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There’s nothing ‘racist’ about Boris Johnson’s Obama comments

22 April 2016

5:39 PM

22 April 2016

5:39 PM

Nick Cohen is predictably over-the-top in his response to Boris Johnson’s piece about President Obama’s intervention in the Brexit debate in today’s Sun.

He begins by claiming he’s approaching this subject ‘with the caution of a lawyer and the deference of a palace flunkey’. He then goes on to reprimand Boris for suggesting Obama has an ‘ancestral dislike of the British empire’ on account of his ‘part-Kenyan’ heritage and links this to his support for the Remain campaign. We’ll come to that comment in a minute, but Cohen goes on to conflate these remarks with the worst excesses of the birther movement:

I’m not someone who throws accusations of racism around – it’s too serious a charge to devalue. But, come now, the fantasy that Obama is the heir of the Mau-Maus with no right to govern is a racist lie that appeals to deep, dark traditions in the US. From slavery, through the Civil War, the backlash against Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, the argument has been the same: blacks have no right to vote, and black politicians have no right to rule.

If that’s Cohen being cautious and deferential, I hate to think what he’d be like if he let himself off the leash.

Boris’s claim that Obama’s attitude to Britain and its history may be influenced by his part-Kenyan heritage isn’t ‘racist’ and nor does it imply Boris believes Obama’s mixed race background means he has ‘no right to govern’ or that ‘blacks have no right to vote, and black politicians have no right to rule’. Those are scandalous accusations to make and there’s no evidence Boris believes any such thing.

In fact, Obama has been perfectly candid about the impact his father’s experience as a Kenyan had on his political views. Indeed, the title of his first memoir was ‘Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance’. The last third of that book describes a trip the future President made to Kenya in which he retraces his father’s footsteps and discovers how toxic the impact of British colonialism was. Far from it being ‘racist’ to suggest there’s a link between Obama’s part-Kenyan heritage and his views about the British empire, it’s a connection that Obama explicitly makes himself.

Now, Boris may be wrong in arguing that Obama’s loathing of the British empire has influenced his views on whether we should remain in or leave the EU, but Obama would hardly be the first Inner to mischaracterise the EU debate as being between small-minded Little Englanders dreaming of a long-lost empire and enlightened, metropolitan liberals determined to shed the toxic baggage of nationalism and colonialism (see Emma Thompson). Far from being ‘racist’, it seems highly probable.

What’s so disappointing about Cohen’s decision to play the race card in response to Boris’s perfectly reasonable comments is that it will mean people are less likely to listen when he draws attention to genuine racism, such as the growing anti-Semitism of the regressive left. As the boy in the fable discovered, the problem with crying wolf too often is that people are less likely to listen to you when it really matters.

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