As a Briton of Indian heritage, I had mixed feelings when I saw the images of the new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, celebrating Diwali at a Downing Street reception. Who could fail to be moved by the fact the UK has its first prime minister of colour? But there is also much I abhor about Sunak’s politics.
Because there’s more to me than my ethnicity, I don’t have any trouble holding both these thoughts in my head at once. Sixty years ago, racial discrimination was perfectly legal: of course it matters that children can today see that you don’t have to be white to lead this country. But like his Tory predecessors at the Treasury, Sunak is a fiscal hawk, making unnecessarily harsh spending decisions that have resulted in significant hardship. Like many Conservatives, he does not appear to place much stock in the idea of structural discrimination, through which too many young people are held back from achieving their full potential because of their race or class background.
The generally positive reaction to Sunak entering No 10 also says something important about evolving British attitudes to race. Of course there are those who have expressed overtly racist views in reaction, such as the caller who told Sangita Myska of LBC “Rishi’s not even British”. But as Sunder Katwala, director of the thinktank British Future, has argued, these views that would have once been mainstream are now happily consigned to a tiny minority: just 3% of people agree with the statement that “to be truly British you need to be white”; 9% of white Britons say they would feel negatively about having an ethnic minority prime minister, a figure that would have undoubtedly been higher 20 years ago. It’s why the claim Sunak has faced a racist backlash made by the American satirical programme The Daily Show has landed so badly; it is more a reflection of the US left’s imperialist inability to understand the racial politics of other countries through anything other than an American lens.
None of this means that racism has been eradicated in Britain; there is plenty of evidence that in areas from employment to policing Britons of colour face barriers that white people do not. But attitudes have significantly shifted for the better. And the people most likely to overestimate the extent of racist attitudes in society are those on the left, in a phenomenon Katwala has dubbed “progressive pessimism”. This pessimism is dangerous; it contributes to an unhelpful and polarising narrative that many people don’t care about racism, rather than starting from the common ground that most of us think racism is bad and we should be trying to address it.
It is also important to note that, to the extent there has been racist reaction to the growing ethnic diversity of successive Conservative cabinets, it has not been limited to the right. There is an ugly strain of leftwing thinking that posits that having Conservative values is not really compatible with being brown or black. It is most evident in the Labour MP Rupa Huq’s comment last month that the former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng is only “superficially black” (for which she has since apologised). This is not an isolated instance; in 2019, a Labour candidate said that Sajid Javid, then home secretary, “definitely orders lemon and herb Nando’s” in response to the jibe he “100% cooks boil-in-the-bag rice”; a modern version of the old “coconut” insult that he isn’t truly Asian. It isn’t just levelled at Conservatives: I get racist abuse online – and not just from low-follower accounts – for being a “race traitor” for deviating from views some consider to be acceptable, a form of racism no less hurtful than other kinds.
At the heart of this is the sense that people of colour ought to have a particular brand of leftwing politics and if they don’t we must wonder why. Earlier this month, the LBC presenter James O’Brien wrote of Suella Braverman: “Children of immigrants who despise other immigrants probably shouldn’t be in charge of immigration policy. They often seem to be dealing with personal issues that shouldn’t be anywhere near the political space.” The implication is that Braverman’s appalling interventions on immigration derive from her status as a Briton of Indian descent. When challenged, O’Brien doubled down, claiming that what he said was OK because he didn’t mention race or ethnicity. I doubt he would take the same view of someone on the right making stereotypical claims about “children of immigrants”; intended or not, it is a coded way of referring to non-white Britons.
The fact is that, although many ethnic minority groups lean towards Labour, there are significant numbers who support the Conservatives; for British Indians, this is as high as three in 10. One in three people with migrant parents think immigration has had a negative cultural and economic impact on Britain. The idea these people need to justify their politics in a way white people don’t is just a variation on the rightwing theme that people with migrant heritage owe Britain a debt of gratitude that others do not. Brown and black people can have abhorrent politics. They can be racist too.
There is a lack of nuance on all sides of the debate about race. There is less racism in Britain than there was 40 years ago but it is far from eliminated. Race is not deterministic but, all other things being constant, some groups face greater barriers to success in many walks of life. Poorer health and employment outcomes for some groups of minority ethnic Britons cannot be attributed wholly to either their race or their class. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, faced racism from the British press – and probably from within the royal institution she joined – when she married Prince Harry, but there are credible allegations that she herself bullied her staff.
Ultimately, I am not sure it is any less bigoted to apply benevolent rather than malevolent stereotypes to Asian and black people. It too undermines the goal of a society where the colour of someone’s skin isn’t worth commenting on because it genuinely no longer matters and in which we understand that our common humanity encompasses the bad as well as the good.