Diane Abbott attack: OTT


There have been literally thousands of the most wretched comments imaginable directed towards Diane Abbott MP over her semantic error during a tweeting conversation two days ago. On numerous occasions she has been described as worse than the killers of Stephen Lawrence. Her crime was to casually and clumsily state that ‘white people always try and divide and rule Black people’. Her mortal error was not to qualify her statement with ‘Some white …’

She apologised for her mistake. A mistake that Diane Abbott will know above all that even within the confines of the tweeting framework, she should not have left herself open to such an attack. But the level of attack showed more about a nation still uncomfortable with confronting the persisting inequalities caused by race.

Here are two pieces written by Jyoti Bhojani and myself.

Both in their own way send out a plea not to lose track of the real issue of ensuring our institutions deliver greater race equality.

Simon Woolley

Forget Diane Abbott's tweet – let's talk about the Stephen Lawrence case

Focusing on the clumsy articulations about race of an otherwise good MP detracts from this week's truly momentous event

If only she'd added the word "some". If only Diane Abbott had begun her tweet with this qualifier, this furore would not have happened, and we might still be talking about the significance of this week's truly momentous event – the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen's Lawrence. Equally important over these last few days was the revived conversation about how our democratic and civic institutions can deliver better equality for everyone, black and white; about how far we've come in regards to tackling race inequality, and how far we have to go. It felt good.

Instead, the last few hours have been dominated by claims that Abbott is a racist, with political opportunists piling in to denounce her.

For me, Abbott's comment – "White people love playing divide and rule" – is more clumsy than notorious. I know Abbott, and I know what she meant. Her tweet clumsily condemns all white people, something she clearly never meant to do. I do accept that, even with a more nuanced explanation, she would still have had her detractors – but it would be a crying shame if we lost this Lawrence moment because, despite her explanation and apology – which she was right to give – people choose to make mischief from what she said.

And she does have a point: there are indeed some who still aim to divide and rule black communities. We need look no further than the English Defence League and the British National party. Both groups have at various times tried to court black and minority ethnic individuals who are non-Muslims. The crude narrative is, "you're not the problem – it's those Muslims". BNP leader Nick Griffin has set great store by the fact that he has a Sikh member in his party.

Furthermore, in an attempt to focus the minds of white extremists – particularly American neo-Nazis, who argued he'd gone soft on Jewish people by focusing on Muslims – he said he didn't want to "miss a great political opportunity to surf our message into the public mind on the back of a media tsunami of 'Islamophobia'".

I hope now that Abbott has apologised we can move back to the real discussion about race and equality that the Stephen Lawrence case initiated; about the institutional practices that can lead people to act in a discriminatory way without even knowing it; about why in so many organisations there are so few senior black staff; about why their black staff don't stay; and why they remain the lowest paid.

I suspect some will want to avoid this debate because it raises issues they find difficult to come to terms with. But to be diverted from this path would be a lost opportunity.

I spent many hours this week with civil rights icon the Rev Jesse Jackson. In one of his speeches he again used the football metaphor as a guide for our institutions: "When we all abide by the same rules, when the goals are clear and it is a level playing field, we can all excel – black and white."

This is the conversation a bold progressive nation needs to have in the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence convictions, rather than obsessing over a clumsy articulation by an otherwise good MP. We should not be distracted from building a fitting legacy for Lawrence and his family.

Simon Woolley

Instead of talking about race relations, the media are obsessing over Diane Abbott’s tweet

Yesterday, Doreen Lawrence said, ‘the fact is that racism and racist attacks are still happening in the country’; Reverend Jesse Jackson said the black community in the UK were treated ‘as second class citizens – free but not equal, not adequately protected by the law’.

So it saddens me that in a momentous week, where whilst 18 years too late we saw Gary Dobson and David Norris convicted and sentenced for the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, we are not talking about race relations. Instead the media are obsessing over Diane Abbott’s tweet. She’s clarified and apologised what she meant and we need to get back to addressing the real issues which are affecting Britain’s Black and Minority Ethnic Communities (BME), which are all too easily forgotten.

In education we are constantly stereotyping our young black boys which has led to them being held back, we should note here that Diane Abbott has tried to challenge by holding the annual Black Students Award. It is shameful that in September 2010 less than 1 in 100 students beginning courses at Oxbridge were Black.

Looking at crime and policing, racially motivated crime is still all too common with 40,000 race hate crimes reported in 2010. Unfortunately confidence and trust in the police is low within our communities. In 1993, black men were five times more likes to be stopped that figure has now gone up to 10. In addition, 20% of all deaths in custody the last twelve months have been black men. Within the police force itself, which the McPherson report said was institutionally racist there has been a decrease in Black representation, at the end of the Lawrence enquiry there were four BME individuals at the level of Chief constable or chief officer, today there aren’t any.

As a nation we have still have a chronic lack of BME representation at all levels of society. Just 28 of our 650 MPs are from a BME background. We have also seen the rise of the EDL in recent times who seek to create divisions along racial and religious lines.

These are just some of the areas we should be talking about and addressing head on. As the Labour Party, we should stop shying away from having a nuanced and balanced debate about these issues and many more. Race equality and tackling racism need to be put back on the mainstream political agenda and we as a party should be at the forefront of this.

Jyoti Bhojani

Archived Comments

We've changed to a new commenting system - comments below are preserved for archive purposes

Tweeting while Black

We need to note that most of those now attacking Diane made no noticeable comment about the Lawrence case, before during or after. That fact alone explains a whole lot!!

Diane Abbott's tweet was clumsy but did it touch a nerve?

Agree with Paul, the level of attacks was incredible given the sheer lack of anti racist work by the attackers. Perhaps if they'd worked for years fighting to eradicate racism and turn back the clock on the colonial mindset which still exists they wouldn't look hollow, partisan and nothing short of a distraction from the real news this week about the Stephen Lawrence case.

Diane Abbott attack: OTT

Rather than some, I think the missing word is supremacist. Rather than some, I think the missing word is Supremacist. So the sentence should read “White supremacist always try and divide and rule Black people’

Two Revelations: Institutional and Media Racism

Brilliant articles guys – totally agree with your viewpoints. Lawrence’s case highlighted the abhorrent institutional racism and Abbott’s twitter scandal has revealed the blatant prejudice in our media. I believe both need confronting with equal vigour if we are to build a fitting legacy for Lawrence and aspire for a harmonious society.

define racism please

The etymology of the word RACIST is exemplified by Nazi Germany and Hitler. The basis of Racism is to have a prejudice and then act on it, thus making the lives of others very very difficult if not terminal based on ethnicity. It's therefore impossible for Dianne Abbott to have made a racist comment since she cannot act on it in such a way that can be deemed racist. She may have demonstrated a view that stereotypes, but she wasn't wrong in her assumptions. As a Black woman working in White dominated British politics she will know first hand how racist Britain is and how racist White people are in general - especially in the political arena amid those who decide on policy that affect everyone.

'white people love playing divide & rule'

is 100% accurate. I've been living in White Britain all my life, I aint effin stupid. I know a racist when I see one and based on the definition - they're all white! It's possible for other races to have prejudices and stereotypes but less likely for them to be a Nazi Fascist Racist. Trying to exterminate a race based on prejudice ideas is racist. The term has been bastardised by white people so that not only they can be a racist. STFU! Only they can be racist. Don't kid yourself or be fooled into thinking Black people can be racist -- if this was so we'd be exterminating white people just for being white.

Diane: I like you but what you said was just not on

I really like Diane Abbott. However, what she tweeted was completely and utterly unacceptable. Furthermore, it was completely and utterly false. Anyone who genuinely believes in race equality can do nothing other than condemn the tweet as outrageous.

I agree with the comments

I agree with the comments that many of those now frothing over Diane's comments tended to have been very silent on the Lawrence case. However, this debate as to whether or not her comment was racist misses the point. My issue with what she said was that she was responding to a perfectly valid comment made by a young female black journalist that often many 'community leaders' whether designated so by the media or self selection do not necessarily represent everyone, are not necessarily appropriate (i.e Dizzie Rascal being invited to play up to the stereotypical inarticulate young black man on Newsnight on Obama's election night) and that there is a variety of cultures and viewpoints within the black community.

The fact that Diane Abbott seems to regard such self evident truths as 'playing the white man's game' is incredibly insulting and patronising, both to black people and to white people. It implies that black people don't, can't and shouldn't have differing views. And it was a particularly unedifying case of someone using their privilege and power to slap down someone else. She was effectively calling this woman a sell out for having the temerity to suggest that Dizzie Rascal, while no doubt a talented musician was a completely inappropriate choice to discuss something as significant as Obama's election on a serious news programme.

Also, it has to be said that Diane has unfortunately sailed too close to the wind in this area before. The comment she made about blond eyed Finnish nurses being unsuitable to look after black people. The frankly unprofessional references to Cameron and Clegg as posh white boys. Are these clumsiness as well?

I don't think for a second that Diane Abbott racist, but she's human and is capable of making lazy assumptions just like everyone else. Acknowledging that rather than trying to bluff her way out of it when the exchange and the context was there for all to see, just made things worse. Yes, she's a black MP, but she's there to serve all her constituents, and if I were a white person in her constituency, frankly I'd be wondering how likely it was she'd offer me fair treatment. Because that's certainly what I'd be thinking if my local MP had said that black nurses were unsuitable to look after white patients.

Lastly, you appear to be seeing racism as zero sum game, whereby discussing the impact of the Stephen Lawrence case and holding Diane to the same standard she sets herself as well as others, as being two mutually exclusive activities. It's perfectly possible to do both, and if it's truly equality we're striving for, it's in fact vitally necessary to do both.

GPalmer's comments...

"I know a racist when I see one and based on the definition - they're all white!"

"The term has been bastardised by white people so that not only they can be a racist. STFU! Only they can be racist. Don't kid yourself or be fooled into thinking Black people can be racist -- if this was so we'd be exterminating white people just for being white."

That's prejudice, also a bit close to hate speech.

I'll bite

Abbott's constituency was hit by the worst of the riots this summer.
If this is the fruit of her works, we know she's a poor steward. Her contempt for the system, people, traditions of this tiny little island are shared by enough of her constituents that they felt the need to burn down Hackney. If it's so bad putting up with British racism there are other place to reside. Anyone with a British passport can live in any EU state. Go live in Spain or Italy or Greece or Germany.

diane abbot comment

Whist Diane Abbot's comment was clumsy, the worse thing about the whole farce, was that she apologised for it after woulds.

Ms Abbott had nothing to apologies for. As an a Person of African Carribbean decsent, I say this:

If someone who is not white, but is an important and influential member of society and is asked for a constructive opinion, talking about an unfortunate subject where white people are refered to in the negative light, does not mean racism !!!

Is about time we in the Black and BME Communities understand that the White community is not special. We do not owe some sections of the White community the earth or wealth or deverence.

People like Diane Abbott and others like her, who claim to be our leaders within the Black Community should demonstrate some guts, some courage and nail their colours to the mast, instead of looking out for their careers.

If your going to say or write something mean it. don't apologies for it afterwards to save your own career Ms Abbott !!

Yet again Ms Abbott you show yourself for a propensity for weakness.........

Honesty and perspective

The steadfast defences of Diane could be attributed to people either agreeing with her, feeling resentment towards those 'free speech defenders' who now act like the social equivalents of Sergio Busquets (rolling around on the floor trying to get people sent off), or understanding that she doesn't mean literally all white people, but those with the power to do so.

If I were to chide her, I would ask how she could be so careless as to not realise that the comment would be milked. She knows the score, she's a seasoned campaigners who knows that hay would be made by her detractors, and - again let's be honest - she let that happen. The media ran with the torch, but she lit it.

The difficulty most people have (including me to a certain extent) is how someone can:
a) be of the opinion that behaviour should not be seen as emblematic of the entire culture, then abandon that principle;
b) hold people's feel to the fire when they have made a mistake, and then not excpect the same in return (with the caveat of context), and
c) that her carelessness allowed the reflection on racial violence and injustice to be overtaken by this nonsense

Finally, can I say to Nadhim Zahawi, Rehman Chishti, and Louise Mensch. Please stop the partisan games, and shame on you for what was a carefully orchestrated attack. There was not a peep in the press or on Twitter from any of these three when their colleague was found to have been cavorting around with someone dressed as an SS officer.

If Ed Miliband's advisers are reading here is one for free if David Cameron wishes to make hay about Diane: "The Right Honourable Gentleman should be reminded that this month includes Holocaust Memorial Day, instead of deriding the gaffes on our side of the house, his time might be better spent explaining to the member for Cannock Chase that hanging about with people dressed as the SS isn't acceptable behaviour for an MP".

New Statesman: Great article on this topic