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Thursday, 5 January 2012

Diane Abbott: foolish, maybe, but not a racist

First things first.  At least as she emerges from her TV and other media appearances and statements, I don't like Diane Abbott.  At all.  She deserves much kudos for getting on in British politics in spite of being a black woman but nevertheless, for me, she represents everything bad about New Labour.  To me she comes across as a principle-light, hypocritical Oxbridge product with precious little commitment to any sort of real socialism.  I might very well be wrong about all that (maybe a certain, shall we say, 'pragmatism' is necessary for successful politicians from minority backgrounds) but, be all that as it may, the furore over her not atypically foolish tweet about 'white people' raises interesting points that I have been mulling over for some time concerning 'racism'.

Anyone sane can agree that racism is A Bad Thing: prejudice against people according to the colour of their skin has been - and indeed remains - one of the blights on the planet.  Something I have found disturbing in recent years is, however, the dilution of racism to mean prejudice against someone of some (any) other nation or other group.  Here, for instance, we see a chant of 'Sheep-shagger' at a Welsh footballer described as 'racism'.  The Welsh are not a 'race', so an anti-Welsh chant, whilst unpleasant, nationalist, offensive, xenophobic, prejudiced and many other Bad Things, cannot be 'racist'.  This dilution of what racism means has been what has allowed white English people to moan about being the subject of 'racism' and to turn their own prejudice into a source of their own alleged victimhood.  Hell, I have even been accused of racism against the English working class.  You really can't be racist against a class, unless that class is entirely synonymous with a particular race, within a conceptual racial schema (for which, see below).

Here are two points that I think demonstrate my general thesis.

First: Let us explore the implications of the idea that the Welsh, the English, the Greeks, or whoever else constitute a 'race'.  The implications of such a belief take us right back to the nineteenth century and the idea that the inhabitants of a 'nation state' were indeed a race, at least of sorts.  In those far-off days it was thought, from primitive views of history and a crude understanding of biology, that members of a nation somehow shared their descent from a historically-defined group (e.g. the Anglo-Saxons; the Celts; the ancient Germani, etc.) - hence the name nation, from the Latin natio, cognate with words related to birth, like nativity.  Indeed most common words for such groups carry the implication of biological community (like the Latin gens).  This, as regular readers will know, is why I am so profoundly sceptical of the (mis-)use of DNA (or 'historical genetics') to explore migration and so on.  Yet, as anyone sane also knows, no modern nation anywhere in the world can be meaningfully determined on those grounds (probably now not even the Australian aborigines, who maintained a pristine 'first nation' status longer than most; indeed even the lumping together of the Koori, for example, with other groups under the 'Australian aborigine'  heading, such as I just committed, represents a somewhat condescending outsider's categorisation).  People from various 'nations' come together, intermarry, create new 'nations', migrate into other nations and are incorporated by them, etc. etc. etc.  If history has any fundamentals, that - surely - is one of them. 

Now, it is certainly true that different modern nations have negative characteristics attached to them by members of other nations.  The British (not just the English) are masters of this sort of thing and ought therefore not to need it pointing out.  If you do, just watch an issue or two of Top Gear.  This is very often (not always, but usually) nasty and prejudiced.  Let's be clear about that.  It ought to be stopped.  But it isn't racism.

Second: What racism is, is a system of dividing up the peoples of the world according to their skin colour.  This is a system that transcended (and transcends) any idea of the nation, even in the nineteenth century.  Have a read of some of John Buchan's colonial novels, where Germans are clever, cunning, cruel but at least white.  All of the various African tribes, kingdoms, states were lumped together as 'black'.  Probably most of these groups were not even aware of at least some of the others' existence before being carried off and dumped in the West Indies or Americas and merged into a general 'black', later 'African-American' or 'Afro-caribbean' 'race'.  Indeed, if you visit North African countries like Tunisia, it is impossible even to draw a line along which you can distinguish 'white' from 'black' inhabitants according to skin colour.  If there was an iota of sense in David Starkey's notorious Newsnight buffoonery, it was the idea that ultimately, labels like black and white are cultural rather than biological (not that he used that point in a sensible or morally defensible way).

The racial classification system, although now widely regarded, by people of all 'races' as somehow 'natural', is in fact entirely historically contingent.  It is a white European classification that emerged some time around the middle centuries of the Second Millennium, and developed particularly during the eighteenth century.  Plenty - indeed historically the great majority - of cultures do or did not divide up humanity according to skin colour.  The Romans noted skin colour but it didn't provide the fundamental basis for any of their categorisation (note though that such categorisations are often couched in terms of birth/descent or even what they call 'race', similar to those of the modern racial system).  This is not to say that their (or any other cultures') system of categorisation was any less chauvinistic, unpleasant or potentially genocidal; just that it wasn't fundamentally based upon skin colour.

A typical picture from Race by J.D. Baker (OUP, 1974) -
from his chapter on Jews, by the way.
Now, this categorisation, this historically contingent, early modern European categorisation, is founded on the superiority of the white European 'race'.  Although supposedly based upon neutral 'biological' observation of skin colour and other physical features, there can be no denying that this was a smokescreen for all sorts of ideas about inherent intelligence and personality traits.  A particularly grim illustration of this can be found in the book Race, published in 1974 by J.D. Baker, a professor at the elitist institution that we at H.o.t.E refer to as 'Thames Valley College of FE' (TVCFE) and indeed a Fellow of the Royal Society.  It is truly shocking stuff, not least when you consider the date of his book and that it was published by a company as prestigious as Oxford University Press.  One might idly wonder how much insidious influence this has somehow had, via some form of osmosis or contextual percolation, on some of the writings about barbarians and migrations that have emerged from the same institution, but I digress.  The point is that the system of categorisation puts the western white Caucasian (or 'caucasoid' as Baker would have had it) at the top of the tree; check out, for instance, Baker's picture comparing the noble dolicocephalic Field Marshal Lord Kitchener with the brachycephalic 'Slavoid' peasant Nikita Kruschev.  Indeed the whole system is predicated on the white man being at the top of the ladder of bio-diversity.

Therefore (and while I concede that this might be a step too far for many of you, I maintain that it is the correct conclusion), if you subscribe to the categorisation of human beings according to race defined according to skin colour, you are subscribing to a white man's categorisation which sees the white man as inherently superior to all others.  And therefore, I would contend that - if you see racism as the denigration of groups of people according to prejudice based on their skin-colour - it is impossible to be 'racist' against white people, at least in western countries.  Because to lump together all white people according to this schema is ipso facto to accept a notion of their inherent superiority.  Therefore, Diane Abbott was not being racist in her tweet.  Prejudiced maybe; ill-advised probably, but not racist. 

As I said, this will be seen as a logical step too far by many, and not just by 'white people' - although I hope all will see that it is at least a coherent and defensible argument - because it implies that to accept the reality of a 'black' race is to accept (implicitly) a classificatory system that always sees such a race as inferior.  (You could thus, as a Telegraph blog implicitly did, argue that if Abbott was being racist against anyone it was, ironically, against black people...)   As I said in Barbarian Migrations (pp.41-42), classifications that denigrate particular artificially-created groups can be used to create group solidarity and pride and act as a basis for resistance by the denigrated group; the affective power of ethnic ascription cannot be ignored in 'constructivist', 'performative' or 'cognitive' readings of ethnicity (here I am taking 'race' contextually, historically, as a sub-set of a broader issue of ethnic categorisation), which, in history as well as anthropology and sociology, have often strayed too far towards theories of rational choice (classically, perhaps, in this book).  I would maintain though that a decisive attack on racism, ultimately, is one that denies the whole system of categorisation as historically-contingent and by no means natural.  Pragmatically this might be problematic, removing bases of solidarity, etc. as above.  Many of you will see it as a 'pie in the sky' level of typically impractical academic abstraction but I nevertheless think that any progress in dealing with racism will have to be inflected by this way of thinking.

The problems with, or the implications of, not at least inflecting anti-racist thinking and action with this ultimate conclusion are serious.  As I see it (not least after conversations with my partner after the Stephen Lawrence trial outcome), there comes a point in tackling prejudice where, having dealt with the overt forms of the prejudice, the prejudice itself dissipates or reconfigures itself into forms that are no less real but much more difficult to confront. In the case of 'racism', we might (just) have done away with the likes of Jim Davidson and his ilk making racist gags as perfectly acceptable Saturday night Variety entertainment, or with the 'No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs' signs in B&Bs, but the cost of having racism defined as a universal 'bad thing' has (it seems to me) been its appropriation by all and sundry.  Thus white supremacist groups claim to be defending themselves against the 'racism' of immigrants.  Thus calling a Welsh player a 'sheepshagger' can be classified as the same offence as throwing a phrase that can be translated as 'n***er, n**er, n***er, n***er' at Patrice Evra (although an even moderately competent lawyer ought easily to be able to get the former charge thrown out of court). 

You see, none of us is a racist these days.  Just as homophobia and sexism (according to Poppleton University Students) are things of the past and there's no need for feminism, women's officers, gay rights etc., in the UK because 'that battle has been won'.  Thus calling someone in our allegedly enlightened society a racist runs the risk of being made to sound as ridiculous, or hysterical, as you would if you had accused them of worshipping Zeus or of being a Lollard.  There is a fine episode of the Radio 4 spoof chat show 'Down the Line' in which 'Gary Bellamy', the host, is accused of being a racist for saying that one caller sounds like a black person but another doesn't.  Bellamy (Rhys Thomas) responds indignantly about how ridiculous it is to suppose that he or any of his production team might be racist.  To prove his point, he goes round the studio crew asking them in turn whether they are racist.  Predictably they all reply 'no' until one engineer says 'yes'.  Bellamy asks 'what?' to which the studio team-member replies (something like) 'I am a racist.  I really try not to be but I am,  I can't help it.'  This sums things up in 'I'm not racist but...' Britain.  No one will publicly admit to being a racist, but...  And of course what Bellamy had said implied a set of racist assumptions. 

To mouth a racist statement will bring forward all sorts of defences; to complain will provoke a barrage of accusations about having a chip on your shoulder, 'playing the race card' and so on and so forth, and justify (in many minds) the initial statement.  The same pattern can be seen with other forms of discrimination.  Think of what happens when a female lawyer or business executive claims she has been the victim of sexism...  No one is a sexist now.  Only a petty-minded, jealous woman who couldn't cut it would play that card.  No?  At a less serious level, you can have been on the receiving end of 20 years' subtle prejudice in academia for not having the right educational credentials, for having not made a particular choice at 18 or for not having impressed a couple of people enough about whether you had particular qualities, but mention that to anyone?  Well, that just shows that you are just the sort of chippy oik who doesn't fit in anyway.  Now we're all Marxist card-carrying members of New Labour here in UK HE how could we possibly subscribe to that sort of social discrimination?

One of the real problems is that many people who come out with particular comments really don't think that the ideas underlying their statements are sexist, racist, homophobic or prejudiced in some other way, and to point that out is tricky.  They really don't see themselves as racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever.  Sometimes it is no more than an issue of the knowledge and possession of the right vocabulary (another reason why subscription to 'political correctness' is not something to be ashamed of).  Now that racism, sexism, homophobia and class discrimination are things we don't do any more in civilised Britain, no one wants to have it pointed out that their ideas come under those headings.  That is the difficulty of tackling subtle prejudice once what one might term overt or 'headline' prejudice is recognised and confronted.  If you have the stomach to read them, the chat-room comments on the Abbott affair, or on Starkey's mindless outburst more than adequately make this point.  Many people no longer want to see the expression of racist assumptions as a serious issue.  We dealt with that one; now let's just move on.

Two or three suggestions to conclude.  One, discussed before on this blog (and in many other places), is to be careful about the verb used.  'You ARE...' must be carefully replaced with 'what you SAID/DID was (problematic because)...'  Note how often a complaint about a statement is is transformed into a debate about whether someone is or is not a racist.  The (surprisingly) generally well-received and sensible FA Report into the Suarez-Ezra incident was wise to convict Suarez of the use of unacceptable racist language while conceding that it found no evidence that he (Suarez) was a racist.

The other is, unsurprisingly given everything I have said above, to be careful and restrictive with the term 'racism'.  Racist prejudice can, as I have argued, only really meaningfully be carried out by white people at the expense of others.  It is not an issue of fairness to balance the penalisation of racism against black or Asian people with an equal charge of racism in the other direction.  This is misconceived.  Racism carries with it a burden of slavery and genocide (in, for example, German West Africa).  To allow prejudice by 'black' people against 'white' people the same severity as prejudice by 'white' people against 'black' people, is akin to permitting prejudice by Jewish people against Germans to be viewed as equally serious as antisemitism by Germans.  There are different power-relations involved in different types of prejudice, different sets of historical 'baggage' too,  and these must be borne in mind.  Further, someone with the ability to shape opinions and access to mass media, expressing views that underpin prejudice by the powerful against a group often discriminated against, views that can be translated into violence, is NOT the same as an equally prejudiced view said by a member of such a disadvantaged group in a Facebook comment.  I have said this before.  Thus in my view the Telegraph blogger discussed here, advocating shooting rioters on sight, was the one who should have been imprisoned, not the boys suggesting a riot on Facebook.

So, not all prejudice is equally serious.  But, taking account of the point about power relationships and historical inheritance just made, all prejudice is bad and must be tackled.  Keeping racism as a particular, serious category does not preclude action against other forms of prejudice.  For most offences the term prejudice ought to be retained as less problematic than other alternatives.  What Diane Abbott wrote was not racist.  Diane Abbott is, I suspect, not a prejudiced person but, however you view it*, what she did write on Twitter was prejudiced and - in that regard - a serious matter for which the apology offered thus far (very much in the Jeremy Clarkson school of contrition) doesn't cut it.

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*  Abbott's words, reported by the BBC, were ''White people love playing 'divide & rule'".  To see that this is prejudiced, one need only substitute 'Jews' for 'white people'.  I'm 'white'.  Do I love playing divide and rule?  Do I love playing divide and rule any more than, say, Diane Abbott?  Or Imran Khan, say?  Or - I don't know - Jet Li?  [I picked these names at random, by the way, simply as people from other ethnic groups, as generally defined, not because I have any inkling at all about how they feel about dividing and ruling.]  Abbott claims that her statement was meant as a comment on colonial history. That won't work as a defence.  My ancestors (Manchester mill-workers, Shetland sailors) weren't involved in Divide and Rule.  If anything they were being 'divided and ruled' by the same class that was doing the dividing and ruling in the colonies.  It wasn't 'white people' that liked to divide and rule in the colonies.  It was (funnily enough) the ruling class; just like in modern Britain.  Did the rulers of Great Zimbabwe, or the Emperors of China, or the Aztec Emperors, or the Great Moghuls, like to divide and rule any less than white European rulers?  I suspect not.  If I had another criticism of how the issue of race has been diffused and dissipated, it is (like sexism) in sometimes acting as a front for a simple redistribution of power amongst the people who already have power: the rich.