It is dismaying but perhaps not surprising that Boris Johnson has decided to characterise Black Lives Matter protesters as extremists. It is equally dismaying that he has roundly condemned the threats to Churchill’s statue as a result of the protests. He has described such threats as ‘absurd and shameful’, paying little more than lip-service to the genuine anger people feel at Churchill’s popular representation as an unequivocal hero, in spite of the fact that he held some egregious views and perpetuated colonial atrocities.
Churchill is undoubtedly a complex figure, and many laud him as a national hero for leading Britain to victory in World War Two, and staving off the fascism of Adolf Hitler. These facts are of course important to remember when considering Churchill’s legacy, but unfortunately, it sometimes seems that these facts are the only ones that people do remember. Churchill did a lot worse than simply express ‘unacceptable opinions’ as Johnson suggested.
Indeed, during the Bengal famine of 1943 (when India remained under British possession), Churchill continued to order that rice be exported from the Indian subcontinent despite the fact that those in north-eastern Bengal were going hungry. Almost four million people died of starvation, and when questioned, Churchill implied that it was the fault of the Indians themselves for ‘breeding like rabbits’.
And of course, we should not forget the ruthless means Churchill deployed to quell Irish rebellion, nor should we hide the fact that it was British troops under Churchill who massacred Greek anti-Nazi demonstrators, fearing that these crowds were too heavily influenced by Communism. And of course let us not forget that he refused to acknowledge that wrongs had been perpetrated against Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians, claiming simply that a ‘higher-grade race’ had taken their place.
I could go on. Churchill was a racist, like many others of his day, and he wielded enough power to turn this racism into policy that embedded racial and structural inequality across the globe. For Johnson (and others) to merely claim that Churchill had some ‘racist views’ or ‘unacceptable opinions’, is at best disingenuous.
And while I personally believe that the statue of Churchill should remain standing (my parents are Pakistani immigrants and I very much doubt I would be in the UK or have the freedom to write this had Hitler succeeded in occupying Britain), I do believe that it should be properly contextualised, so that people do not look upon this man with blind adoration. I find Johnson’s failure to empathise with those who would like to see the statue removed galling, and it is perhaps even worse when you consider his own bumbling brand of racism and colonial fervour.
Nevertheless, the main issue with all this debate over whether Churchill was a racist (it’s surely not that hard to acknowledge that he was?) is obfuscation. As Boris Johnson weighs in on the shamefulness of protesters’ demands versus the views of Churchill, all we see is a continuation of the debate as to what racism is, rather than any productive action taken towards eradicating it.
We have seen a supreme demonstration of this obfuscation from home secretary Priti Patel in recent days. When black MP Florence Eshalomi questioned whether Patel understood the extent to which discrimination, inequality and racism were embedded in British society, Patel launched into indignant remonstrance. Patel went through her own experiences of facing racism, and then ended by saying ‘when it comes to racism, sexism, tolerance or social justice, I will not take lectures from those on other side of the house.’
By using her personal experiences to call into question the lived experiences of others, and the state of the UK as they see it (32 BAME MPs subsequently wrote to Patel in support of Eshalomi), Patel uses her platform to prevent positive change. By refusing to acknowledge that protesters have legitimate grievances, Patel tap-dances around confronting the real issues raised, and fails to answer the questions that those like Eshalomi want to see answered. With her responses, Patel is simply playing for time, avoiding the promise of concrete action until inaction once again becomes an option.
While our elites waste time debating the existence of racism, we see no reviews conducted into why black people are disproportionately subject to police violence. Nor do we see any concrete action taken on the representation of ethnic minorities in our boardrooms, big corporations or on our TV screens. All we see is those like Munira Mirza, an individual who doubts that structural racism exists, being appointed to set up race inequality commissions. This really is an exemplary instance of time-wasting (which will likely take the form of the commission endlessly debating the existence of racism) if ever there was one.
Toni Morrison was right to say that ‘the very serious function of racism…is distraction…Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is.’ Here we see that happening again, as our political elites continuously debate the validity of the anger people feel. The time that is wasted in debating whether someone like Churchill was a racist, or whether Priti Patel ought not to be questioned about racism because she is of Indian origin, is time that could be better spent on something else. This is just one of the ways our government prevents genuine action on racism being taken.
And time-wasting is not just confined to the political sphere. When the BBC removed an episode of Fawlty Towers from its UKTV streaming service, the furore that erupted was perhaps yet another distraction from the very real problems that need debating. The episode, ‘The Germans’, was removed because of some racial slurs used by characters during its course. It will now be reinstated but the time and energy spent discussing the rights and wrongs of this decision has been monumental. Yes, the episode features racist characters, but ultimately, it is these characters and their outdated attitudes that we laugh at. Though it seems that the BBC was well-intentioned in removing the episode, all the decision heralded was much heated debate and a backlash that hindered rather than helped the overall cause of anti-racism. Indeed, journalist Carl Anka has said that there was little point in removing the episode; it would have been better if the BBC had committed to hiring more black creatives instead.
So, no matter our intentions, we must always keep in mind that time is a precious commodity. This is not so much a question of picking our battles, but of making sure our battles are not derailed by obfuscation and unnecessary delay – regardless of whether the motive behind that is sinister or not.