I’m sure I was not alone in being rather surprised at the number of BAME officials in Boris Johnson’s new cabinet. Three of the four Great Offices of State are now filled by minority ethnic officials, with Sajid Javid—the son of Pakistani immigrants—as chancellor, Dominic Raab (who is partially of Jewish heritage) as foreign secretary, and Priti Patel (who is of Indian-Ugandan heritage) heading the Home Office. The last of the big four is Boris himself. This is a new record, unmatched by even the most progressive Labour governments of the past few decades. It is also worth noting that the percentage of BAME ministers in the cabinet matches almost exactly its percentage of the British population at large.
And yet it has either gone totally unrecognised or, worse yet, been derided as mere tokenism. “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”, scoffed Kehinde Andrews in The Guardian last month. I will choose to see this in the most charitable light and assume that Andrews is not suggesting that Javid, Patel et-al have been tapped for these top roles merely because it makes for “good optics”. But the underlying premise of his article is still one that I deeply troubling. “Don’t be fooled by Johnson’s ‘diverse’ cabinet”, reads the article’s headline: “Tory racism hasn’t changed.”
Don’t be fooled? As if anyone might think that, by dint of the colour of their skin, Johnson’s BAME cabinet ministers are not right-wing? This is emblematic of the widely-accepted notion that people of colour are, as a bloc, left-wing. If they aren’t, they are either confused, self-hating, or race-traitors. (“Someone from a minority group who chooses to serve in a far-right government is no longer a person of colour. They’re a turncoat of colour”, tweeted the chief editor of Canary, a left-wing online publication.)
Look: I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that Priti Patel, for example, will benefit the majority of the BAME community in Britain. She’s a free-market fanatic and supports the death penalty. Her idols are the Islamophobic Indian PM Narendra Modi, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan: a quick internet search will expose a lorryful of hateful, racist rhetoric and actions made by these people. But to suggest that by supporting them and serving in a Tory government she is a “turncoat of colour” is patently absurd.
To state the obvious, it’s perfectly possible to be a person of colour and still vote right-wing based on your own self-interests or those of your community. The fact that this notion seems to be lost on many left-wingers is ironic: the classically Marxist analysis of social relations stresses differences in class above all else. To a Marxist, a black Old Etonian like Kwasi Kwarteng serving in a Tory cabinet makes far more sense than a typical white state school alumnus doing the same. Classical, individualistically-minded liberals should also have a gripe with the current left-wing mainstream on this issue, for what an illogical and backwards country this would be if everybody voted along ethnic lines: a BAME party, a white party—this does not describe a healthy liberal democracy.
I consider myself left-wing (and especially so for an American). I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic party primary in 2016 and plan to do the same in 2020. I’m also mixed-race—but this did not factor into my decision. Many of my (brown) family members vote Republican and consider themselves right-wingers. They’re not race-traitors, they’re not voting against their own interests, and they’re not self-hating: they are good, honest citizens who are proud of their heritage and also happen to believe that conservatism is the best thing for their country. Any suggestion otherwise is, in my opinion, as appallingly racist as anything you might hear from Donald Trump or Boris Johnson.
Finally, Johnson deserves some genuine credit. It’s not at the top of my list of priorities by far, but, on a symbolic level, I do think it’s important for minority-ethnic people to be represented in their government and society. As saccharine as it sounds, a young British-Asian girl with a poster of Margaret Thatcher tacked up to her bedroom wall may soon watch Home Secretary Patel delivering a speech and realise that she, too, can rise just as high. And our society will be better for it.