Racism beyond the colour line

Diane Abbott’s comments published in The Observer on 23rd April 2023 differentiate between prejudice and racism, and claim that white people can experience prejudice but not racism. She cites the examples of “redheads”, alongside “Irish people, Jewish people and Travellers” – all of whom were not victims of South African apartheid or the racism of slavery.

These comments should not be understood as standalone or in isolation, but rather as part of a wider ideological current of anti-racist politics, which is explained in my book Outcast: How Jews Were Banished from the Anti-Racist Imagination.

A dominant tendency of the anti-racist imagination ties racism exclusively to the history of colonialism and slavery and to a ‘white-over-black’ structural relationship driven by and driving capitalism. What is ignored is the wider history and geography of racism that also developed concurrently with, and was mutually related to, nationalisms in Europe and culminated in the Holocaust.

A more holistic understanding of racism is able to see how racism targeted both non-colonised and colonised populations, and populations both inside and outside Europe. Moreover, this history teaches us that racism identified ‘race’ in a range of ways, not just or only through skin colour.

A colonial model of racism has had two consequences for the consideration of anti-Jewish racism: one, antisemitism has banished (or, at best, been relegated to the past), and two, Zionism (that is, Jewish nationalism) has become the latecomer and outlier of colonial racism in a postcolonial and decolonising world.

In the contemporary period, Jews are racialised not simply as white, but as ultra-white: the out-of-time and out-of-place settler-colonialists who need to be taught a lesson. Moreover, modern-day Jewish identity (which is inevitably connected to the history of murderous racism against Jewish people) is distorted and belittled.

Take, for example, the work of the academic Kehinde Andrews, who tweeted about the Abbott letter: “You know we’re in dangerous times when @HackneyAbbott is suspended from @LabourParty for so-called ‘racism’. The letter was badly worded but the sentiment was correct. There is a difference between prejudice, xenophobia and racism #PsychosisofWhiteness”.

Andrews, in a debate titled “Is The West Fundamentally Racist?” (available on YouTube), explains the Holocaust as a boomerang effect of colonial racism: “we see very clearly with the Nazis […] the boomerang effect […] where racism, fascism, the logic of white supremacy, comes into Europe, and becomes enacted on white bodies, and everybody turns around and goes ‘wow, this was a really bad idea!’”

Here, in an instant, the history and pre-history of anti-Jewish racism disappears, and the height of genocidal racism against the Jews becomes blowback from the crimes of ‘white-over-black’ colonialism.

Outcast is out on 15th June 2023 (pre-order here).

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