Race Matters

Politics, power and racism: what we can learn from Diane Abbott's testimony

In the wake of Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott speaking publicly about the racist and sexist abuse that followed her missing the Article 50 vote in parliament, independent legal researcher and copywriter Vistra Greenaway-Harvey looks at how politics and power create a breeding ground for racism.

Politicians are representatives of the people and have an important role in shaping social change. History tells us that politicians’ actions inform and are informed by wider social activism; legislation and policy can be viewed as a dialogue between bodies within society. For instance, growing discontent over capital punishment in the 1960s saw the enactment of the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act 1965, which effectively abolished capital punishment, and public outcry over racial tensions in the same period were somewhat diffused by the 1965 Race Relations Act.

Yet, more than 50 years on, in 2017, Britain’s Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott reports being called a: “Pathetic useless fat black piece of s**t…who should be f***ing hung.” For all the legislative and policy changes that have occurred since, today’s social attitudes appear gravely worrying and regressive.

As Britain’s first ever black female MP, Abbott has triumphed over racial and sexual discrimination to enter the House of Commons.  In a recent poignant exploration of abuse in British politics, Abbott outlines the improbability of her 1987 victory. The same article goes on to catalogue the racism levelled at her on a regular basis. Abbott has used a number of forums to shed light on the depth of racially slanted misogyny that she is subjected to, and it seems that what the mainstream press covers is just the tip of the iceberg. Abbott has been incessantly victimised, most recently by Conservative Councillor Alan Permain.

Of course, Diane Abbott is not the only MP to have suffered racial or sexist abuse. Throughout his mayoral campaign Islamophobic slights were levelled at Sadiq Khan by senior politicians, including then Prime Minster David Cameron. Meanwhile, the majority of female MPs report sexist threats online; in fact online abuse is so rife that Abbott, among others, has suggested a parliamentary inquiry into it. But this would amount to tackling a symptom and fails to challenge the wider disease of racism within our society. Political discourse has been providing a forum for discriminatory sentiments decades before the advent of Twitter. 

If racism is the combination of prejudices with institutional power, then one could argue that the seat of power and its surroundings are particularly susceptible to racism. An analysis of British politics seems to substantiate this view. The personal beliefs of individual politicians or political hopefuls tend to be dismissed until they seek out power; for example Boris Johnson’s 2002 reference to black people as “picanninies” with “watermelon smiles” was largely ignored until 2008, when he first ran to be Mayor of London.

On a greater scale, when racist principles inform political ideologies they can become particularly dangerous. One viewpoint that has served to increase racist policies throughout history is the idea of strong nationalism; that Britain should be the preserve of white Brits for fear of migrant chaos. This view was infamously propounded by Conservative MP Enoch Powell in his 1968 Rivers of Blood speech where he likened the Race Relations Act to a “legal weapon” that would be used to revolt against British nationals. In discussions on immigration politicians often demonstrate a fear of Britain being overrun by foreigners less able to “assimilate” into British society, a task arguably more difficult for migrants with dark skin. Political parties – most notably UKIP – often lead with specific campaign promises to protect Britain’s borders and reduce migration. Although they do not all outwardly espouse racist beliefs along the lines of the English Defence League or British National Party, it is arguable that a preoccupation with ‘Britishness’ promotes a brand of xenophobia that some of their members have transformed into racism.

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has also become a soapbox for racist commentary and has emboldened overt racist abuse and even violence across the UK. The growing incidences of hate crime towards ethnic minorities in the months following Brexit highlight the ongoing correlation between racism and immigration; African and Asian migrants have also been targeted despite the decision relating only to EU. Though politicians are not wholly responsible for this misinterpretation of the referendum result, as Baroness Warsi put it, the xenophobia of the Brexit campaign gave a “green light” to racist beliefs.

Political comments and decisions can dictate the actions of the public. So while the legislation is still there to protect against racism, the political rhetoric is still fuelling it. If racism is to be removed from society an inquiry needs to be made into the actions and words of politicians, whether online or not.

Vistra Greenaway-Harvey blogs in a personal capacity here

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