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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Leader: Goodbye to global glut as the financial markets stumble

Cheap money is a shaky foundation on which to build genuine economic growth.

After China’s main stock exchange plunged by 8.5 per cent on 24 August, the Shanghai composite index’s worst single day fall in eight years, state media declared it “Black Monday”. Markets elsewhere in the world fared little better. Germany’s DAX index fell 4.7 per cent, pushing it into a bear market. The FTSE 100 also slid nearly 5 per cent, a tenth consecutive day of falls, and in the US the S&P 500 slipped 4 per cent, taking its losses since May to 11 per cent.

If traders – and anyone with a share portfolio or pension invested in shares – were not already nervous enough, the former US treasury secretary Larry Summers weighed in. “As in August 1997, 1998, 2007 and 2008 we could be in the early stage of a very serious situation,” he wrote on Twitter.

That remains to be seen, and the small bounce in share markets outside Asia on 25 August would have offered some reassurance. What is clear, however, is that more than seven years after the start of the global financial crisis, which ushered in the present period of austerity and deepening inequality, the world economy remains fragile.

One reason is its heavy dependence on China as an engine of growth. For years the world’s second-biggest economy has been sucking in raw materials from around the world to feed its factories and infrastructure projects: it is the world’s most voracious consumer of energy and buys about half of the world’s industrial metals, such as copper. But the days of 10 per cent or even 8 per cent growth in China are over. Even before the recent stock slide in Shanghai, which should not have been a big shock, given the steep rise in the market earlier this year, there were signs that the economy was slowing. Prices for commodities from iron ore and platinum to oil have slumped over the past year, partly because of supply issues but also because of weaker Chinese demand.

For countries dependent on revenues from raw materials, such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Nigeria, this is a challenge and raises concern about unrest. Even Saudi Arabia has been forced to borrow on the financial markets for the first time since 2007. Emerging-market currencies have plunged: it now costs more than 20 South African rand to buy a pound.

Rich western economies, which are left as the main drivers of global growth, appear to be more insulated from China’s troubles. But as our columnist Felix Martin points out, there are warning signs. The strong performance of US stocks in recent years is at odds with the underlying economic data. The strength of shares there and in the UK owes more to loose monetary policy: mainly low interest rates and quantitative easing, which involves printing money to buy back assets from banks and other institutions, in effect pumping cash into the financial system.

Yet cheap money is a shaky foundation on which to build genuine economic growth. And because interest rates are ­already so low, and debt and deficits high, governments have few tools to employ if investors’ confidence melts further and markets crash. Much worse may be to come.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism