The reaction to Diane Abbott’s letter points to a hierarchy of racism

Diane Abbott at Downing St Black Lives Matter protest, July 2021
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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

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  • Show Comments
    1. “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.

      1 In Nazi Germany Jews were required to wear the star of David , banned from professions, forced into forced labour camps and eventually systematically gassed. At the height of slavery no one was gassed – just worked to death… But it’s not a competition. The Nazis bundled all “imperfects” into the gas chamber starting with the imperfects and including blacks, Muslims and Jews. Jews were the arch enemy because they were the most populous minority in Germany.

      2 Irish Catholics in Ireland suffered hundreds of years of sectarianism and discrimination. What do you think “The Troubles” were about if not discrimination in the Labour market? There was about 300 years of vicious sectarianism in Britain from 1500 to 1800

      The conflation of the word racism with prejudice+power was the work of Patricia Bidol-Padva who attempted to redefine the word in the US after the end of segregation no doubt for well intentioned ideas but
      … Such ideas have never flown in Britain as the history of Europe tells a slightly different story.

    2. Everyone knows no-one in their right mind is, or could be, offended by those words.

      Totally fake outrage.

      As per usual, it’s an attempted expression of POWER.

      To everyone with a braincell, it’s an admission of a feeling of powerlessness.

      Which is why they all clump together, in the sure belief that while what they are saying doesn’t make any sense, they can make enough combined noise that few will notice.

      Essentially, the “Corbyn Anti-Semitism non-Scandal” remux.

      Quite why this bunch aren’t forming an Indy Labour Party is beyond me. They’ll all have to fight for their already-earned seats.

    3. I have thought awhile about Diane’s comments. Initially I was semi in agreement but the more I have thought about it the more I have moved to full agreement.

      I’m coming from 3 angles.
      1. & 2.
      I’m an Irish Catholic born in 1962 so grew up during troubles. Although I, thank whoever, never had a close relative killed but had some injured. My parents successful business was killed when the Army put a barricade across the road directly in front of their business, stopping through traffic that was 90% of the trade. A 3 generation business went within weeks- eventually killing my father due to the mental health issues he suffered from what he irrationally seen as his failure.
      My first sight of a soldier was an automatic weapon, as an 8 yr old , being pointed into my face from 2 ft, when I opened the shop door on a Sunday Morning.
      I suffered many incidents of discrimination and violence due to my identity yet was never involved.
      But no matter what I could always change my name and where I claimed to be from if necessary by being in the wrong area- a black or brown person can never do that.
      I moved to England in early ‘80’s when businesses had adverts for staff with “no blacks nor Irish need apply” – I actually for revenge went for an interview and put on an English accent- got through and offered the job- then told the prat, in my best Irish accent- Stuff your job up your big racist ass. – a black or brown person could not have done that.
      Same with the pubs or rental properties that had “No Blacks, No Irish, No dogs- again I used to go in, order a drink in an English accent- finally sh most of it- pour the rest on the floor- then say in my best Belfast accent- “ You best check your toilets” and run out laughing. Not necessarily funny but deserved by their racism- again a black or brown person could not have got past the door.

      3. I suffer from a invisible neurological condition that means I’m disabled- again I can ignore and overcome 99% of disability discrimination- ironically it’s the legal service and their supposed Ombudsman where I continue to be a victim or extreme discrimination- ( Any good lawyers fancy helping me?)
      Again- I can in 99% of cases get around this discrimination on a day o day basis- a black or brown person cannot do that.

      So I thought hard about what Diane, who I always felt as a soul buddy, put in that letter and I believe even more in what she says. If it suits I can “pretend” not to be what I am- in most cases it has been to protect me in dangerous situations which obviously I shouldn’t have to do – but I can and so can Jewish people- in racist situations- black and brown people cannot.

      In another situation- in a recent job situation a person I was being interviewed by used the term, “ Nitty Gritty”. I stopped him and asked if he knew what the term referred to. When I told him that it referred to the elderly and sick slaves on the bottom of the slave boats, he was astonished to say the least. He immediately wrote an email to his whole company, a FTSE 350, an told them to review all their material and get rid of that comment which he admitted was present. Even listen to the BBC, the term is continually used- can you imagine a term that was so abusive to Irish or Jews still being used so openly. It has been along time since I have been referred to as Paddy- at least openly. Again- Black and Brown people are still getting this type of term openly being used in our media and everyday language.
      So I 100% agree with what Diane has written and those that feel otherwise are truly dishonest and acting in bad faith- and most likely use terms like Nitty Gritty openly. Sod them.

      1. ““ Nitty Gritty”. I stopped him and asked if he knew what the term referred to. When I told him that it referred to the elderly and sick slaves on the bottom of the slave boats, he was astonished to say the least”

        That’s because it’s complete rubbish. No one knows the entomology of Nitty Gritty. Someone no doubt made such a story up for a laugh. There are very few surviving records of what went down on slave shops – for obvious reasons.

    4. When I reflect upon my circa half century on this planet – cradle-to-date in provincial Blighty, “Sight-prompted” racism formed about 90% of the racism I experienced. The remaining 10% of what I term “Disclosure” racism I would divide into: 5% once I opened my mouth and what came out of it, and 5% my non-Anglo-Sax name – chiefly at (these days well-documented) employment filtration.

      Growing up, when I was publicly and randomly screamed-at, verbally abused, chased, spat-at, punched, and advised at volume to “f-off back” to where I came from, by my “lovely and tolerant” peers, it all commenced from at least 10 feet away. So truth was, without chameleon-like powers I could little hide the immutable characteristic at the heart of issue – my colour.

      Firstly Rt Hon Diane Abbott did not conjure her article out of thin air especially to offend – unlike the casually “acceptable” anti-black/brown modus operandi of the 2019 Tory elect.
      She was in fact defending the lived-experience of black people in response to an article that attempted to draw a strange equivalence on the perpetual manifestation of hatred on this “sight-prompted” verses “disclosed” existential aversion – an equivalence that to lifetime bearers of the former by the way is breathtaking. Veterans of visual know that in a racialised society, such as ours, the difference between unavoidable exposure and possible evasion is as Jupiter to the Moon – in terms of life and well-being outcomes.

      Secondly, she makes two factual observations in English language: whilst racism is born of prejudice, it does not follow that the reverse is so. The obese are not a race, the disabled are not a race, the opposite sex is not a race, and young people are not a race, all subject-able to prejudice. Although in our brave new subintellectualopia, say it often enough and it does become true.

      Her clumsiness was an insensitive dismissal of the other human stain, the 6 million atrocity Holocaust (the original being the 12 to 20 million atrocity slave trade). Although I could appreciate the cerebral dump of a ‘first draft’ where epiphany momentarily trumps rational.

      But this of course is all conveniently lost within the sub-radar MSM misogynoir and societal anti-black pile-on – the British Markle-isation of Abbott which was only a matter of time since the Abbott-isation of Markle.

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