Let's not pretend that Diane Abbott's comments were genuine racism

The MP was stupid to refer to "white people", but her tweet has been taken out of context.

Another day, another Twitterstorm - this time a "race row" involving Diane Abbott.

The Hackney MP tweeted "white people love playing "divide and rule". We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism".

Conservative blogs have called for her resignation. Over at ConservativeHome, Paul Goodman writes:

Imagine how the Guardian or the BBC would react if a Conservative MP said that "black people love playing 'divide and rule' ".

They would be right to do so. Such an MP would be maligning their fellow citizens on a racist basis. This is exactly what Abbott has done.

I'm sorry, but this is disingenuous for a number of reasons.

Firstly, let's take the facts. As is standard practice in any good Twitterstorm, the comment in question has been completely divorced of its context. Abbott did not make a cup of tea, sit down at her computer, and think: "Do you know what? I think I'll malign white people now."

As the hashtag referencing colonialism shows, the comment was made in the context of a political discussion: namely, criticism of black community leaders. The use of the term "white people" here is distinguishing from "black people". She was responding to this tweet: "I find it frustrating that half the time, these leaders are out of touch with black people they purport to represent." Black people/white people.

Abbott's choice of words was clumsy , and as an MP she should be more careful. But in this discussion, she is clearly referring to "white people" as a political force in the context of colonialism, not making generalisations about the behaviour of individual white people. Her comments aren't equivalent to, for example, Lauryn Hill supposedly saying that she didn't want "white people" to buy her records.

There is no question that she shouldn't have used such a generalised term, which is highly open to misinterpretation. However, the ConHome blog goes so far as to say she has "deliberately provoked hatred of a racial group, and is therefore in breach of the 1986 Public Order Act."

Quite apart from the fact that the comment is clearly not inciting racial hatred, the hypothetical white Conservative MP referring to "black people" cannot be a direct comparison. When one racial group is so dominant, both numerically (in Britain) and politically (worldwide), pejorative language simply does not have the same power or resonance. Hence words like "honky" or "goora" (a Hindi word for "white") do not have the same brutal power as words like "nigger" or "Paki". Most of those tweeting outrage are white and will not have experienced the pain that such words and the assumptions that go with them can inflict.

Abbott's choice of wording was stupid. It has offended people, and she should apologise, particularly given her role as an elected representative. Indeed, ethnic minorities have a duty to make sure they don't fall into the same trap as the racism they are working against by making lazy generalisations about "white people". But that legislation exists not just because of the words -- "black people", "Asians", "Jews" -- but because of the centuries of oppression and huge tide of contemporary racism that those words, and the way they are used, represent. This outrage has a hint of tit-for-tat -- "we're not allowed to say these things, so why should you be allowed to?" Let's not pretend, though, that what Abbott actually said is as serious as most instances of racism we see in public life.

 

UPDATE: Abbott has apologised:

"I understand people have interpreted my comments as making generalisations about white people. I do not believe in doing that. I apologise for any offence caused."

She's also tweeted: "Tweet taken out of context. Refers to nature of 19th century European colonialism. Bit much to get into 140 characters."

Let's hope that is the end of that.

UPDATE 5.35pm: I debated this subject on BBC News 24 with Harry Cole earlier this afternoon. Here's the clip:

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Hilary Benn has been sacked. What happens now?

Jeremy Corbyn has sacked Hilary Benn, effectively challenging his critics to put up or shut up.

Hilary Benn been sacked from the shadow cabinet, following an article in the Observer reporting that the former shadow foreign secretary had told Labour MPs he would challenge Jeremy Corbyn should Corbyn lose the vote of confidence in his leadership that the PLP are due to discuss on Monday.

Anti-Corbyn plotters are convinced that they have the numbers to pass the no confidence motion in Corbyn’s leadership. Passing that motion, however, would not formally trigger either Corbyn’s resignation or a leadership challenge.

The word from Corbyn’s inner circle is that he would remain in post even if he were to lose the confidence vote, and dare his opponents to collect the 50 names they would need to trigger a leadership challenge.

Should that come about, Corbyn’s allies are certain that they would triumph over whoever ran against him. As one senior source said “they lost really badly in September and that’s not gonna change”.

Labour’s rebels are convinced that they have the numbers necessary to trigger a formal challenge to Corbyn’s leadership.

What happens next is fraught as the relevant clause in Labour’s rulebook is unhelpfully vague: 

“ii. Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.”

The question that no-one is certain of the answer to: whether the challenged leader would have to seek nominations as well or if they would be on the ballot as by right. My understanding is that the legal advice that Corbyn’s critics have is that Corbyn would not automatically have a place on the ballot. But Jolyon Maugham, a lawyer who writes regularly for the New Statesman, looked over the clause for us and believes that he would.

More important than the legal basis, though, is what the party’s ruling National Executive Committee, which would rule on whether Corbyn had to seek nominations to stand, believes.

Although Corbyn has received the backing of 12 of Labour’s affiliated general secretaries, a well-placed source tells me that they are confident the NEC would rule that Corbyn will need to seek nominations if he is to stand again.

But control over the NEC is finely balanced, and could shift decisively towards Corbyn following this year’s elections to the NEC; one reason why Corbyn’s opponents are keen to strike now.

In that situation, Corbyn’s allies believe they can secure the 50 nominations he would need – the threshold has been raised due to a rule change giving Labour members of the European Parliament the same nominating powers as their cousins in Westminster – thanks to a combination of ideological support for Corbyn and pressure from the party’s grassroots. Senior sources believe that once Corbyn reached shouting distance of 50 nominations, the bulk of the shadow cabinet would quickly fall in line. Another estimates that the “vast majority” of the PLP accept Corbyn requires more time and that the plotting is the result of “a rump” of MPs.

But Corbyn’s critics believe that the European result, which saw Labour voters reject the party line in large numbers, has left Labour MPs with large majorities in the party’s ex-industrial seats more spooked by their voters than by their activists, putting them in the same group as those MPs with small majorities. (The two groups who currently pose the biggest danger to Corbyn are MPs who are old enough to be eligible to collect their pension at or before the next election, and MPs with majorities of under 2,000.) 

Who's right? Much depends on the disposition of Labour's 20 MEPs. Prior to Britain's Brexit vote, they were believed to be the most sensitive to the concerns of the party's activists, as Labour members vote on the order of the party's list, making anti-Corbynites vulnerable. Now all 20 MEPs are out of a job at, or before, the next European election regardless, the question is whether they decide to keep Corbyn off the ballot, or try to curry favour with Corbyn's supporters in the membership prior to making a bid for seats at Westminster. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.