By Debbie J Challis, on 16 August 2011
David Starkey’s comments that ‘whites have become black’ on the BBC2 programme Newsnight on Friday 12 August 2011 have been condemned in most of the media and by many politicians. There are a few who make the valid argument for freedom to say what we like, while others contend that Starkey was referring to a particular form of ‘black’ gangsta culture. The BBC has had over 700 complaints. The black MP for Tottenham David Lammy, whom Starkey described as sounding ‘white’, implied that Starkey should stick to Tudor history. The classicist Mary Beard has pointed out that any historian worth their salt should be able to apply their tools of critique to any period. In this I concur.
Here I speak personally for myself and not for UCL or for any of my colleagues.
Starkey’s generalisations uncomfortably reminded me of Francis Galton’s letter to The Times on 5 June 1873 advocating that the Chinese move into Africa and take over from the ‘inferior negro’. Galton wrote:
‘The truth appears to be that individuals of the mental caliber I have just described are much more exceptional in the negro than in the Anglo-Saxon race, and that average negroes possess too little intellect, self-reliance, and self-control to make it possible for them to sustain the burden of any respectable form of civilization without a large measure of external guidance and support.’
Galton was here subscribing to a form of racial hierarchy, in which he had defined the ‘negro as two grades lower to the Anglo-Saxon type’ in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius. These opinions were claimed by some as ‘scientific’. UCL is this year marking the centenary year of the death of Galton with, among other things, an exhibition I curated at the Petrie Museum Typecast: Flinders Petrie and Francis Galton exploring the influence of Galton’s ideas on race and eugenics on the archaeologist Flinders Petrie.
Now, I am not suggesting that Starkey subscribes to Galton’s views, but his generalised comments lacked the analytical reading that we should expect from an historian, even one who courts an image as the ‘rudest man in Britain’. Not only was Starkey offensive, he was a poor historian. It is our responsibility as professionals working to understand the past to offer nuanced analysis, not ill-thought out assumptions dressed up as academic learning.
If Starkey had carried out a rudimentary google search of ‘riots in Britain history’ he would have found many references to past riots and their causes with which to compare the tragic events of last week. If Starkey had bothered to read a book or ask an expert, he may have discovered that almost exactly 100 years ago there were ‘Anti-Jewish’ riots in Tredegar in South Wales where shops were looted and destroyed. These riots took place in a period of economic crisis and strikes over frozen pay. Jews were targeted due to Anti-Semitic prejudice against their seeming affluence in hard times. Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary at the time, sent in the army. Historians have also argued that such Anti-Semitic attitudes were hardened by some of the eugenic and racial theories based on Francis Galton’s work.
History is based on what we choose to remember, but how easily we all forget.