Let me explain. In the course of tweeting the events around the trial, conviction and sentencing of Gary Dobson and Steven Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, I wrote: "I do wish everyone would stop saying 'the black community' though." I expanded in a followup: "Clarifying my 'black community' tweet: I hate the generally lazy thinking behind the use of the term. Same for 'black community leaders'. This led to a reply from my local MP Diane Abbott, in which she said: "I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a "divide and rule" agenda."
We went back and forth for a few tweets more and then Abbott sent out the tweet that caused the furore: "White people love playing 'divide & rule' We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism." Nothing much happened, until late night, when I began to get a flurry of replies from non-followers. On Thursday morning, MP Louise Mensch retweeted it with her addendum: "you what? <~~~ #racism". Abbott has since apologised and Thursday afternoon deleted the tweet. The remainder of our conversation is still on Twitter.
I've discussed the issue of viewing black people (and indeed other minority ethnic people) in the UK as one monolithic group on Twitter before. Here's how it goes: a) something deemed to be a "black issue" is on the news agenda; b) Without fail, "community leaders" and the now standard "ex-gang member" are wheeled out to be interviewed. Take yesterday's Newsnight, in which Jeremy Paxman introduced three guests, all invited into the studio to discuss the issues of police "stop-and-search" powers, the legacy that the Stephen Lawrence murder has left on the Metropolitan police and the general issue of a lack of trust in – sigh – the "black community". They were Cindy Butts from the Metropolitan Police Authority, Rod Jarman, a former acting deputy commissioner at the Met, and Madix, who in the words of Paxman is a "former gang member who served time in prison and now works with young gang members". While I'm sure Madix is a lovely man who enjoys nothing more than living his life within the boundaries of legality, it made my heart sink to see him on the telly. Why Madix? Why, for that matter, Dizzee Rascal following the election of Barack Obama in 2008?
They're just two examples of what looks to me like a half-hearted and not very extensive search for guests to add value to a discussion. I hardly ever recognise any of the so-called "community leaders" on these programmes – I doubt many ordinary black people, ie those they purport to represent, ever do. In the aftermath of the UK riots last summer, I heard and saw so many youth workers being interviewed, I began to wonder if it was the workers themselves who had done the looting.It is a lazy media tactic, which does little to move the discourse along, and it is condescending as hell. Sky News presenter Gillian Joseph summed it up perfectly when she tweeted on Wednesday night: "Would be useful if #newsnight sought the views of a black man who isn't an ex gang member. Surprisingly, they do exist." I haven't tweeted or sent a direct message to Diane since this story broke, and neither has she. I've received some awful tweets, using terribly offensive language. The last missive said simply, "You are a massive waste of space." It has been an emotional day.
This won't be the last race brouhaha to happen this year. Twitter is especially good at whipping itself into a froth on any given day. I do wish, though, that it had chosen another day for this particular one. In the crush that followed, everyone seemed to forget the Lawrence family's recent judicial victory. They also seemed to forget that this single victory has not succeeded in eradicating privilege based on skin colour and we all have a very long way to go still before we reach an equal society. Where's the outrage about that?