Friday, 6 January 2012

Was Diane Abbott right? Is Racism a White Conspiracy?

Yesterday Diane Abbott MP made an allegedly "racist" and "controversial" statement (via Twitter) that "White people love playing divide and rule". She went on to explain that Twitter is not really a good medium to convey complex messages and, in any event, the statement was "taken out of context" as she was referring to "19th century European colonialism". Despite her protestations she was forced to make an apology. But was she right to do so? Or was she making a legitimate (albeit poorly worded) observation on the way that racism operates in our society and that White people (or at least a White-dominated system) conspires to perpetuate its privilege, vis Black people, through such devices as "divide and rule"? When looked at in this way she may have made a very pertinent point, and the reaction to it touched on not just a sensitive sore nerve, but a significant factor in racism's continuing domination over the lives of Black people.

The idea that White people, or a white system of domination, may actually amount to some form of conspiracy may be difficult for many of us to get our heads around -  unless we ditch popular notions of "conspiracy" (people in smoked filled rooms plotting away?) and look at the word conspiracy in a much more sophisticated and historical way.

In his book "Racism and Education. Coincidence or Conspiracy", Prof. David Gillborn (2008) looks at some legal definitions of conspiracy which I have certainly found helpful and illuminating:

"(A) conspiracy has to be viewed as a whole, the component parts - which may be unobjectionable by themselves or taken individually - are not to be weeded out and enquired into separately"  
"(N)o formal agreement is required, it may be express or implied, and it is not even necessary to prove the terms of any particular agreement or plan. Conspiracy may be demonstrated by concert of action between participants all working together for a common purpose"  
(Quoted from Joshua and Jordon (2003) "Combinations, concerted practices and cartel: adopting the concept of conspiracy in European Community competition law", Northwestern Journal of International Law and Business, 24: 647-81))
In the context of a conspiracy to protect and enhance the interests of Whiteness, Gillborn argues that White people will inevitable participate in such a conspiracy - whether they want to or not, whether they are aware of it or not - and all White people will directly benefit from it.

Gillborn also suggest that Black people almost instinctively realise there is such a conspiracy against them as they see and feel the daily consequences of it (just one example is the continuing disproportionate use of stop and search powers by the police against Black people). Diane Abbott was probably expressing this understanding that most Black people have about the way "Whiteness" has and does conspires against them, whereas David Miliband, who remonstrated against her, probably does not have much of a clue about the daily realities and weight of racism).

Gillborn does not stop here, however, as he goes on to elaborate the type of conspiracy that white privilege and supremacy represents: a Hub-and-Spoke conspiracy: this is one in which "many parties (the spokes) conspire with one person (the hub), but not with other defendants... individual people and different agencies (like education, the economy, media) are all spokes connected through the central hub of Whiteness ... a de facto conspiracy - by their shared "common sense" assumptions and actions that characterise them and support their cultural and economic dominance".

For a White person, like me, it is difficult to fully understand how such a conspiracy operates on a daily basis. I'm on the inside, cocooned by my Whiteness - unless I really take the time and effort to step outside and examine what is happening and get involved in challenging it. 

"That's part of the strength of institutional racism... no single person or agency can be held up as wholly responsible, but to some extent the power and force of the edifice relies on them all; from Whitehall and Parliament all the way down to the newest first year teacher. I am not saying they have equal weight but they are all important; they are all spokes." (Gillborn, 2008)

In the week when two of the perpetrators of the murder of Stephen Lawrence were brought to some kind of justice, it is necessary to reflect on the lessons that we started to learn from this tragedy. In his report (following the investigation into the death and the failures of the police), Sir William Macpherson used the term "institutional racism" to describe our society's failure to tackle the systematic nature of racism and inequality. Although this term appears to have gone out of fashion of late it is still highly relevant in describing the racism and White conspiracy that continues to perpetuate racial inequality and injustice. Indeed, isn't this an example of how Whiteness has re-asserted its dominance to deny further progress in tackling racism, after an initial start a decade ago in response to the report? How quickly we seem to have forgotten the lessons and returned to "business as usual". How quickly the conspiracy reasserted itself.

I am pretty certain that this is what Diane Abbott was broadly referring to in her Tweet. She was right to do so!



  1. Did you mean Ed Miliband or David, Paul?

  2. Apologies. Ed Milliband! But, hell what's the difference in the nature of the argument?