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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn is punished for his “friends” Hamas

In the face of David Cameron's unrelenting assault, the Labour leader still refused to withdraw his remark. 

When Jeremy Corbyn referred to Hamas and Hizbullah as "our friends" he certainly didn't imagine that he would one day have to defend the remark at Prime Minister's Questions. But that was the position he found himself in today as David Cameron remorselessly targeted him. Challenged three times by the Prime Minister to withdraw the comment, he refused to do so, though he came close when he insisted: "Anyone who commits racist or anti-Semitic acts is not a friend of mine." 

So unrelenting was Cameron's assault that Corbyn's questions on spending cuts were rendered irrelevant. The Labour leader instead returned fire by challenging the PM over Zac Goldsmith's noxious London mayoral campaign (which has painted Sadiq Khan as the friend of extremists). Suliman Gani, the iman whom Khan has been attacked for sharing a platform with, was a Conservative supporter, Corbyn noted. He quoted a former Tory candidate who denounced Goldsmith's "repulsive campaign of hate". But Corbyn's lax response to anti-Semitism has weakened his moral authority.

Cameron gave no quarter in his defence of Goldsmith, defying the theory that he wants Khan to win in order to shore up the Labour leader. But he also undoubtedly hopes that the lines which appear to have failed in London will succeed elsewhere. With pure ruthlessness, he declared of Corbyn: "He may be a friend of the terrorist group Hamas but he's an enemy of aspiration." Labour was left to rue how its leader's back catalogue crowds out its attacks on government policy. Should Corbyn make it to the next general election, it will face far worse. "A party that puts extremists over working people" was Cameron's parting shot. 

After this brutal electioneering, it was left to the SNP's Westminster leader Angus Robertson to return the debate to policy. Cameron confirmed that the government was preparing a climbdown on accepting more unaccompanied child refugees. "We're already taking child migrants in Europe with a direct family connection to the UK," he said. "I'm also talking to Save the Children to see what we can do more, particularly with children who came here before the EU-Turkey deal was signed." He added: "It won't be necessary to send the Dubs amendment back to the other place [the House of Lords]."

The other notable moment came when Cameron announced that the Chilcot Inquiry would finally be published "not long after" the EU referendum. It this occasion that Corbyn will ikely to use to make his long-promised apology for the Iraq war (for which, of course, he bears no blame). But as today made clear, there will be no such remorse for the wrong "friends". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.