Diane Abbott (Photo by Guy Smallman / Contributor)

Systemic obfuscation

Diane Abbott isn’t the only one who’s wrong about racism

Artillery Row

In January last year, Whoopi Goldberg declared on The View that “the Holocaust isn’t about race”. How can the Nazi persecution of Jews be considered “white supremacy”, she asked, when Jews and Nazis were “two white groups of people … fighting amongst themselves”. Amidst the fog of cancellation, she tweeted out an apology, before then doubling down later that day.

This conception of racism takes the American experience to be its default

For this she attracted much scorn and derision, deservedly so, and a two-week suspension from ABC. Her comments were not only offensive but ignorant: of course the Nazis were racist towards Jews, and of course the Holocaust was about race. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for her. She was, after all, simply giving voice to the logical conclusion of a conception of racism currently in vogue. This is a conception of racism that holds that racism is “prejudice plus power. Power dynamics being constituted the way they apparently are, it is impossible for white people to be on its receiving end. It is a conception of racism that takes the American experience to be its default, chauvinistically imposes it onto all other contexts, and cleaves firmly, as a result, to the notion that it is somehow wrong or improper to apply the concept of “racism” even to Jews under the Nazis, let alone Jews today. Since Jews, in countries like America and Britain, tend to be perceived as white — even if they weren’t in Nazi Germany — it is natural that such ideas about racism will lead one to some very strange places. 

Perhaps Goldberg should have “known better” than to say what she said — but perhaps academics in sociology faculties the world over, and activists at civil rights NGOs, also should “know better” when they propound conceptions of “racism” that entail such obscene conclusions. 

Consider, for example, the Anti-Defamation League, which tied itself into knots in the process of condemning Goldberg’s comments. The ADL has an illustrious history of protecting Jewish civil rights and combating antisemitism in America. Yet its own definition of racism, drafted in 2020 (when else?), contained within it the very premises that Goldberg was operating under. “Racism”, it said, “is the marginalisation and/or oppression of people of colour based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people”. In what position, then, was the ADL to offer a full-throated condemnation of Goldberg’s comments? CEO Jonathan Greenblatt recognised that this definition of racism — blind, by design, to most racist antisemitism in America — fell short, and that it had to be rewritten. It reflects poorly on Greenblatt’s judgement, and on the ADL’s grasp of its own raison-d’être, that it took a gaffe by Whoopi Goldberg for them to realise this. 

Jews don’t count — and neither do Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people

I don’t much enjoy discussing these things with reference to American examples, but these days one hardly has a choice. Like many, I am eagerly awaiting a discussion and analysis of this phenomenon in Tomiwa Owolade’s forthcoming book, This is Not America. Owolade also happens to be the writer whose Guardian column so irked Diane Abbott that she felt compelled to write a letter in response (or, at least, the first draft of one), resulting in her having the Labour whip suspended. It is striking — and rather good fodder for the thesis of Owolade’s own book — that, whereas he was referring in his article explicitly to racism in Britain, Abbott felt obliged to adduce foreign examples in her attempt at rebuttal: apartheid South Africa and, of course, Jim Crow America. 

Jews don’t count, the saying goes — and neither, as Abbott’s letter makes plain, do some other groups subject to racism, like Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. They “undoubtedly experience prejudice”, Abbott opines, of the kind that might also be experienced by redheads, but they are not “all their lives subject to racism”. 

Enough has been written, by David Baddiel and others, on blind-spots like these in much progressive, left-wing discourse. Aside from exposing this blind-spot once again, the Abbott affair also exposes the problems at the heart of the “Jews don’t count” mantra of the Baddiel School. What, exactly, should Jews count as? It strikes me as an attempt to maintain the voguish conception of racism of the sort held by Goldberg and Abbott — that racism is about power, that racism is about “whiteness” — only tweaking it slightly so as to smuggle Jews (and perhaps other minority groups) into the definitions. Baddiel himself is at pains throughout his book to appeal to people who already subscribe to the ADL 2020–22 definition of racism. This comes through in his conclusions: what Jews should count as, in the end, is non-white.

This is a cop-out. Some Ashkenazi Jews doubtless believe that they are, in a real and meaningful sense, non-white. Certainly none of us are seen as white by Nazis and white supremacists. The fact remains that, in the context of 21st century Britain, I do think of myself as white. Indeed I would feel quite silly were I to say or present myself as otherwise. I also feel that I shouldn’t need to say or present myself as otherwise, if ever I wish to claim that I have been subject to racism on the basis of my Jewishness (I am grateful that I never have). The type of argument made by Goldberg and Abbott is a feature, not a bug, of this emergent, voguish conception of racism. It is not enough to say that, actually, Jews or Travellers aren’t really white. One must instead commit to the view, however much it upsets certain contemporary pieties, that white people can experience racism.

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