Shadow health minister Diane Abbott's comment on Twitter that "White people love playing ‘divide and rule’ We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism" cannot meaningfully be described as racist. We should oppose right-wing attempts to cook up an "anti-white racism" and equate it with the anti-black and other forms of racism which pervade British society.
That does not mean that Abbott is a left-winger, or that her comments were unproblematic.
It seems highly unlikely that Abbott is prejudiced against white people. But in any case racism is not just a matter of individuals' prejudices. It is a question of oppression and power relations deeply structured into really-existing capitalist society. As Guardian journalist Dorian Lynskey puts it on his blog 33 Revolutions Per Minute:
"I can imagine a world in which Diane Abbott’s tweet... would be racist. In this parallel universe Britain is dominated, politically and economically, by an unshakeable clique of black, working-class women and two black men have just been convicted, several years too late thanks to an institutionally racist black police force, of the murder of white teenager Stephen Lawrence. But in this world? Not really."
Lynskey's article, for the most part and as far as it goes, explains things well. Shortly after the Lawrence verdict, there seem to be right-wing attempts to use Abbott's comments to "balance things out". Their implicit message is: yes, there is virulent anti-black racism in society, but what about anti-white racism? The aim, and in any case the effect, is to downplay the reality of racism in Britain. The left must fight this hard.
And as for Ed Miliband's rush to give Abbott a "severe dressing down", it is typical of his bent towards grovelling at the slightest right-wing pressure.
Those are the main issues here. At the same time, we should not be uncritical of Abbott.
Firstly, she was specifically using the "divide and rule" trope to attempt to silence another black person who disagreed with her - journalist and blogger Bim Adewunmi, who had objected to use of the term "the black community" as a generalisation in the press. (Adewunmi describes how the row unfolded here.) Abbott replied: "I understand the cultural point you are making. But you are playing into a 'divide and rule' agenda", followed by her comments about "white people" and concluding with "#dontwashdirtylineninpublic".
Dismissing political disagreements as racism or, since that was obviously not possible in this case, accusing her critic of playing into a white divide-and-rule agenda is particularly typical of Abbott. But a similar approach (on various different issues) finds expression across much of the left. It is the opposite of the culture of open, honest debate we need to effectively fight racism and all forms of oppression and exploitation.
Beyond that, Abbott's substantive comment was opportunist and politically illiterate. Whatever the limitations imposed by the Twitter format (which she later appealed to justify herself), a presentation of colonialism as if it was about "white people" in general rather than the white-racist drives of British imperial capitalism is nonsense. The same goes for racism in British today (which is not to deny working-class, as well as ruling-class, racism, of course).
Lastly, who is this oh-so-radical Abbott, who talks about colonialism and presents herself as representing the "black community"? She is a bourgeois politician, rich enough to send her son to a top private school, who from a socialist point of view cannot possibly be considered to "represent" any of her working-class constituents (of any ethnic group, but many of the poorest and most oppressed of them black). Moreover she is a loyal member of a Labour front bench which is committed to policies including deep cuts, support for the Tories' attacks on housing benefit, keeping the anti-union laws, £6,000 tuition fees, the occupation of Afghanistan and horrific and racist asylum and immigration laws (the list could go on and on...)
Workers' Liberty advocated a vote for Abbott in the Labour leadership election because she was the candidate most distinct from the Blairite-Brownite spectrum of the others. But she remains what she was.
Fighting right-wing attempts to downplay the reality of racism is an essential and central task for the left. It should not mean defending the politics of Abbott and her like.