A man steps out into the chill Friday of a northern English town. He is Nigel Farage: millionaire, media darling and rubber-faced stooge of post-crash nationalism. He has the look of a used car salesman who will be long out of town before the big end falls off. Bourne high on a tide of disaffection and outrage, he washed up here, in Rotherham, flanked by press, by aides, and by the protestors crowding outside the local Ukip office. On their signs: “Stop UKIP”. “Reject UKIP lies”. But he’s no stranger to scandal – and this is no ordinary stop on the weary campaign trail. Rotherham’s got an abuse problem and there’s only one man who can stop it, wade knee deep into a failed experiment in multiculturalism and pull the Women of Britain to safety.
Usually a fairly safe seat, the local Labour leadership was been plunged into disarray by revelations of serial abuses, now making headlines again after the publishing of Louise Casey’s report into just what the hell happened. Those who have not heard of it can only be congratulated on perfecting the secret to subterranean living. Over 1400 young girls in Rotherham were abused, raped and beaten in a sickening programme of calculated violence and exploitation. Through a series of hush-ups, cover-ups, blind eyes and institutional failings, the abuse was allowed to continue for around sixteen years. Sweltering in the heat of press scrutiny, the whole council has since resigned, and the management of it has been taken under the exceptional control of central government.
As Ukip constructs its burgeoning bid for Westminster on widespread disillusionment with Capital-P-Politics, the Labour councillors in this case start to look exactly like the kind of cowardly assortment of jobsworths that he so regularly indicts as the ‘political establishment’. They managed to sort each other’s arses from elbows only long enough to sweep the whole affair under the carpet. So far, it seems like he has a point. More sinisterly though, the poster-boys for this cavalcade of abuse look an awful lot like Ukip’s stock character: the immigrant of ill intent.
“Abuse of our children. The consequence of multiculturalism.”
The majority of the abusers were of Pakistani origin, and a number of councillors had excused their cover-up by saying that didn’t want to ‘give oxygen’ to racism by openly confronting the abuses. Far be it from Ukip to let such a golden opportunity go to waste. So, Nigel Farage once more took to the stand to condemn a culture of political correctness. It’s not opportunism, we learn – it’s just consistency. “We’re the one party that’s warned consistently against division within society and multiculturalism and we’ve warned against it for year”. And true to form, no internal action was taken against party candidate Martyn Ford, who kicked off his electoral hopes in Swansea with a leaflet that read “Islamic terror. Abuse of our children. The consequence of multiculturalism.”
In light of recent reports, it seems rather difficult to wholly cling to this line. Studies by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre have repeatedly underlined that the focus on race simply muddies the waters, and that the patterns of exploitation are linked not to race, but to access to vulnerable children; through personal ties, over the internet, or as part of the ‘nighttime economy’. Despite the fact that white men account for the majority of perpetrators in cases of child sexual exploitation, it was also noted that their crimes enjoyed less media coverage. Similarly, Louise Casey’s report into Rotherham council laid bare the culture of sexist bullying and casual racism within the council, together with the fatal snobbery that led to abuse victims being dismissed as undesirable; not palatably victim-y enough to deserve sympathy or belief.
Little matter. It had already been decided that “political correctness and over-sensitivity around race let perpetrators off the hook;” the abuses of Rotherham held aloft as a grim trophy of the dangers of multiculturalism and of a society less than entirely white. The problem was not a lack of accountability and transparency in the ranks of local governance and policing. It was not the consummate inadequacy of the care and judiciary systems in their dealings with cases of sexual assault and abuse. Nor was it the way in which we fail to hold abusers to account at every level of society, mired as we are in the assumption that girls and women are, by default, liars. The problem here is that we were not adequately racist. We (a tricky little word) did not trust our trodden-in instincts that men of colour are a constant threat to white women. Enter Nigel Farage, with his mandatory pint prop and his ingratiating smile to camera. He has carefully calibrated a solution for not being racist enough. He wouldn’t namby-pamby around with any of this political correctness stuff. He would protect British women, with use of what experts are now calling the ‘being a bit more racist’ technique.
Racism to the rescue.
Of course, Ukip MPs are not hammering white hot at the gates of the BBC to demand a change to the practices that let so many powerful white men abuse women with impunity, nor are they campaigning for greater funding for the women’s shelters that have been so ruthlessly gutted under austerity. So far, no word from them on the petition to include a ‘paedophile’ section in the promised Margaret Thatcher museum, in testament to her numerous links to convicted abusers. One might even start to think – oh horror of horrors – that a party that blithely shrugs off Demetri Marchessini’s comments that marital rape does not exist, couldn’t give a flying proverbial about sexual violence. At least, not when the perpetrators are so inconveniently white.
There’s a reason for that. Ukip trades on the promise of pride and unity. And in a time of emmiseration and staggering socio-economic division, you need to do a lot of work and a lot of reactionary tub-thumping to give this unity even the fleeting semblance of an emotional or political reality. Here is where the racist trope of the black, Muslim, or immigrant sexual predator comes in awfully handy. It’s a neat little bogeyman, a common enemy to contain the fears of divided classes. For the upper classes, this threat is cast as a pre-rational animal scourge, in all the venomous language of the ‘underclasses’. For the disenfranchised white working classes, it’s sold as a powerful network of secret cabals, impervious to the weakeyed interventions of your average politician – and it’s dangerously attractive. Targeting people of colour to protect women allows you to be fearful whilst remaining strong. It tickles the ego. It furnishes you with the righteous outrage of robin-hooding their way through a world beset by multiculturalism; speaking truth to power, as though the idea of predatory black sexuality was an unpalatable reality, at odds with the delicate sensibilities of the pansy liberal media and political establishment.
And of course, it is not truth spoken to power. It couldn’t be further from it. It is power cloistered in an echo chamber, hearing its own voice magnified a thousand times. The idea of threatening black masculinity is everywhere; as useful for Ukip now as it has been for racist and fascist ideologies throughout history. People of colour are deemed dangerous; they endanger by simply by existing, and the punishment for their existential sin is wrought in violence. The assumed threat of black or ‘othered’ masculinity justifies and reaffirms as a social necessity the daily brutalities of police and individual violence. In 1955, 14 year old Emmett Till was lynched for having the temerity to allegedly wink at a fully-grown white woman. The walls of Israeli cities are daubed with graffiti warning Palestinian men to ‘keep [their] hands off’ Israeli women’. Nazi propaganda was replete with cautionary tales about Jewish men raping pure Aryan women who trusted too much. All over the world, all throughout history, the same story: ranks of women under the dubious protection of the frothing racist.
White men do not abuse as white men.
In Rotherham too, we are presented with the option of defending women against an othered menace, and leaving them helpless in the face of it. Perhaps the Rotherham councillors were sincere when they expressed fears that tackling the abuse would ‘give oxygen’ to racism. Nonetheless, this logic is the benevolent face of the same ideology that casts any violence done by people of colour as a symptom of the terminal condition that is blackness. Thus to reveal the symptoms would confirm the diagnosis; to reveal the violence would, inevitably, be to prove the terminal wantonness of what it is to be black. These hush-ups are not deemed necessary when white men abuse and rape; we do not need protecting from the unpalatable ‘truth’ of dangerous whiteness. Because white men do not abuse as white men; they abuse as loners, rogues, villains, and madmen – individuals, not representative members of a social group. It’s a dangerous message at a dangerous time. Racist and islamophobic hate crimes across the UK are soaring. By focusing on sexual abuse as a condition of blackness, these acts of violence are transformed into acts of benevolence. A fist raised in anger is transformed into a hand thrown over the shoulders of the tearful white girls mooning out at us from Ukip election material – stood alone, abandoned, in empty corridors.
It can of course be comforting for a group to delude itself that sexual violence is an external menace; heap the blame onto the shoulders of a single demographic, wipe the dust from its hands and walk away. But here’s the much more unsettling truth: sexual violence and sexual abuse are perversely egalitarian in spirit. They happen everywhere. In every class and almost any given social setting; but when white men do it, the act is condemned as monstrous. When people of colour do it, they are universally condemned as monsters. Whiteness is default, incidental, unimpeachable. Whiteness is never to blame, even when that whiteness affords people the positions of power from which sexual abuse can be more easily perpetrated and more readily excused. This artful distraction from white violence does a stunning job of failing to protect whom it purports to. It allows the violence to spread unchecked. If any of the would-be white knights of Ukip (many of whom are women) genuinely believe that they are beating the course for female liberty, they will find their Thank You Note From All Women a long time lost in the mail.
Ukip’s message to white people is one of calm: ‘It’s not you. It’s never you.’
Firstly, and most obviously, sexual violence against women of colour is only a concern when it can be used to condemn men of colour on their apparent behalf. This seeming benevolence collapses the moment we remember how often idea of foreign or Muslim cruelty to ‘their’ women is touted as the reason behind a civilising mission of bombing non-western nations to democracy and back. On the TV series Homeland, abused Muslim wives sneak away from their husbands to beg for foreign invasion. And so, we worry about Malala’s fate at the hands of the Taliban, and so easily forget about the peril of her classmates, terrorised by a far off fairer pair of hands at the helm of drones. Cabinet members take to the stage beside Angelina Jolie to condemn sexual violence in far-off conflicts, whilst abuse at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre continues denied, ignored, unchecked.
Secondly, this distraction doesn’t do white women any favours either. It allows us to forget that rapists and abusers aren’t othered creatures on the margins of society. They are friends, co-workers, family, total strangers and trusted people committing acts of heart-breaking ordinariness. If the scourge of sexual violence is to be routed out of our society, it requires everyone to recognise their own capacity for evil, and exorcise the rape apologism and misogyny to which we are exposed daily. It is an act of courage to search in the mirror for your own personal monstrosity, to trace the potential for evil in the contours of your own life, your own social circles, the people with whom you have grown up identifying.
The dog whistle racism of Ukip provides a handy get out clause from this radical challenge; it is a simple story of monsters and the white knights who slay them, a story to lull any listeners into the comfortable complacency of a world in which they are the benevolent possessors and protectors of a pure white femininity. St George victorious, with the dragon dead at his feet. When horrors like the ones at Rotherham are laid bare, we look around in consternation and ask how this could have happened – who could have done this, who on earth is to blame? Ukip’s racism is a comforting hand on the shoulder of all white people in general, all white men in particular. Don’t worry, it says. It’s not you. It’s never you.