Wednesday, 17 August 2011


When the whites became black...The Specials circa 1980

 Speaking about the London riots last week, David Starkey told Newsnight that the big problem in today’s society “is that the chavs…have become black; the whites have become black.”

In a sense, he is right. One of the biggest problems for him and his fellow white supremacists*, is indeed the danger that English youth begin to side with the Third World liberation struggle, rather than with their own government’s colonial aggression. And through the white youth’s adoption of black cultural idioms, that process has already begun.

All major forms of popular dance music (from soul and funk to hiphop and jungle) are creations of Africans and their descendants. And, although many of these artforms have subsequently degenerated since coming under the control of giant corporations (1), at the heart of all of them there was originally a spirit of militant resistance. 

One the clearest examples of this is reggae music. Reggae took the iconography of Rastafarianism – perhaps the most accessible and visceral depiction of colonial relations yet articulated – and turned it into a universal language of resistance. Even across the oppressor nations in the West, people fell in love with the beat, and soon began to absorb the message as well. Soon after arriving on these shores, it became a massive inspiration and influence behind the punk movement - another historical moment when ‘the whites became black’ – which briefly appeared as a genuine threat to the class exploitation system.

So black culture does tend to embody a spirit of defiance and resistance against the exploiters, their state and its colonial system; white people are embracing this culture and it is a problem for David Starkey and folks like him.

But there are two sides to the ‘whites becoming black’ coin. Young impoverished whites in England are not only being drawn towards ‘being black’ – they are also being blocked from ‘being white’. To understand this, we need to get to grips with the political purpose behind the concept of ‘whiteness’ in the first place. Theodore Allen has argued convincingly that ‘whiteness’ as a distinct category was invented in the American colonies of Maryland and Virginia in order to prevent property-less Europeans allying with African Americans - by conferring certain privileges onto them. It worked very well – generally speaking, white workers did indeed begin to identify more with their own exploiters than with the black slaves; the edge was taken off their own exploitation by being granted access to a small share of the more extreme exploitation of the Africans. In the twentieth century a similar process has taken place across Europe through the combination of the welfare state and tough immigration laws. On the one hand, the welfare state for a long time enabled even the most disadvantaged citizens of the ‘white’ countries access to a relatively decent standard of living. On the other, tough immigration laws maintained full employment whilst preventing the vast majority of the global workforce any real access to the fruits of their labour. In return, English workers by and large gave their consent to the colonial (and neo-colonial) exploitation that underwrote the whole system.

Today, for property-less whites, those privileges are being obliterated. Since the 1980s, significant sections of ‘white’ society in the West have begun to lose, therefore, the very thing that makes them ‘white’ – their privileged status. Nell Painter put it clearly in her book The History of White People. For her, whiteness is “a signal of power, prestige, and beauty to be withheld and granted selectively”. For the white ‘underclass’ in England, it is a status that is rapidly being withdrawn.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the demonization of the so-called ‘chav’. The middle class stereotype of the ‘chav’ is much like the racist stereotype of the ‘n****r’ – lazy, stupid, violent etc. But in fact it also incorporates the more specific stereotype of the ‘uppity n****r’: a member of the underclass who ‘doesn’t know his place’; who gets ideas ‘above his station’; in other words, who refuses to accept his subordinate position in society. How else can we interpret the endless middle class mockery of the ‘bling’ worn by poor youth? Jewellery itself is not condemned – what is being condemned is the right of the poor to wear it.

So, losing their privileged ‘white’ status, being subjected to old, racist, stereotypes in a new form, and attracted to the oppositional pride and defiance of black music and culture, white youth in poor areas are ceasing to be ‘white’ and are instead ‘becoming black’. On a cultural level, they are joining the ‘fourth world’ – those in the West with ancestral homelands in the third world, who by and large constitute the dispossessed of the West, and as such form the most potentially revolutionary class.

This all came to a head in the riots last week, where poor white youth joined with black people in what was originally an outburst of anger against brutal and racist policing (2).(3) (4). The fact that many then subsequently took the opportunity to stock up on the goods they have been denied, or even that some went on to commit arson or murder, should not detract from this fact.**

So we should perhaps be thanking Starkey for bringing the issue of race into the debate from where it had been conspicuously absent hitherto. But the real problem – from our perspective – is not that the ‘whites think they’re black’. Inasmuch as ‘white’ is a symbol of privilege and the ‘right to rule’, the real problem is that people like David Starkey think they’re ‘white’. 

*By white supremacist, I mean here those who favour the continued domination of the globe by the European and European settler nations (the so-called ‘first world’).

** It is important to remember that gang violence and burglary were not something new, brought about by the riots – they were already taking place before the riots; in fact, gang violence may actually may have decreased during the riots (5).

With thanks to Sukant Chandan and Dr Lez Henry for making me think about these things...not that either of them necessarily agree with my views! 

1 comment:

  1. Thought provoking piece. The Irish were known as the 'Blacks of Europe' not so long ago...