditions in the ghetto. As a result, right-wing interpretations of the issues were allowed to take hold. These accounts increasingly detached culture from socio-economic conditions, while stealthily introducing the ‘free market’ as a catch-all solution. First Edward Banfield argued that only regular employment would teach ghetto residents to develop the ‘long-term thinking’ that working-class and middle-class groups exhibited, and argued that all obstacles to their entry into the labour market – compulsory education past the age of 14, the minimum wage, labour protections and social support – needed to be removed (7). In the 1980s, in the work of Charles Murray, these ideas morphed into a peculiar ideology. The state, and the Great Society reforms in particular, were now seen as responsible for poverty by instilling welfare dependency amongst an ‘underclass’ who could otherwise live decent working lives (8). Although thoroughly disproved by the work of Wilson and other social scientists, this ideology has come to form something of a political consensus in the United States and now Britain.

As Wilson has argued, those on the left need to return to the battlefield if we are to change the terms of debate about our deprived inner cities, and this means talking about culture. By doing so we can quite quickly dispense with Starkey’s claims, but first we should reject the ‘soft’ liberal position that it is discrimination alone that caused the riots. Racism certainly exists in modern Britain, especially so within the police force, but if we end our analysis there we will get no closer to understanding why our cities burned and easily could again. Although important, the obstacles facing many of those who participated in the destruction will not be removed simply by putting an end to stop-and-search abuses, or even low teacher expectations and employer discrimination. Many young people do exhibit a ‘violent and nihilistic culture’ of hypermasculinity that finds its clearest expression in particular sub-genres of hip-hop music. (Although as a British historian, Starkey should know that white working-class ‘lads’ were condemned for exhibiting many such characteristics long before they were derisively relabelled as deracinated ‘chavs’). We should not hesitate to criticise the negative attitudes this culture promulgates towards violence, drugs and sex, and the suffering it causes, primarily to other young people from similar backgrounds.

But where does this culture come from? For Starkey, it floats freely on the winds of post-modern fashion, with only those lacking moral direction, or perhaps a sense of ‘Britishness’, falling prey to it. He has no explanation for why the ubiquitous popularity of hip-hop music and recreational drug-taking among young people in the UK only seems to translate into endemic violence and addiction in our most deprived urban neighbourhoods. He cannot tell us why predominantly white but desperately deprived Glasgow and Liverpool, where the Jamaican-inflected slag that so upsets him is rarely heard, should have some of the country’s worst crime rates. His parochial and essentialist understandings of ‘culture’ and how it is transmitted make him see the ‘gangster culture’ as having arrived on the Windrush, rather than entering our television screens on a daily basis through our consumption of American popular culture and its even sharper social and racial cleavages. He has not a word to say on the neoliberal construction of an enormous consumer infrastructure catering to the insecurities and impulses of youth, just as rising inequality and youth unemployment place its status symbols beyond the reach of so many.  He knows nothing of the the daily threat of violence and humiliation that leads many to adopt the symbolic and material weapons of the street in desperate self-defence.

When he misses so much, how can he possibly recognise the achievement of the vast majority of young people in deprived areas, black and white, who, despite facing these powerful pressures, resist the violence and nihilism of a minority of their peers? Ok let’s talk about culture, Mr Starkey, but then let’s talk about the real causes of the riots.

(1) Hernsstein, R. J. and Murray, C. (1994), The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, New York: Free Press Paperbacks

(2) Lewis, O. (1966), ‘The culture of poverty’, Scientific American, 215: 4

(3) Moynihan, D. P. (1965), The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Washington, DC: Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor

(4) Ryan, W. (1976)[1970], Blaming the Victim, rev. ed., New York: Vintage Books

(5) Wilson, W. J. (1996), When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, New York: Vintage Books

(6) Wilson, W. J. (2010), ‘Why both social structure and culture matter in a holistic analysis of inner-city poverty’, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 629

(7) Banfield, Edward (1970), The Unheavenly City: The nature and future of our urban crisis, Boston: Little, Brown and Company

(8) Murray, Charles (1984), Losing ground: American social policy 1950-1980, New York: Basic Books