Opinion: Race issue must not be trivialised

It’s been a busy week for “race” and ethnicity in the media. We’ve had the Stephen Lawrence verdict as well as Diane Abbott’s wayward tweet. The latter of these was analysed in a frustratingly blasé manner by the press, trivialising the issue of racism after it had been covered so thoroughly in the wake of the Lawrence trial verdict.

Gary Dobson and David Norris had finally been put behind bars for the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence, bringing a degree of closure on what has become a dark stain on the conscience of both the Metropolitan Police and the country as a whole. The media were united in their condemnation of this most heinous crime, and we all breathed a sigh of relief that some justice had at last been done, after the catalogue of police “institutionalised racism” and the huge delay in convictions. The story deservedly became front-page news.

Just days later it was disappointing to see the furore erupt over Labour MP Diane Abbott’s controversial “divide and rule” tweet. Those who know me will be aware that I am not Abbott’s biggest fan. True, it was foolish and misguided of Abbott to say “white people love ‘playing divide and rule’” but for me it was certainly not a racist comment, particularly in the context of the full twitter thread, which referred to 19th century colonialism. Nonetheless, we had a mass outcry from Tory MPs and the Evening Standard, while the Lawrence Enquiry, and all the serious coverage of racism in today’s society were quickly forgotten.

At least Abbott’s comments were race-related, unlike Ed Miliband’s “blackbusters” tweet, a simple typo when paying tribute to former Blockbusters host Bob Holness. While this isn’t anything to do with “race” per se, it does typify the tendency of certain parts of the media to make the issue superficial. Unsurprisingly, the Sun published the story as its front page on Saturday.

But it was a report in yesterday’s Independent on Sunday which got me thinking about the media’s (both print and social) coverage of this issue. The report uncovered some shocking statistics. Young black people are three times more likely to be excluded from school, four times more likely to be murdered and three times more likely to be poor in old age. The report went on to cover a plethora of areas where inequality is still rife; from sport to the media, and from justice to politics. In this particular area our own party’s record of having no black or ethnic minority MPs must be tackled.

It’s a big frustration of mine to see the media treat ethnicity as such a flippant issue one day and a serious one the next. I was completely baffled to see the Abbott story make the front page of the Evening Standard on Thursday night, and then both captivated and appalled by the Independent on Sunday’s report into inequality. We’ve come a long way, but we have so much more to do to advance the life-chances of kids from black and ethnic minority communities. It’s this issue that the media should be focusing on, not appropriating the race card in an attempt to stitch up MPs, even when they are from the Labour Party.

Ashley Day is Constituency Organiser for Lynne Featherstone MP and Haringey Liberal Democrats

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Grammar Police 9th Jan '12 - 8:20am

    I think the furore over Abbott’s comments is a little silly; but nonetheless, she clearly meant it in terms of “now” – even if she was referring to the 19th century practice. She was discussing the media’s reliance on “black community leaders” today. Her excuse was, imo, pretty pathetic.

  • Richard Swales 9th Jan '12 - 9:28am

    You can see the full conversation here if you scroll down – read it and decide for yourself if it is about the 19th or 21st century:


    My interpretation is that she is trying to slap down another black lady who is questioning the right of self-declared “community leaders” to speak for the rest of their race. Abbot’s point basically is that the black community needs to speak with a single voice, therefore anyone who criticises community leaders is playing the white people’s (i.e. the enemy’s) game for them by helping them to divide and rule as in the 19th century. In the follow up post she uses some hashhtag dontwashdirtylineninpublic which I interpret as meaning “shut up”.

    Her “apology” that it was part of a conversation about the 19th century is not genuine, but really I think it’s a bit of a non-story. I think the thing that is exercising people is the feeling (whether true or not) that if it was a white MP who had posted something similar it would not have been forgotten or forgiven so quickly. She should give a genuine apology though.

  • I think Diane Abbott’s tweet was racist. Perhaps more obviously though, it was communitarian and fundamentally illiberal. The idea that she is telling someone to shut up because all people of one race must speak with one voice is appalling and representative of the ‘monolithic view’ that Bim Adewunmi is challenging in her tweets.

    It is worth remembering Amartya Sen’s words: ‘The same person can be, without any contradiction, a South African citizen, of Asian origin, with Indian ancestry, a Christian, a socialist, a woman, a vegetarian, a jazz musician, a doctor, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a jazz enthusiast, and one who believes that the most important problem that the world faces today is how to make cricket more popular across the globe.’

  • Jonathan Hunt 9th Jan '12 - 11:31am

    Diane Abbot’s main fault was employing this ridiculous dumbing-down device called Twitter. Those who use it as a means of non-communication deserve all they get. Including a very rare change of the front-page splash halfway through the afternoon by the Standard.

    When I first heard the word tweet, I thought it was an instruction to consume food. I wish it could remain such.

    You cannot write anything intelligent or worth saying in 25 words. As a member of a trade paid by the word, it is probably a greater threat to responsible journalism than Murdoch and Dirty Desmond combined.

    The silly manufatured furoré is not racist; just yet another attempt to make it seem so by the usual Midsomer myopes and diversity dinosaurs seeking to knock all attempts to create real race equality in our party.

    Perhaps they can concentrate instead on the kind of staistics Ashley found so shocking in the Independent yesterday. The essential truth is that black people continue to get the worst education, housing, jobs and justice in this country.

    And our own party continues to deny BME members the full legal rights encompassed by the term positive action.

  • Beyond the literal racism of Abbott’s tweet, she actually seems to believe that black people need to unite behind strong community leaders in order to resist white people. It’s similar civil paranoia to that of BNP and EDL members. You can find any number of white people expressing fear about a various ethnic group wanting to “rule us” or “destroy our culture” and wanting some form of community or political action.

    Public figures who express these views should expect criticism and derision. It’s how we naturally respond to distasteful ideas and help prevent there spread. It’s not a non-story for an MP to be revealed as having such an opinion: their exposure is in the public interest.

  • Ashley Day can be added to the list of those performing linguistic somersaults in this matter. Such attempts are as illogical as those of the “Tory MPs and the Evening Standard”.

    Was I offended by her remarks? No, nor was I surprised. Sadly, Diane Abbott has a history of such ‘gaffes’.

  • The outrage over Diane Abbott is synthetic and hence tiresome.

  • Jonathan Hunt 9th Jan '12 - 2:31pm

    Thanks Mark. Point made.

    I humbly accept that you can send seriously important and informative observations in less than 140 characters. But to do so invaraibly involves the intervention of a skilled editor.

    I have done it myself, often. But rarely at the first go. Some form of thought process, lasting a lot longer than it takes to finger and thumb a reactive tweet, is usually required.

    Abraham Lincoln’s Getteysburg address is a fine example. While Senator Everett blustered on for two hours, Lincoln played with his words. In some 2 minutes and and less than 350 words, Lincoln defined democracy for generations to come.

    But for tweeters everywhere, I have to admit that the crucial final words of the address were achieved in only 17 words and 86 characters: “….. that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.

    There endeth the lesson for today.

  • Picking up on Tony Harms point I’m surprised no-one has enquired about the difference between white “divide and rule” and multiculturalism. Who is doing the dividing in each case? Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and others have recalled the days when ethnic minority protesters against racism were all “black”. Abbott cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

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