Thursday, 5 January 2012

Racism vs “racism”: why Diane Abbott was right

(Article originally published at: Author: Dorian Lynskey )

I can imagine a world in which Diane Abbott’s tweet that “White people love playing ‘divide and rule’ We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism” would be racist. In this parallel universe Britain is dominated, politically and economically, by an unshakeable clique of black, working-class women and two black men have just been convicted, several years too late thanks to an institutionally racist black police force, of the murder of white teenager Stephen Lawrence. But in this world? Not really.

I don’t want to get into the ridiculous mob mechanics of Twitter outrage, which can be as bad on the left (witness pandagate) as it is on the right, except to note that the “gotcha” strategy is a surefire way to ensure that no politician ever expresses themselves on social media except in the bloodlessly inoffensive style of Ed Milibot’s feed. It seems we desperately want politicians to drop the platitudes and speak openly, except when they do, in which case they need to apologise and resign.

What this absurd flap demonstrates is the desperate longing of some privileged people to wear the rags of victimhood. Any whiff of black-on-white racism, like misandry and heterophobia, is an excuse for these delicate souls to downplay the dominant prejudice and argue that there is a level playing field of bigotry or, on the crazier fringes, that there is a “war” on white people/men/straight people/motorists, etc. Coming so soon after the Lawrence verdict, Abbottgate is a nasty attempt to pretend that, hey, there’s racism on both sides now. A black man gets knifed to death by a white mob; a black MP writes a carelessly worded tweet about white people. It all evens out.

Predictably Abbott has felt compelled to delete the tweet, though not the rest of the conversation which produced it. But apart from the careless oversimplification — she should have said “white people in power” or “certain white people” — she was right. In her initial qualified apology she clarified that she was referring to 19th century colonialism when, to take just one example, the Belgians colonising modern-day Rwanda strategically favoured the Tutsis over the Hutus and sowed the seeds of attempted genocide a century later.

But you don’t need to go back that far. The US government’s efforts to disrupt the civil rights and Black Power movements are a textbook example of divide-and-rule. It is what dominant powers do. To read her tweet as an indictment of every single white person in the world requires either paranoia or malice. Most of all it means denying that power matters.

One common response was “Imagine if a white person had said something like this.” Well we’re back in the parallel universe. “If this was a white MP saying black people like dividing white people they’d be out in five minutes,” claimed the opportunistically quick-on-his-feet Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi. It would also make no sense whatsoever, because such a thing doesn’t happen in the real world. The meaning of a comment depends on the power dynamic that underpins it. If a black comedian makes a joke about white people, or a gay comedian about straight people, the audience knows that (a) they don’t mean everybody and (b) they are coming from an underdog position. They are punching up instead of down.

When I was a teenager getting into hip hop in the late 80s and early 90s, I came up against the Nation of Islam’s fruity theory (nothing to with mainstream Islamic teaching by the way) that white people are all “devils” created millennia ago by the renegade black eugenicist Yakub. It is, strictly speaking, racist in that it insisted on one race’s superiority over another. It’s also nuts, and if Diane Abbott came up with anything like that then she’d be looking for a new job. But it had zero bearing on the way America actually worked. It was a fantasy of empowerment embraced by some inner-city black people who had very little power in their everyday lives. It wasn’t cheering stuff for a lefty liberal like me but it bore no comparison to actual, systemic white-on-black racism. There was no equivalency.

That’s an extreme example. Abbott’s comment is both reasonable and historically accurate. One group that her oversimplification did ignore, unfortunately, is the large number of white working-class people who are at the bottom of the social heap and don’t have the power to divide and rule anything. But they’re not the people falling over themselves to express their outrage. Well-positioned commentators like Guido Fawkes and Toby Young are, and they are deliberately misinterpreting her comment in order to score political points, with the (hopefully inadvertent) by-product of fostering racial tension among those who will only encounter it second- or third-hand. Because when a white person gets a chance to brand a black person racist, especially in the wake of the Lawrence verdict, they give themselves permission to pretend that privilege and power and the kind of deep-seated racism that ruins people’s lives are things that don’t exist anymore.

Dorian Lynskey