There must be no hierarchy of Racism

I was genuinely saddened to see the letter from Diane Abbott MP in last weekend's Observer.

While of course I disagree with a great many of her views, I had a soft spot for Diane Abbott as a person, and you don't have to agree with a word she says to recognise that she has often been the target of an unacceptable amount of disgraceful racist abuse.

So it is incomprehensible to me that Ms Abbott should have put her name, even as a "first draft sent by mistake" to such an atrocious letter.

She has, of course, subsequently apologised, withdrawn her comments and disassociated herself from the letter. The Labour party has still suspended her - and was right to do so.

It is almost incidental that the letter was historically illiterate in the excruciating ignorance it displayed about the victimisation inflicted on Jews, Travellers and Irish people. What is worse is that it appeared to suggest a sort of hierarchy of oppression whereby those with black skin suffer "racism" while those with white skin such as Jews, Irish people, and travellers only suffer "prejudice."

Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that there are Jewish people and travellers who have black skin.

Let's also leave aside the many details which Diana Abbot got wrong in her letter - she was wrong, for example, to suggest that no Irish people were enslaved during the era of the slave trade, in fact thousands of Irish people were shipped over the Atlantic as "indentured servants" who were for all practical purposes slaves. And wrong to suggest that not being allowed to sit in certain areas of buses was an experience that blacks went through but not Jews, when the Nazis didn't allow Jews onto buses at all.

The fundamental problem with the entire thrust of the letter, which is why saying it was an "early draft sent by mistake" just does not work as a defence, is  to suggest that the prejudice suffered by white people, and she specifically included Jews, Irish people and Travellers, is, quote "not the same as racism."

To change how you respond to people according to the colour of their skin is the very definition of racism.

As Lord Danny Finkelstein, who is Jewish and whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, has pointed out,

"It's not a competition."

The same is true of things which, to our shame, have happened here in Britain.

Within living memory, Irish members of my family looking for accommodation were turned away by establishments displaying signs which read "No Blacks, No Irish."

I simply do not understand how anyone with more intelligence than a goldfish can suggest that when those who ran those establishments put up on the same sign, the same ban, displaying the same bigotry and imposing the same unfair disadvantage, against two groups of people; that they were applying "racism" against one group identified by the sign but only "prejudice" against the other.

The Transatlantic slave trade was one of the worst examples in history of man's inhumanity to man. No reasonable person should try to defend it. Nor the racism which went with it and followed it.

The Barbary slave trade was also one of the worst examples in history of man's inhumanity to man. No reasonable person should try to defend that one either. 

Both had millions of victims who suffered kidnap, enslavement, savage beatings, horrendous mistreatment, and in many cases mutilation and death.

Between these two massive atrocities, the predominant skin colour of the perpetrators and victims were largely reversed. That does not make either slave trade more or less evil. Both were horrendously evil. What it demonstrates that whatever the colour of your skin, in history you might have been powerful or powerless in different times and places and you might have become a perpetrator or you might have been a victim, of slavery and of racism.

Given the particular horror of the Holocaust, the genocide which the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews in particular and millions more people from other races and groups they didn't like, one of which was Roma Travellers, to try to construct a hierarchy of racism and then for two of the victim groups whose suffering you try to downgrade to be Jews and Travellers, is not just wrong, but incomprehensible. 

The lesson from all this is that racism is wrong whoever it is directed against - and no hierarchy of racism, persecution or prejudice is helpful. Any such hierarchy will only serve to divide the victims of prejudice and if that helps anyone, it will be the persecutors.


Paul Holdsworth said…
I'm pretty sure I agree with absolutely everything you've written here, Chris - it's deeply depressing that Diane Abbott could get it so very, very wrong.

But I'm sure you'll permit me to expand on one thing you say:

"The lesson from all this is that racism is wrong whoever it is directed against..."

I'm sure you'd agree that racism is wrong whoever it is directed BY, too - that goes without saying.

Which is why I also find it depressing that you are so reluctant to call out racism when it comes from within your own party, or even acknowledge it when it's pointed out to you.

It makes your (entirely justified) righteous anger about Abbott's comments feel just a bit too partisan to carry the weight it should.

If you want to start redressing that imbalance, in 1999 Johnson wrote in the Spectator that some young people "have an almost Nigerian interest in money."

Now's your chance to condemn yet another example of Johnson's casual racism, in a way you could never bring yourself to when he was PM.
Chris Whiteside said…
I am very careful about calling someone a racist - you may note that in the piece above although I did express my deep disappointment with what Diane Abbott had written I stopped short of throwing that one.

I have however called out Boris Johnson in the past on comments he made which I felt were very unhelpful to community relations.

For example, when Boris wrote an article which, although he was actually arguing against banning the Burqa, suggested that Muslim women who wear one look like letter boxes, I was one of quite a large number of Conservatives who publicly called on him to apologise. Which he eventually did, though not until the following year during the 2019 election campaign.

I had not previously heard of the "almost Nigerian interest in money" comment. All I can say is, people in public life have a responsibility to be careful how they speak and write about sensitive issues like race. If he or any other politician did say that, they should not have, and should apologise.
Paul Holdsworth said…
As I said, you didn't, and still don't, seem to be able to call out racism clearly in your own party.

Instead, you utilise euphemistic language suggesting Johnson should have been 'careful" about how he spoke, and that he should apologise, without explicitly stating that what he should be apologising for is straightforwardly racist language.

I'm pretty sure you also accepted uncritically the Conservative Party ruling that Johnson's description of burqa-wearing women as looking like letter boxes and bank robbers was "respectful". Simply breathtaking.

Abbott's comments you describe as 'atrocious' and 'excruciatingly ignorant', but Johnson's comments are 'very unhelpful'. You excoriate Abbott, but can't bring yourself to condemn Johnson in anything more than the very mildest terms.

Why so lopsided? Why not call out Johnson's many atrocious and ignorant comments for what they are too, Chris?
Chris Whiteside said…
I don't accept any of that.

I didn't describe Boris Johnson's comments as "respectful," I did say he should apologise.
Paul Holdsworth said…
I didn't accuse you of saying his comments were 'respectful'. You just didn't demur when CCHQ said they were.

What did you call them? "Very unhelpful". It's a totally lopsided attitude, whether you accept it or not.
Paul Holdsworth said…
Well I guess I should be grateful that you're at least being honest that your criticism of racism is openly lopsided to favour your own party.
Chris Whiteside said…
That is not what I am saying, and to avoid any possibility that anyone might interpret my previous post that way, I have removed it.

Racism should be called out wherever it comes from.

Equally, when calling out racism it should be done with care, whether speaking about someone in your own party or any other. if you are too quick to throw the accusation of racism at either side - including your opponents - without being certain that it is justified, you will devalue the accusation.

If you note, although I was very critical of Diane Abbott's letter, I stopped short of directly calling her a racist and noted that she has been a victim of racism.

So I didn't call either Diana Abbott or Boris Johnson a racist and therefore my not calling Boris Johnson one is not "lop-sided."
Chris Whiteside said…
And to reiterate, I said at the time that Boris Johnson should apologise.

To publicly refer to what a colleague has said as "very unhelpful" is not said lightly and calling on them to apologise still less so.
Chris Whiteside said…
As a general point, I make a distinction between making a criticism of a particular decision, or a piece of writing such as a letter or article, which someone has produced, and using the same words as a direct attack on that person as an individual.

Even the most clever people sometimes say or do foolish things: I might think that some specific things someone has said or done was stupid without believing for a moment that this makes them a stupid person.

Furthermore, I recognise that some intelligent people hold views which I do not understand how they can hold.

So if I write, "I cannot understand how an intelligent person can think X" this is not logically equivalent to "No intelligent person thinks X" let alone to the personal insult, "Person Y" (who may have recently expressed opinion X) "is a stupid person."

To take a general comment I have made disagreeing strongly with what someone has said, and paraphrase it, applying the criticism to the person not the statement, transforms a statement of disagreement into a personal insult against that person. In my view, that can be misleading and unhelpful.

I reserve the right not to publish submitted comments which, in my view, twist something I have written from a robust statement of disagreement into a personal attack in this way.

Popular posts from this blog

Nick Herbert on his visit to flood hit areas of Cumbria

Quotes of the day 19th August 2020

Quote of the day 24th July 2020