Former Foreign Secretary and oft-described ‘Brexit architect’ Boris Johnson described Muslim women who wear the “burka” and “niqab” as looking like “letterboxes” and “bankrobbers.”
But he is not racist, obviously.
A cursory perusal of his track record of statements relating to the ethnicity, country of origin and/or religion of various people throws light on this.
In these past statements, the pattern is clear: Johnson refers repeatedly to what he sees as the fixed cultural and/or biological characteristics of large groups of people, particularly black people (“Africans”) and Muslims. But this does not prove that he possesses the internal disposition of ‘a racist’.
In 2002, Johnson wrote in The Telegraph:
“What a relief it must be for Blair to get out of England. 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… No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird”.
Piccaninny is a derogatory word for black children. In fact it was “the dominant racial caricature of black children” during much of the history of the United States, according to Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
This doesn’t mean that Johnson’s use of the word piccaninny as a joke is a sign of racism. It merely proves that he was joking about black people.
Piccaninny is also a word that Boris Johnson appears to have used other times in private, as described by British journalism’s virtual personification of anti-racism, Rod Liddle, in an important piece characterising Johnson as “the least racist person I have ever met.” This was Mr Liddle’s profound verdict having spent time with Johnson on a visit to Uganda.
Mr Liddle is a widely-travelled man intimately familiar with the complex goings-on of world politics and culture, and so it can be assumed that his characterisation of Boris Johnson as “least racist” can be generalised to the entire world.
As a journalist, Boris Johnson displayed a penchant for fondly referring to Africans in derogatory terms. This was not racism, but a genuine expression of paternal benevolence for unfortunate Africans. In 2002, in The Spectator (British journalism’s other highly-regarded bastion of anti-racism) Johnson wrote about the “ancient prerogatives” that determine “the African male”:
“Almost every dollar of Western aid seems tied to some programme of female emancipation — stamping out clitorectomy, polygamy, bride-price, or whatever. And while some readers may feel vaguely that the African male should not be stampeded into abandoning his ancient prerogatives, one cannot doubt the care — bordering on obsession — with which Western workers pursue their ends.”
In the same article, Johnson noted lovingly about Africa that “(t)he continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”
Johnson’s scholarly subtext is obvious: Africa did better under the British empire, which of course was for hundreds of years deeply involved in the Trans-Atlantic Slave-Trade which resulted in the mass deaths of hundreds of millions of Africans. Africans are clearly inferior to the British at the complex task of governance, perhaps as a result of their “ancient prerogatives.” Nothing to do with the devastating impacts of British imperialism. Remember that, kids.
On the effects of colonialism in Uganda, Johnson added: “If left to their own devices, the natives would rely on nothing but the instant carbohydrate gratification of the plantain.”
Johnson’s article is indeed riddled with what can only be described as a powerful critique of white supremacist chauvinism. Bravo, Johnson!
It is worth noting that Johnson’s recent description of some Muslim women’s attire as akin to “letterboxes” and “bankrobbers” is not the first time he has written in broad-brush strokes on the evils of Islam and Muslims.
In 2005 after the London bombings, Johnson cast a net of non-bigoted suspicion on ‘Them’ British Muslims for being responsible for the attacks:
“We — non-Muslims — cannot solve the problem; we cannotbrainwash them out of their fundamentalist beliefs. The Islamicists last week horribly and irrefutably asserted the supreme importance of that faith, overriding all worldly considerations, and it will take a huge effort of courage and skill to win round the many thousands of British Muslims who are in a similar state of alienation, and to make them see that their faith must be compatible with British values and with loyalty to Britain. That means disposing of the first taboo, and accepting that the problem is Islam. Islam is the problem.”
The following year, in the superbly anti-racist Telegraph, Johnson continued his valiant and always hilarious anti-racist crusade as follows:
“For 10 years we in the Tory Party have become used to Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing, and so it is with a happy amazement that we watch as the madness engulfs the Labour Party.”
In 2008, Johnson went back to running articles in The Spectator under his editorship which effused anti-racist wisdom, such as ‘blacks have lower IQs’; another article he ran described African-American NBA players as having “arms hanging below their knees and tongues sticking out.”
He later had to apologise for doing so, insisting that those articles did not reflect what was in his “heart.” Maybe just his mind, then? Such a clever lad.
Speaking of mind, these sorts of comments appear to be part of a broader worldview which Johnson occasionally articulates in a somewhat clumsy fashion. In November 2013, Johnson referred in a public speech to the role of IQ in explaining entrenched inequality. His speech introduced many complex nuances that people of lower IQ will likely never comprehend, including the fact that he believes that the reason some people are poor is simply because of their inherent lack of intelligence and ability:
“Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130… I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses and so on that it is a valuable spur to economic activity.”
Of course, this is not racist or bigoted at all, as poor people aren’t a race, and it’s not their fault if they belong to biologically maladapted members of our species who aren’t innately clever. It just means if they’re not rich, they’re probably dumb.
One of the most embarrassing moments was when Johnson described Barack Obama’s decision in March 2016 to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. Johnson speculated in The Sun, undoubtedly the UK’s least racist newspaper, about the role of Obama’s “ancestral dislike” of the British:
“No one was sure whether the President had himself been involved in the decision. Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire — of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.”
Despite the disparaging reference to Obama’s black heritage vis-a-vis his part-Kenyan ethnicity, Johnson obviously is not an actual racist as proven by his exemplary career of opposing racism and bigotry.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s comments were sadly described as “idiotic” and “deeply offensive” by Winston Churchill’s grandson.
But what does Churchill’s grandson know? Probably doesn’t have as high an IQ as his granddad. Bad luck, eh ol’ chap.
So. Is Boris Johnson racist? Let us take the word of the world-renowned columnist Mr Liddle, whose prolific considered writings contain a rich reservoir of learnings for anyone concerned to combat racism and bigotry in all its forms.
Johnson may well be, if Mr Liddle’s words are taken seriously, the least racist person in Mr Liddle’s world. Ipso facto, it can be assumed that he is the least racist person on Planet Earth.
In that context, we are forced to reach the conclusion that in all the things he’s spoken about in the past, Johnson is laying the groundwork for the triumphant elimination of racism, through the sophisticated articulation of a worldview that only a few fortunate white men who went to Eton have the benefit of accessing: a worldview in which large swathes of the world — Africans, Muslims, poor and working class people — are self-evidently and inherently inferior, barbaric and prone to violence: unlike the funny, clever, wealthy white men like Boris Johnson.
If only liberal anti-racists woke up to this reality, their cause might be greater served.