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23 April 2023

What Diane Abbott gets wrong about racism

The Labour MP’s response to my column showed a stunning lack of judgement and awareness.

By Tomiwa Owolade

It is easy to swiftly object to a newspaper column – through a tweet, a private message, a Facebook comment. Something visceral is triggered in us, and we want to respond. But writing a letter in reply to one takes time and effort; it is not a thoughtless exercise.

In response to my column for the Observer on 16 April – in which I argued that accounts of racism in the UK need to reflect racism against Jewish people, Traveller communities, and Irish people – the Labour MP Diane Abbott wrote a letter, published by the paper on 23 April, that criticised my argument.

Abbott writes that the groups above “undoubtedly experience prejudice. This is similar to racism and the two words are often used as if they are interchangeable.” According to the MP, prejudice and racism are not the same thing. In her view, racism is about prejudice and power. Any group can be victims of prejudice; racism only applies to groups of people who lack social, economic and political power.

But this reasoning is odd. How do Traveller communities have any sort of power when they have the worst educational outcomes of all ethnic minority groups in the country? And doesn’t the power and privilege framework risk playing into one of the key tropes of anti-Semitism: that Jews have too much power?

Abbott has a very narrow conception of what constitutes racism. In her letter, she added that, “in pre-civil rights America, Irish people, Jewish people and Travellers were not required to sit at the back of the bus. In apartheid South Africa, these groups were allowed to vote.” It is striking that in response to a piece that is specifically about Britain, she cites the examples of the US and apartheid South Africa. In any case, she is plainly wrong even on her own terms. Jewish people and Irish people have most certainly been discriminated against in the US: in the early 20th century, for example, many US Ivy League universities had quotas that restricted the number of Jewish students they could admit.

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Many of those who despise black people on racial grounds feel the same way about Jews. The Martiniquan theorist Frantz Fanon was once told by one of his teachers at his lycée school: “When you hear someone insulting the Jews, pay attention; he is talking about you.” This is why Fanon, a black man, was sensitive about anti-Semitism: “Anti-Semitism cuts me to the quick. They are denying me the right to be a man. I cannot dissociate myself from the fate reserved for my brother.” (Fanon also illustrates the existence of a radical left-wing tradition that is uncompromising in its opposition to anti-Semitism.)

American white supremacists typically hate Jews as well as black people. In 2017 white supremacist protesters marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, shouted: “You will not replace us” – a reference to the Great Replacement race conspiracy theory.

In the Mississippi Burning murders in 1964, three civil rights activists visiting Philadelphia, Mississippi, were shot and then buried by the Ku Klux Klan and the local police force. One of them, James Chaney, was a black American. Two of them were Jewish: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

One of the greatest acts of racial hatred in the past century – the Holocaust – is also sidelined by Abbott when she claims Jewish people and Traveller communities can’t be victims of racism.

After all the controversies of the Jeremy Corbyn years, when Labour became the second political party after the BNP to be investigated for racism by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, it is astonishing that a Labour MP and key Corbyn ally would write in a public letter that Jews cannot be victims of racism.

In a tweet, Abbott tried to desperately retract her letter: “I wish to wholly and unreservedly withdraw my remarks and dissociate myself from them.” She claimed the errors of the letter arose because of “an initial draft being sent”. But it is too late. She has had the Labour whip suspended, and rightly so.

Abbott understandably feels strongly about racism. She has been the victim of appalling racism herself, and I have no personal animus or ill will towards her. Yet her response to my column showed a remarkable lack of judgement. And she doesn’t have the excuse that it was a throwaway tweet or Facebook comment: this was a public letter.

Her apology is unconvincing. If it was simply a first draft, what would the final draft have concluded? Her letter was plainly written; there was little room for ambiguity about what she was trying to express. Rather than simply disowning it, any genuine apology by her needs to also explain why she wrote the letter in the first place, and why she now thinks she was wrong to do so.

If she does, the Christian values of forgiveness and mercy with which I was raised would make me open to her readmission as a Labour MP. But such a substantive apology seems unlikely. And as Keir Starmer has recently outlined a zero-tolerance approach to anti-Semitism, it makes both moral and political sense for him not to return the whip: he is trying to expunge the anti-Semitism that plagued Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

The only positive to be gleaned from this sad story is how quickly Labour has acted and how near-universal the condemnation of Abbott’s comments has been.

[See also: Should the Labour party forgive or forget Diane Abbott?]

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age