The start of 2012 seems to have put 'race' at the top of its agenda. The slow and awful unfolding of the Stephen Lawrence case drew into its sphere the Suarez-Evra case from football and now the Diane Abbott tweet. One way I can make myself miserable is to read the comments on the Guardian's Comment is Free forums. Good luck to people who can resist the temptation to go there or to comment.
An observation about each case:
The commentators and commenters who've talked about the Stephen Lawrence case solely in terms of murder must surely be missing why this matter stretches far beyond the matter of the presence of dangerous racist thugs hanging out on housing estates. First, racism and racist violence don't exist in isolated clusters amongst, say, incoherent, criminal fraternities. Racism exists as a phenomenon or structure built into how a society sees itself, expresses itself, divides itself. The murderers of Stephen Lawrence aren't self-fertilising, rare plants, sprouting out of obscure corners. They are only possible because of years of lies, omissions and dispossession, stretching back decades and more. I had a standard middle class English education in the state system - two primary schools, two grammar schools before things got a bit more exceptional and rarefied. Throughout that time, I was constantly and consistently informed through many different channels of education that Britain was great, though it had been greater when it ruled over most parts of the world and most foreigners were problematic: individually or culturally or nationally they were variously shifty, untrustworthy, lazy, dangerous, war-like, sadistic, stupid and so on. 'We' however were essentially good, kind, tolerant, intelligent, humorous and incredibly ingenious and inventive. What's more, some incredible chemistry of sanity and sagacity had combined to give us a long line of great rulers of state, culture and religion to have endowed the rest of 'us' with the world's greatest language, system of government, cultural heritage and village greens.
A glimpse of this last construction occurred twice on TV tonight - first, as I watched Michael Portillo travel from Epping to Hackney via the gunpowder works of Walthamstow where he announced that the 19th century was largely a peaceful time for Britain before arranging for a rifle to be fired as it was exactly the kind that had been 'used in the Zulu War'. The mixture of fibs, 'normalising' and omission here had me gasping. No, the 19th century was a time of permanent 'little wars' (and some big ones) all round the British Empire as the imperialists did all they could to maintain domination over millions of people and their lands. Talking of this rifle being used 'in the Zulu War' was a classic euphemism, gently removing the fact it was used to kill Zulus where they lived, not because they were threatening Britain but because they threatened the British rule in their country. Why not say it? And, in passing perhaps, mention that for all its brilliance the great British gunpowder (the theme of this segment of the programme) didn't bring victory to the British state on this particular occasion in southern Africa.
Then a few hours later I found myself watching some programmes about education: first a tribute to the grammar school, which mysteriously forgot to mention the kinds of schools people went to if they didn't go to grammar school and then a programme about Thomas More's daughter and Renaissance education in England. This last talked about England being at war as if it was dangerous foreign jonnies who wanted to invade; England 'discovering' other places (why? didn't jonny foreigner and native know they were there?), and expanding 'trade' - no mention of conquest, plunder, slaves and imperial rivalry. Incidentally, the programme also told the story of the English language as if it was something handed down to the people from clever grammar school boys and then received and learned. Any sense that everyone is a language-user and language-maker and meaning-maker was absent even though the very writer (and his companions and co-writers) they were looking at this point in the programme, Shakespeare, was someone who knew how to explore the voices of non-aristocrats and non-grammar school types. Hostile as the plays appear to be to the 'mob', Shakespeare gives lines of power, pathos and righteous anger to the citizens in 'Coriolanus', Caliban in 'The Tempest' and Feste in 'Twelfth Night'.
So notions of British exceptional talent, hierarchical ideas about culture and general all-round worthiness are alive and well. Past bloodbaths, exploitations and oppressions carried out on the other side of the globe are kept well out-of-sight.
The Stephen Lawrence case comes charged with something else though. I am proud to have met Neville Lawrence and shared a platform with him and though it's taken me years to 'get' it - and may have many years more to get it even more - one of the reasons why the case took on such importance for black people was that it showed to them - but not to most of the rest of British society - that the reason why the police didn't follow up the leads they were given and get into the killers' homes and 'do the forensics' was because his murder didn't matter and it didn't matter because he was black. What's more, it didn't matter how often they said that this was the problem and that this was why the case went cold, society didn't want to hear that. The whole matter was constructed again and again as the Lawrences doing all they could to get the killers and only that. But the reason why it was so difficult wasn't because this was some strange mysterious, motiveless killing by unknowns. It was for an opposite reason: it was because it was an utterly un-mysterious killing by knowns whose trail of evidence was deliberately allowed to be wiped clean. For racist reasons. A racism at the heart of the justice system, not just or only in the minds and deeds of a group of white working-class boys. What the British media seem to find hard to understand, appreciate or care about - though they are told it again and again - is that this state racism exists as a collective memory reinforced over and over again there is a death in police custody or the immigration security forces are involved in injuries and fatalities in what they do. Joy Gardner r.i.p.
Meanwhile, at a seemingly much, much more trivial level is the Suarez-Evra fracas. Anyone who has been around sport knows that the air is permanently thick with insult and abuse. A good deal of it is sexual either in terms of what the other person can or cannot do, has or has not physically got, or what might or might not happen or has happened to your opponents partner, wife, girlfriend, ex, mother, sister, grandmother. A good deal of it is about personal appearance - height, weight, hair, teeth, eyes and so on. The question in this case wasn't whether Suarez said something derogatory but whether he 'racialised' the conversation. Again and again, people have tried to say that whatever Suarez said was only or merely something that people say to each other in Uruguay, in Latin America, in colloquial Spanish etc etc. Well, let's remember first that Uruguay was once a slave-owning society and the idea that any word meaning 'black' is somehow neutral or 'only' or 'just' anything is hard to believe. I notice that there haven't been long lines of black Uruguayans queueing up to tell British interviewers how they love being called 'black' by white people when tensions are high in arguments and confrontations.
Even so, no matter what kind of codes Suarez was using at the time, there can be little doubt that he changed the nature of the 'conversation' (euphemism, I know) by introducing 'race' into it. And this is the key. Why does a white person do that? What possible purpose is there for a white person in the middle of a confrontation (for whatever reason) suddenly say that the other person is 'black'. It can only be part of the business of trying to get the upper hand. In other words, the white person reaches for the hierarchy he is part of, (the racist hierarchy,) and pluck the trump card from the pack: the one that says 'inferior' (in his book). It is completely irrelevant that black people use this or that term to each other or within the hierarchies of racism use the word 'white'. Racialising the confrontation is to get the upper hand by relying on perceived notions of who is top dog, based on centuries of domination and oppression. The thousands of column inches I've seen written on this case all trying to prove that 'negro' isn't a slur completely miss the point.
And so to Diane Abbott - who used the word 'white' and appeared to be blaming all white people for a long history of 'divide and rule' which has split black people, set them against each other, as a way of securing domination over them. If she meant that, then I would take leave to disagree with her for the simple reason, not all white people rule. Even so, both the Suarez case and the murder of Stephen Lawrence indicate that some white people with very little or no power try to lever themselves up an inch by taking it out on those whom society has positioned even lower than them - as if in the eighteenth century, the indentured labourer can find reasons to feel superior to the slave and express it in terms of contempt, violence or murder.
I suspect that Diane Abbott doesn't actually believe that all white people are guilty of waging divide and rule tactics but, I'm guessing, suspects that it runs very deep. So, we might ask, why or how might she have come to that conclusion? Is she a fantasist? Or does she have reasons to think that over time (her lifetime and history) those in power have tried and succeeded to divide black people up into different 'types' precisely in order to rule over them or to make it easier to maintain domination of them? Again - purely as a suspicion - I would think that she perceives her own life as an example of that. That white people have tried, as it were, to separate her off from other black people pointing out - as I have done - that her son went to private school, or that there are things about her style or job that make her less 'black'.
I have to look at myself pretty hard on this one. That moment when Diane Abbott's son took a place at a private school felt to me as someone living in Hackney at the time like yet one more thing to make fighting for fair, equal education in Hackney just that bit harder. It meant that we couldn't rely on our MP to fight the complete transformation happening to Hackney secondary education (closing comps, creating academies) because she had said through her deeds that she wasn't part of it.
So, on this one I'll admit to being more confused. As a broad statement about history, Diane Abbott is to my mind more or less right in that the elite that has ruled over the British Empire and continues to rule is of course 99.9 per cent white and one of the ways it has ruled was, say, to use black troops from one part of the empire to fight another, or to use 'mulatto' elites (as they were called) to rule over 'pure' black populations and so on. In terms of how Diane Abbott acts as a local MP - now an apologetic one - is for me less clear. I don't feel as if I tried to rule over her, trying to set black people against each other in the matter of education. To tell the truth, I felt that she did that herself. She set herself apart from all of us in Hackney at that time who were children or had children in state schools, many of whom were and are black. Perhaps, there is a tortured argument to be made that the very reason why she felt she had to send her child to a private school is because of discrimination and racism. Her comments about white teachers would appear to suggest that, though presumably most of the teachers at the private school were white too. Even so, I can't figure out how you fight racism that way.
That said, I would defend the broad political truth she was trying to express even though it needed clarifying. Depressingly, all we have now is the apology and the conversation we might have had about racism and society goes back a step. Yes, seeing her say sorry is much worse than the original tweet.