There was a real storm in a teacup yesterday over a tweet by black Labour MP Diane Abbott in which she stated: “White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism.” A predictable row ensued, in which a host of – it has to be said – mostly white and right-wing commentators and tweeters lined up to accuse Ms Abbott of racism, and demand that she be sacked or resign.
For her part, the MP issued a forced retraction and tweeted that her remark had been taken out of context; although, as she has deleted the tweet, it isn’t easy to work out what the context actually was. An article in the Guardian makes this clear: it was part of a Twitter conversation with a black constituent, Bim Adewumni. Writing in the context of media coverage of the verdict and sentencing in the Stephen Lawrence murder case, Adewumni had said it was annoying how the media always talked of the ‘black community’, as if it were a homogeneous entity, and how they were for ever wheeling out supposed leaders of the said community – including the inevitable rappers or reformed gangsters – whom most black people would not recognise as ‘community leaders’. Abbott’s comment was clearly a defence of the value of the concept of ‘the black community’, as denying this was playing into a (white) “divide and rule agenda”, as Abbott had written earlier in the conversation.
Let’s give Abbott some credit and consider whether, in its context, her remark should be adjudged as racist. Abbott was clearly alluding to a version of the history of relations between black and white people in which white people are viewed as having always divided blacks among each other the better to exploit them. The reference to colonialism suggests the story of slavery, in which some African tribes were employed to capture and enslave others. It also evokes the European carve-up of the African continent, in which the boundaries between the European nations’ various colonies were drawn up in such a way as to include rival tribes within the same territory, thereby enabling the colonialists to ‘divide and rule’, and resulting in the terrible post-colonial story of bitter rivalry and civil wars amongst competing clans. By defending the concept of a single, united ‘black community’, Diane Abbott is affirming the principle of black solidarity: black people standing together, and not allowing themselves to be divided and exploited (by whites) as they have been in the past.
Now, no reasonable person would deny that there has been a terrible history of racist exploitation of and discrimination towards black people by white individuals and white-dominated societies. The context of Ms Abbott’s remarks should indeed be borne in mind: the conclusion of the Stephen Lawrence murder trial, where the sentencing had taken place only that day. That murder was of course a most bloody reminder of the continuing reality of the racism of some white people towards blacks. Although much progress may have been made since that crime in terms of the Metropolitan and other police forces overcoming their “institutional racism”, as the Macpherson Report called it, there are arguably still many instances of such racism today, including the fact that young black people in inner cities are disproportional targets of police stop and search tactics, and, anecdotally, you hear many accounts of victimisation of black individuals by the police.
The problem, however, was with Ms Abbott’s choice of words: “White people love playing ‘divide & rule'”. This can be read as implying that ‘white people in general take delight in setting black people against each other and dominating them’. In other words, Ms Abbott could be construed as saying that white people, as a ‘race’, are cruel and exploitative towards blacks. Such a statement would indeed be racist. But I really don’t think Diane Abbott seriously meant to say that or even thinks it, because whatever she is, she isn’t stupid. Indeed, semantically, her statement can just as legitimately be interpreted as saying that ‘certain white people (not necessarily all) take pleasure in disunity among black people and like to lord it over them’, e.g. people in the media, the police or politicians.
Indeed, the hysterical reaction to her remark on the part of right-of-centre media and politicians, and the Twittersphere, did seem to bear this out. Her remarks were pounced upon as an instance of ‘outrageous’ anti-white racism in a manner that simply would not have happened if a white politician had made the same comment. Note what I say: if a white politician had written the same words (i.e. that ‘white people love playing divide and rule towards blacks’), not if a white politician had said that ‘black people are racist towards whites’ or had made some other ‘racist’ comment about black people. By implication, it is OK for a white person to criticise their own race for their history of racism, but not for a black person to do so. But in that instinctive, knee-jerk reaction, can we not in fact see another instance of ‘institutional racism’, except this time the institution is establishment (white) politics and power? It was as if people were saying: ‘OK, Ms Abbott, we may tolerate you rising to a position of relative power in a white man’s world; but don’t you dare imply that the structures of power within British society are still “endemically” racist’. Ms Abbott was a black woman speaking out of turn and had to be slapped down.
Ironically, however, Ms Abbott is in some ways as ‘culturally white’ as they come: Oxbridge-educated, well-spoken, in a well-paid ‘middle-class’ profession, and sending her son to a public school. In other words, Ms Abbott’s ‘cultural background’ is pretty much white-English. And this is perhaps where the real, insidious racism lies, on both sides of the picture. Ms Abbott’s remark was not so much a case of the racism of a black person towards white people, but of inverted white racism: the internalised racism of some white people towards others or towards the ‘white race’ in general. That is to say, Ms Abbott has imbibed the white, liberal, middle-class received wisdom that white people have always been, and perhaps always will be, racist towards blacks. She is to some extent a white woman in a black woman’s skin: brought up in a white world, living and working in a white world, and identifying with mainstream white, liberal ideology in the area of racial politics. So in that sense, Ms Abbott was speaking almost as a white establishment politician.
Equally, the over-the-top reaction by mainstream right-wing politicians and media perhaps ultimately expresses indignation at the fact that Ms Abbott was speaking as a culturally white, black politician, and yet had the temerity to blame the system of which she is a part for anti-black racism. She was, as it were, an ungrateful black arriviste who was biting the hand that fed her. The subconsciously perceived ‘hypocrisy’ of this was, so to speak, akin to Ms Abbott’s supposed hypocrisy in sending her son to a public school: ‘don’t criticise the white political and social elite when you’re part of it’. Ms Abbott’s problem was that she had ‘got under the skin’ of her white-Conservative critics by trying to be ‘whiter than white’ in the area of race.
This is the ultimate transgression: literally trans-gressing – crossing over, trespassing across, transcending and so negating – the unspoken, invisible barriers between black and white. Ms Abbott’s ‘crime’ was being racially black but culturally white, and yet accusing the white culture, and race, of anti-black racism. But most of all, she was wrong to assume that she could be both black and speak from the ‘position’ (social and subjective-perceptual) of a white person on matters of race, and thereby be entitled to accuse white people of racism, which only white people are ‘permitted’ to do. How dare she! She should get back in her black box!
Ironically, of course, this is precisely what Ms Abbott reserves the right to do when she defends the concept of a homogeneous and, to that extent, exclusive ‘black community’. As soon as you set up the concept of a ‘black community’, as a distinct and separate sub-group within a mainly ‘white’ society, you are yourself perpetuating racial divisions, and creating the conditions for racial ‘divide and rule’. This is the most fundamental ‘racism’ and racial divisiveness of all: the very division of the ‘human race’ into racial sub-categories. Ms Abbott and her critics ironically share the desire for this division (the categorial division between black and white) to be perpetuated, and woe betide anyone who seeks to be a white woman in a black skin, or a black youth in a white skin (like the ‘feral’ white youths attacked by Professor David Starkey last summer) or, even more radically, someone who seeks to negate racial and ethnic-cultural antinomies altogether in the manner in which they lead their lives and conduct their relationships!
Ms Abbott’s personal tragedy, if that is not too strong a word, is that she has internalised this most fundamental form of racial divide and rule: she is a white woman in a black skin, who speaks like a white woman (both accent and content), and yet also wishes to speak for the ‘black community’. The lesson of yesterday’s furore appears to be that, in the British establishment at least, you can’t have it both ways.