It is fascinating to be black in Britain. In a society visibly stratified according to class and social standing, racism in the strict sense pales into arguable insignificance. One’s manner of speaking appears to be so important in this country that instant judgment is passed against those who speak differently. Posh accents are attacked for being posh. ‘Common’ accents are attacked for being common. Some are overly concerned with whether one comes from the North or the South of England. Prejudice, it would appear, transcends the bounds of race.
Yet race remains the pink, or black, elephant in the room. Well it did, until historian David Starkey appeared on Newsnight last Saturday.
Starkey hazarded an explanation for the recent riots in the UK. He blamed the ‘violent, destructive and nihilistic’ black culture that has corrupted too many of Britain’s youngsters. Tony Sewell, a British journalist, adopting a similar tone, claimed that the ethos of materialism — or ‘bling’ to use the street term — that pervades urban black youth played a major part in the widespread criminality perpetrated by rioters of all races.
By ‘black’, what do Starkey and Sewell mean? Afro-American? Black British? Carribean? West African? East African? Southern African? Do we distinguish black Africans from white Africans?
Can we ever be so simplistic?
Black culture cannot be brought down to a single common denominator. For some, to be black is to be disciplined sternly by one’s mother for stealing guavas from the tree next door. For others, it is to have an evening job to enable one to fund living expenses during college. For others, it is to sing in the church choir. Yet other black people listen only to rap and are bankers, lawyers doctors and scientists. To be black is not something you can put into a box and hurl insults at, just because a few hundred kids, black and white, have engaged in a mindless bout of violence. Not all black people are yobs in the same way that not all white people are crackheads.
Martin Luther had a dream. It is a dream we ought to continue to strive for. The black man is not simple. He deserves not to be treated simplistically. Prejudice, in all its forms, takes us one step back.
Humanity is one, after all.