Opinion: Do not fall for the symbolism of Rishi Sunak’s premiership
Editor’s Note: Kehinde Andrews is professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University and the author of the book “The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World.” The opinions in commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Britain welcomed its first non-White Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, a practicing Hindu, on the first day of the festival Diwali. You could be forgiven for thinking this is a ray of light for British race relations, and it has already been heralded as a “historic moment,” marking a change from when Sunak was born in 1980 when there were no Black or Asian members of Parliament.
Unfortunately, rather than a sign of progress, this is a serious case of beware what you wish for.
For a start, we should remember that Sunak was not elected — the other Conservative candidate for the top job conceded after failing to meet the threshold of nominations — so this tells us little about voter attitudes in the wider electorate to racialized minority candidates.
In fact, in Sunak’s only public vote for leader, between Conservative Party members, he lost convincingly to perhaps the most wholly inadequate Prime Minster the country has ever seen, Liz Truss.
It is notable that members of Parliament on Monday were so keen to ensure Sunak had no competition because there is no certainty he would have fared any better in a second poll later in the week of the wider, disproportionately White, male and elderly Conservative Party membership .
Sunak was overwhelmingly supported by Conservative members of Parliament, who rallied to install him as leader. This is his constituency, whom he truly represents.
The current iteration of the Tories lacks even the pretense of compassion. This is the party that was voted in on the back of the xenophobic, “Little England” Brexit campaign, which promised to keep out foreigners and restore Britain to its former (colonial) glories.
This is the party that has brought in the most racist immigration legislation in British history, including the hostile environment that led to the Windrush scandal and the recent plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda.
This is the party that commissioned a report that claimed institutional racism no longer exists. This is the party that has brought in a policing bill that makes the maximum punishment for defacing a statue 10 years, more than some offenders have been sentenced to for rape, according to the Labour Party.
Sunak has not directly owned any of these policies, but he has fully supported them. In his failed leadership campaign, he reaffirmed the Rwanda policy and made a concerted effort to boost his anti-woke credentials by condemning those who he said were attempting to bulldoze traditional British values.
Sunak is a privately educated, Oxford University philosophy, politics and economics graduate who made a fortune in investment banking before joining one of the most right-wing governments in history.
He supported Brexit, wants to cut taxes and is expected to introduce a new round of austerity to balance the books.
The fact that his skin is brown and his parents are immigrants does not mean he automatically has any affinity to the millions of Black and brown citizens who are victims of his party and its policies. All his ascension in the Conservative Party ranks proves is that race doesn’t matter if you wholeheartedly embrace the party line.
It may be tempting to fall for the symbolism, but Sunak does not represent racialized minorities in Britain. Migrant histories are far too diverse for any one person to do so.
The British Empire was vast, with a range of experiences that influence communities today. Sunak’s parents came from India via East Africa. The British invited Indian immigrants to the African continent to act almost as a buffer between the natives and colonizers. (And as a source of cheap labor.)
The tension caused by relative Indian prosperity on the continent and many anti-Black attitudes boiled over to the extreme when Idi Amin seized power in Uganda and expelled Asians from the country in 1972.
That migration history is so distinct to those who migrated directly from India, or from Pakistan and Bangladesh it is foolish to expect him to represent all Asians in Britain.
Race relations are far more complicated than simply White and non-White. There are an array of positions, histories and controversies that mean the only people Sunak can represent are Conservative politicians.
Unfortunately, the Conservatives have learned to play the politics of identity to perfection. Elevating racial minorities to positions of prominence provides the diversity fig leaf to hide the party’s racist policies.
It cannot be a coincidence that the most racist immigration policy agenda has been delivered by a procession of Asian home secretaries. It is almost impossible to imagine a White politician proposing to deport immigrants to Rwanda, but Priti Patel, whose parents were Ugandan Indian, could get away with such draconian measures without being accused of racism.
It was also not an accident that the most outspoken defender of Britain’s whitewashed school curriculum was Kemi Badenoch, whose family is Nigerian, and who in her time as equalities minister used a Black History Month speech to defend Britain’s colonial record and declare it illegal for schools to talk about White privilege.
It’s a terrible irony that the more diverse the Cabinet gets, the more danger Black and brown citizens find themselves in. I am truly terrified at the prospect of a Sunak premiership because anything becomes possible once this Conservative Party’s prime minister is brown.
It tells you the nature of the threat when I am genuinely hoping that he feels the need to surround himself with mediocre White men to prove his credentials.
So please do not celebrate. This is certainly a case when diversity is the opposite of racial progress.