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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Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears at Labour’s anti-Semitism inquiry press conference

A hostile atmosphere overshadowed announcement of the findings in Shami Chakrabarti’s report.

Speaking at a press conference on Labour’s anti-Semitism inquiry report, Jeremy Corbyn joked: “Last summer, I called for a kinder, gentler politics. Sadly I have to report that is still a work in progress.”

A wry aside, but one that grimly summed up how this event played out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at a time when an official report has to recommend that elected politicians “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”.



The recommendations from Shami Chakrabarti's report, following her inquiry into Labour anti-Semitism.

Corbyn called for a reflection on the recent “hateful language” used by politicians, including when Boris Johnson “compared Hitler’s murderous tyranny with the European project created from its ashes” and Michael Gove “compared pro-Remain economists to Nazi collaborators”. (He didn’t mention Ken Livingstone, and Shami Chakrabarti banned him from responding when he was called on it.)

But Corbyn’s warning against such incendiary historical comparisons was undermined by a clumsy line in his speech, which seemed to equate Israel to Islamic State:

“Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.”

When asked if he was comparing Israel to the terrorist group, Corbyn said “of course not”. His office later clarified that he was not speaking specifically about IS, but a collection of governments and groups.

But the tone was set, and the inflammatory language didn’t end there. Tensions between the press and a handful of people claiming to be part of the pro-Corbyn campaign movement Momentum (though it’s unclear whether they were paid-up members) overshadowed the event.

A few of these activists clashed with journalists covering the event. I received a lengthy, angry lecture about media “hostility” by one activist, and Kate McCann from the Telegraph was accused of being a “troublemaker” and “racist”, as part of the “witch-hunt media”. During a Q&A with Corbyn, one supporter publicly accused the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth of colluding with the Telegraph. She walked out of the event, and her office confirms to me that she was reduced to tears by the incident.

In a statement on her website, she writes:

This morning, at the launch of the Chakrabarti Inquiry into antisemitism, I was verbally attacked by a Momentum activist and Jeremy Corbyn supporter who used traditional antisemitic slurs to attack me for being part of a 'media conspiracy'. It is beyond belief that someone could come to the launch of a report on antisemitism in the Labour Party and espouse such vile conspiracy theories about Jewish people, which were ironically highlighted as such in Ms Chakrabarti's report, while the leader of my own party stood by and did absolutely nothing.

She has made an official complaint to Labour HQ, and is calling on Corbyn to resign immediately and make way for someone with the backbone to confront racism and anti-Semitism in our party and in the country”.

Corbyn denounced the language of the literature that activists were handing out (some of the leaflets referred to MPs as “traitors”):

“There should be no bad language used, there should be no abuse used, and I don’t like the use of the word ‘traitor’ either. I’ve sent out statements already saying whatever the situation in this political debate in the party at this present time, no abuse, no name-calling, none of that kind of behaviour. I’ve made that absolutely clear to people who agree with me, or don’t agree with me, and conduct debate in a civilised, civil way.”

These activists are not representatives of the Labour Party, and they may not even be official representatives of Momentum. But their aggressive behaviour towards Smeeth and people trying to do their jobs was bleakly poignant at an event specifically about stamping out hatred in politics.

I have contacted Momentum for this story, and am awaiting a response.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.