What’s Not on Sunak’s To-Do List? Ending Racism
The new British prime minister’s remarkable personal story doesn’t herald general social progress any more than Barack Obama’s election did in the US.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Two weeks ago, the United Kingdom was thrown into economic chaos by Kwasi Kwarteng, its first Black chancellor of the Exchequer. A floundering Tory party has now tasked Rishi Sunak, the UK’s first Brown prime minister, to clean up the mess. But racial progress, let alone political and economic stability, is not in sight yet.
Sunak’s biography (he moved straight from Oxford to Goldman Sachs and then Stanford University and hedge funds) belongs quintessentially to the rarefied world of metropolitan globalization. What is remarkable about Sunak and Kwarteng, the Eton-educated son of Ghanaian immigrants, is that they entered a gilded global class with a swiftness and assurance that would have been inconceivable to those who first arrived in Britain from its former colonies in the 1950s and 1960s.
Writing to his wife in 1953, V.S. Naipaul, a Hindu from Trinidad who became arguably Britain’s greatest postwar writer, described how he, though Oxford-educated, was considered only “for jobs as porters in kitchens, and with the road gangs.” Humiliation and despair remained commonplace experiences for people who emigrated to Britain decades after Naipaul and who worked, proverbially, twice as hard to get half as far as White Britons. Sunak, whose middle-class parents paid for him to go to snotty Winchester College, admitted in an interview in 2020 that racist abuse “stings in a way that very few other things have.”
But individual escapes from collective dishonor — through hedge-funding or marriage into a billionaire’s family — don’t amount to general social progress. Hopes that Sunak’s move to 10 Downing Street has brought closer a post-racial future may prove as cruelly premature as the fantasies ignited by Barack Obama’s elevation to the White House in 2008.
For one, Sunak’s task seems impossible. He is expected to salvage a society, politics and economy profoundly damaged by his own party’s openly racist and mendacious campaign for Brexit. In the contest for prime-ministership last month, Tory party members rejected Sunak, despite the fact that his opponent, Liz Truss, was a self-proclaimed “thrill-seeker,” who loved to “embrace the chaos.”
The overwhelmingly White and elderly Tories chose an obviously loose cannon to be prime minister at least partly because Sunak has, as he himself confessed good-humoredly during his campaign, a “great tan.” Last week, a large proportion of them wanted Boris Johnson to return. As their mortgages rise and their pensions shrink, they might decide that the first Hindu and richest prime minister ever is as much of an undesirable imposition as the first Black chancellor, chosen by Truss to unleash chaos in the UK.
In any case, a few over-promoted non-White people are by no means guaranteed to diminish mainstream prejudice against the great majority of their compatriots. Marrying Prince Harry, Meghan Markle was widely supposed to nudge Britain as well as the Royal Family into accepting a multi-racial future. As it happened, the arrival of a dark-skinned princess in Buckingham Palace provoked Britain’s race-baiting press into a frenzy, forcing her to leave the country altogether.
Britain’s xenophobic political and media culture is more willing to accommodate those who indulge its basest instincts, such as the two successive Tory Home secretaries of Indian origin, Priti Patel and Suella Braverman. They stridently advertised their loathing of immigration and risked breaking international law with their scheme to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. “I would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda,” Braverman claimed at the Tory party conference early this month, shortly before she was sacked by Truss for breaching a ministerial code. “That’s my dream, it’s my obsession.” The daughter of immigrants from the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Goa, Braverman nearly derailed the UK’s trade deal with India by complaining that it would increase immigration from her parents’ homeland.
Undoubtedly, the Tory party, long stigmatized as “nasty,” needs a fresh identity and purpose. And Sunak, the son of Hindu immigrants from Africa, could awaken his peers to an irrevocably interdependent world.
But Sunak is unlikely to vacate their hard-right positions: He campaigned for Brexit, fully supports the Rwanda policy and has just reappointed Braverman as home secretary. There are good reasons to suspect that he would retard rather than accelerate Britain’s much-needed transition to a sober state of mind.
He revealed during his summer campaign for prime minister that he is not above stoking culture wars against those Braverman last week denounced as “tofu-eating wokerati.” Indeed, facing a long economic recession with diminishing resources and no popular mandate, Sunak may have little choice. Uncontrollable economic crises are pushing traditional right-wing politicians everywhere into demagogic rhetoric about immigrants, wokeness, cancel culture and more.
Celebrations over a Hindu’s ascent to the UK’s highest political office are thus misplaced. Sunak, too, could end up merely proving, like his recent Tory colleagues of Indian ancestry, that some colored folks are prepared to work twice as hard as White people to demonstrate their hard-right credentials.
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Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is author, most recently, of “Run and Hide.”
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