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The real purpose of the nonbudgetSeptember 26, 2022
Black Liberation theologian Anthony Reddie reflects on the diversity of Liz Truss’s Cabinet.
In the early days of my doctoral studies I devised a short, participative, experiential exercise entitled ‘The Meal Test’. The point was to help learners reflect critically on issues of inclusion and exclusion within British society and more particularly within the church. The exercise (later augmented and published in my book Is God Colour Blind, 2nd edition, SPCK, 2020) sought to explore two similar but differing dimensions of human life and experience. The first critical issue is that of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Namely, how societies and institutions seek to change their procedures, practices and policies in order that a greater variety of peoples are able to express a sense belonging as insiders, as opposed to being excluded. The second dimension is that of liberation and social justice. In this mode, one is not simply looking at how excluded persons can be included but, more critically, at the ways in which the status quo that governs various societies and institutions can be changed systemically in order to transform the very nature of how it operates. These two dimensions are related but they are not the same things.
In light of the appointment of the most ethnically diverse cabinet in British political history, much has been made of the triumph of diversity in the Conservative Party. Certainly, the Conservative front bench is more diverse than anything produced by the historically more socially progressive Labour Party. Conservative commentators have been heralding the achievements of the Conservative Party and the death of an identity politics that presumed a natural symbiosis between Black identities and socially progressive politics.
These euphoric declarations of success from the Political Right in our present culture wars and the era of so-called ‘Cancel Culture’, have carelessly and cynically conflated the issues of EDI and liberation and Social justice as being the same things.
The famed African American writer, anthropologist and folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston once opined, ‘All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk’. Hurston was speaking of Black social conservatives in 1930s America whose cultural, economic and social vision was more focused on supporting the existing status quo of White dominated American society than on reforming it for the broader liberation of African Americans and other ethnic minorities. Hurston was recognising the difference between Black conservatives whose presence in prominent positions was an expression of their individual sense of hard work and determination but who possessed no commitment to critiquing and challenging the existing, normative structures of society, and those who were committed to the wider cause of liberation and social justice. The former, often evoking the language of ‘pulling oneself up by their boot-straps’ and ‘being self-made’ men and women, were individuals who cared little for challenging wider systemic injustice, especially neo-liberalism and White supremacy.
Hurston’s pithy statement encapsulates a fundamental truth about the nature of Black socio-cultural politics. Not all people who share the same identity and indeed, skin colour, share the same values. The Conservative Party’s current diverse front bench is no doubt commendable in a number of respects, and it certainly conforms to the wider concerns of EDI. More Black and Asian people are getting an opportunity to get their hands on the levers of power. But none of these individuals are even part of the comparatively more liberal ‘One Nation Tory’ tradition, let alone being committed to liberation and social justice as seen by those historically on the political left. The likes of James Cleverley and Kwasi Kwarteng may be skinfolk but they are not kinfolk. EDI are important social, economic, cultural and political aspirations, but they are not the same thing as the fight for liberation and social justice. The Conservative Party has an interest in the former but has never had any appetite for the latter.
While some will be taken in by the blandishments of conservative politics, Black liberationists have always recognised the difference. Zora Neale Hurston knew the difference. Black liberation movements have always been predicated on the basis of shared experiences and the identity politics of solidarity and committed group action. But there has never been a naïve presumption that collective action will involve everyone who belongs to the particular category of ‘Black’. In the development of Black Liberation theology, first generation of scholars such as James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore; second generation of thinkers such as Dwight Hopkins and Womanists such as Kelly Brown Douglas, and people in my generation including Robert Beckford and myself, are all committed to liberative models of social analysis, praxis and a commitment to justice.
In the development of Black Liberation theology, the operative word has always been that of ‘Liberation’ and not ‘Black’ – ie not all Black people doing theology would be counted as Black theologians. The shortened nomenclature of ‘Black Theology’ sees the term ‘Black’ as a form of radical, subversive, deconstructive synonym for transformative liberative change. The essential driver for this form of work, whether theological or more broadly humanitarian, remains that of critiquing the normative frameworks of Whiteness and the neo-imperialistic and internalised colonisation of capitalism and neo-liberalism that arise from the former. Black liberationists have always been committed to challenging the normativity of White neo-colonial politics, arguing that the cause of justice and liberation demanded nothing less than the wholesale transformation of the status quo.
In conclusion, the increased diversity of the Conservative party front bench is commendable, but let us look at the policies these Black and Asian conservatives are pursuing. The former Home Secretary, Priti Patel, oversaw policies that she herself admitted would have prevented her own parents from seeking asylum in the UK when facing the nationalistic threats of Idi Amin in Uganda. Her policies and those of other Black and Asian Conservative ministers are indistinguishable from their White counterparts. In the end conservatives are just that, irrespective of their ethnic or cultural identity. In the words of the inimitable Aneurin Bevan, ‘Show me a caring Conservative and I’ll show you a vegetarian wolf.’ Diversity and Liberation are not the same things!
Anthony Reddie is the Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, Regent’s Park College, in the University of Oxford. He is also a Professor Extraordinarius with the University of South and is editor of Black Theology: An International Journal. He is the author of the recently published ‘Introducing James H. Cone’ – SCM press, 2022.