Does it matter that Boris Johnson’s newly appointed cabinet is said to be more ethnically diverse than any of its predecessors?
It’s not just the gloating right wing that thinks it does.
A layer of left-leaning commentators, including Sunny Hundal and Mehdi Hassan, have bought heavily into the idea that the establishment is now more reflective of “diverse” Britain.
The BBC’s Nihal Arthanayake said the new cabinet would be a “very visible example of representation” for “Asian kids up and down the country.”
The new government shows all the signs of being among the most racist ever. Johnson knows that to win back votes lost to Nigel Farage’s racist Brexit Party he needs plain-speaking bigotry—and lots of it.
The handful of ambitious black and Asian politicians that have chosen to join his gang are not there to soften his prejudices. They are there to provide a thin veneer for them. Their collective track record of support for Theresa May’s “hostile environment” and their cheerleading of Islamophobia speaks for itself.
That why even the hard right of the Conservative Party seem happy to have them on board.
The idea that “Asian kids across Britain” will be able to draw inspiration from the very politicians that whip up hatred against them beggars belief.
It rests on a thin assumption that those who share an experience of oppression are automatic allies in the struggle against it. But the way in which people interpret their experiences, and how they respond to them, varies enormously.
Those on the right look first for individual solutions, seeking an escape route for themselves even if that means turning on others who also suffer. If they succeed, they tell the rest of us, “See, I made it, so can you.” They become the system’s greatest advocates.
In turn, they say to all those whose lives remain blighted by prejudice that somehow this is their own fault. They say that they didn’t work hard enough at school, that their parents didn’t care enough, that they were too interested in violent rap music and video games.
And yet, despite the right’s record of shame in office, socialists cannot be indifferent to the question of representation even within the elite echelons of state.
It mattered when the first African-Caribbean MPs were elected in 1987 and it mattered when Barack Obama was elected US president in 2008.
Their elections and subsequent re-elections were a sharp kick to the racist myth that black people are incapable of leadership and the demands of high office. Their public profiles challenged the idea that “whiteness” equates to “normal”—that our starting assumption should be that those in authority are automatically white.
Unlike Johnson’s new crop of ministers, Obama pledged himself to tackling inequality and cast himself as an ardent opponent of oppression. Under his leadership there would be “hope” for all, he said.
But the experience of Obama in office is also an example of the weakness of the “black faces in high places” strategy.
Under his presidency black median income fell by 10.9 percent compared to a 3.6 percent drop for whites. So the income gap between black and white Americans continued to grow.
And when faced with growing anger about the growing racial divide, Obama increasingly blamed the victims.He told an audience of African-American college students, “We’ve got no time for excuses.”
The failure of the Obama presidency was not simply the failure of an individual, it was an indictment of a system. Racism is not simply the result of having the wrong type of people in high office—it is structural.
To challenge it we need to look not to the few black and Asian faces at the top, but to the millions of people of all backgrounds at the bottom.