By Andrew Williams
The recent grotesque furore whipped up against Diane Abbott, based on an entirely mischievous and unsustainable accusation of racism, coming within a day of the long-awaiting verdict in the Stephen Lawrence trial, looked remarkably like an opportunist backlash against the progressive discussion on racism that began to unfold as a result of the trial.
That two racists in 2012 were eventually convicted of Stephen Lawrence’s murder is a step forward. That it required his family to campaign for 18 years to get this far gives some indication how the justice system functions for black people.
Following the guilty verdicts in the trial, the media extensively re-visited the issues raised by the original police investigation into Stephen’s death, and the conclusions reached by the 1999 Lawrence Inquiry.
Having investigated the police response to the fatal attack on Stephen, the Inquiry had found that the Metropolitan Police force was institutionally racist. This conclusion was based on the implicit assumption by the police that Stephen was involved in gangs or drugs or other criminality purely because of his race, and that this underpinned all the failures of the police response from not giving first aid to Stephen despite his evident bleeding, failure to follow up obvious leads early in the murder investigation and failure to arrest the main suspects.
The report recommended far-reaching changes to eliminate racism from policing and the judicial system. In the wake of the verdicts in January, the public discussion began to centre on whether these changes had been implemented, how far things had changed, and whether racism remained a problem in policing.
Recent racist murders, levels of ‘stop and search’ against black people, deaths in custody, ethnic minority recruitment to the police and other issues began to be put under the spotlight.
The right, which had never accepted the Inquiry’s conclusions and always wanted to overturn the framework of reforms it created, tried to hit back. The Daily Telegraph leader (3 January 2012), following the two killers’ convictions, claimed implementing some of the Lawrence report recommendations had created a ‘pernicious culture’ and was responsible for the looting during the summer 2011 riots, because the police are no longer ‘sure how to conduct themselves in areas with high ethnic minority populations’.
The attack on Diane Abbott for accusing white people – quite correctly – of pursuing policies of ‘divide and rule’, was a Tory-inspired part of the backlash against the discussion on race that was unfolding.
The substance of the attack on Diane Abbott doesn’t stand up. Racism does not ‘cut both ways’. Working class white people are suffering in this economic crisis, as are black, Asian and other ethnic minorities. White working class people are also subject to stereotyping and police harassment. But they do not suffer from racism. This is not happening because they are white, but because poor, excluded and socially-deprived. Trying to claim any comment referring to white people in general is ‘racist’ is to turn reality on its head and obscure the reality of racial oppression in Britain.
That is demonstrated by the racially-motivated murder of 23 year-old student Anuj Bidve in Salford on Boxing Day 2011.
With the British economy teetering on the brink of renewed recession the Tories are threatened with becoming deeply unpopular. A core response is to seek to turn people’s attention away from the real attack on their living standards onto alleged culprits like EU interference (the Tory poll bounce from Cameron’s veto), Scottish draining of tax resources (an offensive against Scottish independence), or, centrally, black and minority communities.
In other words, ‘divide and rule’ is at the core of Tory strategy. Working class solidarity and unity within ethnic minority communities are constantly challenged and undermined, setting one group against another. Deflecting anger from the government to minority communities, immigrants and black communities is a time honoured tactic.
At the same time, it is actually black people and other ethnic minority communities that are suffering relatively worse from the austerity attacks, particularly in inner city areas. So alongside whipping up racism against black people, the policing of black communities has been made more confrontational, to intimidate any response to the driving down of living standards.
The use of racial profiling for ‘stop and search’ has been dramatically increased. In England and Wales black people are now 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, up from 10 times in 2009. Also black people continue to die in custody.
This creates a vicious circle, where ‘tougher’ inner city policing, more directed at black communities, tends to itself trigger disorder. This was seen in last summer’s riots, which were clearly sparked off by the police in Tottenham shooting dead Mark Duggan, a young black man. Among the black and white participants in these events, the overwhelming majority cited anger at policing as their reason for participating.
This is the context of Diane Abbott’s tweets discussing the black community and its leaders, where the point was made that black people acting in solidarity and unity achieve more.
Black unity has played a crucial role in many of the most effective struggles against racism in the last century.
Civil and human rights for black people in the US only advanced in the 1960s as a result of immense mobilisation of black communities against their oppression, Black unity, insisted Malcolm X was a necessary prerequisite for combating the racism. Speaking in 1964 he said ‘there can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity…. We cannot think of uniting with others, until after we have first united among ourselves.’
Seeking some way to hit back against the renewed media discussion about institutional racism the Tories picked on one comment in Diane Abbott’s twitter discussion: ‘White people love playing “divide & rule” We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism’. By claiming this was racist, a conversation about the need for black people to stick together was portrayed as an attack on white people.
The media storm whipped up by a few privileged Tories, was sadly given legs by the response of the Labour leadership. In shameful and craven capitulation to the Tory campaign, it told the media that Diane Abbott, its shadow public health minister had been given a ‘severe dressing down’ and ‘ordered’ to apologise ‘unreservedly’.
However, there were some strong voices against this hysterical and reactionary campaign. Dorian Lynskey’s blog, 33 Revs per Minute, accurately argued: ‘Coming so soon after the Lawrence verdict, Abbottgate is a nasty attempt to pretend that, hey, there’s racism on both sides now. A black man gets knifed to death by a white mob; a black MP writes a carelessly worded tweet about white people. It all evens out.’
In the New Statesman online Laurie Penny explained: ‘The privileged will do anything to distract attention from their own power’.
In the same journal, Stephen Baxter, used humour to make a similar point: ‘If you’re genuinely wounded by Diane Abbott’s comments, I pity you. You’re beyond saving. It’s a wonder we white people manage to stay in control of everything in the world ever if we’re so bloody sensitive — we should be sitting in a cupboard crying all day about what the nasty lady said about us.’
On feminist blog, the F-Word, Laura Woodhouse outlined: ‘This seems to me a classic example of mistaking a description of oppression and discrimination for oppression and discrimination itself. It is a fact that white people have historically played “divide and rule” in order to further and retain their position of power and privilege.’
The furore successfully deflected attention from the real discussion that is needed following the Lawrence verdicts. Why, 13 years on from the Lawrence Report, are black people still victimised by the police, disproportionately excluded from schools, experience higher unemployment rates, and still live with racist taunts, abuse, violence and even murder.