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Boris Johnson’s actions are racist — there’s no need to selectively quote him

The PM does not care about racial minorities or humanity in general and the case against him is overwhelming: so why does the left and labour movement obsess over his use of offensive language as some kind of magic bullet instead of his actual crimes, asks EMILY WEIR

BORIS JOHNSON is a disaster for this country and everyone in it. In fact, he’s a disaster for the whole world. His policies see people driven into poverty at home and abroad, the environment poisoned, the climate changed and the wheel of war turned — all done knowing the impact this will have on non-whites in particular.

So why do we always seem to rely on misrepresenting an article he wrote nearly 20 years ago to prove his racism, instead of his litany of actual, ongoing crimes?

Following the Euros championship final, Johnson condemned the racist abuse of black English football players. Journalists and commentators were quick to highlight his hypocrisy in doing so, most notably by quoting his 2002 editorial “If Blair’s so good at running the Congo, let him stay there,” in which he described African people as “flag-waving piccaninnies… break[ing] out in watermelon smiles.”

The problem is when reading the offending article, you get the exact opposite impression. Johnson is provocatively parodying Tony Blair’s white saviour complex. He mocks “Supertone,” “the big white chief touch[ing] down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.” He uses racist stereotypes to make fun of Blair’s — he suggests — assumption that his paternalistic neocolonialism will be welcomed by a grateful, passive, infantile crowd.

He even highlights the Queen’s similar attitudes to the rest of the world — the full quote is as follows: “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies; and one can imagine that Blair, twice victor abroad but enmired at home, is similarly seduced by foreign politeness.”

These words could have appeared under the byline of many left-wing writers and would be taken as a poorly worded, but anti-colonial polemic. In 2021, Blair’s earlier work in getting minimum wage and equalities legislation through is largely forgotten and his legacy is best remembered as the invasion of Iraq and his sanctimonious posturing as a “peace envoy to the Middle East,” so looking back now, Johnson’s article even seems prescient.

For someone today whose knowledge of Johnson is the carefully cultivated image of bumbling, cuddly, old-fashioned “BoJo,” gaffe-prone but well-meaning, they may even come away with a better opinion of him for reading it.

This would only serve to cover up the racist acts since then in which he and his government have been, and continue to be, complicit.

For all Johnson’s handwringing about colonialism, he has consistently voted for military intervention abroad, including the 2003 Iraq war, even voting against trying to secure UN approval or further evidence of the existence of the fictional weapons of mass destruction. In 2017 he was asked at the Conservative Party conference about his visit to Libya as foreign secretary and he said “There’s a group of UK business people, wonderful guys who want to invest in Sirte… to turn it into the next Dubai. The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away.”

That same year, footage emerged of black migrants being bought and sold at slave markets in Libya, following the country’s destabilisation by US and UK forces.

His domestic policies have also had a horrific impact on black people. Four years on from the Grenfell Tower fire, there are still hundreds of buildings in London alone with the same dangerous cladding, many in areas with higher black and Asian populations.

Boris Johnson had long supported the “hostile environment” policies that led to the Windrush scandal: the wrongful deportation of many black British citizens. Although this began under Theresa May, many victims have still not received compensation to this day, with even the National Audit Office saying the Home Office had not met its aims and at least nine victims have died waiting.

His feckless handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to 129,000 deaths; the ONS data shows that in Britain, black people are over four times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white people.

This is partly due to their overrepresentation in jobs such as healthcare and transport: the very people who have kept the country going despite its leaders’ incompetence and cronyism throughout the pandemic, and now the Johnson government insults those in the public sector with a 1 per cent pay rise — predicted to be a real-terms cut, after inflation.

Evidence of Boris Johnson’s racism and hypocrisy is all around, in the material impacts his government has had on black people in and outside Britain. We must hold him to account on these and fight to change them and this won’t be done by reading his old columns.

Emily Weir is the women's officer of the Edinburgh CPB and a Unite member. She writes in a personal capacity.

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