By J L Samboma
If you happen to be African, a woman, Palestinian in Israel, or belong to a group that is routinely subjected to prejudice by a dominant population, you can usually spot bigotry the moment it shows its grotesque countenance. But, what if said bigotry is of the insidious variety – when it is not as blatant as, say, being called a “black bastard”, an “ugly cow”, or a “hymie”? And what if the perpetrator happens to be a well-known TV journalist?
That was the issue I was confronted with around this time last year when, barely an hour after being subjected to a clear-cut case of racial abuse, I witnessed, even suffered another, but more subtle racial attack which I could easily have missed, as did many of those who were present. You could call it the day I suffered a racist double-whammy! Although I noted at the time that the second incident was “suspect”, it did not register as sirens-blaring racist. That was the reason I never wrote about it. So what has made me lift this self-imposed moratorium?
The epiphany, as it were, came recently when I attended a conference at which one contributor from the floor asked a rhetorical question. He was speaking about a group of white workers who blamed migrants for the loss of their jobs. According to the brother, the white workers were not being racist; they were just being protective of their jobs.
The matter-of-fact tone in which he pontificated left one with very little doubt that he believed no person of sound mind or character could possibly take issue with that “reasonable” position. So, succumbing to the arrogance of self-assurance, he asked his rhetorical question.
“Now, that was not racism, was it?” he said, a smile lighting up his face as he spread his hands expansively.
“It was”, I promptly replied from my perch five or six seats to his left.
The man was clearly surprised, perhaps by the swiftness or the no-room-for-doubt clarity of my response. “Are you sure about that?”
The brother then went on to say something about being older and therefore blessed with more experience. Anyway, the point here is that I spotted a clear case of racism in a split-second. Indeed, I had experienced a “moment of clarity”, as defined by Jules Whitfield, the character Samuel L Jackson plays in Pulp Fiction. And then, without conscious prompting, my mind flitted back to the aforementioned “suspect” incident. But, thanks to my moment of clarity, that “suspect” incident had in that split-second metamorphosed into a clear-cut case of racism. Before we delve into those events of yesteryear, we will attempt a brief critique of the older brother’s seemingly “impregnable” position on those workers.
Racism by any other name stinks just as bad
First, workers should not blame the incidence of unemployment, or job losses, on other workers; the fault lies generally with those who formulate economic policy – in a word, the government. Further, if those policies had not been dictated by parochial class interests in the first place, there would be employment for every worker who wants work. Secondly, would those white British workers have blamed other white British workers for taking their jobs? Clearly not! That would be ridiculous. There will always be a reserve army of labour simply because of the way the economy is run under capitalism.
Finally, it is disingenuous to claim that the workers were “simply venting” to protect their livelihoods. That excuse is a godsend to the irredeemably racist rabble-rouser ; it is a get-out clause that allows them to parade their prejudices abroad under the false flag of so-called bona fide economic protest. In a word, it not only recasts racism in a new guise, it also legitimises it by linking racist attitudes with legitimate working class struggle. Thus armed, the enemies of living labour can then divide and conquer the workers along the colour bar in the interests of capital, otherwise known as dead labour.
At best, those white workers were guilty of racism alloyed with fears about job security – akin to what some socialists I once met called “soft racism”. But we are not in a fancy hair-splitting contest; racism by any other name stinks just as bad - whether it emanates from “whites” or “blacks”!
We will now travel back in time to that sunny, somewhat chilly day in late April of 2018, the day I met two racists in the flesh. I was in a group of Labour party members who had gathered outside a building in Westminster, a stone’s throw from the British Parliament. I am not Labour. I was there on account of the group’s protest against the suspension and possible expulsion of a prominent black activist, Marc Wadsworth, for alleged anti-Semitism.
Inside the building being picketed sat Labour’s disciplinary committee, deliberating Wadsworth’s fate. A few journalists stood a little distance from the protesters, who at any one time numbered no more than 30; as some protesters left, others took their place. They chanted slogans sporadically, in support of Wadsworth, one-time leader of the now-defunct Anti-Racist Alliance (ARA).
The first racist incident took place a few hours after I arrived. Cold, and with a bladder threatening to disgorge itself on the sidewalk, I had headed off to hunt down the nearest pub – to use their john. As luck would have it, there were no pubs in the vicinity and the pressure on the dam below continued to build up. So, the dear reader will understand when I say that I barely spared a second glance for the man reclining against a doorway who asked me for money as I swooshed past him faster than The Flash.
I was eventually able to use the john at a small hotel, thanks to its superhero doorman. Upon retracing my steps I encountered for the second time the man who had asked me for a pound earlier. He repeated the request. I looked apologetically at him and said, “Sorry, mate. I don’t have any change”. And I did not, for I had used it to buy a cup of tea earlier. As I continued on my way, the man’s shouted response - “Fucking black bastard” - chased after me like a twinkle-toed messenger-boy.
“Bastard” is the packaging, “black” the incendiary element
Those words were ringing in my ears as I got back to the makeshift picket line. The thing that got to me was not that a racial slur had been hurled at me. It was not that another human being thought that he was “better” than me simply because I had “black” skin and he “white”. Nor was it because a man I would have given money had called me “a name”. It was not even the fact that a man who obviously believed that my “economic situation” was better than his, nevertheless also believed that he was a “better” or “superior” human being for the simple biological happenstance of having a lighter skin tone than me. No, that was not it.
The thing that got to me was that he was not content with calling me a “black bastard”, as the rest of his ilk would have done. For those people, it is the word “black”, when attached to “bastard”, that holds the potent abusive quotient. In a manner of speaking, “bastard” is merely the packaging, the lead piping; the word “black” is the incendiary element in the pipe-bomb of racial abuse. Indeed, “black” for them is a term of abuse, which is why the pure racist, the bona fide article, is loath to use the word “black” to describe a black person they happen to be “fond of”. In such rare cases, they use “coloured”, or even “African”, in its stead.
Even famous Hollywood actor Liam Neeson was content to stick with the hackneyed “black bastard”, while recounting how he once wanted to kill a black man. We do have to make allowances for this beloved and legendary action-man, haven’t we? As well as being a brilliantly good and brilliant and good Hollywood icon, he was after all only referring to a despicable rapist, y’know. In my neck of the ideological woods, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu is a very, very bad man, a criminal; but would we be given “Hollywood passes” if, hypothetically, we called him a “hymie”? How about calling serial killer Aileen Wuornos an “ugly bitch” ? Would that be okay too? Just asking!
Anyway, back to our friendly neighborhood “asker-of-change”. Nope, “black bastard” was not good enough for him. He may have been in the guise of a beggar the day I made his acquaintance, but that fact does not detract from his mental acuity. My crystal blackness evoked his one-upmanship, his creative spirit; it was so offensive to him that he had to go one step further, to wit: “fucking black bastard”. That was like saying “double black bastard”; or, even better, black bastard to the second power! In a word, or rather in notation, “bb2” – black bastard squared!
That, dear reader, is the thing that got to me: instead of spending what you might call his creativity on something worthwhile, he had put it to the service of evil. [The scope of this essay will not allow us to debate whether the man’s racism was the product of ignorance. If it was, then what is our well-educated, liberal TV reporter doing in bed with him?] But even so, I apparently did not think it important, or hurtful enough, to write about it at the time. That omission was related to the (now properly defined) racist incident involving the well-known television reporter, henceforth Mr Reporter.
He had come to the protest a bit later than the handful of reporters present, all of whom were apparently from print, or non-TV media (no camera operators in tow). Mr Reporter is an instantly recognisable “celebrity” whose reporting style you could call confrontational, at times rambunctious. He belongs to what I call the Jeremy Paxman school of journalism, after the former BBC Newsnight presenter, who occasionally got up the noses of evasive politicians by asking pointed questions in repetitive, irreverent fashion. This can be sometimes amusing, so long as you don’t expect its practitioners to question or challenge the racist, bourgeois order. They are merely fixtures through which imperialist media can fool themselves that their journalism is “probing” or “robust”. Before this episode, I did not have a “position” on Mr Reporter, other than that he was a mildly-entertaining establishment journalist.
Just don’t expect them to challenge the racist, bourgeois order
And so it came to pass that during a lull in chants of “Reinstate Marc Wadsworth” and similar slogans, the placard-carrying liberal lefties suddenly spied with their little eyes the unsuspecting Mr Reporter and his cameraman, newly arrived on the scene. Like vultures alighting on dead meat, they pounced. There were maybe 15 or so people in the boisterous mob. They were not actually shouting, just speaking in very loud voices to the reporter, whose physical person was not in any danger.
One person said that Mr Reporter had come to their protest in order to “misreport” the truth. An elderly woman charged that he had only gone there to establish his presence, and that his report “has already been written” for him. He was called “a member of the establishment” by one West Indian protester. A lot of other allegations were hurled at Mr Reporter (and his absent bosses) - of being Zionist sympathisers, spreading fake-news, and supporting the 2011 imperialist aggression against Libya.
The very vocal and animated group included people of all races and colours, both men and women. The encounter was far from threatening; if anything, it seemed good-natured and spirited – at least from the perspective of the protesters, many of whom were smiling. However, Mr Reporter was taking it all very seriously – and personally.
And then I noticed that his reaction was very selective. To be exact, he only responded to the jibes and allegations made by the black people in the group. And the responses were of a particular kind – namely, a request for the person to define a word or phrase they had just used against him. So for instance, the black man who had said Mr Reporter was a member of the establishment was not only asked to define “establishment”, but to also spell the word. He asked another to define and spell “fake news”. I watched this strange spectacle for a while, not sure what to make of it.
Before long, I also entered the fray, charging that his TV station was a supporter of imperialist aggression against Libya in 2011. And true to recently-observed form, he asked whether I could spell imperialism. I said I could, upon which he asked me to define the word for him. I then replied that, not only could I define imperialism, but that I had also written a book about it in which I take his news anchor colleague to task for his slavish kowtowing to imperialism during the Western aggression against Libya.
That seemed to give him pause for thought, as he struggled to get his mini-brain to compute the fantastical fact that not only could this monkey standing before him spell and define words, but it could actually manage to also string enough sentences together in a configuration that can be referred to as a book. While his pea brain was thus over-heating, I advised him to visit my website for details of the book. I concluded the exchange by making the observation that the main female news-reader on his channel had over the years metamorphosed into a “mini-me” of said news anchor right in front of viewers’ eyes.
On my way home I thought long and hard about that incident. Were Mr Reporter’s selective question-responses to just his black “attackers” tantamount to racism? It was not as clear-cut as racist name-calling would have been, hence my reticence to label it racist, or to write about it. I considered it and the incident with the beggar as two of a kind, and so did not want to write about one and not the other.
Indeed, I knew that his behaviour was “suspect”. And I suppose I also knew that it was racist, but did not want to label it as such, perhaps because it was not “very clear-cut” and might be perceived as crying wolf on a high-profile journalist on the basis of “flimsy” evidence. But was I afraid that an accusation of racism against him could blight his career? Geddoutahere, as our American cousins would say. Being racist never blighted the career of television presenter Jeremy Clarkson who, as we know, has been rewarded with a new TV show.
You only had to scratch the surface for the hidden racist to jump out
Thanks to my aforementioned moment of clarity, I have now transcended my reservations about calling that incident racist and writing about it.
Mr Reporter’s chosen response, when he was effectively backed up against the wall by what could be described loosely as a mob, should be seen for what it was – a “spontaneous racist response” springing from a deep-seated hatred of black people. And that animosity, it can be argued, informs his abiding conviction that people of African descent are genetically predisposed to be of lower intelligence compared to other races.
It has to be acknowledged that at no point during these boisterous exchanges was the man under any threat of physical harm. The only things receiving a hammering were his “professional” pride and journalistic “ethics”.
This leads us to the question of how many other journalists in the mainstream, or even in the alternative or left-wing media are of similar inclination, even though they might have convinced themselves that they are not, but which disposition could manifest itself in what might be called “crunch” situations, such as when our hero found himself backed up, both literally and figuratively, against a wall by a multi-racial “mob” that his warped mind computed as just so many “dumb fucking black bastards”.
For heaven’s sake, these are people who write stories and report on issues that impact the everyday lives of black people, in this country as well as internationally! Would not such deep-seated animosity towards black people colour the way they do their jobs? For instance, did racism play any role in the way they covered the 2011 Western aggression against Libya?
It should be recalled that Western mass media, as I wrote recently, universally spread disinformation in 2011 that so-called black African mercenaries had been killing “innocent protesters” at the behest of Colonel Gaddafi. This fake-news reporting by the Western Propaganda Brigade, Fourth Estate Regiment led directly to the genocide of Africans in Libya. This sounds eerily similar to the role Rwanda’s Hutu media played in the genocide of up to 800,000 Tutsi people in 1994. Those media workers subsequently faced some kind of justice. But where is the UN investigation into the role of Western media in Libya’s African Genocide? When will those guilty UK journalists decamp to cells in Her Majesty’s Prison Pentonvile? When will their US comrades-in-arms be sent to the notorious Angola prison in Louisiana, where irate African-American inmates would line up to get to know them in the biblical sense.
This brings to mind the case of Michael Richards, who played Cosmo Kramer in the US sitcom Seinfeld, one of my most favourite TV shows. Although I was partial to Elaine “He took it out” Benes, not to mention George “It shrunk” Costanza (played, respectively, by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Alexander), I also loved the mad-cap way Richards portrayed the Kramer character. Alright, then, I loved Richards. And then, seemingly out of the blue, he let rip with a tirade of racist abuse after he was heckled on stage by an audience that included black people. No-one saw that coming; at least I didn’t. Not unlike Mr Reporter, you only had to scratch the surface for the hidden racist to jump out at you.
And just who, you may be saying, is this mysterious Mr Reporter? Well, now that we are clear in our mind about the racist nature of that incident, there would seem to be no reason to withhold his identity. However, I am not going to say his name, for the simple reason that it does not really matter who he is. Naming him would change nothing; it will only boost his career (remember what bigotry did for the proud racist Clarkson). It is enough just to be reminded now and again that such people do exist.
But those readers who really want to know the true identity of our hero could do worse than follow the inadvertent clues in this essay. As Channel 4 News reporter Michael Crick would put it, it’s not rocket science.
*A version of this piece appeared in Pambazuka, the online Pan-African magazine