The launch of The Independent Group of former Labour MPs was much derided following the debacle of Angela Smith referring to BAME people as a “a funny tinge”. However as Angelo Irving writes, the remark reveals much about the institutional racism the fledgling party professes to abhor
Monday 18th February. A day that saw a new political movement birthed. Seven Labour MPs resigned from the party citing Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, his handling of Brexit and structural antisemitism as their reasons for doing so. Appearing on Politics Live, one of the self-styled Independent Group, Angela Smith, savaged her former party over its record on antisemitism, claiming “the culture of the Labour Party is vicious, it’s bullying, it’s unpleasant”.
Smith wasn’t alone in her criticism. Shortly before a clip of fellow Labour deserter Mike Gapes had aired with the MP saying he was “sickened that the Labour Party is now a racist, antisemitic party”. Unsurprisingly, The Independent Group positioned itself as against this kind of structural racism.
Ironic then, that in a discussion with the topic heading, “How big a problem is racism in the UK?”, Smith would say “The recent history of the party I’ve just left suggests it’s not about being black or …a funny…tinge…you know…different…BME, from the BME community”. To be clear, those ellipsis reflect the awkward pauses that Smith had in grasping for the right words to describe the people that she ended up offending.
“Instead of joining in the chorus of castigation, we should consider whether Smith’s criticisms of the Labour Party have merit. To do so requires an understanding of what structural (or institutional) racism is”
Boy, life sure comes at you fast. One minute you are denouncing the party that you have just resigned from for their ‘structural antisemitism’, the next moment you are on national television describing BAME people as having “a funny tinge”. Somewhere a frog just choked on its glass of tea.
Instead of joining in the chorus of castigation, we should consider whether Smith’s criticisms of the Labour Party have merit. To do so requires an understanding of what structural (or institutional) racism is. The phrase ‘institutional racism’ was coined by Stokely Carmichael in his seminal text Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America.
He spoke about the difference between ‘individual racism and institutional racism.’ The race discussion in the UK often flounders because we only associate racism with the individual and not the institution. Carmichael described institutional racism as “less overt, far more subtle, less identifiable in terms of specific individuals committing the acts. But it is no less destructive of human life. The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type”.
The Independent Group of former Labour MPs
I am sure Smith will be criticised by many for her description of BME people as “funny tinged” and it is very possible that she will now be labelled a racist. It is easy (and perhaps correct) to do so, but, we must beware investing so much energy in criticising the individual that we have none left to question and criticise the institutions that make life hard for so many minorities. Smith’s comments are the symptom, not the cause. We need to ask why BAME are overrepresented in prison and school expulsions and underrepresented in the top universities and British politics.
There is a powerful truth in Smith’s words: British politics is structurally racist. It is reductive to lambast her for her terribly judged words. It would be far better to be annoyed that the group that she is part of advances no remedy for tackling racism, a racism that they say compelled them to leave their former party.
“Angela Smith is right. Labour is structurally antisemitic. Antisemitism is a form of racism and, as our society is structurally racist, so it follows that the political parties within our society must also be antisemitic”
Luciana Berger, a Jewish woman and another MP to leave the Labour Party yesterday, has spoken powerfully about the impact of antisemitic attacks on her and her family. All political parties should listen to her. Antisemitic attacks specifically, and racist attacks generally have been on the rise in the UK since 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum. It would have been a powerful statement of intent if the Independent Group had advanced any ideas on how to tackle this problem. I’m not surprised they didn’t: as Smith’s language made clear, the issue seems to be rooted into the subconscious of British society.
Angela Smith is right. Labour is structurally antisemitic. Antisemitism is a form of racism and, as our society is structurally racist, so it follows that the political parties within our society must also be antisemitic. Unintentionally, Smith was also being honest when she described BAME people as having a “funny tinge”. Her comment confirmed what many in minority communities know: that we are considered ‘other’ and ‘odd’. The Independent Group have hopes to be a party before the end of the year. Unless they make anti-racism a plank of their identity, they will be guilty of the same structural racism that they abhorred in the party they just left.
Angelo Irving is a former teacher and current postgraduate student, proprietor of The Black Unicorn and member of the Wakanda Social Club. He has an interest in how politics, race and class intersect and has written and spoken about these topics. You can find Angelo on Instagram,Twitter and FacebookFollow @Angelo3000k