Twit or tweet

January 11, 2012 — Comment

Written by Jenny Bourne

The furore about Diane Abbott’s tweet reveals a wilful inability to distinguish between state racism and personal prejudice.

It is quite clear to anyone with an ounce of politics, that MP Diane Abbotts’s ‘whites divide and rule’ tweet would not have made newspaper headlines had it not been for the critical verdict in the Lawrence trial just days before which had reopened the sore of British racism.

In an exchange of tweets with an African journalist/blogger, who objected to the term ‘black community’ and ‘black leaders’ in the context of the Lawrence victory, Abbott used a shorthand to describe the well-known divide and rule tactics of colonial regimes. To describe a tactic or system as ‘white’ rather than racist, imperialist or unjust is lazy and inexact. Yet it cannot be gainsaid that Britain did not have the manpower to hold sway over a quarter of the world’s territories without setting the colonial ‘tribes’ against each other.

Second, white is obviously a generalising, catch-all word. A system or a state cannot literally have a colour and no people excepting albinos have white skin. But it is a word like ‘western’ which has taken on a connotation that is now accepted culturally and sociologically as describing power systems. It is here being used as a metaphor, as a ‘political colour’.

What has happened in this incident is that conservative elements wilfully misread the use of the term ‘white’ (as they did over the term ‘institutionally racist’ following the Met Chief’s acceptance of Macpherson’s finding) to imply that all white people are being implicated. Such a generalisation about individuals, they go on to say, is unacceptably racist. Which of course, if that were being said, it is. But it is not in most cases what is being said.

This inability to distinguish between people and institutions bespeaks an inability to distinguish between individual prejudice and organisational or state racism – the latter very often informing and confirming the former. The Right (can one use such a term?) refuses to see racism in terms other than individual motivation and thereby stunts the struggle to effectively tackle the processes through which racism is reproduced – by the media, by politicians and through the criminal justice system.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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