Rupa Huq and the politics of prejudice

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Labor’s contribution to the national debate this week included the idea that someone can be “superficially” black. Rupa Huq, a Labor MP, used the phrase to describe Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. “If you hear it on the Today program,” she said, “you wouldn’t know he’s black. It was a stupid but revealing comment. In his moment of unwitting (and possibly career-destroying) frankness, Huq exposed a bias that remains pervasive in British politics.

Such a suggestion is, of course, racist, and the Labor Party could not deny that. Huq was suspended. But she articulated an attitude that has become widespread. She probably thought her comments were uncontroversial to the public during a debate at a Labor Party conference. She will have assumed that they, like her, see real (as opposed to superficial) ethnicity as something to do with attitudes, speech and more. This is a pernicious assumption that deserves to be challenged.

When Kemi Badenoch was Equalities Minister, she spoke of the particular bigotry facing those on her side of the debate: the assumption that black people can only think one way and that those who oppose it are traitors. Ben Obese-Jecty, a former infantry officer, recently described how stunned he was by the racist abuse he suffered when he ran as a Conservative candidate. He was called a “token” and a “betrayal”, and worse. “I had no idea this kind of vitriol existed,” he said.

The social media sewers are teeming with such abuse. Phrases such as “Uncle Toms” and “coconut” are used to describe those who are said to be brown on the outside but white on the inside. Charlene White, an ITV presenter, said this week that for most of her childhood she was referred to as ‘Bounty’ and ridiculed for her ‘posh’ accent. ‘Their argument? I wasn’t black enough.

Such stereotypes, which should have been abandoned in the last century, have been revived by the so-called critical race theory, which makes politics more race-focused, not less. In this way, bigotry has reinvented itself for a new century. Critical race theory finds new ways to perpetuate the idea that whites, blacks, and Asians are fundamentally different, sitting in various unchanging positions in a hierarchy of oppressors and victims.

When David Cameron claimed that a young black boy is more likely to go to jail than to a top university – a bogus statistic, it turns out – he sought to portray himself as a social justice avenger . He did not think of the harm a Prime Minister can do by propagating such myths about his own country. It represented the last gasp of conservative paternalism. His “A-list” system to increase the number of women and minority MPs introduced new Conservative candidates who took a very different view.

When Badenoch said Britain was one of the best countries in the world to be black, she sparked outrage because her argument flattened the narrative of victimhood. But it also drew a useful political dividing line. The Conservatives have become the party that emphasizes empowerment. Labour’s approach remains curiously paternalistic, even proprietary – asserting (as Jeremy Corbyn once did) that “only Labor can be trusted to unleash the talent of blacks, Asians and ethnic minorities”.

Labor is facing something of a crisis in its outdated approach to race, which is now visibly reflected in the makeup of its politicians. Why was the Conservative leadership race so striking in its diversity? Why is today’s Conservative cabinet perhaps the most ethnically mixed of any government in the world? And why is it Labor now speaking in language that oscillates between condescending and borderline racist?

The truth is that the narrative of victimhood, largely imported from America’s culture wars, was never adapted to modern Britain. There are many inequalities, but no dividing line between BME and white. Britons of Indian origin tend to outperform those of Bangladeshi or Pakistani origin. Chinese students outperform everyone. Whites are less likely to enter college than any other group. Students of black African descent (such as Kwarteng) tend to do better in school than black Caribbeans.

Barack Obama understood the problem with comments like Huq’s. He attacked the notion of “acting in white”. He said, “If boys read too much, then, well, ‘Why are you doing this? Why do you speak so well? The idea that there is an authentic way to be black – that if you want to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain type of clothing – that has to go. The Conservatives realized this some time ago. The Labor Party did not.

Martin Luther King envisioned a day when his children “would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Not so long ago, it seemed that his dream was about to come true. Critical Race Theory, however, brought back the idea that people should be judged by their skin color. It is now up to the Conservatives to challenge this bias.

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