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Diane Abbott deserves our support

Diane Abbott was stitched up today by her political opponents. And too many Labour people who should know better assisted in that process. She should perhaps have been more careful about her use of Twitter – a form of instant communication it’s easy to forget is on the public record. But her tweet was then deliberately taken and then widely judged out of context. The first black woman elected to parliament after 25 years deserves better treatment from her own party. Taken in context, her comment was neither racist nor offensive.

The row began following a Twitter interchange between journalist, Bim Adewunmi, and her local MP. Bim Adewunmi, aka @bimadew, has now described what happened:

In the course of tweeting the events around the trial, conviction and sentencing of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, I wrote: “I do wish everyone would stop saying ‘the black community’ though.” I expanded in a followup: “Clarifying my ‘black community’ tweet: I hate the generally lazy thinking behind the use of the term. Same for ‘black community leaders’. This led to a reply from my local MP Diane Abbott, in which she said: “I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a “divide and rule” agenda.”

The ‘black community’ is not homogenous, any more than the white, and doesn’t elect ‘community leaders’ even if journalists and politicians behave as if they did. A fair point. But in the context of the Stephen Lawrence murder, the top story yesterday, there’s much to be said for the ‘black community’ standing together. Another fair point. And it fully provides the basis for saying in a highly abbreviated communication medium:

White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism.

This was a message to a constituent, one of a large number she follows. In an abbreviated medium. “White people” is pretty good shorthand for “people outside the black community” in that context. “#tacticasoldascolonialism” places the comment about white people into the context of 19th century European colonialism.

She could have said “some” white people. It is easy to say she should have done so with hindsight. But her tweets should also have been read and judged in context. We might expect Tory MPs not to do that, like Louise Mensch who even removed some of the context from the ‘offending’ tweet itself:

RT @HackneyAbbott: @bimadew White people love playing “divide & rule” We should not play their game <~~~ you what? #racism

We might have hoped that good honourable people on our own side, like Mark Ferguson, Editor of LabourList, who says he knows “she doesn’t have a racist bone in her body” would avoid using words like “stupid” and “offensive” in tweets that were likely to be retweeted well away from any context. He did what he said Diane should not have done:

Basically Abbott ignored the first rule of Twitter – Everyone can see everything you say

and

Diane Abbott has proved that Twitter is no use for making a complex argument.

Mark’s more extended comments at LabourList were much more balanced and contextualised. But the Labour Party itself did not help. Its statement in the context of a rising furore was reasonable:

We disagree with Diane’s tweet. It is wrong to make sweeping generalisations about any race, creed, or culture. The Labour Party has always campaigned against such behaviour – and so has Diane Abbott.

What was utterly unacceptable was to also brief journalists that Ed Miliband, ringing her in the middle of a Sky interview, had given her “a severe dressing down“.

http://labourlist.org/2012/01/labour-party-statement-on-diane-abbott-tweet/

7 Comments

  1. Chris says:

    Quite

  2. Sally says:

    Diversity training for Ms. Abbott.

  3. David Kelly says:

    A thousand times no. This article is Olympic standard mental gymnastics to try to justify the unjustifiable. The last thing we should do is circle the wagons for someone just because they are more ‘one of us’ than ‘one of them’, if that even be true of Abbot.

    She is not stupid and I am sure knows the difference between past and present tense and can count up to 140, or at least be able to guess that she had used a lot less. Her excuse and apology do not ring true and it is not as if she can claim no prior form. That she had to be told to apologise and not of her own volition is enough to show she was unrepentant.

    Is she a racist? Hard to give a definitive answer but there is no doubt that she thinks in terms of skin colour, which is more than the first step down that route.

    What she said is no better than someone saying ‘Black people run around half naked waving spears’ and then when pulled up about it, saying ‘Oh sorry, I meant they used to in the past’. It is totally unacceptable. In the current political climate it is hard enough to get our arguments heard, let alone win them, so the last thing we need to do is give our opponents the hypocrite stick with which to hit us by becoming apologists for exactly the sort of behaviour we know is wrong and fight against.

    Now for my own, heartfelt apology. I am sorry that this comment is so long but my anger at what was written was just too much to remain silent. If there is a silver lining, at least the ‘PC gone mad’ argument has also been devalued a bit, as those who spout that ludicrous nonsense wanted their share when it favoured their agenda.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      David. I think your comment is well intentioned, and I’m sure your anger is genuine, but I think you are profoundly wrong and I think it is because of the way you understand the term “racism”.

      Racism is about very much more than to “think in terms of skin colour”. It is about prejudice and discrimination on the basis of skin colour or other racial characteristic where there exists an imbalance of power and wealth. Saying “white people are racist”, especially for a black person to say it, is not equivalent to a white person saying “black people are less intelligent” or for that matter a man saying “women are less intelligent”, though all are generalisations.

      I wouldn’t advocate saying “white people are racist” (and Diane Abbott of course did not say it) because it is a generalisation and not, in a strict sense, true. But it does absolutely reflect the experience of a large number of people in this country. It is an experience which they are entirely entitled to share with each other. And it would be absolutely wrong to describe one of them making the statement as racist.

      Diane was having a discussion about complex issues and making entirely valid points. She may have been wrong to use Twitter to make them without being more careful about her precise word,s because of the danger of them being mis-represented, out of context, which is what happened. But that is the worst she did.

  4. Simon says:

    This is from an Indian publication:

    http://www.indianexpress.com/comments/british-mp-accused-of-

    Divide and Rule By: Indian | Thursday , 5 Jan ’12 19:32:06 PMReply | Forward What Diane mentioned is a well known fact. We are taught in hi(s)tory that the english people divided our country and ruled over us. Hindu muslim divide eventually caused partition and untold miseries to millions. Another white country, USA, decided to divide Iraq into Shia and Sunni. Now Sunni majority country is being ruled by Shia – and sowed the seed of paritition of Iraq. Its their strategy to divide and rule (always). I am not against US or UK, but what is true will always remain true. A realistic tweet By: aman Dhaliwal | Thursday , 5 Jan ’12 19:23:49 PM Reply | Forward She hit the hit. Nothing wrong that she said. This pretty eveident, the government should ask the non-whites in UK and will know what she meant. certainly….(h)onest reviews are never welcomed.

    Let’s not forget, Diane has a record in supporting white people facing injustice. Most of her critics, who are white, would not lift a finger to support their fellow white people in need of support.

    How about this as a headline in an Indian or foreign newspaper: UK white people damn as a racist bigot a black woman MP with a record of support of white people facing injustice.

    It’s a disgrace that these people can call her a racist bigot.

  5. leta says:

    Actually its worse in context she is telling a journist that blacks have to stick together or else it will play into white peoples hands because they like to divide and rule. You might not think that is something she would mean but there is evidence from the past that she thinks in exactly that way.

    http://electriczara.tumblr.com/post/6150188271/you-obviously-dont-do-the-black-thing-thats-part-of

  6. Syzygy says:

    Jon… I completely agree with your argument. Furthermore, as a white woman, I completely agree with Diane that it is the history of white colonial rule over the empire that ‘divide and rule’ was the normal practice … and the method continues to be employed. For example in the spin against the unemployed and disabled as benefit scroungers and fraudulent. The ludicrous over-reaction to Diane’s tweet is simply disingenuous point scoring.

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