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The mistake of seeing Britain through American eyes

Black Lives Matter protesters in London in 2016. Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty

What strikes me about Diane Abbott’s letter to The Observer, says Ed West on Substack, is her obsession with racism in the US. “In pre-civil rights America,” she wrote, “Irish people, Jewish people and Travellers were not required to sit at the back of the bus.” This is a British MP, writing in a British newspaper, in response to an article about British history – “and she cites segregation on buses”, a practice that never occurred in Britain. It shows how many of us have become “unable to view the world through any other framework” than the American experience.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement took off in 2020, British schools and businesses have constantly banged on about their “equality, diversity and inclusion” programmes. But they rarely mention Asian minorities, even though South Asians vastly outnumber the UK’s black population. This is because America’s Asian minority is too small (“and too middle class”) to figure in the country’s black-versus-white approach to racism – so we Brits ignore them too. What’s more, importing America’s “historical traumas” largely ignores the fact that Britain has traditionally been divided not by race, but by class. So you have Scotland’s first minister Humza Yousaf and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar ranting about officials being “overwhelmingly white”, even though white people comprise 96% of Scotland’s population. Rarely mentioned is that both these “progressive champions” attended private school – in fact, the “same private school”. Mindlessly aping American debates about racism is a “colonial mentality”, and stops us addressing our own inequality.