Woolwich: a terrifying symmetry

When a British soldier is hacked to death in broad daylight on a crowded street by two black Muslim men, it is hard to imagine a more fertile opportunity for the explosion of anger, outrage, and emotion that has inevitably ensued. The pattern is as tragic as it is predictable. The tearful, almost unbearably poignant press conference by the relatives of the murdered soldier. The protests by the English Defence League. The clichés by the politicians. The generally even cruder clichés from the press.

And so the familiar narrative takes shape. An innocent British soldier is attacked by crazed Muslims, but this isn’t anything to do with Islam, in case you thought it was. On the contrary, it’s only fundamentalists who’ve been brainwashed by internet radicals who do things like this, a point rammed home by exhaustive contributions by more cuddly Muslims asserting their undying solidarity with Britain and the British. In the meantime, the security forces will inevitably have had the perpetrators on some sort of list at some time or other, and will be accused of negligence. The explicit motivations expressed by the perpetrators – in this instance exclusively referred to as “perpetrators with bloodied hands” – are dismissed out of hand. This, we are assured, not only has nothing to do with Islam, it also has nothing to do with Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, or any aspect of British political or military behaviour. But most of all, we mustn’t waste any time or sympathy on the psychopathic killers, still less listen to them, but rather lavish all our attention on the brave victim and his family. This will ensure that we are able to focus on symbols and emotions that are consistent with the narrative that we are intended to absorb, whilst keeping us well away from anything that might undermine it. Set up in this way, the clear implication is that anyone who doesn’t swallow this narrative hook, line and sinker, is a callous bastard that doesn’t care about the brave soldier or his family.

Well, I don’t accept this narrative, and I do care very much for the soldier and his family. The agony of expecting your husband to be home for the long weekend, thinking him to be as safe as houses in the capital city, and then having to imagine his being butchered without mercy on the street, is beyond description, and beyond imagination.

But that is exactly the point. The horror of what has taken place demands that we do something to make it less likely to be repeated, not more likely. And this tired narrative, pitting the lunatic Islamic butcher against the innocent family man and brave soldier, all the while requiring that we firmly insert our fingers into our ears so as not to hear what the killers said in plain speech, is only going to make its repetition ever more likely.

Rather than refusing to listen to, or even acknowledge, what the killers said on the pretext that such publicity is exactly what they wanted, and that they must not thus be rewarded, we should listen very hard indeed. Michael Adebolajo, according to the BBC yesterday, is “28 years old and left college in 2001. He is said to come from a very devout Christian family but converted to Islam after college. He is described as having been bright and witty when he was at college.” He said to an unbelievably brave passer-by that “you people will never be safe…Remove your governments, they don’t care about you.”

These are not the words of a madman. Whatever else Michael Adebolajo is, he is evidently not a lunatic. Until we’re really prepared to try and understand what drives a “bright and witty” student to such an unspeakable act of barbarism as he carried out in Woolwich on Wednesday afternoon, then we will never work out how to stop his successors, as successors there will undoubtedly be.

What is clear, is this: that this young man has lost all ability to distinguish between real human people – that young and unsuspecting soldier – and the things that those people have come to symbolise for him. And I firmly believe that in a ghastly and symmetrical way, the narrative we are constantly enjoined to internalise does exactly the same thing back. Michael Adebolajo is no longer a human being, but a lunatic, a mere symbol of all we fear and abhor.

I feel deeply for Drummer Rigby and his family. But I feel just as deeply for Michael Adebolajo and his.

Plus ça change: what the Lawrence convictions mean, and what they don’t mean

A happy New Year to all my readers, of course – but I’d caution against supposing that 2012 comes in with particularly happy associations because two of Stephen Lawrence’s killers have finally been convicted. Justice delayed 18 years, and then only partial justice at that, is not the cause for celebration that many seem to feel that it is. More of Stephen’s murderers remain free than have now been jailed; and the prolonged delay has not been accompanied by the wholesale reconstruction of the Metropolitan Police, and the sloughing off of Britain’s racist culture, that I am already tiring of hearing commentator after commentator glibly assert.

It may be better that some of those responsible have had their comeuppance rather than none of them, but that is like saying that a man who’s had one leg amputated is at an advantage compared with one who’s lost both. Whilst as an exemplar of justice served the Lawrence case fails abysmally, is there any more truth in the claims being made for the case’s significance for race relations in Britain generally?

The temptation to over-egg this latter is great indeed. It appears to provide some kind of sense that Stephen did not lose his life entirely in vain. It, more insidiously, also allows Britain to feel better about itself, to believe that it has turned some kind of corner. It especially enables the Met to wax eloquent about the hard lessons it’s learnt, and how nothing like this could ever happen again. If you’re tempted to believe that, then I suggest you do no more than keep an informal tally of the racial identity of every car driver in the capital that you’ve seen stopped by the police at the roadside. And then compare that percentage with the percentage of London’s black citizens.

Macpherson’s report into the killing is famously credited with the radical conclusion that the Metropolitan Police were “institutionally racist”, as if this were some concept invented specially for this case. Many of us had been talking about institutionalised racism for years before Macpherson lighted upon the term. But no matter: this official acceptance that racism is more about how institutions operate and less about individuals saying or even doing the wrong thing is the best and most significant outcome of this tragic case.

And yet there is still confusion about what institutionalised racism is really about. It is not simply the cumulative effect of individual acts or omissions. We remain fixated on the wrong things when we talk about race. We get all hot under the collar about “inappropriate language” whilst happily ignoring the routine, constant operation of prejudicial assumptions, mistaken ideas about cause and effect, or the embedded disadvantages that black citizens face. White policemen who would never dream of using the n word will still pull over black drivers more frequently than white; will still react to clothing and style as erroneous indicators of criminal intent; and deny the living experience of racism that every black citizen endures every day.

When one of our older tenants inadvertently talks about “coloured folk” we need to get out the smelling salts and waft them under the noses of our hyper-sensitised white anti-racism crusaders. But these are the same white staff who seem incapable of understanding that many black people communicate in different and unfamiliar ways, and who instead talk about chips on shoulders; or who get unnerved and start to imagine conspiracy and a refusal to integrate when 5 or 6 black staff talk together.

So the Lawrence convictions are good news up to a point. But they do not mean that British society has in some decisive way thrown off the scourge of racism. They do not indicate that when the current public sector cuts have run their course, black staff will not have been disproportionately displaced. They do not mean that in a shrinking job market, black workers will not find their applications less successful than those of their white peers. They do not mean that as a young black male driver you will suddenly no longer have to fear being pulled over.

I hope profoundly that perhaps they do mean that the next time a young black man is knifed to death on the streets of London, his family will not need to wait 18 years for justice. But in truth, I’m not even very sure of that.

America’s fixation with judicial killing is inextricably linked with its racist past and present

Yesterday the so-called leader of the free world once more demonstrated just how unfit it is to hold such an office. It killed two of its citizens, the one to howls of international protest, the other to barely a murmur. Troy Davis, a black man convicted of the murder of an off-duty white policeman, was eventually executed after a bizarre and appalling danse macabre in the face of sustained and vocal pressure from institutions and individuals across the world. Lawrence Brewer, a white man convicted of the racially aggravated murder of a black man, went to his death some hours before. There is much in the disparity of the reactions to these two killings to instruct, and in my view, to shame us.

A great deal of emphasis was laid on the unsafe nature of the conviction in Troy Davis’s case. I am not aware of any such misgivings in the Lawrence Brewer case – unsurprisingly since the former protested his innocence to the bitter end, whilst the latter appeared to revel in his admission not only of his heinous act, but of his willingness to repeat it. But the point at issue here is the death penalty itself, not whether it is worse to kill an innocent or a guilty felon. Whilst everyone was building up a head of righteous steam about Davis, and expressing their doubts as to the facts, serious judges in America were sifting that evidence, and they repeatedly found it persuasive. I have no idea if Troy Davis was guilty or not, and nor do you unless my blog has penetrated the inner sanctum of the American justice system, and you’re a Supreme Court judge. To focus on guilt or innocence is, by implication, to support the death penalty for guilty offenders. I, for one, do not.

But Americans overwhelmingly support judicial killing, and not only the mass of the people (as indeed I fear may also be the case in Britain), but the entire political class across the party divide. Republicans and Democrats may be willing to knock seven bells out of each other over the deficit, or the tax regime, but they enjoy a cosy consensus on killing their fellow citizens. When I described the bald facts of yesterday’s cases at the beginning of this post, I specified the racial origin of both offenders and their victims. Why? Because these are not irrelevant details of a coincidental nature, but rather they lie at the very heart of both the killings themselves, and of the world’s differential reaction to them.

Take the latter point first. By and large (I know this is a generalisation, but it’s not without evidential basis) those who oppose the death penalty are liberals (in the American sense) and it’s liberals too who get most worked up about race. It’s easy to ally one’s liberal conscience with the interests of a black man accused (and perhaps wrongly) of killing a white policeman, but it’s rather more awkward to make common cause with a white supremacist who lynched a black man. But race is central to the former point too. A black man convicted of murdering a white man plays into the consciousness of the many white Americans who believe that black people are inveterate criminals by virtue of their blackness per se. It is still the case in America’s southern states that the law enforcement authorities themselves, and jurors too, include many who believe this quintessentially racist ideology. In the same way, Lawrence Brewer’s crime is steeped in the racist history of lynch mobs, segregation, and slavery. Within my lifetime, the USA operated a system of apartheid. This is not ancient history. It is present reality.

But before those British or other European readers of this console themselves with the smug assumption that this is somehow an indicator of a peculiarly American barbarism, they would do well to consider two important points. First, the American racist killing fields were on their home turf, and not, in historical terms, very long ago. In the British case, we took care to ensure our racist killing fields were in faraway places like Asia and Africa. We did not shit on our own doorstep, as it were. But do not run off with the idea that the shitting we did do was lost in the mists of time. Our Kenyan concentration camps also existed within my lifetime.

And second, the American colonies did not invent their southern slavery. They inherited it. And from where. Er, well, that would be from us, I think you’ll find.

David Starkey’s wrong, but the “racism” tag doesn’t illuminate why

David Starkey is many things, and I suspect that one of them is attention-seeker. If so, he’s been remarkably successful via his interview on Newsnight yesterday. Ever since, there’s been the usual queue of well-meaning people lining up to castigate him as racist. The problem with this is that it’s a debate finisher, particularly for those on the left. It’s pretty much akin to “paedophile” (and if by that you think I’m saying that black people and paedophiles are equivalent, I suggest you go and cool off in a darkened room) in the sense that once someone is accused of an attribute like that we no longer need to listen to what they are saying. The word alone is enough to signal to us that they are beneath contempt.

But Starkey’s error is less heinous and a lot more straightforward than the epithet of racist suggests. He can now involve himself, as indeed he did in the interview last night, in pseudo-profundity and sham complexity. Starkey as serious historian daring to face the reality of race that others are too scared to do. Codswallop.

His mistake isn’t so much that he’s made a gross generalisation that fails utterly to see that there is no such homogeneous, monolithic thing as “black culture”, although it is that, too. It isn’t even that he’s displayed some sort of blanket hostility towards black people, because he didn’t. It wasn’t that he was talking from complete ignorance (the accusation most repeatedly chucked at him in the interview) although his knowledge is based more, I suspect, on hearsay than on direct experience. And it certainly wasn’t that he had the temerity to suggest that race had some part to play in the week’s events because I certainly believe that it has. No, his mistake is much simpler and more basic. It is the inversion of the direction of causality.

Insofar as David Starkey had a case at all, it was that a certain glorification of material acquisitiveness, and of the acceptable role of criminality as a route to achieving those acquisitions, is expressed in some rap music. (Unfortunately he didn’t say anything as nuanced as even my précis of his argument: he went straight for “black culture” as a shorthand, and one that was bound to be as offensive as it is misguided.) He then went on to suggest, ludicrously in my view, that white young people had signed up to this materialist manifesto along with their black comrades, and as a result had decided to “shop with violence”. The plain suggestion was that if there hadn’t been rap music, gangsta culture, a sort of sublimation of Britishness by an alien blackness, then our young people, black and white, would never have even thought of going on their consumerist rampage. Arse before tit is about the most generous comment one can make.

If there is a materialistic strain in some rap music (and there is) it’s the result of something, not the cause of something. It’s the result of a deeply materialistic mainstream culture holding the almost sacred nature of acquisition in the faces of those that it simultaneously conspires to exclude from the means of satisfying that acquisitiveness. The solutions lie in both unseating the gods of capitalist consumerism, and in opening up legitimate means to sharing in social objectives for all groups in society. I’m prepared to bet that increasing opportunities for gainful employment for black and white youth alike would be a lot more effective than trying to stop “white” young people becoming “black” young people via the dubious means of listening to rap. In fact, almost any real solution would be more effective than a solution born out of David Starkey’s bizarre and unfounded fantasies.

Rioting may not be justified, but it isn’t senseless either

Police cars burnt out, shops looted, the police attacked. Memories buried for a quarter of a century are suddenly re-awoken like the zombies in a clichéd horror movie. And those aren’t the only clichés given a new lease of life. Police commanders, politicians and journalists alike line up to condemn acts of wanton vandalism, to declare that no grievance can possibly justify rioting, to dismiss the rioters as criminals without a cause, and to draw the sharpest demarcation that they can between the dignified vigil in the afternoon, and the appalling violence of the evening. It was ever thus. Brixton, Toxteth, St Pauls, Broadwater Farm, and more recently the rioting in the Asian enclaves in our north-western towns, all these upheavals have met with the same, dogged analysis.

It’s become a touchstone for determining whether a commentator is to be applauded or condemned. Broadly accept the analysis, and you’re in the respectable camp of those who soothe the body politic. Dare to question this consensus, and you’re a dangerous subversive, bent on excusing the inexcusable, and committed to the undermining of decent society. But make no mistake. This complacent analysis is part of the problem, not the solution.

We find it difficult to distinguish between justifying something, and explaining it. They are very different things. Justifying rioting is impossible, not because there are no eminently demonstrable causes, but because to do so implies that rioting is an effective and sensible means of dealing with those causes. It clearly isn’t. In fact, it serves merely to perpetuate and to underpin the very analysis that I’m suggesting is part of the problem.

So what are those causes? Just to repeat myself, in positing cause I’m not offering justification. But the causes are social and economic. They are forged in the inflammable combination of racism and poverty. What do the present time, and the Britain of the early 1980s have in common? A contracting economy, the doleful (literally) effects of which are not distributed evenly, but visited with the greatest and most corrosive consequences upon those who are already our society’s poorest. From this mixture of race, class and exclusion arise, as they have always done, crime, gangs, violence and despair. The police are then charged with containing the consequences. In attempting to do so, they are perceived as adding to the pressure, as agents of social discipline on behalf of society’s more fortunate members. It doesn’t help that often they bring their own racist stereotypes with them, but in my judgement these are consequences rather than causes.

These conditions create a tinderbox. Like a casually discarded fag-end in a drought-stressed forest, it takes only a spark – such as the killing by police of a young black man – to set the place alight. Admonishing the flames as an “unjustified” response is no more effective for our society than it would be for a fire-ravaged forest. At the risk of pushing the analogy too far, if we want to avoid the fire, we must both stop the drought, and stop casually throwing our cigarette butts away.

We seem to be incapable of doing either. To end the drought, we must stop correcting our fiscal imbalances by further impoverishing the already impoverished. To stop the sparks, we must stop shooting at people. But in truth, the latter will not happen until the former is addressed. Blaming the police, either for unnecessary shooting, or for not acting with sufficiently heavy hands when the riots began, is pointless and unfair. If young people, black and white, are to see work and responsible behaviour as more productive than rioting, we have to make that true. The problem at the moment is that for far too many of our young people, especially our black young people, it is not true. We can point at individuals who’ve made it, who’ve overcome their circumstances, but that’s no answer for the mass of their comrades. It’s like saying that anyone can win the lottery, or become President of the United States. Of course they can, but inevitably the vast majority will not. Individual heroism is no answer.

These are difficult problems to address. It’s so much easier to dismiss those involved in unrest as criminals, to pontificate on how rioting is never justified. That’s true, but not for the reasons of morality the condemnations imply. Rioting isn’t justified because it simply doesn’t work. What might work? Politicians having the courage to break out of the impasse in which they daren’t speak the truth about causes for fear of being seen as “soft” on the rioters. Acknowledging that rioting is not senseless, but merely ineffective, would perhaps free us to ponder about what would be effective.

Racism then and now: a musical insight

In the middle of the 18th century, when the Atlantic slave trade was at its height, there was a then famous black composer working in France. Even those of you who are lovers of classical music have probably heard of him. His name was Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was a violinist, although that was only one of his talents. Others included athlete, military commander, huntsman and swordsman. He wrote several violin concertos for his own playing, and the slow movement of one of them can be heard here:

I think one might be forgiven for thinking it was a lost work by Mozart or Haydn. It seems extraordinary that a composer of such talent is today almost totally forgotten.

There’s a strange paradox here. When Saint-Georges was alive, it was a time that we like to think was one in which black people were very much worse off than they are now. It would be idle to pretend that wasn’t the case, and yet here we have a black man operating at the highest levels of the French aristocracy in a way that would perhaps cause comment even in 21st century England. Our aristocracy is not known for its multi-cultural plurality. Certainly it seems hardly likely that black people were seen as “animals” rather than “human”, as is widely supposed to have been a prevalent view during the slave trade, and yet for a black man to be tolerated in the highest echelons of society.

Of course, it must be remembered that musicians in the 18th century were nothing more than fancy servants, so not too much should be read into Saint-Georges’ social position. Indeed, and perhaps ironically, he was thrown into destitution after the revolution of 1789 since he was seen as a lackey of the hated aristocrats. But many composers died in destitution, Mozart being a prime example, and yet their reputations have survived and even perhaps been enhanced as a result of the romantic notion of the tortured artist. What has prevented Saint-Georges from being better known?

My suspicion is that his obscurity is a result of the racism that dominated Europe and the Americas after the end of the slave trade, rather than of the racism that existed during his lifetime. Be that as it may, Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges is yet another example of black people’s contribution to the arts and society having been effectively expunged in our modern consciousness. If anyone ever asks you if there have been black composers of classical music before the mid-20th century, you will now be able to say, “Yes”, even if you might have said, “No” yesterday!

Race and adoption

I have touched on this issue before, but it has surfaced again today as the government publishes its new guidance to social services departments. The guidance states that “race should not be a factor” in adoption decisions provided that other welfare considerations indicate that the prospective placement is in the child’s best interests. Radio 4’s Today programme carried an interview with a black man who had been adopted by white parents who, he said, had struggled long and hard to overcome the racially informed objections of the adoption authorities. He was adamant that such considerations were entirely misplaced. His adoptive parents had provided him with a loving and stable home, which he compared against the horrors of being in care. He dismissed all ideas of there being such a thing as “black culture” on which he might have missed out, and stridently asserted that his culture was “English”. He ridiculed any other approach by sarcastically referring to the idiocy of suggesting that, because his antecedents were African, he should have been “running around in an animal skin wielding a spear”.

It’s not often that someone demonstrates so powerfully by their arguments exactly those dangers that they claim do not exist. I have rarely heard a more disturbing example of the emptying of cultural content, and the negation of identity. This man’s contribution also exemplified the dangers of extrapolating from one individual’s experience to a policy for society at large. It is not for me to say what would have been better for this man than the cultural annihilation that he appears to have suffered, and it’s clear that it is not his view that he has suffered at all. He is welcome to his point of view, and it is equally clear that the social and economic status of his adoptive parents have brought enormous benefits alongside this dubious cultural solipsism. But I do not believe that this man’s individual experience provides a sound, nor indeed a healthy, perspective from which to consider the fraught issue of inter-cultural adoption.

The argument is usually framed thus: that the need of all children to have a loving and stable home life is much more important than the politically correct concerns of social workers obsessed with race and culture. To this basis is usually added the fact that because relatively fewer ethnic minority parents offer themselves as potential adopters, the children’s homes that still exist are disproportionately populated by black young people for whom no adoptive parents can be found, but only because willing white adopters are forbidden from offering the family life those children desperately need. In this way it is suggested that concern about cultural identity is actually having the perverse consequence of discriminating against black children and blighting their lives in a way that white children are spared.

We need to cut through this Gordian knot with the knife of dialectic balance. The positions that claim on the one hand that cultural identity between children and their adoptive parents is the be-all and end-all of the matter, and on the other that all we need is love, are both wrong, simplistic, and inadequate. Denying the existence of a racially connected cultural identity is demonstrably wrong-headed and idealistic. It cannot be true whilst racism remains an everyday experience for black people in Britain; whilst application forms from Leroys, Abegundes and Mohammeds are routinely less successful than those from Peters, Philips and Davids; whilst fascists and racists still march on our streets. Simply leaving black children in an inadequate and damaging care system as if their cultural health was the only aspect of their health worth worrying about is equally wrong-headed.

What should we do? We should continue to try and attract parents from across the cultural spectrum to offer themselves as adopters. We should redouble our efforts to remove the stain of racism from our society. We should do something about the scandal that complacently accepts that being in care is somehow inevitably, inexorably damaging. It is not. What is damaging is a care system that underpays and undervalues its staff, that offers the work to the lowest bidder, and that treats children as clients to be “looked after” rather than offspring to be valued and developed. What we should not do is deny that culture exists, or that it is of any significance. We should not pretend that there is a single culture in this country called “being English”. We should not allow the privileged experience of one “lucky” black child adopted into rich, middle class society, to blind us to the realities that afflict the far greater number who are adopted in inter-racial families that then break down, or which do not adequately prepare those children for survival in Britain as it really is, not as we would like to imagine that it is.