Diane Abbott’s letter and a hierarchy of racism

Having been a couple of weeks since Diane Abbott’s now infamous letter to the Observer (shown above), I thought it valuable to more thoroughly examine the content of her comments. In response to a comment which suggested that Irish, Jewish and Traveller people all suffer from racism in the UK, she accepted that “many types of white people with points of difference, such as redheads, can experience this prejudice”, but suggested that “they are not all their lives subject to racism.” She goes on to use the example of pre-civil rights America in which “Irish people, Jewish people and Travellers were not required to sit at the back of the bus…and at the height of slavery, there were no white-seeming people manacled on the slave ships”, a broad statement that historians may be keen to refute.

She later apologised on Twitter for her comments and wished to withdraw them and disassociate herself from them, clarifying that “racism takes many forms and it is completely undeniable that Jewish people have suffered its monstrous effects, as have Irish people, Travellers and many others”. Within 24 hours, Diane Abbott had the whip removed by the Labour Party, meaning that she currently stands as an independent MP in the House of Commons. An investigation into her comments will now be conducted by the party.

I could easily write a whole blog post about Labour’s hypocritical response to her comments, as they reacted remarkably quickly to the accusations of antisemitism while they continue to be silent on last year’s Forde Report, which concluded that “anti-black racism and Islamophobia is not taken as seriously as antisemitism within the Labour Party”. The Labour Party could also be accused of being opportunistic in their vilification of Diane Abbott, one of the few remaining left-wing MPs within the party and, coincidentally, a vocal supporter of Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.

However, I prefer to “play the ball, not the man”, as it were, and focus on the bigger picture which I believe to be the hierarchy of racism in society. This is exactly what Abbott was addressing and it seems as though politicians and the mainstream media prefer to dismiss the letter as racist and antisemitic and focus on condemning its author instead of broaching the conversation about our response to racism within the UK, both societally and politically. It remains an ongoing conversation that requires renewal and updating, especially as we become an increasingly multicultural nation due to financial crises, wars, and climate migration. It is also a sensitive and divisive topic that needs to be treated with respect and not trivially used as a political football.

As a white, British male, I am unlikely to understand the everyday nuances of life as an ethnic minority in this country. Although I try to educate myself on issues around racism and discrimination, I remain fundamentally under-equipped to broach the topic. But, like a prospector panning through rivers of dirt for nuggets of gold, I seek to filter through Abbott’s words to examine her underlying sentiment that I believe to contain educational value.

Firstly, though, I want to defend Diane Abbott. As much as her detractors would like her to be written off on the basis of her letter alone, her exemplary record as an MP is consistently ignored in favour of her unfortunate blunders in interviews. Abbott has frequently voted in favour of human rights, protecting the environment, regulating corporations, and raising the public’s living standards, standing in stark contrast to the voting records of the vast majority of current Labour MPs. It must also be considered that Diane Abbott is a black woman who has suffered racism all her life, further exacerbated by being the first black woman elected to Parliament. Her promotion to Shadow Home Secretary under Corbyn coincided with the rise of Twitter, inspiring a daily torrent of racist abuse that has been revived and spurred on by the media onslaught following her letter. While I believe her comments were inaccurate and ill-advised, I do not believe her to be racist, anti-semitic, or in any way deserving of the condemnation she is receiving from both her party and the media. Furthermore, I consider the faux outrage to be an opportunistic, racist attack by the entire political establishment.

“Interpersonal micro-aggressions can slowly seep into society’s subconscious where they become the groundwork on which genocidal policies are built.”

It should go without saying, in 2023, that all types of negative discrimination that seek to make one race superior to another should be opposed and detested. It is a futile and offensive endeavour to create a ‘hierarchy of racism’ because, as Maya Angelou so beautifully stated, “no one of us can be free until we are all free”. However, understanding the way in which different races are discriminated against is a worthwhile academic venture. Abbott’s comments require qualification, more than can be offered in a letter to the Observer, but they have sparked a conversation that I believe is well worth having if we are to progress as a country in our valuable relations with minority and ethnic groups.

An exhaustive comparison of how different minority groups are affected by racism requires one to consider the types of racism being suffered, the time period in which they occur, and the way racism affects different genders of the same race. For the sake of brevity and commentary, I will be taking a more broad approach to the topic and presenting historical and contemporary examples of racism in Britain towards the groups mentioned. In her letter, Abbott acknowledges that “many types of white people with points of difference, such as redheads, can experience this prejudice. But they are not all their lives subject to racism”. She goes on to highlight the way in which ‘prejudice’ and ‘racism’ “are often used as if they are interchangeable”. Criticism of her letter in the media has ignored her distinction between the two terms and overlooked the meaning of each. Under Section 9 of the Equality Act 2010, the definition of race includes colour, nationality, and ethnic or national origins, meaning that it is illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of these characteristics. When applying this law to the communities mentioned by Abbott, “Irish people, Jewish people and Travellers”, discrimination against these groups would be deemed illegal as they are defined as individual races. However, her statement that “redheads” could be subject to prejudice, but not racism, is technically accurate as having red hair is not a protected characteristic in the UK. Whether this part of the law should be amended is a deeper discussion that needs to be had, but it is noteworthy that redheads form 4% of the English population (and a further 10% in Ireland and 6% in Scotland), and they are a minority that are frequently bullied. The victims are commonly children, some of whom are consequently driven to suicide, highlighting the need for legal protection.

There are two primary types of racism; interpersonal racism and systemic racism. The first is the one we most commonly think of when we hear the word “racism”, as it includes overt acts (e.g. calling a black person the N-word) or more subtle micro-aggressions (e.g. asking a person of colour where they’re really from). Whether overt or subtle, these racist acts can be humiliating and traumatising, especially when it’s persistent and/or extreme, which can lead to significant mental health impacts. Systemic racism refers to “how beliefs about the superiority of whiteness have become deeply embedded in institutional processes and policies”. These policies give white people an inherent advantage in areas such as education, employment, and the justice system, while non-white people are simultaneously disadvantaged in the same areas. Systemic racism is the type of racism being referred to when reports find that the UK is institutionally racist, often followed by defensive outrage by individuals who take the criticism personally as they don’t understand the difference between interpersonal racism and systemic racism.

There is little evidence to show that this infamous sign ever existed, but it is indicative of the racism suffered by black people and Irish people in the UK during the post-war years.

As Diane Abbott’s letter proves, mainstream discussions around racism tend to ignore the historic injustices committed by the British against the Irish. Since the Brexit referendum and the consequent endorsement of far-right views by the Conservative Party, anti-Irish sentiment has begun to rear its ugly head once again, causing many Irish and British people to move to Ireland. Recent racism is mostly overt and interpersonal, with anecdotes abound of Irish people receiving variations of “f**k off back to Ireland”, creating an atmosphere akin to that of the 1970s around the time of the IRA bombings. The Conservative Party and the right-wing media both have a large part to play in the revival of xenophobic sentiment since 2016, but anti-Irish prejudice cuts deeper due to the historical, colonial relationship, comparable in depth and severity to our volatile relationship with Scotland.

Ireland has been under varying forms of British rule since the 16th Century, often involving the repression of Irish Catholics by British Protestants, until they won their independence in 1922. One of the lowest points in the relationship was the ethnic cleansing of Ireland as a result of brutal British occupation and extraction. This event, between 1845 and 1852 but peaking in 1847, is known in Ireland as An Gorta Mór – The Irish Famine (also known as ‘The Potato Famine’). British revisionism perpetuated (and continues to do so on the UK Parliament website) the false narrative that ‘The Potato Famine’ was a natural and unavoidable ecological disaster caused by an over-dependency on potatoes and a promiscuous society that didn’t manage their population efficiently. Although bad seasons can certainly cause a “dearth”, as 18th century philosopher Adam Smith puts it, it takes “the violence of well-intentioned governments” to turn “dearth into famine, proven by the dire effects of British imperialism and absentee landlordism in Ireland.

British rule meant that large swathes of Irish land were owned by British Protestants while Irish Catholics were usually the tenant farmers working the land and the ones who suffered the most during the famine. When disease destroyed potato crops, the Irish would starve while exporting any edible food to Britain. As the Protestant landlords took rent in the form of crops, their destruction meant that many farmers could no longer pay their rent and were swiftly evicted or forced out of the country entirely. The British could have prevented this by implementing measures to “distribute the food, stop the exportation of what was being grown, and prevent the eviction of those suffering as a result of the blight”. These decisions by the British government that prolonged the Irish suffering stemmed from strong ethno-religious prejudice against the Catholic Irish, based in the belief that the Irish were lazy and promiscuous. Intellectuals justified inaction through the ideology of Moralism which suggested that the famine was caused by moral defects in the Irish character, rather than economic defects that could be resolved. Effectively, the Irish were assumed to have brought the famine on themselves. Lassiez-faire economics was the government’s economic policy at the time, and continues to be today, meaning that the government should have little involvement in the economy and any intervention was heresy. This, combined with ‘famine fatigue’, referring to the short-lived nature of public sympathy for the Irish, resulted in the death of one million Irish people and the emigration of another 1.5 million to North America and Britain (a large reason why New York City has the most concentrated Irish population in the world).

With zero lessons learned, the British carried out the same style of brutal imperialism in India, causing the Indian famine between 1876 and 1879 which killed over 6 million people. In modern times it is worth remembering that these nationalist policies of inaction gathered public support by the spreading of inaccurate, racist stereotypes about the character of other races. As climate change destroys crops around the world, organic food becomes scarce, and food imports become prohibitively expensive, Britain may well find itself on the receiving end of similar racist injustices soon enough. We have undoubtedly plummeted down the international food chain in recent years and the consequences will be dire, thus proving that karma truly is a bitch.

Often referred to as “the longest hatred”, antisemitism has taken many forms over the past two thousand years, from the first Millenium in which Jews were blamed for the crucifixion of Christ to the genocide of six million Jews during the Holocaust in the 20th century. The antisemitic ideology perpetuated by the Nazis started with words and ideas, by spreading age-old stereotypes, cartoons, and an atmosphere of hate. We are right, as a society, to clamp down on these symptoms to prevent the cancer of antisemitism from taking root in our society. Although the number of antisemitic attacks were down by 27% last year, at 1,652, 2021 saw a peak of 2,255. The surge of attacks in 2021 included a rise in abuse being shouted from passing cars as well as 173 violent assaults.

This peak coincided with the bloody, ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, during which hundreds of Palestinians were killed during Israel’s air strikes on Gaza, during their ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory. Consequently, as the Guardian reports, “more than a third of all the UK incidents involved language, imagery or behaviour that referenced the conflict in the Middle East or demonstrated anti-Zionist motivation alongside antisemitism”. The line is often blurred between antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israel and its unlawful occupation of Palestine. Israel’s occupation of Palestine dates back to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 when Israel were promised the Ottoman-ruled Palestine by Great Britain in exchange for Jewish support for Britain’s World War One efforts. This led to the Nakba in 1948 when two-thirds of the Palestinian population were forced to leave their homes to create room for the state of Israel, seen by many Jewish people as being their ancestral homeland. There has long been a collective yearning by the Jewish community to return there, to Zion, after being violently exiled from the land by the Romans two thousand years ago. Supporters of this movement for self-determination and statehood in Israel are known as Zionists, while opponents of the Jewish people’s right to a homeland in the State of Israel are called ‘Anti-Zionists’.

‘Anti-Zionism’ and ‘antisemitism’ are often incorrectly used interchangeably, conflating criticism of Israel’s apartheid state with an antisemitic hatred of Jews. It is undeniable that some anti-Zionists may be motivated by antisemitism, and anti-Zionism can also create an atmosphere in which anti-Semitism becomes more acceptable, but it is crucial that we, as a society, understand the difference between the two terms and do not confuse criticism of an oppressive regime with slurs against an entire race of people.

In 2016, the UK Government adopted the definition of anti-Semitism put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which stated that “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”. Yet, the Government has classed the word ‘Zionist’ as a term of abuse due to its “repeated use in antisemitic and aggressive contexts”, further stating that antisemites use the word ‘Zionist’ when they are referring to Jews, based in Israel or elsewhere. They go on to suggest that criticism of the Government of Israel should refer specifically to “the Israeli Government” and not “Zionists”. The IHRA definition is not legally binding but it does, however, restrict the ability for one to sufficiently criticise the violent actions of the Zionist project, carried out by the Israeli Government against the Palestinian people. The International Court of Justice has ruled that “Israel is in breach of international law by establishing settlements in Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem”, morally legitimising anti-Zionism and its followers.

Although four minority groups are mentioned within Diane Abbott’s letter, the news headlines and public criticism focus largely on Abbott’s assertion that Jewish people haven’t been subject to racism for their entire lives. Media outlets across the political spectrum included the word ‘anti-semitic’ in their headline coverage, including The Daily Express, The Guardian, and Sky News, ignoring the offence that may have been caused to Irish people or the Traveller community. Similarly, in his criticism of the letter, Labour leader Keir Starmer specifically isolated the supposed anti-Semitic nature of her comments, saying to the BBC, “in my view, what she said was to be condemned, it was antisemitic.”, offering no equivalent comments of support for Irish people or the Traveller community. This in itself suggests that there is a hierarchy of racism within politics and that politicians, and the media, are quicker to defend some minority groups than others.

The UK Government’s defence of Israel’s actions in Palestine and it’s prioritisation of defeating antisemitism, sidelining other counter-racism efforts, are intimately linked, both economically and geopolitically. The mission to eliminate antisemitism is being used as a smokescreen by politicians to push through their own agenda while ostracising those who seek to thwart it. This weaponisation of antisemitism is itself a racist act and needs to be called out, not only by the Jewish community but by all anti-racists.

I view Diane Abbott’s letter in the same vein as the 2022 incident with Whoopi Goldberg, a black, female actress, in which she claimed that the Holocaust was not “about race” but about “white on white” violence. She quickly apologised and admitted that she was wrong, quoting Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) who stated that “the Holocaust was about the Nazi’s systematic annihilation of the Jewish people – who they deemed to be an inferior race”. I see similarities between the two incidents in the way they put across their views on race, as sound-bites and two-paragraph letters leave little room for nuance or additional context. In these cases, misunderstanding by the readers and viewers is almost inevitable.

In the book Jews Don’t Count, Jewish comedian David Baddiel suggests that antisemitism is often glossed over or treated as a “second-class racism” by progressives who typically rush to support any other minority group. He speaks about theatre performers being sacked for having homophobic views while antisemitic statements made by the author on whose book the show is based go ignored. As a Chelsea Football Club supporter, he has regularly witnessed antisemitic slurs, along with hisses to mimic gas chambers, being shouted at members of the opposition team, especially Tottenham Hotspur, a club with a historical association with Jewish supporters due to it being based in North London. I wholeheartedly agree with Baddiel that antisemitism needs to be treated in the same way that anti-Black racism is treated by society. For example, casual use of the “N-word” is far more rare now, thankfully, and its usage often results in the user being punished and ostracised. Meanwhile, the “Y-word” is far less likely to evoke a similar response in social settings, raising merely a gasp or an awkward chuckle as though a playful obscenity has been uttered. This needs to change and it starts with individuals calling out antisemitism whenever and wherever they witness it.

The Travelling community may have been surprised to have received so much public support in the wake of Abbott’s letter, considering the historic and widespread vilification of their culture. It should be no surprise, though, that the offence caused by her letter has been ignored by politicians, especially those from the Conservative Party who have pursued anti-Traveller policies. Romany and Irish Traveller people are continually denied access to GP surgeries, leading them to have a life expectancy of 10-25 years less than the general population. They are also excluded from pubs and holiday parks, often for just ‘having an accent’ or an ‘undesirable’ surname. The Government consistently fails to provide sites, either private or council-owned, or ‘stopping places’ for Traveller communities and families to park-up and stop legally. Instead, Travellers are framed by politicians as being trespassers that are acting outside of the law. Furthermore, reference to Gypsy communities can often be found on council websites in the same sections as fly-tipping and household waste, representing them as just another “blight on the landscape” and “an environmental menace”. This is emblematic of the historic mistreatment of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) people and how they continue to be viewed today.

With an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 GRT people living in the UK, they are a significant minority that have settled in this country for over 500 years but abuse of their culture and restrictions on their freedom are often overlooked. Romany communities have previously been enslaved and manacled, similar to Abbott’s example of anti-Black racism, and 500,000 Roma and Sinti people were slaughtered in the Holocaust, alongside entire Jewish communities. Their collective history is full of examples of interpersonal and systemic racism, and they continue to experience both today due to perpetuating stereotypes and discriminatory laws.

The GRT communities have most recently been attacked by the lesser-reported sections in the ‘The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act 2022’, which provide the police with powers to “arrest people who are Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (GRT) and confiscate their homes, if they stop in places that have not been designated for them”. This act is the latest in a long line of policies designed to persecute Traveller communities, from the 1349 Ordinance of Labourers, ordering “vagrants to be whipped or branded with hot irons”, and a 1554 statute which legalised the killing of anyone identifying as an “Aegyptian” (Gypsies). The 1824 Vagrancy Act predates the establishment of democracy in England and remains in force today, often being employed to arrest rough sleepers, defined by the act as “rogues and vagabonds”. 573 people were prosecuted under this act in 2020. There have been cross-party efforts in the House of Lords to repeal the Vagrancy Act and to “right a 200-year-old wrong”, which would decriminalise homelessness, but they were rejected by the government who instead victimised the community further through the aforementioned PCSC Act.

In conclusion, racism takes many forms and can have a range of traumatising impacts on individuals and entire races alike. Interpersonal micro-aggressions can slowly seep into society’s subconscious where they become the groundwork on which genocidal policies are built. This post has by no means been an exhaustive exploration of every type or example of discrimination suffered by Irish, Jewish and Traveller communities, and nor was it intended to be. Noteworthy is the lack of data on the oppression of redhead communities due to them not being seen as an ethnic minority, but discrimination against them deserves investigation and analysis. There are hundreds of examples of racism I could have summoned from the history books that each community has experienced, but I sought to provide examples of historic injustices, carried out by the British, alongside contemporary examples that continue to blight the lives of those communities today. Silence is compliance and we must all play our part in calling out every type of racism.

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