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.

Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech on the arts in a north London theatre on September 1, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Where Corbyn stands on the refugee crisis

The Labour leadership frontrunner calls for the UK to "offer a place of safety" but won't give a figure. 

Yvette Cooper led the political response to the refugee crisis with her passionate and forensic speech on Monday. The Labour leadership candidate called for the government to accept 10,000 under its vulnerable persons relocation shame, rather than the 216 welcomed to date. But where does her rival Jeremy Corbyn stand? The Labour leadership frontrunner has issued a statement today, denouncing the government's "shameful" response. He said: 

Nobody could fail to be moved by this heartbreaking crisis. Millions are desperately fleeing a terrible civil war, risking their lives and the lives of their children to seek only the most basic sanctuary.

This government’s response has been shameful. David Cameron must shoulder his responsibility and begin urgent talks with our European neighbours and the UN so that the UK takes its fair share of refugees. He should immediately bring together civil society and religious leaders, devolved administrations, councils and charities to properly plan and co-ordinate our humanitarian response.

It is our duty as a signatory to the UN refugee convention, but also as human beings, to offer a place of safety, to play a role internationally, to share our responsibilities, and to work to end the conflict. We must also make sure that people who have risked their lives seeking refuge here are treated fairly when they arrive.

Currently we are failing on all of these counts. This is far too serious to keep getting wrong. As a first step, we must urgently pool our expertise and resources to plan a proper humanitarian response.

In the longer term we must stop supplying the arms fuelling the conflicts which the refugees are fleeing and take meaningful action to tackle climate change and the very serious implications this will have on refugee flows if left unaddressed.

Of note is Corbyn's emphasis that it is the UK's duty "as a signatory to the UN refugee convention" to aid those in need. The Council of Europe has suggested in a statement published this afternoon that Britain could be in breach of its "legal" as well as "moral" obligations. Unlike Cooper, Corbyn does not give a suggested figure. An aide told me that he would "not be going there". His desire not to be bound to an arbitrary number is perhaps wise. Would 10,000 be sufficient when Germany is prepared to accept 800,000? 

Corbyn's authority on this issue is enhanced by his pro-asylum voting record. As some of his supporters are highlighting, Cooper and Andy Burnham have consistently voted for a stricter system. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.