Diane Abbott letter shows the hard left still doesn't get it

How could someone with such direct experience of racism show such little understanding of how it affects others?


NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 10: Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott take questions after a speech setting out his agenda on October 10, 2019 in Northampton, England. Jeremy Corbyn has promised a Labour government would hold a Brexit referendum soon after winning a general election. (Photo by Darren Staples/Getty Images)

April 25, 2023 11:21

As I write these words, I am looking at a map. It depicts one sub-section of one zone within Birkenau, part of the sprawling metropolis of death that was Auschwitz. Formally, it was known as Section BIIe but informally it was known as the “Gypsy Camp”.

It was here that the Roma and Sinti prisoners of Auschwitz – “Travellers” in today’s language – were kept and used as slaves before most were murdered in gas chambers. To be precise, of the 23,000 Roma and Sinti sent to Auschwitz, approximately 21,000 were murdered there. It was a factory of death for them, just as it was for the nearly one million Jews killed in that same place.

Do these facts need to be restated yet again? In the light of Diane Abbott’s letter to the Observer, perhaps they do. 

When it comes to Diane Abbott, two important things need to be said first. One is that as the first black woman elected to parliament, she will always have an important place in the political history of this country. The other is that, according to one study, she receives more abuse, both racist and sexist, than any other woman in parliament, and by some distance. 

Yet both of those facts only make her letter all the more dispiriting, even baffling. How could someone with such direct experience of racism show such little understanding of how it works for people who are not the same as her? 

To recap: Abbott wrote to the Observer objecting to an article that had argued that Jewish, Irish and Traveller people suffer from racism. Not so, said the MP. They might experience prejudice – just as other “white people with points of difference, such as redheads” might – but that was not the same as racism. By way of proof, she noted that Irish people, Jews and Travellers were never made to sit at the back of the bus in the American South, nor were they denied the vote under apartheid or bound in manacles in slave ships. 

In a way, the veteran Labour MP has performed a useful public service. For in that two-paragraph letter, she shone a clarifying light on what a corner of the hard left thinks and, in the process, helped explain why antisemitism loomed so large in the period when that faction was in charge of the Labour Party. 

She has since issued an apology, insisting that “the errors arose in an initial draft being sent”. We can dispense with that fairly swiftly. As the JC reports today, the letter was sent not once but twice – the re-send following an auto-prompt asking for an address to be included – and from the MP’s own email account. So it’s hard to claim it was sent in error. What’s more, it was reportedly sent a full week before publication, so if Abbott had made a mistake she had plenty of time to correct it.

Let’s instead assess the substance of the case the MP made and has since withdrawn. She was spelling out a version of the view articulated last year by Whoopi Goldberg: that racism can only ever happen to people of colour. If the victims and perpetrators cannot be separated into (literal) black-and-white categories, then this or that incident might be unpleasant but it’s not racism.

Of course, such a view entirely misses out – erases – the many millions of Jews who are not, on any definition, white. But let that pass. Abbott’s position is only sustainable if you believe that Jews or Travellers or Irish people have suffered nothing worse than the playground taunts endured by redheads. That should be impossible for anybody who knows any history at all, and certainly if you are even on nodding terms with what happened between 1933 and 1945.

Now, Abbott clearly knows that the Holocaust happened. So she must believe that, though the Holocaust was bad, it somehow doesn’t count as racism. (Or as Goldberg put it, “This is white people doing it to white people, so y’all gonna fight amongst yourselves.”)

And yet the Nazi bid to eradicate the Jewish people was entirely about race. The Nazis branded Jews (and those they called Gypsies) as racially inferior, believing that the total annihilation of the Jews would advance their pursuit of a pseudo-scientific racial purity. Hitler did not show Jews “prejudice” of the kind experienced by redheads. Instead, he murdered six million of them, on account of what he determined was their race. It did not help those six million that, in most cases, their skin was white.

Nor is this just history. Dip, if you can bear it, into the sewer that is racist and white supremacist propaganda, and you will see in a matter of moments how such people regard Jews today: namely, as a distinct and despised race. They certainly do not see Jews as fellow whites.

We could say that what’s needed here is education, but I have limited patience for such talk. Abbott has had plenty of education on this subject. For one thing, she represents a constituency that is home to thousands of Jews. For another, Jews and their allies spent five long, wearying years explaining all this stuff, over and over again, in the period when her chum was party leader. No, what’s going on here is not a lack of knowledge, but a stubborn refusal to listen or learn or empathise.

Some have taken this episode as a cue to assert that no one knows more about racism than Jews, that no one has suffered more than we have. This is to play Abbott's game, to assert that there is a “hierarchy of racism”, and that my pain trumps yours. But this is not a competition; and if it is, it’s not one any of us would want to win. Instead, we should join hands with those who, like us, have endured racism and hatred for a long time. Jews, black Britons, Asian Britons, Muslims, Irish people, Travellers – we have one big, sad thing in common. Those who hate one of us tend to hate us all. 

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian

April 25, 2023 11:21

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