The Anti Imperialist | Blaming the victim: what the Diane Abbott controversy tells us about institutional racism

Diane Abbott’s controversial words might have been clumsy but the reaction to them has been a lot more instructive than the tweets themselves. Attacks equating her comments with white racism are yet further indication, says Adam Elliott-Cooper, of how little we understand racism, and the power structures entwined with it.

New in Ceasefire, The Anti-Imperialist - Posted on Friday, January 6, 2012 11:51 - 10 Comments

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Yes, Diane Abbott’s tweet was clumsy, undiplomatic and most importantly, not very “English”, but the tirade of abuse she has received from the British liberal press and politicians is not due to their unwavering commitment to anti-racism, as they would have us believe, but in fact to their sheer lack of understanding of what actually constitutes racism.

And what better time for British liberals to attack Abbott for racism than towards the end of a week during which they’ve been patting each other on the back for finally ‘securing justice’ for Stephen Lawrence? Indeed, throughout the Lawrence trial, institutional racism was rarely mentioned and when it was little analysis was produced. The reaction to Abbott’s tweet confirms that this absence of analysis was not just down to a lack of understanding, but the feeling that there is nothing there to “understand” to start with.

Of course, one of the reasons racism fails to be seen, let alone understood, is because many people in the public eye benefit from it, not necessarily because they are white, but often because their very internalisation of the assumptions of white supremacy is what has secured their acceptance into the hierarchies of power in the first place.

Only by understanding institutional racism can we hope to understand, and defeat, racism itself. Racism is not simply disliking, or assuming generalisations about a certain ethnic or racial group; it is a system of power in which a certain racial or ethnic group holds social, political and economic power over another racial or ethnic group(s).

The numerous commentators gleefully baying for Abbott’s blood, proclaiming that a white politician making a similar comment – but about black people – would have already lost their job, are probably right about the latter speculation but are either unaware, or deliberately ignoring, the inherent meaninglessness of their analogy. After all, such an equivalence would only make sense in a world in which whites were so victimised by racism as to be unable to even utter the same racialised statements as their socially-dominant Black counterparts. In reality, a white Briton today, whether he/she acknowledges it or not, continues to benefit from a social, cultural, economic and political system that has been built upon, and sustained by, racist assumptions and prejudices that have permeated imperial and colonised societies for centuries.

Of course, a Black individual has, in theory, the possibility of discriminating against another person or people on the basis of their race, but this form of racial discrimination clearly does not have the same effect as white racism does, because the power structures in which we live both amplify, and are themselves amplified by, the latter form.

Let us remember that we live in a system that sees Black people disproportionately affected by educational underachievement, under employment, ethnic cleansing, police harassment, disproportionate sentencing, the demonization of cultural practices and a host of other factors. Consequently, when the beneficiaries of this system take it upon themselves to further ridicule or verbally attack those victimised by it there is, rightly, outrage and offence.

However, when a Black person makes a similar remark, it will have comparatively little or no impact: a white person will still find employment in the highest-paying and most powerful jobs, attend the best schools, dictate foreign policy or occupy the best housing and environments. In short, British society can just about recognise some forms of racism, but is still unwilling to conceptualise its most enduring, nefarious and powerful manifestation, white privilege.

These huge gaping differences in the lives of white and Black people are what dictates the way racism operates within society, and this is why even the most elementary understanding of racism clearly indicates that Abbott’s tweet cannot seriously be thought comparable to a “reverse scenario” statement by a white politician. (Which should indeed have legitimately led to a sacking).

Britain, despite the progress epitomised by the MacPherson Report, clearly has a long way to go before a proper understanding of racism and the power relations that frame it becomes the norm. Only then can we, as a society, really claim to have secured justice of Stephen Lawrence, for his family, and for so many countless others.

Adam Elliott-Cooper

Adam Elliott-Cooper, a writer and activist, is Associate Editor of Ceasefire and a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford. His column on race politics appears twice a month. He tweets at @adamec87.

10 Comments

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Colin Sumner
Jan 6, 2012 12:09

Well said… I was appalled by the insensitivity of the reaction to her admittedly crude comment, which did rather overlook the fact that institutional ‘divide and rule’ was developed on white subordinate classes and nations first, notably in Wales, Ireland and Scotland and then the industrial North.

Like many sociologists, I taught this idea of ‘institutionalized’ racism for many years….. You might be interested in seeing my recent reflection on the work done under my supervision by Wilf Knight, a Superintendent, and Paul Condon, a former Met Commissioner, in the 1980’s:
http://www.crimetalk.org.uk/reviews/articles/585-racism-in-the-met-1980s.html

Matt
Jan 6, 2012 14:06

“The numerous commentators gleefully baying for Abbott’s blood, proclaiming that a white politician making a similar comment – but about black people – would have already lost their job, are probably right about the latter speculation but are either unaware, or deliberately ignoring, the inherent meaninglessness of their analogy. After all, such an equivalence would only make sense in a world in which whites were so victimised by racism as to be unable to even utter the same racialised statements as their socially-dominant Black counterparts.”

Which shows how utterly out of touch with the basics of the law, and indeed right and wrong you are. Racism is racism no matter who it involves – you can’t have one law/rule for one race and another for everyone else.

Or to put it very simply – two wrongs don’t make a right.

Richard
Jan 6, 2012 14:13

I think by addressing this from a slightly narrow academic perspective you are missing the point. It is also debatable whether you have any right to monopolise the definition of the word “racism” in the way you appear to.

Yes, “this form of racial discrimination clearly does not have the same effect as white racism does, because [of] the power structures in which we live”, but both forms have just the same roots, which include the habit of making generalisations about people and characterising them by their race, thereby dehumanising them. The “reduced effect” hardly excuses such thinking. If we are ever to move towards a society with real equality there are reciprocal obligations.

Diane Abbot should be ashamed of herself if she really thinks the way it would appear if one takes her Tweet at face value.

Samih
Jan 6, 2012 14:52

Excellent article Adam!

Kevin
Jan 6, 2012 19:42

Interesting article – I found mself agreeing during the last three paragraphs but struggelled at the beginning to indentify with the discussion. I have studied the structures of racism for years and read indepth work from the likes of very interesting and articulate people such as Lena Dominelli. However, as the years have gone by, personally I feel, as helpful and as interesting as these people are at seeing the larger picture and putting things into context, the only people that they have a day to day meaning to are other people sitting in rooms artiulating racism through books rather than meeting people ‘on the ground’. The average jo on the street focuses on the here and now and when you speak in historical terms like Diane or like a sociologist then the only people that are going to connect with you are other sociologists (with respect Colin of course).

For me, the Diane Abbott comment was exactly this – bringing up white colonial issues of divide and conquer from 100’s of years ago to obtain a moral point or argument? To what benefit? To what point for the here and now and to the average jo? What young black and white children/Young people have gained a perspective of racism, injustice or unfairness because of this. For me this reinforces our young black kids to remember and feel the anger and powerlessness that their ancestors were possibly once slaves, and our young white kids to feel the shame that their ancestors were possibly slave owners. Where does this benefit anyone int he here and now? Should we maybe bring up that African people sold their own people for arms to be better than the the guys in the next town and link this to how people in black communitites resort to killing each other??? No, better to say that racist structures force black communities to do this to themselves??? I don’t use this example to aggitate anyone further but my point is that bringing it up is pointless – It benefits no one to bring these things up and does little to move things forward.

Diane Abbott was foolish but it has offered an insight into how her mind works – having experienced racism as a white person in a predominately black work place I wouldn’t want to have to go to Diane as my MP to ask for help and support on this issue knowing how her mind works. I think that this is the argument of black instiutional racism no? that strucutres prevent race issues from being addressed. It seems that Diane does more to perpetuate this than breaking down the barriers.

Maybe I should just have accepted it – after all somewhere hundreds of years ago my ancestors may have been slave owners and maybe I deserved it………..pointless.

Tee
Jan 8, 2012 14:01

This is a useful contribution to the ongoing discussion on the nature of racism and the struggle against it. I think one of the most impotant points it raises is the attempt by the various representatives of the British state and media, whether ‘liberal’ or not, to present themselves as anti-racist.

It is a historical fact that the modern British state has been profoundly racist from its birth and its character has not changed. From the days that Britain’s rising capitalist class made their first fortunes from slavery and the slave trade and followed this up by establishing a money making global empire over which the ‘sun never set’, racism has been been fundamental to their control, power and wealth. It has been a mechanism for politically organising and ideologically justifying the subjugation and intensified exploitation of millions of human beings. It is also a historical fact that the British state developed a whole theory and practice titled ‘Divide and rule’ which was one of its key strategies for maintaining its colonial empire. This strategy has had devastating consequences for the colonised people, resulting, for example, in the kiling of hundreds of thousandsof people during partition between India and Pakistan. There are numerous other examples too, including more recently, the situation in occupied Iraq.

The NATO led attack on Libya last year, in which the British elite, their state, politicians and media played a key role, is only the most recent episode in this historical practice and provides proof that the nature of the British state has not changed. The widescale racist ethnic cleansing that black people in that country have been subjected to as part of the NATO attack is therefore not surprising. Racism is an inevitable part of the whole colonial project, whether presented under the banner of the white man’s burden in the 19th century or the R2P in the 21st . How then, could a regime that is deeply engaged in launching and justifying racist attacks in all corners of the world be considered as a force for anti-racism in Britain?

Even right here in Britain, the police and the ‘mainstream’ media who are congratulating themselves for their anti-racism as a result of the convictions of the murderers of Stephen Lawrence have not for one day stopped their own racist activity. Whether it is stigmatising and harassing African and Caribbean young people as criminals and young muslims as terrorists or condemning foreign political leaders as ‘third world dictators’, the racist onslaught against the whole society goes on unabated.

Therefore, to me, the issue is not really about ‘white people’ or ‘black people’, categories which were themselves constructed as part of the development of racist ideology, but more about the realisation that without moving beyond the current system of capitalist and colonialist domination of humanity by a small minority of financial oligarchs, it will not be possible to truly uproot racism from society and eventually overcome its manifestations in the views and actions of organisations and individuals.

Matt
Jan 8, 2012 20:02

“The NATO led attack on Libya last year, in which the British elite, their state, politicians and media played a key role, is only the most recent episode in this historical practice and provides proof that the nature of the British state has not changed. The widescale racist ethnic cleansing that black people in that country have been subjected to as part of the NATO attack is therefore not surprising. ”

Are you actually serious, or are you just trying to sink this side of the argument in a fifth-column attack? I assume by your statement that it’s fine to stand back and watch as thousands of Arabs are slaughtered, but in the aftermath a far smaller number of black people are killed in racist attacks – clearly tragic in itself – that suddenly the whole campaign was a bad thing?

Are the lives of a few dozen black africans worth more than thousands of Arabs?

Ra
Jan 10, 2012 18:02

Anyone who thinks the bombing of Libya was humanitarian needs a history lesson. There is no correlation between the intensity of humanitarian crisis, and European intervention. Being one of the world’s top 10 oil producers can help though. As usual, the European superiority complex blinds even themselves

Tee
Jan 10, 2012 23:02

I think Ra hits the nail on the head. It is a kind of deep seated racism which many cling to while still trying to present themselves as the most determined anti-racists. For sure, this is the kind of anti-racism that the politicians and media are promoting.

First of all it is based on the racist idea that the people of the so-called third world are child-like and always need the paternal hand of the superior ‘white man’ to resolve their problems. Therefore there is no idea that the people of Libya would be perfectly capable of resolving the problems in their society by themselves without any foreign interference, as people have been doing for thousands of years. Instead, using their ‘white man’s burden’ argument , the colonialists claim that the ‘humanitarian action’ is for the superior ‘white man’ to intervene and protect the ‘helpless native’. Never discussed is the question of who will protect the colonised people from the crimes of their ‘protectors’ and never does the situation arise when the colonised would have to take control of the imperial countries in order to protect the people there.

It is also a fact, attested by numerous independent observers who were in Libya during the NATO attack that it was exactly this attack that led to the slaughtering of thousands of Arabs, whether in Tripoli, Sirte or Bani Walid. That this slaughter of Arabs was accompanied by a NATO sponsored programme of racist ethnic cleansing, including the wiping out of the whole town of Tawergha is also a fact. To dismiss such horrific crimes as a concern about the loss of “the lives of a few dozen black africans” is a further example of the type of anti-African racism which unfortunately sits at the centre of all the justifications for wars of colonial aggression in Africa.

This approach can never be the basis for a genuine struggle against racism but is the kind of official anti-racism that is prevalent in Britain today. .

Nichole Black
Jan 15, 2012 2:22

Adam, you can always be trusted to provide concise, coherent and deeply thoughtful analysis. Excellent article.

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