Anyone who has met a white working-class lad or lass aged between 11 and 19 will know that David Starkey had a point when he said, rather crudely, that white chavs “have become black”. One of the curiosities of the gym that I go to in Lambeth in South London is that all the white teens speak in a bizarre, so-called “black accent”, while the black guys in their mid to late 30s who run the gym speak in an accent that is far more instantly recognisable as “London”. They sound a lot more like me than the white kids do. (Which isn’t surprising–they actually are more like me than the white kids are, having likewise been brought up in working-class parts of London in that now seemingly distant era of the 1980s and 90s.)
But Starkey and his minuscule number of defenders are wrong to claim that this so-called “blacking” of white youth (God, that’s a terrible way to put it) is down to the invasion of Britain by Jamaican values and language. Listening to Starkey and Co., you could be forgiven for thinking that Jamaicans have culturally colonised this fragile island, winning over “our youth” to their allegedly peculiar ways. In truth, it is Britain’s own denigration of white working-class culture and lifestyles, the political and media classes’ ceaseless war of words against the way the white working classes live, love, speak and act, which communicates to white youngsters the message: “Your culture is shit. Find another one.”
If it were true, as Starkey seems to believe, that Jamaican or West Indian immigrants brought to Britain an alien culture which they have successfully spread amongst the young, then how would we explain the fact that in the 1970s and 80s even the children of these immigrants didn’t speak the way that black and white kids speak these days? The black kids I grew up with in the 1980s didn’t talk like Ms Dynamite or Dizzee Rascal–they spoke in the same nondescript, t-dropping accent as the rest of us. Remember Desmond’s, the Channel 4 sitcom in which the immigrant parents and their friends had strong Guyanan or Jamaican accents but their British-born children sounded a bit cockney? That’s how most urban black youth in London used to speak. (My nextdoor neighbours were Guyanans: the parents sounded like Desmond and Co, their offspring like the characters in EastEnders.)
What changed is not so much that blacks, followed by whites, immersed themselves in the lingo or outlook of their ancestors, but rather that white working-class culture has in recent years been denigrated to an extraordinary degree. From the way the white working classes speak (un-PC, foul) to what they eat (“junk food”, which makes them “obese”) to what they wear (the girls dress like “slags”, the boys like “scum”), virtually every facet of white working-class life has been subjected to the ridicule of the political and cultural elite, finding itself mocked on TV shows and tut-tutted over or legislated against in parliament and the press. Meanwhile working-class institutions are either in a state of disarray (trade unions being the best example) or have been invaded by the intolerant nannies and nudgers of the prole-loathing elite: consider the public house, once a relatively free zone, now colonised by morality cops on the lookout for smoking, excessive boozing and anything with a whiff of rowdiness. Football games, post-work pints, EastEnd attitude, northern grit–hardly any aspect of white working-class culture has escaped being problematised by the snobs, therapists and health obsessives who govern modern Britain.
At the same time, immigrant cultures are more likely to be celebrated, as “vibrant” by the educational establishment and as “cool” by the trustafarian chattering classes who like nothing better than listening to Niggaz with Attitude on their outsized headphones. The movers and shakers of modern British society demonise white working-class culture while simultaneously slumming it with what they consider to be the “noble savages” of the immigrant community. In such a climate, is it really any wonder that white working-class kids are “turning black”? Their so-called “blackness” was not in any way the cause of the riots, but it does point to a problem that at least contributed to that urban upheaval: the fact that huge swathes of lower-class youth feel cut off not only from society but also from their traditional cultures, turning them into confused, at-sea, potentially nihilistic individuals.