By Kehinde Andrews
“The slavemaster took Tom and dressed him well, and fed him well, and even gave him a little education — a little education; gave him a long coat and a top hat and made all the other slaves look up to him. Then he used Tom to control them. The same strategy that was used in those days is used today. He takes a Negro, a so-called Negro, and makes him prominent, builds him up, publicizes him, makes him a celebrity. And then he becomes a spokesman for Negroes”
Message to the Grassroots; Malcolm X (1963)
Trevor Phillip’s TV show ‘Things we won’t say about race that are true’ and accompanying feature in the Daily Mail are some of the most offensive and simplistically inaccurate pieces on racism and ethnicity that have graced British media for a long time. To understand how they came to be produced with Phillips as the spokesperson, we need to dust off a controversial and often misused idea, which is going to make some of you reading this uncomfortable. In the spirit of saying those things that just need to be said, let’s make it plain from the start, the show only exists because Trevor Phillips embodies the modern day Uncle Tom. This is not an accusation to be irresponsibly thrown out, but if there was doubt in regards to Phillips before it has been cleared away now. Malcolm X reserves the label Uncle Tom only for those Black people who are used as puppets by the system, installed in positions in order to hold back progress for the majority and be the Black spokespeople for regressive ideals. This TV show is the perfect example of Tomming, as Phillips is used as a vehicle to peddle simplistic, jingoist and racist nonsense that only a Black person could get away with. The fact that this programme comes just weeks before a general election in which racism is casting a long shadow just heightens the problems with it. At a time when we need a critical discussion about race and racism, we are presented with the opposite, legitimised by by Black face of Uncle Tom.
There are two basic arguments in the show, which are both equally problematic. The first is that anti-racism made a crucial mistake in thinking that if ‘you got rid of discrimination then people would integrate’. The problem now, apparently, is the limits of free speech that anti-racist mobilisation and legislation have placed on White people, who feel marginalised. Phillips is clearly living a fantasy land where race equality legislation has had these great impacts on racial inequality and a new battlefront has opened up. In reality, the lessons from the failure of race discrimination should tell us that the problem of racism has not been addressed and that we need to continue to fight these oppressive structures. Everything else is futile, and if Phillips held on to the idea of racism as an explanation for society’s ills then he could have avoided making his most fundamental error.
It IS racist to explain people’s behaviour by their race
The most offensive argument in his ‘work’, is the idea that we need to look at the stats on how ‘races’ behave in order to understand social problems. Phillips runs through a variety of stats about the races, arguing that it is not racist to tell the truth. What he misses is that it is entirely racist to attribute stats on behaviour to a group of people, their culture and traditions. It is worse to do this by using these stats side by side to give the impression that there are innate differences between the groups. For example, in the Daily Mail piece he cites that Jewish people are wealthy, whilst African Caribbean are far more likely to kill each other, and wonders what we can learn from the hardworking, affluent Jewish community. He takes this a step further on TV, moving from a brief discussion of criminalisation of the Black community to argue that we need to use ethnic crime data to see ‘who is doing what, so you target the right people’. The stats in themselves are ‘true’, but numbers are irrelevant, the issue is how you explain them. Phillips attributes the differences to culture and tradition, whilst basically ignoring structural factors like racism and inequality. In the show he explicitly states that ‘poverty, lack of education and criminal justice discrimination’ are not enough to explain Black on Black violence. For Phillips, it seems that we can only blame racism if White people are killing Black people. However, Black on Black violence has been repeatedly explained as a production of racism, for example by Amos Wilson (Black on Black Violence) and Franz Fanon (Wretched of the Earth). But let’s not let a critical analysis get in the way of sensationalist oversimplification.
A key fallacy in his argument is to ignore the biased nature of the ‘facts’ he is relying on. Official crime rates tell us more about what and who is being policed, than the actual amount of crime being committed. It is notable, for instance, in his tour of London crime trends, he ignores the rampant white collar crime being conducted in the City, primarily by White elites. He also takes the opportunity to further promote the idea of the Pakistani sex grooming gangs. It may well be the case that there is a network of men from Pakistani who have been operating sex grooming gangs, however this does not mean that they are doing this because of their background and religion. The prevalence of the Mafia does not mean that organised crime is an Italian pastime, nor that they Italians are the only people who do it. In fact, in the show he noted that the evidence of the existence of these Pakistani gangs is based on 17 convictions from 1997-2010, the majority of which involved Pakistani men. This suggests a couple of things; one that there is a network, which is portably interrelated two, that this form of on street grooming is probably a minority form of the whole picture…and not some pathology of Pakistani men. He also conveniently missed out the sexual exploitation of boys in the Catholic church, and young people by celebrities, both of which in Phillips’ model seem to prove that the White ‘race’ have significant issues with paedophilia.
Philips trotted out the standard over simplifications, blaming self-segregation for extremism and terrorism, whilst missing out racist housing policy and British foreign policy as explanations. However, he introduced an even more offensive example to prove his point, arguing that multiculturalism was to blame for the death of Victoria Climbé. According to Phillips her case was missed because the professionals were too scared to be called racist by calling attention to the problems they were seeing. He gave the example that scars on her body were attributed to insect bites from back home, amongst other things. The elephant in the room he (again) misses is racism; the professionals missing these clues because of backwards notion of Africa is racism on their part, not a fear to intervene. He also makes the completely insane argument that social workers are hesitant to get involved in Black families because of accusations of racism, so they ignore abuse. For decades we have been arguing the opposite; that they are too quick to get involved in our lives because we are Black and our familial forms seen as inferior. He makes the same argument in relation to the Pakistani grooming issue, that people have turned a blind eye because of political correctness. Really? White people turning a blind eye to Pakistani men sexual exploiting White girls?? The Climbé example is so offensive because he is using the death of a child (a Black child at that) to make a regressive and untrue point. Victoria Climbé’s death was a tragic failure of services to deal with abuse, in the same way that Baby Peter was, and Phillips stepped way over the line using her death to support his nonsense.
His show ends by shifting the focus onto the so-called new oppressed, the White working class, or ‘White (and poor) is the new Black’, in his words. This is problematic on a number of levels (connotations of Black here), but mainly because it promotes the idea that White poverty is a new thing and that Black people have progressed. This is the UKIP logic of the argument; that too much focus has been given to minorities and we need to stop marginalising the White working class who have suffered as a result. It is simply not true, structural racism means that Black progress has been minimal and the White working class have been abandoned by neo-liberalism that has moved jobs abroad and let people become obscenely rich, instead of sharing the wealth. Immigration simply has nothing to do with the plight of poor White folk.
Phillips has produced a show that is obscence, simplistic and racist; and has done so at an important time in relation to the next election. Whether he meant to create ammunition for UKIP, the Daily Mail, the Tories and the rest of the Right, is irrelevant. You don’t have to intend to be an Uncle Tom, to become one. He clearly now stands as a puppet, a spokesperson for this racist system, who is given legitimacy by his Black skin. It is no coincidence that in a country full of intelligent and critical Black voices it is his that has been given a national prime time slot. He has been built up, publicised, made into a celebrity to control us, to lead us astray. It is up to us to reject him and his backwards political project. If there is one thing we cannot tolerate it is modern day Uncle Tom’s being used as mouthpieces for our community; so let us make it know that he does not represent we.