This is England 2012 – the return of racism

By Alexander Respov

The issue of racism had, it’s true, never really gone away. Yet, with 2012 less than a week old, it has come crashing back into the public arena.

First, there has been the on-going saga involving Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra. As claim and counter-claim fly to and fro between Liverpool and Manchester United, the Football Association attempts to stem the damage. All the time, the race row between Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers and the England and Chelsea captain, John Terry, lurks ominously on the horizon.

2012 has also seen a major development in the Stephen Lawrence murder case. Over 17 years after London’s Metropolitan Police began their hunt for Lawrence’s murderers, partial closure was brought to the case as Gary Dobson and David Norris received jail terms for their part in the killing. The victim’s mother, Doreen Lawrence, is entitled to maintain that she was let down by the Met, which in the aftermath of the stabbing was accused of ‘institutional racism’.

Then, less than 24 hours after the sentences were handed down at the Old Bailey, it was the Shadow Health Secretary’s turn to ignite a racism row. Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, took the unorthodox step of turning to Twitter to make a sweeping generalisation and accuse all white people of ‘playing divide and rule’. Although seeming partly in denial at her having wronged, Abbott did issue a meek apology for any offence caused.

She informed Sky News that her comments had been taken out of context. Her undoing was the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter, which had left her unable to articulate her point on 19th century colonialism. Bizarrely, it seems that in order to negate this problem, Abbott left out the finer details and got straight to the point – and a racist point, at that. It is little surprise that she has since been rebuked by opponents and allies alike.

I don’t think it can be said that Diane Abbott is a racist – nor, for what it’s worth, do I think that John Terry is a racist. I don’t – as a white male – even think her comments were remotely offensive. But, they were, as Nick Clegg said, ‘crass’ and ‘stupid’. They were, as Chuka Umunna said, ‘completely unacceptable’. They were, above all else, racist.

Conservative MP, Nadhim Zahawi, was astute in asking what the reaction would have been like had a white MP accused black people of something similar. There is a strong feeling in many – mainly white – communities across the UK that they are the ones losing out. The infamous adage that those worst off are straight, married, white males may be wrong, but it doesn’t need to be right to be dangerous.

In the case of Diane Abbott, the issue of racism is based on perceptions, whether they are correct or not. The problem starts when members of ethnic minorities perceive that they are being unfairly treated due to their race; or, when their white neighbours perceive that they are receiving a raw deal at the expense of those with different racial backgrounds. Where it ends can be anyone’s guess. Abbott’s problem is that her comments can be perceived as being racist. Thus, she – along with Messieurs Terry and Suarez – will be perceived as being racist.

In politics, one’s good image is essential. It would be a surprising turn of events if Labour Leader, Ed Miliband, were to stand by his former leadership rival. Luis Suarez received a lengthy ban; Stephen Lawrence’s killers received nearly thirty years between them; John Terry may yet lose his England career. The onus is on Ed to be equally firm. Yet, as the weekend passed, Abbott remained in her position.

Abbott may have spent 25 years cultivating a loyal following in her London constituency, but her comments are unacceptable. We will never know for certain whether they were the unfortunate result of an ill-thought out argument, or whether they reflected a more ignorant side to Abbott. We can assume it was the former. But, we cannot deny that it was blatant racism, for which there is no place in Westminster or beyond.

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Police announced that they were not going to take police action. However, for Abbott to escape from the scandal with her career intact would be to undo a lot of good work in the field of racial equality. That would also be unacceptable.

Miliband must understand that this is not 1988. There is no place for such ignorance in our society, regardless of which part of the community it has come from. He could do worse than follow the lead of the Football Association that has worked tirelessly and, despite the recent setbacks, largely successfully to eliminate racism from the English game. The FA may be keen on showing racism a red card; it’s time Miliband did likewise and dismissed his troublesome colleague. This is, after all, 2012.

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