Last year, anti-Muslim hate crime was soaring in Britain. You might have hoped that one of the country’s most prominent politicians would have called for calm instead of deploying racist rhetoric. Yet Boris Johnson, Britain’s new prime minister as of Wednesday, was unable to break the habit of his entire career in public life, and he again reached for the joke book. In August 2018, just a month after the release of those hate crime figures, Johnson remarked that Muslim women who wore the niqab looked like bank robbers and letter boxes. A British watchdog organization reported an immediate rise in harassment against Muslim women as a direct result of his comments.
Johnson’s career has been punctuated by jokes like these, and now that he’s prime minister, it’s important to take them more seriously than ever before — and to examine who has laughed at or along with him, and why.
These “jokes” date back some time. In a January 2002 article in the Daily Telegraph, when talking of the queen’s visit to the Commonwealth, he described black African children as “picanninies.” This word is not only racist — referring to caricatures depicting black children as “nameless, shiftless natural buffoons” with “bulging eyes, unkempt hair, red lips, and wide mouths into which they stuffed huge slices of watermelon” — it’s also an old term from the time when Britain was a dominant world power. Just a month later, in the Sun — another one of Britain’s most-read newspapers — Johnson wrote that “the best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction.” Given that several Africans who resisted British colonial rule were castrated with pliers, it isn’t surprising that many people of African descent didn’t consider this amusing.
Johnson’s racism is nostalgic, and crucially so; it yearns for a time when his country bestrode the globe, and as a result, it resonates powerfully with so many of his fellow citizens. His persona is a carefully cultivated throwback to the days of sepia TV and Pathé News, and as we lurch toward an uncertain future, there are a sizable minority who find it uniquely comforting: A YouGov poll, conducted in the immediate aftermath of his announcement as leader, found that 28 percent of respondents were either pleased or delighted by the news.
But with the rhetorical track record he has, how was Johnson twice elected mayor of London, one of the world’s most diverse and liberal cities, before being voted into office by a tiny percentage of the United Kingdom’s population? There are perhaps two main reasons for this grim reality. The first is that Johnson’s casually racist outlook is quietly shared by a significant number of voters. While Britain is one of the European countries where black people are least likely to experience racially motivated physical assault, it is still a country where a 2013 survey found that black people were 29 times as likely as white British people to experience discrimination when applying to live in private housing. Johnson’s racism — an insidious strain that is found in a sizable segment of British society — is one where black people know their place.
The second reason is that Johnson’s breezily upbeat humor is part of a package of cast-iron confidence that many Brits find utterly intoxicating. In the lead-up to the London 2012 Olympics, his relentlessly positive outlook captivated much of the country. In a nation where public displays of arrogance are generally frowned upon, Johnson is a beacon of defiance, a rallying cry in human form. Yet it is interesting who much of British society and its media allows to be arrogant, and who they do not. American soccer star Megan Rapinoe was recently criticized by Piers Morgan, a prominent TV personality, for her demeanor following her team’s recent World Cup victory. Johnson’s own bluster, meanwhile, has just been lauded by the Daily Mail as “a burst of optimism” which could “bring [the country] sunshine.”
Johnson and his defenders are quick to note that he’s often joking when he expresses racist thoughts (much like another brash and floppy-haired chief executive who seems to wallow in nostalgia for a bygone racial order). But such jokes aren’t harmless; the casual racism within them is not so casual, not so subconscious, and in fact deeply embedded. When Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, an American data scientist, conducted a study of what might be revealed by people’s anonymous Google searches, he found a surge in searches for racist jokes on three particular occasions: in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; during Barack Obama’s first election as U.S. president; and by around 30 percent on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That is to say, whenever there were leading news items that prominently featured African Americans. In this context, as an emerging body of psychology research seems to show, these are not just jokes; they are a reaffirmation of the desired social order. Perhaps this is why Johnson’s jokes may have been so effective: They place the private views of his deepest sympathizers in socially acceptable clothing.
The antidote to Johnson’s jokes is to cross-examine him on his record in cold-eyed fashion, in an atmosphere resembling a trial rather than a circus. This is, after all, a man who once apparently conspired to have a journalist beaten up for providing unfavorable coverage of a friend’s business affairs. Unfortunately, like President Trump in the United States, Johnson has proved supremely evasive when it comes to one-on-one interviews. On two of the two notable occasions when he has made himself thus available, the results — first with Eddie Mair on the BBC on March 2013, and then Andrew Neil on the BBC earlier this month — have been devastating for his credibility. Mair confronted him with his professional misadventures, suggesting that an individual capable of such conduct was a “nasty piece of work.” Meanwhile, Neil exposed Johnson’s ignorance of a key principle of trade agreement law. However, such scrutiny has been all too rare.
Johnson’s jokes have partly thrived because he is well aware of whom a large part of the country, in private at least, seems to be laughing at. The most remarkable thing about his comments is that they have long been published by some of the nation’s most widely read magazines and newspapers. It is a grim thought, but Johnson’s enduring popularity is suggestive of a vast cruel streak at the heart of British public life. It is the same cruel streak that made “Little Britain,” a mid-2000s comedy that routinely mocked the country’s most marginalized people, one of the most loved shows on television.
The question is where Britain goes from here. And it will answer that by examining its role in enabling Johnson’s career, one of the most successful jokes in the history of British politics. It need not laugh while doing so; in fact, given the lack of seriousness that has enabled Johnson’s rise, maybe it is better if it doesn’t.