Racist but not entirely wrong

Frederick Cowell

Image © Alkan de Beaumont Chaglar

The first reaction to Diane Abbott’s twitterati missive should be, as several commentators have already and wisely said; why are we getting so angry? The desire for mass outrage as the only appropriate response to every supposed outrage committed by a public figure is positively North Korean; whereas they prostrate themselves with grief, we are expected to coalesce our anger. Abbott’s statement was profoundly stupid but has also been taken profoundly out of context and the reason to keep talking about it is that the shadow of race over politics is lengthening. The London riots were racialised pre-emptively by the political classes, a phenomenon exacerbated by the crass remarks of David Starkey projecting a distinctly racial dimension onto the riots.

The tweet should be split in three to achieve an adequate response. Firstly ‘white people love.’ This is foolish and what Abbott should apologise for. The idea that pigmentation can involuntarily form political identity is as dangerous as it is disgusting. The crude picaninny plantation working blacks, loyal Indian servants, and placidly ferocious oriental warriors: all racist caricatures are based on politically collectivising individuals on the basis of immutable characteristics. All of her anti- Racism activism should have taught her this and for the sake of those she has fought for, and not the imaginary ruffled feathers of the unnamed offended, she should apologise.

Secondly ‘playing “divide & rule”’: in the context of her conversation with Bim Adewunmi about the lazy categorisation of community, this part of the tweet is eerily perceptive. Why is a story about the BNP or the EDL bereft of references to leaders of the ‘white community?’ In an article explaining the context of her twitter conversation Adewunmi lamented the way that the mediascape reacted to events, such as the conviction of Norris and Dobson, by homogenising ethnic communities ‘without fail,’ she argues, ‘“community leaders” and the now standard “ex-gang member” are wheeled out to be interviewed.’ Abbott saw this a need for solidarity among ethnic communities. Why? And more specifically what is that solidarity for? Nothing to apologise for here but nothing to praise.

Finally, “We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism”: totally correct. Colonialism was built on a construction of deep racial difference and inferiority that went beyond simple prejudice, hence Frantz Fanon’s description of the colonisation of his skull. The idea that ethnic groups belong to separate ‘communities’ only makes sense as a response to inescapable cyclical discrimination – black individuals are more likely to be stopped by the police, be victims of violent crime and, whilst comprising 3% of the population, comprise nearly 20% of the prison population. The failure to tackle the seemingly obvious is appalling and many issues are locked in the dialectic alterity of colonialism; criminality and disorder are cleavaged onto minorities to allow the majority to define themselves by what they are not. Abbot deserves to be praised for stumbling on the truth.

Yes Abbot is guilty of using racist language. Her detractors, however, are appalling as they selfishly seize the mantel of the victims of racism whilst remaining silent on ongoing acts of racial injustice in society.

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