Rupa Huq is neither a comedian nor, it turns out, is she particularly good at telling political jokes. The Labour MP should certainly not have debuted her latest material at an event this week at Labour party conference, where she said that the chancellor of the exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, was “superficially black”, adding that “if you hear him on the Today programme, you wouldn’t know he’s black”. It was a clumsy and unwise attempt at humour and, perhaps most importantly, the underlying idea that formed the sting of her would-be joke is false.
The (presumably unintended) implication must be that erudite, successful, well-spoken (even if financially cack-handed) people don’t come in black. This is, of course, obviously false but it is a perception that remains widely held. I was once informed by a senior manager at a media organisation that I was too “successful, intelligent and middle-class to relate to or understand black audiences”. I wish this was a wildly outrageous humblebrag but it was as painful and racist as it sounds. It is also untrue.
The idea that Kwarteng is superficially black is not true. On the other hand, the idea that the lived experience and class privilege that shaped Kwarteng’s politics has more in common with, say, fellow Old Etonians Boris Johnson or David Cameron than they do, say, with Diane Abbott, Bernie Grant or even Helen Grant is patently true.
“Superficial blackness” has never been the problem with Kwarteng: politically convenient opposition to anti-racist causes has been. He is one of many figures who have quietly helped usher in a sea-change on race in British politics, one that has resulted in a strange situation in which you are now more likely to find yourself permanently damaged by a racism controversy if you are on the anti-racist left than if you’ve actually defended racially regressive politics.
Case in point, despite the fact that Kwarteng has gone on the record opposing identity politics, he has helpfully denied, defended, deflected or dissolved serious and credible accusations of racism levied at his party or colleagues, namely Boris Johnson. He also defended the government on television during the Windrush scandal, one of the most egregious examples of state racism in living memory. The contemporary architects of the scandal remain in the good graces of the party and society at large – even though most of the victims remain uncompensated and some have even died.
It is hard to believe that similar optics were not in mind when New Labour dispatched Valerie Amos to the 2001 UN conference on racism to explain that her government would not call the transatlantic slave trade a crime against humanity. Corporations are not left out of the act either. The unwritten expectation of the cut-throat corporate diversity officer or senior ethnic minority is to do the same thing when the going gets tough: deny, defend, deflect and dissolve. Any non-white person who unexpectedly finds themselves in pride of place on the company website, annual report or in front of clients knows exactly what this is about.
With no sway over the media, unpopularity in the Labour party, and a passionately righteous and therefore easily bamboozled base, the avowedly anti-racist left are the only segment of mainstream politics without an umbrella. As a result, they are just one mistake, bad joke or poorly worded statement away from disgrace and destruction. The last thing any anti-racist would do is roll out their ethnic minority colleagues to run interference for them. So, when the faux-outrage machine kicks in, decades of anti-racism work and hard-earned reputations evaporate in a blink of an eye or the accidental liking of a social media post. This renders actual anti-racism a political risk, one with almost no sign of potential for reward.
As it showed with its diverse leadership contest, in which all of the candidates endorsed the Rwanda deportation policy, the Conservative party is a global leader at the optical illusion of appearing progressive on race while actually being alarmingly regressive. Conservatives are playing Grand Theft Auto while the left of the Labour party plays Tetris. The liberal belief that diversity would have a mellowing or eradicating effect on racism has proven to be a costly fallacy. Despite its necessity and virtuous nature, diversity is no substitute for genuine anti-racism: standing up for ethnic minorities when they are attacked, standing by them in moments of need, and fighting for their rights.
Nels Abbey is a writer, broadcaster and former banker. He is the author of the satirical book Think Like A White Man