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Gary Younge
In Britain’s degraded politics, fighting racism has become a cynical game

The very serious function of racism is distraction,” Toni Morrison argued in a lecture in Portland, Oregon, in 1975. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms, and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

So, in the furore over Frank Hester’s comments, let us not be distracted by the question of whether they were racist. Let us not demean ourselves by explaining why the statement “you see Diane Abbott on the TV and … you just want to hate all Black women” is racist. We do not need to explain that this is not a question of rudeness. Racism is an issue of power and equality, not politeness and etiquette. Those who don’t get it, won’t get it.

Nor should we squander any time on how the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, should respond. Less than two weeks ago he took the extraordinary step of addressing the nation from outside 10 Downing Street to denounce the fact that “MPs do not feel safe in their homes” and that “longstanding parliamentary conventions have been upended because of safety concerns”.

Now he defends taking millions of pounds from Hester, who said he thought that Diane Abbott “should be shot”. That is hypocrisy. It’s not a tough call. Sunak may be the first British-Asian prime minister. But that merely describes the ethnicity and job title of the hypocrite. Adding the adjectives does not change the noun.

He may lead one of the most diverse cabinets in history, but that does not alter the fact that this version of diversity is being bankrolled by a man whose best defence is that he “doesn’t hate all Black women at all”. That is nobody’s contradiction but their own.

What, however, is worth spending time on is an exploration of how this incident goes beyond one rich man and the spineless leader he bankrolls, to the racial degradation of our discourse, the instrumentalisation of our grievances and the utter contempt for our intelligence.

It is right to call for Sunak to return the money. But when it comes to this particular issue, the Labour party does not have the moral authority to make that demand, and its opportunistic sanctimony in doing so is difficult to stomach.

Hester did not invent British racism. His comments are the product of it. In the run-up to the 2017 election, an Amnesty International investigation found that Abbott had attracted almost half of all the online abuse directed at female MPs. Hester’s comments illustrate a confidence that he could disparage Abbott in the most heinous manner and get away with it. It’s as though she was nothing.

It is not difficult to see why Hester thought Britain’s first Black female MP was fair game.

Abbott had frequently been treated with the utmost disrespect by her own Labour colleagues. In the first parliamentary Labour party meeting after Jeremy Corbyn became leader, Jess Phillips, a newly elected MP, boasted that she told Abbott, the then shadow international development secretary and an MP of 28 years, to “fuck off” in front of their colleagues. (Abbott denies this happened.) Phillips then invited a pile-on. “People said to me they had always wanted to say that to her, and I don’t know why they don’t as the opportunity presents itself every other minute,” she said. She later apologised.

A couple of years later, according to a leaked internal report, Labour officials hostile to Corbyn mocked Abbott for crying in the toilets and suggested telling a journalist where she was. One official called Abbott an “angry woman” (a clear racist trope) while another called her “repulsive”. To my knowledge, none of them have apologised.

The Forde report on factionalism in the Labour party, commissioned by Keir Starmer and conducted by the barrister Martin Forde KC, found that the criticisms of Abbott “are not simply a harsh response to perceived poor performance – they are expressions of visceral disgust, drawing (consciously or otherwise) on racist tropes, and they bear little resemblance to the criticisms of white male MPs elsewhere in the messages”.

Forde concluded that racism in the party is experienced through “hearing the particular disdain which colleagues reserve for (for example) ethnic minority MPs”, among other ways.

No one, including Abbott herself, denies she has made mistakes. Last year she sent an appalling letter to the Observer claiming that “Irish, Jewish and Traveller people” do not suffer racism “all their lives”. The criticism that the letter was antisemitic was, if anything, too narrow. She was wrong about everything and everyone, not just Jews. Within hours she had apologised profusely and had been suspended from the party, pending an investigation.

Meanwhile Darren Rodwell, who is white and had told the audience at a Black History Month event in Barking that he had the “worst tan possible for a Black man” but had the “passion and the rhythm of the African and the Caribbean” was cleared of wrongdoing by the party and remains Barking’s official Labour candidate.

More than 10 months later, Abbott is still suspended. One wonders what more there is to investigate, apart from whether Black women are allowed a second chance and whether the issues of MP security apply to them.

So when Labour lambasts Sunak for his unprincipled and unconvincing response to Hester’s comments, it does not do so in defence of Abbott: those now in charge of the party have been complicit in insulting her for years. Nor is it motivated by combating the levels of anti-Black racism in politics: almost a year after his report came out, Forde lamented that no one from the party had even contacted him to discuss his recommendations.

Labour pursues it because it can score clear political points against its adversaries. That is the definition of instrumentalisation. It is not only cynical, it is dangerous. Racism is not a game. It is a serious issue that affects the lives of millions of people. When a party or faction exploits racism for its own political or electoral advantage, it cheapens the accusation and deepens the cynicism. What it does not do is address the racism or advance the cause of equality.

It is a distraction. It’s clear what it does for Labour. It’s not clear what it does for Black people, or for Abbott.

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