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Boris Johnson Tory party racism
courtesy of Channel 4

This general election, racism has been used as a political football

Stoking division between marginalised groups through the ‘divide and rule’ strategy is one of the establishment’s favourite tricks

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how powerful the political imagination is. Our investment in the political imagination is radical – imagining the simple pleasure of a life worth living, where our proximities to death and suffering are not defined by hierarchies of race, class, gender, sexuality and citizenship – is the very foundation of collective solidarity. A better future relies on our capacity to come together and demand the change we imagine individually. It relies on not resigning ourselves to the current order of things and not accepting our positions as fixed taxonomies in the natural order of life.

The ‘establishment’, however it has materialised in different times and places, is always aware of this. And stoking division and conflict between underclasses and marginalised groups through the ‘divide and rule’ strategy is the most successful tactic for quelling the threat of collective solidarity. In our current British political climate, we see this in the continued weaponization of racism in political discourse. It has been disgusting and exhausting to witness, and it has been very successful in undermining collective practices of racial solidarity across ethnically marginalised groups.

Current public conversation is playing political football with racism, by labelling antisemitism as exclusively present within the Labour Party, and Islamophobia as exclusively present within the Conservative Party. But with Theresa May leading the erection of a statue honouring Nancy Astor, a prominent antisemitic politician who believed in Hitler’s ‘final solution’ for Jewish communities, and with evidenced cases of Islamophobia surviving in the Labour Party from New Labour’s legacy of islamophobic ‘counter-terror’ and surveillance legislation - attempting to decorate one party as totally guilty, and the other as totally innocent is disingenuous. But right now, race baiting is sexy, and sex sells. White men like Philip Collins can play Jewish and Muslim people off each other by claiming in The Times that “Labour’s racism is worse than the Tory kind” - even though people like Collins evidently do not, and have never, truly given a fuck about racism. In doing so, he frames the concerns of one ethnic group as “legitimate” and the other as not, which disrupts the need for collective solidarity against all forms of racism. 

Whatever your position on the political spectrum, the weaponising of racism as an election strategy is absolutely grim. It makes a mockery of anti-racist activism and the very real racial injustices which affect ethnic minorities every day.

“Whatever your position on the political spectrum, the weaponising of racism as an election strategy is absolutely grim”

Most frustrating for me from a personal point of view has been the undermining of anti-black racism to bolster allegations of antisemitism against the Labour party. Right wing media has implored British people to elect Boris Johnson over Jeremy Corbyn because “we can’t elect a racist Prime Minister”, but in doing so they make clear that Johnson’s labelling Black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, and attack of anti-racism reforms in response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence, are at best irrelevant and at worst fair game.  Seeing a daytime TV presenter –  Countdown’s Rachel Riley – posting herself in a t-shirt with a doctored image of Jeremy Corbyn wearing a placard saying “Jeremy Corbyn is racist endeavour” was particularly angering, because it deliberately washed over the original placard messaging which was protesting South African apartheid. I do not, at any point, wish to dismiss any Jewish person’s concern and distress at institutional antisemitism within political parties – as a non-Jewish person that is not, and will never be, my call. But to wash over an anti-apartheid message is insulting. It also implies that Corbyn’s long-standing history as an anti-racist and anti-apartheid campaigner can be dismissed, because the plights of Black people domestically and internationally are themselves an irrelevance. 

This election period many Black people, myself included, have felt that media conversations on racism in politics have totally failed to mention us. Whilst Corbyn has been routinely grilled over anti-semitism in the Labour Party, the same energy isn’t given to how Black lives have been lost under Conservative watch, which is insane considering the reported death toll of Windrush deportees continues to rise. In fact, it feels like we’ve only been included in social and mainstream media conversations about racism when it’s time to undermine our oppression to boost one ethnic group’s experience of racism as worse than ours. In the face of this, my heart aches most for Black Jewish people caught up in the crossroads of this tension and often erased from discussions of both antisemitism and anti-blackness. Frequently, protests against antisemitism on social media have defaulted to statements like “imagine if a politician said this about Black people”, or “no one would ever undermine Black people’s experiences like this.” As a concrete example: in an interview with a certain right-wing rag, Professor Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian who writes on antisemitism, denounced Jeremy Corbyn’s “refusal to disown Holocaust deniers” by saying “no respectable politician would associate with anyone who used the ‘n’ word.” That is just bullshit. Anne Marie Morris, who so casually used the racist idiom “n***** in the woodpile” in parliament only faced a brief suspension, but remained a Conservative MP and will be standing in the 2019 election – evidently “respectable” politicians are happy to associate themselves with anti-blackness.

So in the face of overwhelming evidence of it, why aren’t we talking about anti-black racism in this election? What this silence makes clear is how so much supposed anti-racist thinking in this country fails to imagine different conditions for Black people, because anti-blackness is the foundation of this state, and viewed as the natural order of things. Anti-black racism is not an “issue” unless it reaches the proportions of the Windrush scandal, and even then it wouldn’t surprise me to read commentary on the scandal where the words “Black” or “racism” don’t show up once. On an average day, the hostile environment, deportations and mass incarceration are just the bread and butter of Great Britain. It is so easy for those denouncing racial prejudice elsewhere to speak about how this “wouldn’t happen” to Black people, because the position of Black people has naturalised in the public collective conscience as a non-problem; race is still viewed as biological and within the taxonomy of race, Black people are viewed as in their rightful place, fulfilling their natural function. 

The problem is not only the repeated erasure of anti-blackness, but how much this discourse promotes conflict and tension between ethnic minority groups. We play into the hands of the establishment when we allow our marginal positions to be played off against each other, and in doing so we fail to imagine those ideals of collective solidarity which have been the foundation of global movements for justice. Opposition to antisemitism must be unconditional – but the aggravation of minority groups who are ignored or dragged up in bad faith to create a hierarchy of racisms is fair and understandable. Practices like this inflame tensions between minority groups and in doing so mutual solidarity becomes strained and difficult. And solidarity is a beautiful thing. Recognising the unitary nature of struggles on both a domestic and international scale has so much transformative power. When Black Power activists began to embrace the Palestinian cause, this influenced moderate civil rights organisations to rethink the position and struggle of Palestinians and be more critical in their engagement of the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

“We play into the hands of the establishment when we allow our marginal positions to be played off against each other”

Black-Jewish solidarity has, historically, also existed, as Jewish writer Rachel Cohen notes of the mutual support between American Black and Jewish communities. As she references, in 1965 Rabbi Abraham Heschel famously “prayed with his feet” as he marched alongside Martin Luther King during the Selma to Montgomery marches. But Cohen also speaks of how the same mistakes of competing and undermining struggles signalled the death of this solidarity – fragmenting into Black or Jewish separatist focuses is certainly not a problem, and ultimately no marginalised group should serve as a mule for the other. But we have not learned from the mistakes of the past when, rather than attacking the white establishment which marginalises us, we attempt to downplay or dismiss the plight of those in similar or worse positions. Recognising the mistreatment and oppression of another group, does not undermine your own plight.

We must be more vigilant to the ways media and establishments attempt to play minorities against each other to keep real, impactful protest at bay. When you disguise or undermine the racism of one party to speak of the racism of the other, you disguise incidents where both parties are guilty. When we attempt to play the establishment’s games of divide and rule, we only play ourselves. And in doing so we fail to allow ourselves to imagine a position where the oppression of all people come to an end – instead, we only selfishly imagine our own liberation, which ends in joining the ruling classes to oppress the other.