Gus John proclaims DON’T BAME ME!

Following upon the momentum created by Gus John’s account of his clash with the BBC, Sanitising Racism, Past and Present it is all the more challenging to post his passionate rejection of the almost taken-for-granted and ‘hideous’ acronym, BAME – Black, Asia and Minority Ethnic. More than a few questions herein for the youth work world I have inhabited across the decades….and society at large.


Just before the lockdown, my granddaughter came home from school one day very upset and confused. That afternoon, a classmate sitting at her table suddenly announced that from now on we will all call Anna (not her real name) ‘nigger’. They are both 10 and British white and African respectively. Anna remonstrated with him and one of her mates, white, insisted that she should tell the teacher. In a discussion that ensued later, questions were asked about what the school was doing about race and one adult added ‘especially as there are so few Bame students in the school’. Anna had no clue as to what Bame meant and when she was told, she asked why it mattered that there were few students like her in the school, given the fact that it was the white boy who had used the racial slur. When on reaching home she called to tell me about it, I found it considerably less problematic to explain to her the origins and usage of ‘the n-word’ than that of BAME.

So, here is a British born child, confident in her own skin, unapologetic about her blackness and totally comfortable with her white classmates having sleep overs at her home and vice versa, being made to feel that she was a problem; a problem that required the school to deal with the issue of race; being made to feel that if she had not been there, the white boy would not have had cause to call anybody ‘nigger’ and the school would have had no need to concern itself with race.

But, that school had long demonstrated to her that it saw no need to concern itself with race, not least by virtue of the fact that nothing in its library or displayed on its walls sent out to students, teachers or parents that there were people in Britain, let alone the world, other than white people like themselves.

So, why was it was more difficult to explain the origin and use of the word ‘nigger’ than that of the hideous and equally demeaning acronym BAME?

How does a parent tell a 10 year old that by virtue of the colour of her skin, by virtue of the fact that she is melanin rich, she is rendered ‘other’ and racialised as ‘black’ and as ‘nigger’ as the worst and most contemptible embodiment and existential manifestation of black? How does a parent equip that child with the mental energy, the self esteem, the self confidence and the determination to defend her essential humanity and make sure that no one takes liberties with her and denigrate her on account of her blackness?

And, while her parents are building with and within her those essential tools for resistance and survival, what are the parents of her white classmates doing to ensure  that they are not being socialised within the putrid culture of racism in Britain to become racist oppressors, whether by commission or omission?

So, what is the context of this conversation about the terminology we use to denote racial identity and to denote ethnicity?

The context I suggest is the racialisation of difference and of different populations across the globe; racialisation of people, their ethnicity, their history, their culture and cultural products. Such racialisation has been the historical function of imperialism and colonialism and with it has evolved a language that serves the purpose of underpinning racial hierarchies and trapping those at or near the bottom of the hierarchy in mindsets and ways of being and of self-perception that correspond to those hierarchies.

We ignore the relationship between language, power and identity at our peril. Words matter. They convey deep meanings and they help to frame identities. They are the medium through which we give expression to our existential reality and through which others seek to deny, denigrate and negate our existential reality.

Before I arrived in Britain in 1964 aged 19, I had not heard the word ‘coloured’ used to describe African people except in the specific context of apartheid in South Africa. As a teenager, I was deeply affected by reading Alan Paton’s, ‘Cry, the Beloved Country’. So, when I heard white people and even Caribbean people calling other Caribbean people like myself ‘coloured’, I was quite alarmed. And then I read Stokeley Carmichael and Charles Hamilton’s ‘Black Power’ and I learnt about the Negritude Movement and I read James Baldwin, Claude Mackay, Ralph Ellison and saw images of Black Panther and civil rights marches and of Jim Crow barbarism as African Americans struggled against state racism in the USA.

Stokeley Carmichael

I found it interesting that the bestial British who for centuries had treated African people worse than they did animals had suddenly converted to humanity, such that they were insisting that it was not just impolite but downright offensive to call us ‘black’. We were being condemned for using our supplementary schools to teach ‘Black Power’. Black was considered to be associated with violence, armed resistance against the state and its apparatuses and generally with a radical and revolutionary mindset. ‘Coloured’ was more consensual and conformist and in any event, it made white folk feel better, except of course when they were ready to cuss us. I’ve never heard the racial slur ‘you coloured bastard’. No, we got the full monty, including and especially from the police: ‘You black bastard’.

And then, the contorted language of race relations brought us ethnic minorities and black and ethnic minorities. This gave rise to a protracted debate about whether we were ethnic minority or minority ethnic. That debate completely missed the point, i.e., a) that whether ‘ethnic minority’ or ‘minority ethnic’, we were consenting to being minoritized and ‘othered’ for all time and that we were considered and treated as ‘minority’, not just in relation to our ‘per capita’ representation in the population as part of the African and the Asian Diaspora, but minority in intelligence, in capabilities, in moral values, in our contribution to human evolution, etc. The society which automatically valued and validated white folk, began to demand that we prove ourselves and demonstrate that we had the capacity to hold certain positions before we could be accepted as eligible for appointment to a wide spectrum of posts; b) that as far as ethnicity was concerned, we were not just ethnic minorities, we were ethnic outcasts, vying with other ethnic minorities like ourselves and scrambling for crumbs and handouts from those in power, who were always facing a potential backlash from the white majority who saw us as undeserving and as taking what should have been given to them.

No one ever spoke or wrote about the ethnic majority in the society and how they engaged with their racial and ethnic identity. People and things were only ethnic when they were, or were related to, people and cultures that were not white. It is as if we had come into a land of ethnic neutrality and cultural homogeneity and were clumps of trees in vast forests of melanin starved corn; in other words, a population of people without colour (PWC) in more ways than one.

In time, those halcyon days when black denoted struggle of the sort that African people had waged for centuries against enslavement, colonisation and neo-colonialism and therefore was thought to encompass liberation struggles, broadly speaking, of oppressed and dispossessed peoples everywhere, including against the caste system in the Indian subcontinent, against Israeli occupation of Palestine and against the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australasia, those halcyon days gave way to a far narrower definition of black as signifying African – as in Africa and its Diaspora -, with most diasporan Africans seeing themselves as having either a hyphenated identity, – African-American, African-Caribbean, French-African – and many emphatically rejecting their African heritage altogether. Among the latter are significant numbers of Caribbean people of all ages, who while being comfortable with being called Black would never call themselves and resent being called African. In other words, they have no time whatsoever for Peter Tosh’s famous declaration:

‘Don’t care where you come from
As long as you’re a black man, you’re an African’

Asians in Britain determined that they were not Black and they were no ‘ethnic minority’ either. In time, BME morphed into Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME).  

BAME is a hideous acronym and it is one that does no justice to any of the sections of the British population encompassed by that ill-defined term. Black is an umbrella classification for whom exactly? Black African? Black British of African and of Caribbean parentage? Black British of African, or Caribbean and white European parentage? How about the large Indo-Caribbean population of Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, almost as numerous as the African-Caribbean population? In Britain, are they and their offspring Black Caribbean, or are they Asian as in BAME?

And what do we understand by Asian? What does that umbrella classification encompass? People from the Indian subcontinent only, as in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh? People from the Indian Ocean? People from countries that form the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN): Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, 
Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Phillipines, Vietnam, Brunei, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos? People from China? People from Taiwan?

And if ‘Asians’ as in BAME signify people from the Asian continent and its Diaspora, why are people from the African continent and its Diaspora represented as ‘Black’ in BAME? I would suggest that ‘Black’ in that context has less connotations of Black as in “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’ than as black representing historical enslavement, reserve pools of labour, endless struggle for fundamental rights and entitlements and from the bondage of endemic racism.

As for ethnic minority/minority ethnic, we have to lead the way in abandoning this terminology.

The population of Europe’s ethnic majority, ie, white Europeans, is roughly 748 million. The population of the Indian subcontinent alone is approximately 1 billion, 765 million. 25% of the world’s population live in South Asia. Whites make up 60% of the population of the USA. The UK has a population of 68 million, of whom 9 million are non-white.

There is no evidence that I have seen of people from the Asian or African Diaspora regarding themselves as ethnic minorities in Britain. On the contrary, migrant and settler communities from those continents project anything but a minority consciousness. Yet, we readily adopt and persist with a language of hierarchy and of oppression, both here and in the USA. Among the bewildering array of terms that are in increasingly regular usage in Britain are: People of Colour; Black and Non-Black People of Colour and more recently Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC).

Who determined that Black or Indigenous people are ethnic minorities? Even numerically, why are we minoritizing ourselves who constitute 85% at least of the world’s population? Nigeria has a population of over 200 million. Britain has a population of 68 million. Why should Nigerians see themselves as an ethnic minority in Britain or anywhere else in Europe? And as for ‘People of Colour’ or ‘Visible Minorities’, why are we defining ourselves against globalised whiteness as some assumed norm and minoritizing ourselves as if we don’t fully belong, especially given Europe’s historical exploits around the globe?

There are little and large enclaves of white folk all over the world and on each continent. They never define themselves, nor do we ever define them, as ‘ethnic minorities’. We call them and they refer to themselves as ‘expats’, expatriates from their homeland who happen to be in some other country (typically seen as inferior to theirs). In other words, people are only ‘ethnic’ and ‘minority’ when they are not white. And yet, we fail to see how we ourselves are privileging whiteness as the ‘norm’ when we call ourselves ‘people of colour’, ‘ethnic minorities’ and the rest.

BAME is bad enough, but BIPOC for heaven’s sake…. So, we tacitly and implicitly accept that ‘white’ is a unified concept, all embracing, all encompassing. No diversity, ethnic minorities or multiculturalism in the white majority. It’s one undifferentiated, melanin starved mass. When it comes to us, however, we are BAME, POC, BIPOC, non-White ……and Backward.

If African people are People of Colour, why deny white Europeans the privilege of being called People without Colour, in other words, not having to carry the burden of blackness with all its historical baggage of unacceptability and undesirability?

The critical question in all this is: When is it going to end? It is estimated that in less than 50 years, the non-white population of Britain will outnumber the melanin starved, the WIPONC (White and Indigenous People of No Colour). Do we have to wait until then before we Africans and Asians develop and project a majority consciousness and stop minoritizing ourselves? Meanwhile, what does BAME tell us about the way the diverse populations we group as Black and Asian and Minority Ethnic experience the society and its endemic racisms? Do Indians, Bangladeshis, Chinese and Malaysians experience the society and its institutions in identical ways? Do they have equal access and equal opportunity? Similarly, those of us Africans who are lumped together as ‘Black’?

Convenient though policymakers no less than academics and journalists find it to use BAME and POC, I believe that we have a duty to disrupt the hegemony of that language and its power to racialise, marginalise and exclude. For one thing, young Black British people such as my children and grandchildren need a home. They need to see themselves as being the continuum of an Ancestral line, as having an African ancestry. Britain is where they live, but it can never be their ‘home’. Their ‘Mother country’ is Africa. While we believe in people’s right to self-identify and that therefore, Caribbean people have a right to declare that they are not African or Asian, or British for that matter, we would all consider it rather bizarre if they all started calling themselves Innuits.

I have no idea, any more than you do, how long it would take before we abandon the language of BAME and POC and BIPOC. But, we can all start by taking responsibility to avoid using it in our speech and in our writing. Although many regard it as being equally problematic, I increasingly use terms such as Global Majority, or African and Global Majority, instead of BAME. I never ever use ‘People of Colour’, for as far as I am concerned there is no difference between being called a person of colour, or a ‘woman of colour’ and a ‘coloured woman’.

Problematic it may be, but psychologically it nurtures my sense of wellbeing in this racist society to define myself and my offspring as African and Global Majority, rather than endorsing the label of BAME and POC.

I rest my case.

Gus John
International Consultant & Executive Coach Visiting Professor  –  Coventry University
Honorary Fellow and Associate Professor The UCL Institute of Education – University of London

Gus John challenges a hierarchy of oppression

Worrying times. As a right-wing government displays arrogantly its xenophobic character the potential opposition, within or without a shattered Labour Party, tears itself apart. One particular and revealing expression of this is the fearful flight from open and critical reflection on the question of antisemitism. Late last year I posted Gus John’s coruscating critique of Archbishop Welby’s support for the Chief Rabbi’s condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn. The Archbishop has not replied and I suspect the hope is that Gus will fade away – not at all likely! Indeed in pursuing the matter further he widens the argument in a way that raises challenging issues for all political and professional activity purporting to be anti-oppressive.

On 21 January 2020 Gus John wrote:

There has not been a response from the Church of England to my resignation from the Archbishops’ advisory committee on race following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s endorsement of the Chief Rabbi’s intervention in the last general election.  On 12 January, the Board of Deputies of British Jews demanded that Corbyn’s successor adopt 10 extraordinary pledges, one of which would make the Labour Party complicit in denying free speech and legitimate protest against Israel’s activities in Palestine.  Unbelievably, all the then 5 leadership contenders immediately rushed to affirm their adoption of those pledges.

In this piece, I argue that the Labour Party is implicitly accepting the argument that the Jewish community (as defined by the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Deputies) sits on the pinnacle of a hierarchy of oppression and therefore has an absolute right to determine what is antisemitic and what is not and that their experience of racism demands a different and entirely separate response from the Labour Party than that of any other section of the population facing racism on the basis of ethnicity or/and religion/faith.

I am calling on the Archbishop of Canterbury to have regard to the experience of racism that generations in the Anglican community has had and successive governments’ failure to tackle it and condemn the shamefully sectarian approach to combating racism that the Board of Deputies is advancing and that contenders for the Labour Party leadership are so unquestioningly embracing.

Labour’s Dangerous Capitulation to the Board of Deputies of British Jews on Antisemitism

Is that what the Archbishop of Canterbury wanted?

On Sunday 12 January 2020, the Board of Deputies of British Jews launched its 10 pledges which it demanded that each of Labour’s candidates for leader and deputy leader should sign up to in order to “begin healing its relationship with the Jewish community” after what it called the crisis of antisemitism under Jeremy Corbyn.  It claimed that Jew-hate “became a matter of great anxiety for the UK’s Jews” under Corbyn’s watch. Marie van der Zyl, the Board’s president, said she hoped the new leader of the opposition would address antisemitism in Labour “promptly and energetically”.

The 10 pledges the Board is demanding that candidates adopt are:

  1. The promise to resolve outstanding cases of alleged antisemitism
  2. To devolve the disciplinary process to an independent agent
  3. To ensure transparency in the complaints process
  4. Prevent re-admittance of prominent offenders
  5. Provide no platform for those who have been suspended or expelled for antisemitism.
  6. The full adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism “with all its examples and clauses and without any caveats”
  7. To deliver anti-racism education programmes that have been approved by the Jewish Labour Movement, which would lead training
  8. To engage with the Jewish community via its “main representative groups and not through fringe organisations” such as Jewish Voice for Labour
  9. To replace “bland, generic statements” on anti-Jewish racism with “condemnation of specific harmful behaviours”
  10. For the Labour leader to take personal responsibility for ending the “antisemitism crisis”

The Board’s president, Mrs Marie van der Zyl accused some of the leadership candidates of remaining silent on antisemitism since campaigning began and condemned others who “appeared to have tailored their message depending on which section of the party they have been addressing”.

She added: “We will be frank. The relationship between Labour and the Jewish community, once rock solid, has been all but destroyed. Rebuilding will take more than mild expressions of regret. It will take a firm public commitment to agree to a specific course of action.

“Our Ten Pledges identify the key points we believe Labour needs to sign up to in order to begin healing its relationship with our community. All of these points, in one form or another, have previously been put to Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership team. Regrettably, action on any of these issues was limited at best, non-existent at worst.”

We expect that those seeking to move the party forward will openly and unequivocally endorse these Ten Pledges in full, making it clear that if elected as leader, or deputy leader, they will commit themselves to ensuring the adoption of all these points.”

Of the six declared leadership candidates, five had endorsed the Board’s demands as of Sunday afternoon: Sir Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Emily Thornberry, declaring on Twitter as follows:

Keir Starmer


The Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism has been completely unacceptable. It has caused deep distress for the Jewish community, which we must all accept responsibility for and apologise.

I support the recommendations put forward by the Board of Deputies. …

Lisa Nandy


We should never again be in a position where we’re telling Jewish grateful to the @BoardofDeputies for their initiative. Labour must accept all of these pledges in full.

Jess Phillips MP


I absolutely endorse all these pledges in full. We need to work hard to make the Labour Party a safe space once again for the Jewish community. …

Emily Thornberry


Without hesitation or qualification, I sign up to every one of these pledges. …

In an interview with Sky‘s Sophy Ridge, Ms Long-Bailey said she would adopt the Board’s ten pledges “straight away”. The Board of Deputies condemned the “conspicuous absence” of Clive Lewis, Dawn Butler and Richard Burgon. – @labourlewis @RichardBurgon and @DawnButlerBrent absent from the list of those who have signed the #TenPledges to tackle antisemitism in Labour


It is extraordinary that would be leaders of the Labour Party could even think about adopting those ten pledges. I am one of many who believe that such total and mindless capitulation to the Board of Deputies of British Jews would make Labour even more unelectable.  The IHRA’s definition and examples of antisemitism effectively allows those supportive of the state of Israel and its subjugation of the people of Palestine to charge antisemitism whenever anyone criticises Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. It allows for the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

Kenneth Stern, the respected Jewish author of the definition has himself condemned the use of it by the pro-Israel lobby for using it ‘as a guide to what is or isn’t antisemitic’ and to silence free speech on Israel.  In an article ‘Why the man who drafted the IHRA definition condemns its use’, George Wilmers wrote: 

Despite a general belief to the contrary and its “adoption” by the UK government, the IHRA definition has no legal status in the UK, and for very good reason: as has been highlighted by leading legal authorities such as Hugh Tomlinson and Stephen Sedley, not only is it not a proper definition for legal purposes, but its legal adoption by any public authority would conflict with existing protected rights of free expression guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Nevertheless such is the power of the propaganda campaign for the IHRA cult that, abandoning rational considerations, the leadership of the Labour party have felt obliged to make obeisance to the IHRA’s holy status, even while discretely seeking to modify the text in order to mitigate some of its draconian effects.  Jewish Voice for Labour –  2 August 2118

But, the enthusiastic endorsement and adoption of the 10 pledges by those aspiring to lead the Labour Party is extraordinary for other reasons also.

First, those leadership contenders are accepting that the Labour Party is ‘institutionally antisemitic’ simply because the Board of Deputies and the pro-Israel lobby say so.  They appear not to be interested in the evidence and whether on the basis of that evidence the charge of antisemitism in Labour is justified. As early as March 2019, Jewish Voice for Labour published statistics on complaints of antisemitism and how they were being dealt with (See piece from Labour Briefing March 2019 at the end of this paper).

Jewish Voice for Labour noted that 453 allegations of antisemitism were being followed up by Labour:

‘453 is 0.08% of the party’s 540,000 members – that’s about 1/12th of 1%; 96 of these resulted in suspensions – that’s 0.01%, or 1/100th of 1% of members; there were twelve expulsions – that’s 0.002%, or 1/500th of 1% of members! ….these are vanishingly small statistics, especially when you consider that 2-5% of the general population are considered to be antisemitic…..Margaret Hodge MP was informed by Jennie Formby (general secretary of Jewish Voice for Labour) that of the 200 dossiers of cases of antisemitism she had submitted, only 20 were found to be by Labour Party members. In other words, her allegations of antisemitism in the party had been exaggerated tenfold. And single handedly she accounted for approaching one fifth of all referrals. Headlines proclaiming there was “no safe place for Jews in Corbyn’s Labour”, or that Labour needed, in the words of Marie van de Zyl, when vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, to “drain the cesspit of antisemitism”, have been shown to be contradicted by the evidence……. If the facts are at such odds with the accounts of leading politicians and mainstream media, there can be only one explanation – these accounts are driven by ulterior political agendas. Other forms of racism, for which manifestations in the UK are 70 times more prevalent than those for antisemitism, barely get a mention. (my emphasis)’

Yet, the President of the Board of Deputies, could write in the last week:

“It beggars belief that after four and a half years of failure on antisemitism, Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler still think that they know better than the Jewish community how to fight this vile prejudice.  No other minority would be treated in this way and this sort of thing is the very reason why Labour is being investigated for institutional antisemitism by the EHRC. In the Deputy Leadership election, members now have a clear choice about whether they want to become a credible party of opposition or waste yet more years fighting the Jewish community about who gets to define our oppression.  …..”

One wonders where Marie van de Zyl has been these last few decades and how she and the Board of Deputies of British Jews could possibly claim to be qualified To deliver anti-racism education programmes that have been approved by the Jewish Labour Movement, which would lead training’, especially if she could so unashamedly assert that  ‘No other minority would be treated in this way…’. 

Dawn Butler is a black woman and an MP in Brent of all places.  

For its part, the EHRC has failed to call to account the many schools across the land that have no regard for the public sector equality duty of the Equality Act 2010 and have no policy in place for implementing the duty.  It has failed to investigate schools, academies in particular, for the disproportionate number of young people they are excluding, black boys in particular. It has failed to investigate the phenomenon of black people meeting their death while in the custody of the state, with no one ever being found guilty of malicious neglect, manslaughter, or murder since police in West Yorkshire were convicted of grievous bodily harm after killing the street sleeper, David Oluwale and kicking his body into a river in 1969, despite the 700 black people who have met their deaths while in custody, or being detained in immigration lockups in the last three decades.

Maybe Ms van de Zyl might like to study the Institute of Race Relations harrowing report on this in preparation for delivering their ‘anti-racism education programme’.

Against the backcloth of discrimination routinely suffered by black people in public bodies as defined by the Equality Act 2010, in sport and in cultural industries and given the statistical data available to the Labour Party and to the EHRC, it is disturbing that that watchdog could justify its investigation into antisemitism in the Labour Party, given its abject failure to hold organisations to account for racism. And Islamophobia.

The sectarian antiracism of those who shout the loudest

The Board of Deputies wants the Labour Party to engage with the Jewish community via its “main representative groups and not through fringe organisations” such as Jewish Voice for Labour.  The Jewish community is not a homogenous collective and ‘main representative groups’ certainly do not have a mandate to speak for all Jews in the so-called Jewish community.  In any event, why should the Labour Party allow the Board of Deputies to dictate to it who in the ‘Jewish community’ it should engage with and how?

I suspect the truth is that the Board of Deputies and the pro-Israeli lobby have set themselves up as foghorns for the state of Israel and any Jews or/and Jewish organisations that do not subscribe to that agenda are off-message and are to be sidelined not just by them, but by the Labour Party also.  That is why they insist on using and demanding that the Labour Party use the defunct IHRA definition of antisemitism.

The Labour Party is being asked to pledge ‘to prevent re-admittance of prominent offenders’.  I struggle to see how this becomes the business of the Board of Deputies rather than that of policymakers and members in the Labour Party. The same goes for the demand that no platform should be provided for those suspended or expelled for antisemitism.  The Board of Deputies of British Jews stopped just short of an 11th pledge, i.e., mandate them to run the Labour Party by proxy.  For, surely, this would be a logical step in the light of the other 10 pledges and of their unquestioning and enthusiastic acceptance by contenders for the Labour leadership.

But then, this is not the first time that ‘the Jewish community’ has been encouraged to see itself as sitting at the apex of a pyramid of oppression.  Following the Labour election victory in 1997, thereby coming out of the Thatcher wilderness after 19 years, I was asked by Tony Blair to help establish a Race Relations Forum to advise Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, on matters of race and social exclusion.  There came a point when the Forum was asked to consider a proposal for a Holocaust Remembrance Day. Some of us argued passionately that:

  • while the Jewish holocaust was part of relatively recent history, the fact that over 400 years millions of Africans suffered genocide and sheer barbarism as their existential reality in Africa itself and in the trade in enslaved Africans
  • Britain refashioned the plantation system and eventually withdrew to form the club of Europe, leaving the descendants of enslaved Africans in its now forgotten colonies impoverished and constituting a reserve pool of labour
  • given that those drawn from that pool to help rebuild Britain after two devastating world wars were experiencing a society that steadfastly refused to confront the legacy of empire and the racism concomitant with it, Britain should not contemplate establishing and funding a Holocaust Memorial Day solely to mark the Jewish holocaust.

There was clearly no appetite in government for acknowledging the African holocaust and its complicity in genocide and the protracted brutalisation of Africans at home and in the diaspora.  What is more, civil servants were advising that a Slavery Memorial Day would no doubt encourage strident shouts for an apology for the enslavement of Africans, for British imperialism and for reparations.  In quick time, the first Holocaust Remembrance Day was planned and observed, later being marked annually with pageantry in cities outside London.

To this day, not only has there been no Slavery Remembrance Day, the British government has announced that it cannot afford to fund a monument in London.  Although the charity Memorial 2007 had planning permission to erect a sculpture in Hyde Park to remember the victims of the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, the government reckoned it did not have the £4m needed to fund it.  Instead, the charity had to settle for these encouraging words from government:

“We are supportive of the aims of the monument and the organisation. The suffering caused by slavery and the slave trade are among the most dishonourable and abhorrent chapters in human history.”

Meanwhile, the government has pledged its support for a Holocaust Memorial, estimated to cost £100m.  In 2015 the government committed £50 million to the project ‘to kick-start a society-wide fundraising effort’.  On 7 May 2019, the then Prime Minister Theresa May was joined by the 4 living former Prime Ministers – Sir John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron – to back the proposal for the Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens beside parliament ‘to ensure we never forget one of the darkest chapters in human history’.

Prime Minister Theresa May said:

‘By putting our National Holocaust Memorial and Education Centre next to our Parliament, we make a solemn and eternal promise that Britain will never forget what happened in the Holocaust…. And this education centre will ensure that every generation understands the responsibility that we all share – to fight against hatred and prejudice in all its forms, wherever it is found’.

Announcing that the government was committing a further £25 million to the new National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, Communities Secretary the Rt Hon James Brokenshire MP said:

I believe there can be no more powerful symbol of our commitment to remembering the men, women and children who were murdered in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides than by placing the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, in the shadow of our Parliament at the heart of our democracy…The United Kingdom Holocaust Memorial is dedicated to the 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Holocaust and all other victims of the Nazis and their collaborators’.

So, £75m is provided without sweat or fuss for a Holocaust Memorial, a holocaust in which Britain was not involved, save for welcoming survivors, attending to their welfare and helping them rebuild their lives. The baddies were those Nazis to whom of course Britain is considerably more morally superior.  However, Britain owning its own genocide and atrocities against Africans over centuries and assisting current and future generations, especially white British, to understand the society and themselves against that historical canvass is an entirely different matter.

Commenting on the results of the Race Disparity Audit she commissioned in October 2017, Theresa May had this to say:

People who have lived with discrimination don’t need a government audit to make them aware of the scale of the challenge. But this audit means that for society as a whole – for government, for our public services – there is nowhere to hide. These issues are now out in the open. And the message is very simple: if these disparities cannot be explained then they must be changed. Britain has come a long way in my lifetime in spreading equality and opportunity. But the data we are publishing will provide the definitive evidence of how far we must still go in order to truly build a country that works for everyone.”

David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission commented: 

The findings of the race audit do not come as a shock to us. The Prime Minister should be applauded for laying out this information for all to see and we now need to use to the data to set the foundations for real change….”The Government must tackle the significant disparities confirmed by the audit in order to address the entrenched inequality that is so prevalent in our society.”

Despite all of that, however, shamefully and totally without compunction, the British government has declared that it has no intention of engaging with the UN Declaration on the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) and putting in place a programme of policies and actions consonant with the theme of Recognition, Justice and Development.  In proclaiming the Decade, the UN cited:

the need to strengthen national, regional and international cooperation in relation to the full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights by people of African descent, and their full and equal participation in all aspects of society’.

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1857) famously said:

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them!

The Board of Deputies and the pro-Israel lobby clearly know the benefits of shouting the loudest and not quietly submitting to anything.  There are inherent dangers, however, in laying claim to a victim status that engenders a sectarian view of oppression and measures to combat it and a belief in your entitlement to see the world from your pinnacle in the hierarchy of oppression you construct in the process.

I firmly believe that the Board of Deputies’ 10 pledges and the adoption of them by the leadership of the Labour Party will cause deep resentment in the Party and country and is likely to lead to worse forms of antisemitism.  

Given his endorsement of the Chief Rabbi’s intervention in the run up to the general election, for all the reasons given above, I call upon the Archbishop of Canterbury to condemn the sectarianism and foul bullying by the Board of Deputies and the pro-Israel lobby among British Jews and their not so veiled attack on freedom of speech and the right of people, Labour Party members or not, to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people and the complicity of its allies in that.  If the Church is about justice and sowing peace and if it believes in the sanctity of life and the right of everyone to live with respect and dignity and to have their human rights safeguarded, then surely in the same way that Justin Welby saw fit to endorse the Chief Rabbi’s intervention before the December election, he has a duty to comment on how sinister, undemocratic and deeply divisive the current political arm twisting and attempts at silencing opposition to their agenda actually is.

For example, is the Board of Deputies demanding that ALL political parties adopt their 10 pledges?  If not, why not? Do they know how many people with antisemitic sentiments are members of those other parties?  When the President of the Board denounces Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler for not signing on to the 10 pledges as their fellow contenders rushed to do and says ‘no other minority would be treated in this way’, is she not denying or reconstructing the experience of all those who routinely face discrimination and marginalisation in the society and all sorts of hate crime, including racially aggravated harassment, assault, criminal damage and even murder?  Is it being suggested that antisemitism trumps all those horrendous experiences that African and Asian people, Roma and Gypsies, have been suffering in the society and its institutions since the second world war, at least? Where is there any acknowledgment of these stark and well known facts by the Board of Deputies?  How is it even possible for the President of the Board to make such a crass statement?  

It is all good and well for the Board of Deputies, the government and the Church of the establishment to condemn the antisemitic conduct of individuals and groups, whether Labour Party members or not.  They have long maintained a shrill silence, however, on the structural racism now embedded in the system as experienced by African and Asian heritage people for over half a century in the form of racist immigration laws, a climate created by government in which the country is encouraged to regard every African or Asian, Roma or Gypsy as potentially an illegal immigrant (‘Go Home or Face Arrest’), ‘sus’ laws, Prevent, school exclusions, harsher sentences for black offenders, black youth unemployment and much more besides.  It is that silence and a preoccupation with the vile antisemitic acts of individuals, or groups of individuals, that allows the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews to make the utterly ridiculous claim that ‘…after four and a half years of failure on antisemitism, Richard Burgon and Dawn Butler still think that they know better than the Jewish community how to fight this vile prejudice.  No other minority would be treated in this way and this sort of thing is the very reason why Labour is being investigated for institutional antisemitism by the EHRC’.

The Muslim Council of Britain has come up with its own 10 pledges or manifesto commitments for the new Labour leadership. Perhaps every historically oppressed group on every rung of that pyramid of oppression atop of which the Jewish community sits should follow suit and get the Labour Party to commit to adopting their respective 10 pledges.

These are matters for serious debate and it requires us to challenge the Board of Deputies and the pro-Israel lobby for what is essentially an attack on our freedom and a denial of the experience of racism of huge swathes of the population and not just the 450,000 Jewish people in the UK.

Professor Gus John

International Consultant and Executive Coach

20 January 2020

Corbyn and Anti-Semitism – Prof Gus John answers Archbishop Welby

Back in 2015 Gus John took a breath at the age of 70, reflecting on fifty years of struggle. On the In Defence of Youth Work web site we observed, ‘Prof. Gus John arrived in the UK in August 1964, aged 19, to study for the priesthood. But almost from the moment he arrived he became involved in what was to become his life’s calling – education, youth work and the struggle for social justice and human rights for embattled communities as an activist and an academic.’

Thankfully Gus is still struggling and following his motto, ‘Do Right! Fear No One!’, he has resigned from his position on the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns in protest at Archbishop Welby’s endorsement of the Chief Rabbi’s condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. I hope you will find time to engage with his coruscating rebuke to what might be called ‘the establishment at prayer’ and its damaging intervention into the most significant election for decades – see my ‘From Social Selfishness to Social Solidarity’.

Corbyn and Anti-Semitism 
Prof Gus John answers Archbishop Welby 

Of Stained-Glass Houses and Stones

On 26 November 2019, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, backed the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in his condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, stating that Mirvis’ criticism of Corbyn and the Labour Party should ‘alert us to the deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews’.  In response, Professor Gus John, independent consultant and a lay member of the Archbishops’ Council’s Committee on Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC)*wrote:


So, the jury has returned its verdict. 

Jeremy Corbyn has failed the fitness to practice test.  His fitness to lead the nation has been tested in his handling of complaints of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and he has failed that test.  What is more, under his watch the Labour Party is suffering the ‘shame’ of being investigated by the government’s anti-discrimination watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission.  

This is all most intriguing.  Let’s take a moment to dissect it.  Corbyn is considered unfit to lead a government because with him at the helm his party has failed to deal swiftly and decisively with the anti-Semitic conduct of a minute proportion of its members.  This has cause hurt among the Jewish population and alienated Jewish supporters of Labour. So, Corbyn is presumed to be guilty of ‘joint enterprise’, because although he himself is a committed anti-racist and against anti-Jewish racism, by implication he has colluded with those who are not by failing to act decisively against them.  As such, his is taken to be a failure of leadership in that he did not ensure that appropriate mechanisms existed within the Labour Party to deal with complaints of anti-Semitism in a timely fashion. But, the absence of such mechanisms and processes is an organisational and institutional issue. The matters being complained against and being investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission are ones which are to do mainly with the conduct of individuals, whether they are rank and file members of the Labour Party or people holding official positions in the party.

Why this distinction? It seems to me that what is missing in this whole hysterical discourse which sounds increasingly like populism on speed, is that discrimination against any group or population in society who are rendered outsiders and not quite considered integral to the body politic typically manifests in at least four observable ways:  structural, cultural, institutional and personal. In this case, the actions of individuals in the Labour Party and what those actions indicate about their attitudes to the Jewish community are considered to be indicative of an embedded culture of anti-Semitism within Labour, a culture presumably endorsed and sustained by Jeremy Corbyn, if only by his failure to deal with the people responsible for perpetuating it in a timely fashion.

So, the Chief Rabbi proclaims with all the authority that goes with his position that Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to lead a government of a country in which Jews that have been so let down by him have to continue not only to live but to be full citizens. The actions of people within the Labour Party whom he has failed to deal with have caused the entire Jewish community to have cause to look over their shoulders as they go about their daily business and the responsibility for that must be laid at Corbyn’s feet.  The sense I make of that is that combating racism and anti-Semitism will not be safe in Corbyn’s hands, so on 12 December, people should think carefully about what they do in the ballot box and let their conscience lead them, because if he has failed to do his duty by the Jewish community and to get that right, he surely cannot be trusted to get anything else right. The media on the other hand reacts to the Chief Rabbi as if he were the Pope, speaking for all British Jews as the Pope would for all Roman Catholics.  Secular Jews and those who do not hold with the views of Jews for Labour are considered not to matter.

It seems to me that the Chief Rabbi and those powerful figures like the Archbishop of Canterbury who have weighed in behind him are being more than a little sectarian and establishing a hierarchy of oppression if they seriously expect the entire nation to judge Corbyn and his capacity to run the country for the good of all its citizens on the basis of their assessment of his performance in dealing with anti-Semitism.

This is all happening at a time when, despite the government and the media focusing on Brexit as the only show in town, people’s lives are being lost and their fundamental rights being trampled upon as a direct consequence of the government’s hostile environment.  At a time when citizens of the African and Asian diaspora have to be constantly ‘looking over their shoulder’ for fear of being ambushed by border force apparatchiks, or by right wing vigilantes who appoint themselves as defenders of our country and its borders. At a time when employers, landlords, schools/colleges/universities, doctors surgeries, A & E departments and other health providers are being appointed without their say so as immigration officers and extensions of the UK’s border force under the Immigration Act 2016; when people who as young black men were harassed and criminalised by the police 40 years ago under the ‘Sus’ law are being told now that they are undocumented and they must leave the UK because they have a criminal record and have therefore forfeited their right to remain; when undocumented workers who having been denied benefits are having whatever earnings they derive from casual work confiscated as ‘proceeds of crime’; children being excluded from school for not having the proper uniform because they are being fed from food banks and their parents/carers cannot afford to buy the clothes and shoes that would make them compliant with the school’s uniform policy.  One could go on.  

I am not aware of the Chief Rabbi or/and the Archbishop of Canterbury alerting the nation to the quality of leadership that perpetrates and sustains such human rights violations.  I have been an external examiner for colleges and universities for the last forty years. I have lived in the UK since 1964. I am to attend an examining board next week where a student will be defending her PhD thesis and I have been given strict instructions to make sure and bring my passport to prove I have the right to work, or else I won’t be able to present my external examiner’s report.  

This is the state at structural level doing to sections of the population what the Chief Rabbi is accusing the leader of the Labour Party of being nonchalant about with respect to his party’s treatment of Jews.  If the number of deaths in custody that the African community has suffered for half a century without a single police officer being found guilty of murder or manslaughter had occurred within the Jewish community, by now the entire nation would have been brought to a standstill.   Given our interlocking histories on the axis of race, ethnicity and class in post-colonial Britain, no one group in the society has a monopoly on oppression, or on hurt.

And what gives the Archbishop of Canterbury the right to endorse the Chief Rabbi’s scaremongering about Corbyn and adopt such a lofty moral position in defence of the Jewish population?  I have often had cause to wonder how it is that Justin Welby was made Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than John Sentamu.  Sentamu consecrated Welby as Bishop of Durham in York Minster in October 2011. By November 2012, just one year after becoming a Bishop, it was announced that Justin Welby was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, though it was widely expected – in some circles at least – that Sentamu would get that post.  Sentamu was a highly respected black senior cleric and had been a Bishop since 1996 and Archbishop of York since 2005, six years before he consecrated Welby a Bishop. It may well be that the appointments committee prayed and fasted and sought divine revelation before making their choice, so let me not gainsay the workings of the Holy Spirit!  Be that as it may, if Anglicans in the UK from the African and Asian diaspora were to judge Justin Welby as the leader of the established church by the same criteria he appears to be employing in his assessment of Jeremy Corbyn, he too would fail the fitness to lead test. There are numerous reasons why Anglican clergy, laity and employees within the Anglican Church who are so-called black and ethnic minority don’t call out the Archbishop of Canterbury on racism in the church and its leadership, in the same way that he sees fit to join the orchestrated condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn.  Maybe, just maybe, he has now given them permission to do so. Those who occupy houses clad with stained glass should perhaps be a trifle more careful when they join others in throwing stones.

Professor Gus John – 26 November 2019

In addition a copy of Prof Gus John’s resignation letter

If you are unfamiliar with Gus John’s history, you might find the following links revealing.