A letter from Labour MP Diane Abbott has caused quite a stir in recent days. The Labour Party has now suspended Abbott for the letter, written for the Observer, in which she minimises racism faced by “Irish, Jewish and Traveller people”.
Abbott has since apologised for her comments. I’m not condoning Abbott’s words. Her letter was clumsy, and it reached for a very limited argument – made prominent by Tony Blair and David Cameron’s brand of multiculturalism – that flattens discussions of racism into a kind of oppression olympics. In her original letter, Abbott said:
In pre-civil rights America, Irish people, Jewish people and Travellers were not required to sit at the back of the bus. In apartheid South Africa, these groups were allowed to vote. And at the height of slavery, there were no white-seeming people manacled on the slave ships.
Abbott’s words and ideas were ill-conceived, that can’t be denied. What they also did, however, was crudely gesture at the hierarchy of racism which exists in British society. Ironically, the response to Abbott’s letter has succeeded in demonstrating this very hierarchy.
Diane Abbott: a hierarchy of racism
What’s been particularly noticeable is the backlash she has faced in a political climate where racism abounds:
Whether we like it or not, this hierarchy of racism has become undeniable. Moreover, there are few better arguments for it than the disparity between Labour’s response to racism allegations in the Forde Report versus the backlash against Abbott. As journalist Hamza Ali Shah noted:
In July 2022, the Forde Report concluded that Labour’s leadership had failed to tackle racism and Islamophobia within the party. Yet Keir Starmer failed to engage with the report, acting as though it addressed issues that no longer affected the party. This alone should cast doubt on any claims that Starmer suspended Abbott because of his dislike of racism.
Starmer’s political point-scoring
In this entire scenario, what’s particularly frustrating is Starmer’s constant instrumentalisation of the oppression of various groups to suit his own agenda.
On one hand we have Rachel Reeves, who praised known anti-semite Nancy Astor. Reeves is a white Labour MP whose centrist politics put her firmly in Starmer’s camp. On the other, we have Abbott who said something antisemitic. She, of course, is a Black woman known for her friendship and political allegiance with Jeremy Corbyn. However, only one of them faced immediate consequences. Starmer suspending Abbott while giving Reeves a top shadow cabinet role says more about his use of suspension as a political tool than it does about his dislike of antisemitism.
Moreover, Starmer has never uttered a word of support or apology for Abbott in particular, as well as MPs such as Zarah Sultana and Apsana Begum who have faced a tirade of racist abuse. On top of this, he took no action against Labour MP Charlotte Nichols after she handed out leaflets that were racist against the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) community. This is all while he’s tried his hardest to distance himself from Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism.
All racisms aren’t equal
British media, politicians, and civil society are observably more sensitive to, and less tolerant of, the racism faced by certain groups compared to others. Notably, this isn’t the fault of the people belonging to those groups. However, that makes it no less of a reality for people affected by other, more tolerated forms of racism. The storm over Abbott’s letter is in itself an example of this. The media, and politicians, immediately jumped on her antisemitism. Yet these same people have barely murmured over her comments about the GRT communities. GRT people are often massively overlooked in discussions of racism. This is in spite of the fact that they’re grossly inaccurately represented by mainstream media. Indeed, the recent Policing Act has threatened the very way of life for Roma communities.
That said, one thing is important to note here. When Black people and Muslims call attention to a hierarchy of racism, they’re not saying other forms of racism are less important. Rather, they’re asking for anti-Black racism and Islamophobia to have the same importance as racism faced by Jewish people.
Instead, British institutions have anti-Black racism and Islamophobia woven into the fabric of them. The police keep killing Black people more than people of any other ethnicity. The Home Office, via Prevent, keeps disproportionately criminalising Muslim children and young people in the name of safeguarding. And both the Conservatives and Labour appear to have a culture where anti-Black racism and Islamophobia continue to thrive. These signs point to a society that is perfectly okay with anti-Black racism and Islamophobia in a way that it does not appear to be with antisemitism.
‘We are tired’
What the likes of Starmer will never understand is that Black or brown people don’t want to keep calling attention to the racism they face at the expense of their continued stigmatisation. Racial battle fatigue is both real and tiring.
As I wrote for the Canary in November 2019, ahead of the general election:
All I can say is that having to convince people of your humanity is exhausting. Having to convince people of your entitlement to basic dignity and human rights is exhausting. And constantly having to argue that your right to occupy space and express your views should be on par with everyone else is, yes, exhausting.
We are tired. So keep us out of your mouths if you’re going to consistently ignore our oppression and then only discuss it to affect the outcome of an election.
Diane Abbott’s letter showed a lack of understanding of racism faced by Jewish people and GRT communities. It’s also true that we need to consider the bigger picture. Believe it or not, we don’t want to keep demanding that our humanity is treated on par with everyone else’s. But to adapt an old adage, we’ll stop playing the hierarchy of racism card when it stops being dealt to us.
Featured image via YouTube/ Beanyman News