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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Dan Jarvis is the potential Labour leader the Tories fear most

 "We'd never be able to accuse him of being weak," one minister said of the former paratrooper. 

The Tories are still jubilant at what they regard as the gift of Jeremy Corbyn's election. But they recognise that he may not be the opponent they face in 2020 (though several MPs told me they expected him to last). When George Osborne remarked that Labour could have held two leadership contests by the general election it wasn't entirely clear whether he was joking. 

In the bars of Manchester this week, the Tories found time to discuss Corbyn's potential successors. The name most often cited to me as a threat was that of Dan Jarvis. "We'd never be able to accuse him of being weak," one minister said of the former paratrooper, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Having rejected appeals to stand last time round, the Barnsley Central MP is now the favourite to succeed Corbyn. 

The question often asked of Jarvis in Labour circles is "what does he stand for?" He is not identified with any wing or faction of the party (recently stepping down as a vice-chair of Progress) and, though casually dubbed a "Blairite", he leans leftwards on issues such as tax. Several Tories identified this relative amorphousness as a strength, noting that Tony Blair and David Cameron travelled similarly light. But Jarvis, who has returned to the backbenches, is likely to acquire greater definition, with a lecture on the economy planned. 

It is because they believe Labour has capable leaders in the wings that the Tories are determined to contaminate the entire party's brand. Rather than referring to "Jeremy Corbyn", they spoke in their speeches of "the Labour leader", seeking to eliminate the distance between him and his MPs. Their aim is to ensure that the damage inflicted on the opposition is so great that there will be no possibility of a recovery in this parliament or, some hope, in any one. As I note in my column this week, the ambition is not merely to win in 2020 but to put Labour out of business for good. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.