Tag Archives: colonialism

Diane Abbott: what’s race got to do with it?

NB Sent by phone. I will add links later.

The nowtrage over Diane Abbott’s twitter comment that “White people love playing ‘divide & rule'” has been entirely predictable and lamentable, with people on both sides guilty of exaggerating their positions to the point of absurdity.

I’m not remotely offended by Abbott’s comment; it is simply too absurd a generalisation to take seriously. I find the rush by people to exclaim offence and outrage at the comments frankly embarrassing; especially since, as a rule, they have been quite transparently politically motivated. It is simply too soon after the sentencing of Norris and Dobson to play that game.

Equally however, Abbott’s initial defence that the comment had been taken out of context was weak, because there is simply no context in which bringing race into the point she was trying to make could be acceptable. Many of her defenders have leapt on this, claiming that divide and rule was a feature of white colonialism, but the simple fact is that most white people were not colonialists.

Irish potato farmers were not responsible for the oppression of Africa and India any more than Mancunian clothmakers or Italian winemakers. African monarchs who sold their own people into slavery were. There isn’t much evidence to support claims that ‘white’ empires such as the British and Romans were any more oppressive than the Persians or Mongolians.

To cut to the chase, surely racialising what is, in essence, a matter of the functions of the political-economy throughout history, is far more of an act of ‘divide and rule’ than, to return to the original discussion, questioning the legitimacy of so-called black community leaders?

Diane Abbott’s comments were in response to Bim Adewunmi raising concerns about talk of a single ‘black community’ and the people who purport to lead them. Abbott’s point was that ethnic minority groups who are more united than blacks tend to do better. This is a valid observation, but so too were Adewunmi’s objections to having people speak for her who are often out of touch.

And while Abbott is also correct to suggest that ‘divide and rule’ is one of the oldest tricks in the book, so is the co-option by leaders, of whatever race or background, of the groups they claim to represent.

That’s true of colonial powers, and it is true of people who enjoy the trappings associated with being a ‘community leader’ in a local authority, as anyone who has ever been involved in local politics must surely have observed. And it is true of party leaders working against their parties interests and of trade union leaders making power plays which ultimately work against the workers but which consolidate their own control and influence.

In short, strip race out of it, and there is a very important debate to be had about the nature of power, control and democracy. It suits politicians like Diane Abbott for that debate to be sidetracked by red herrings such as skin colour just as much as her loudest detractors.