Thursday, 7 Dec 2023

The UK is racist – Rishi Sunak's skin colour doesn't prove otherwise

The Conservative Party Conference has been bewildering and horrifying in equal measure.

But perhaps the most befuddling part was the Prime Minister’s words, which attempted to dispel the idea that Britain has significant structural racism by highlighting the melanin of him and his cabinet colleagues.

‘Never let anyone tell you that this is a racist country,’ proclaimed Sunak, before proudly declaring that his ascent to Downing Street proved that his story ‘is a British story’.

In this sense, he is right. But not for the reason he thinks he is. 

The vast moral and intellectual vacuum that has engulfed the dregs of the Tory Party in post Brexit Britain aside (remember that Sunak was never elected by the population), Sunak’s willingness to be yet another elite POC building a political career by eliding over racism is as quintessentially British as it gets. 

The idea that any modicum of melanin precludes individuals from holding racist views is as dangerously ahistorical an understanding of Britain’s past politics as it is its present. 

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The project of empire hinged upon finding willing collaborators and intermediaries amongst the colonised elite to stake their own personal fortunes – financial and otherwise – upon their ability to uphold racist power structures and impose policies harming fellow minority groups. 

So when I heard Sunak holding himself – a privately educated MP who, along with his wife, has an estimated net worth of £529m – up as an example of how this country could not possibly be racist, I immediately thought of Sir Mancherjee Bhownaggree, the second ever Indian MP in British history. 

A member of the Conservative Party representing Bethnal Green, you can perhaps gain a glimpse of Bhownagree’s adherence to imperial racism from the nickname contemptuously bestowed upon him by members of the Indian Independence movement, Sir Bow-and-agree.  

But it is more than just incorrect for Sunak to pretend he is a genuine symbol of progress; it is highly irresponsible. And factually incorrect. 

More than a third of people from ethnic and religious minority groups in Britain have experienced some form of racist assault, according to a report published earlier this year.

Black women are nearly four times more likely to suffer maternal deaths than white women according to a report by Parliament. 

Black men are seven times more likely to die after police restraint, and the London Metropolitan police was described as being ‘institutionally racist, misogynistic and homophobic’ in a damning report following the rape and murder of Sarah Everard by one of its officers.

Sunak’s idea of progress is rooted in the dangerously facile idea that having a few Black and POC people at the top of a hierarchy immediately changes the whole system for the better. 

It is particularly pernicious given that it is precisely Sunak and his colleagues who are pushing regressive and deeply racist laws, from attacks on migration that violates international human rights laws to endorsing rhetoric that demonises anyone who is different to the Tory ideal of Britain. 

Recent examples include Sunak’s assertion that misgendering trans people is ‘common sense’ and Braverman’s claim that child grooming gangs were ‘almost all British-Pakistani’ in a letter ruled to be false by the press regulator.

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Superficial representation does not automatically void the serious systemic racism that plagues every facet of the country and literally determines who gets to live and who does not.  

There is a distinction, as the intellectual Ambalavaner Sivanandan once noted, between ‘the racism that discriminates and the racism that kills’. 

Genuinely attempting to solve the latter requires embracing certain truths about Britain; truths that, unsurprisingly, the party – whose report into racism prompted accusations of ‘normalising white supremacy’ from United Nations human rights experts – seem unwilling to.

And it seems obvious to me that the only Black and Brown people allowed to climb the ranks of the Tory Party are those who espouse xenophobic and transphobic rhetoric and policies.

This feels like familiar territory. Suella Braverman’s appalling comments during the same party conference eerily echoed Enoch Powell’s disgraceful ‘Rivers of Blood’ diatribe. 

But while the latter’s speech in 1968 prompted Edward Heath to sack him, Braverman’s outright vitriol has elicited nary a murmur from the Prime Minister, who increasingly appears to have lost complete control of his party.

‘What does the Conservative Party offer a family of immigrants?’ asked Sunak during the party conference. 

The answer is hell of a lot – if they are willing to claim racism doesn’t exist while subsequently inflicting harmful policies on minorities.

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