Thanks to (what I consider to be) an ill-thought out letter to the Observer Newspaper, the Labour Party in the United Kingdom is once again embroiled in a discussion of whether or not it is racist. Diane Abbot responded to an opinion piece in the newspaper indicated her belief that the author Tomiwa Owolade’s claim that Irish, Jewish and Traveller people suffered racism was incorrect, and that this was prejudice but not racism.
Just to be clear, the dictionary definition of racism is the belief that some races are inferior to others. To support this further, the definition of race is a major group which human beings can be divided into according to their physical features, such as the colour of their skin. To confuse what appears to be a clear definition, the UK Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) consider as relevant to Race Crime a person’s “ethnicity, nationality or religion”. The two definitions then (legal and linguistic) are clearly not the same. Not very helpful is it? Which is why I say “ill-thought out”.
Nevertheless, Diane Abbot’s letter and comments have been branded by some as racist themselves, and by others including the leader of the Labour Party as “antisemitic”.
Given that this is an emotive topic, we shall proceed logically… If we follow the CPS definition of Race Crime and allow ‘racism’ to include ethnicity, nationality and religion; the comments made by Diane Abbot do indeed place a different weighting on the prejudice based on skin colour to that based on ethnicity or identity. This is indeed racist; it clearly indicates a differentiation between the prejudice experienced by one group of people over that experienced by another.
Subsequently to her letter, many media outlets have since criticised her comments as being ‘antisemitic’ and have concentrated only on the impact her words could have on Jewish communities. Even the leader of the Labour Party has called her comments ‘antisemitic’.
Another term that needs definiton… According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) the definition (one accepted by the Labour Party) of anti-semitism is: “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” (Personally I do not agree with this definition at all. The use of the word hatred is problematic, since one can quite easily be prejudiced against a group of people without hating them. In addition to which, the defintion examples deliberately blurs the boundaries between people, religion and the Israeli state, which results in a criticism of either the religion or the state being anti-semitic.)
Nevertheless… if we read ‘discrimination’ for ‘hatred’ we could consider that the broadest possible definition of hatred allows that placing the Jews on a hierarchy of prejudice different to that of black people equates to hatred. Hence, her letter included antisemitic sentiment. Therefore, one can indeed decide to label her statement as racist. Note: I say racist, and not anti-semitic.
If the contention is that placing one race on a different level to that of another is racist, it follows then that since Diane referred to multiple ethnic groups in her letter, any criticism should also allow for this, since by holding up only the anti-semitic sentiment is also holding one race to a standard different to another. Therefore, to criticise Diane Abbot for being anti-semitic whilst not criticising her for being anti-Irish or anti-Traveller is in itself racist: because we highlight only one of the affected groups. So when Keir Starmer, visiting a community project in south London, said: “In my view what she said was to be condemned, it was antisemitic.” he is as guilty of racism as she was when she made the initial comments.
Now this may come across as nit-picking, however I would contend that if we are to hold one person to the rules, we should hold all to the rules. If we are going to say that Diane Abbot is a racist because she implies that racism is only a matter of physical features (a potision which can be linguistically defended), then we must also say that Keir Stamer is racist because he didn’t explicity call out the prejudice against the Irish or the Traveller communities as racism. In doing so, he placed the prejudice against one community at a different level to the prejudice of another community – he didn’t deem it worth mentioning.
It seems to me, that the reason why the media and politicians choose to highlight only the anti-jew sentiment of this letter is precisely because there is a greater degree of focus on anti-semitism than on many other equally abhorrent forms of racism. Indeed, the Labour Party itself has suffered greatly in a struggle to remove the ‘anti-semitic’ epithet with which it was labelled in the last decade. It is perhaps therefore undertsandable that it would be at great pains to address any suggestion that such prejudice continues to exist within its ranks. Yet, by concentrating only on one form of prejudice, it itself becomes guilty of discriminating against the others.
You may think that I am simply playing with words here, and that it is entirely conceivable that Keir Starmer only mentioned anti-semitism as a sort of short-hand, or because perhaps he was not given the time to fully expand on his answer. Possibly, but I would argue that it doesn’t really matter. This whole argument is about how we use words to express our thoughts; it started with how Diane Abbot used words to express her thoughts. At its very root, is how we undertsand and define racism. It is disingenuous to apply the rule only to those being criticised, I Keir Starmer wants his MPs to be careful with words, shouldn’t he set the example?
For me, all forms of prejudice are intolerable. Highlighting only one allows us to fail to consider the others.