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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.