Don’t be fooled by Johnson’s ‘diverse’ cabinet. Tory racism hasn’t changed | Kehinde Andrews

The new ethnic minority ministers don’t represent real progress – they are among the most hard-right figures in the party

Boris Johnson’s new team has been labelled a “cabinet for modern Britain” – a euphemism for non-white, with figures such as Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, James Cleverly and Alok Sharma appointed, and Munira Mirza made head of the No 10 policy unit. While all this diversity may well make cabinet look more representative of the UK population, it should not divert attention from the serious issues of racism within the party and with Johnson himself.

Lest we forget, the new prime minister has described African people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and compared Muslim women wearing the burqa to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. Surrounding himself with a few black and brown cabinet ministers may be good for optics, but it should be easy enough to see through the mirage.

Yet Johnson himself is just a symptom of the wider problem of racism in the Conservative party, which elected him in a landslide. Over half its members – who are 97% white, and average age 57 – believe Islam is “a general threat to the British way of life”. The Tories’ problems with Islamophobia are so stark that Sayeeda Warsi, a former party chair, admitted she could not encourage Muslims to join the party.

And the Tories have put this intolerance into government policy, with Theresa May’s hostile environment, complete with its “go home” vans, and the Windrush scandal that deported black British citizens and denied others jobs, homes and hospital treatment.

The new BAME cabinet members all supported the government that adopted these policies, so they clearly do not represent Britain’s black and Asian communities. For them, blue is the only colour that matters and they are some of the most rightwing figures even within the Tory party.

As minister for international development Patel pursued an aid policy that was more about promoting opportunities for British business – and she had to resign when it emerged she had held secret talks with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. As home secretary, Sajid Javid stripped British teenager Shamima Begum of her citizenship. He also dramatically increased stop and search, ignoring the stark racial inequalities in how police use the powers.

As for Mirza, she believes institutional racism is a myth and said the Labour MP David Lammy’s review of inequality within the criminal justice system would “do more harm than good for black Britons”.

By parading a set of token figures to legitimise his agenda, Johnson is treading a well-worn path – one used by politicians across the ages to fool people into thinking they are witnessing a breakthrough in the fight against inequality. Under New Labour, Valerie Amos was ennobled and brought into cabinet, only to be sent to the 2001 United Nations conference on racism to explain why Britain would not call its role in transatlantic slavery a crime against humanity.

In the United States, Clarence Thomas was appointed by George Bush to the US supreme court in 1991. He has gone on to be the most conservative justice on the court, recently voting against overturning the death sentence of an African American defendant in a case where even Brett Kavanaugh (a Trump appointee) condemned the “relentless” attempts of prosecutors in Mississippi to get an all-white jury. And in 2004, Condoleezza Rice was said to be a sign of progress when she was appointed the first female African American secretary of state by George W Bush. But when Hurricane Katrina wrought havoc in 2005 she stayed on holiday and went shopping for shoes.

It was only a matter of time before Britain’s right wing embraced meaningless racial symbolism, and it should be no surprise the new era has been ushered in by Johnson. But do not be fooled: a cabinet packed with ministers with brown skin wearing Tory masks represents the opposite of racial progress.

• Kehinde Andrews is an author and professor of black studies at Birmingham City University

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Kehinde Andrews

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