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Wed 16 October 2019
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Musa Okwonga examines how politicians with immigrant backgrounds are using this identity to win popular support for regressive policies against minority groups.


“This daughter of immigrants needs no lectures from the north London, metropolitan, liberal elite,” said Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, as she addressed the Conservative Party Conference. A gleeful smile played across her face as she continued, stating her pledge to “end the free movement of people once and for all”. 

Patel’s remarks were greeted, one suspects, with much of the reaction that she desired; applause from her audience, condemnation from those appalled by the joy she seemed to take in the removal of their EU citizenship. We can focus here, though, on her use of words, which has two interesting elements.

First, there is the phrase “north London metropolitan liberal elite”. This is a use of language which has been identified by leading commentators as having anti-Semitic connotations. Even if this wording was merely reckless or negligent, it is unacceptable in any political climate, particularly this one; there are far smarter ways to critique Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, who we could charitably assume were her intended targets, than reaching immediately for age-old racist tropes.

Secondly, there is the implication that as the “daughter of immigrants” she will somehow not act against the rights and interests of immigrants, even as she seeks to usher in an era where freedom of movement will end. This implication is what we might call an act of “racial gatekeeping”.

Their tragedy, though, is that they have fallen for the myth of meritocracy.

Racial gatekeeping, put simply, is the assertion that the political figure in question could not possibly be criticised for regressive policies against a particular racially marginalised group, because they themselves are members of that group. After all, how could a proud daughter of immigrants introduce laws so severe that they might have prevented her own parents from entering the country? 

The racial gatekeeper is a crucial role because it allows a group of white people with racially regressive views to say: “Look at us, we have found a non-white person who agrees with us, our policies therefore do not have racially regressive effects.” It is a flimsy intellectual premise – after all, our recent politics continues to remind us that gay people can support homophobic policies, and groups of women can support misogynistic politicians. But, the premise is not there to provide debate-winning logic, it is there to provide a sense of emotional validation for their audiences. Priti Patel knows this, and that is a probably a key reason why she was smiling when she gave her speech. 

Racial gatekeepers are an interesting contradiction: they pride themselves on their rebellious streak, defying what people expect them to think, yet the positions which they take rigidly reinforce the racial status quo.

In the US, Candace Owens has urged black voters to abandon the Democratic Party and throw their electoral weight behind Donald Trump, arguing that the Democrats are not entitled to the black vote. That is of course entirely true, yet Owens has gone a step further – disregarding the testimony of a renowned academic that white nationalism is a grave problem in America. She has most recently been welcomed by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a French politician with presidential ambitions. In an era where the far-right has seen startling electoral gains across the world, these supposed contrarians on the subject of race have rarely been so utterly conventional.

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Racial gatekeepers are not mere careerists; these are political positions that they honestly hold. Neither are they self-loathing, or ashamed of who they are – if anything, they are supremely proud of themselves, a defiant minority.

They typically tend to believe that the problem of racism is exaggerated by the left, whom they see as all too ready to complain; in the case of James Cleverly, the co-chairman of the Conservative Party, they have downplayed the use of blackface by their colleagues. For them, society seems to be a sort of assault course, and those who rise do so by right; that with the right amount of intelligence and diligence they can conquer all. If Patel can work her way up the political ladder, then why can’t others who look just like her? 

Their tragedy, though, is that they have fallen for the myth of meritocracy. At times, they have apparently told themselves that if they embody the most hardline aspects of their political parties – normally involving what they would call “hard questions” about law and order, race and immigration – then they will be embraced by their peers.

And so, as recently as 2011, Patel voiced her support for capital punishment, a view from which she has since retreated. Last spring, Kwasi Kwarteng mounted a defence of the Government’s policy on Windrush that was striking for its lack of empathy.

Last winter, then Home Secretary Sajid Javid, keen to emphasise what he saw as a key racial element to paedophile rings, tweeted about “sick Asian paedophiles”. By contrast, Javid has been curiously silent on the subject of paedophilia in English football, a case which broke earlier that year and the numbers for which are astonishing in their scale – 300 suspects identified, 849 victims and 340 clubs named. There were no tweets from Javid about “sick white paedophiles”, even though the overwhelming number of coaches and therefore abusers are likely to have been white. There were no public questions from Javid about what cultural reasons in the white community might have led these men to abuse boys, leading to, in the words of FA Chairman Greg Clarke, “the biggest crisis in the history of the sport”. It is interesting to see where and how Javid chooses to talk about race, and where and how he chooses not to. 

Despite these exhaustive efforts, though, several of them may privately wonder if these lonely roads – roads which they assuredly chose – will ever end in the warm embraces which they seem to seek.

Javid, despite having shown his tough-on-refugee credentials by returning early from a family holiday to patrol the English Channel, found himself inexplicably shunned by Donald Trump when the President visited the UK earlier this year. Cleverly, despite routinely showing his party extraordinary loyalty, was not rewarded with the same support when he ran for its leadership, dropping out of the race only a few days after announcing his candidacy

Meanwhile, Patel’s ascent continues. On the same day that she made her speech about ending freedom of movement, in order to enable the arrival of the world’s finest scientists, a story broke about how her Home Office had denied access to the family of one of those scientists. It was grimly fitting: a preview of Patel’s world where the rhetoric will be brutal, the policies more brutal still.

It is unclear where Patel’s journey will end; all that appears clear is that, before she is done, the happiness of many more people will be mere collateral damage for her ambition. 

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