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Gary Younge

Gary Younge is a journalist, author, and academic. Born in Stevenage in 1969, he began his career as a reporter for the Guardian in 1993 and was the paper’s North America correspondent for 12 years, returning to the UK in 2015. He has written five books, including Who Are We? How Identity Politics Took Over the World (2010) and Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives (2016). Having left his role as columnist at the Guardian, Younge is now a professor of sociology at the University of Manchester. His latest book, Dispatches from the Diaspora (Faber, 2023), is a broad and unflaggingly perceptive collection of his journalism since 1994 and further proof of his standing as one of Britain’s few true public intellectuals.

Interview by Masoud GolsorkhiPortrait by Cian Oba Smith

MASOUD GOLSORKHI How did you make this selection from the hundreds of articles you’ve written?

GARY YOUNGE Originally I was going to do a collection of interviews that I was going to call Conversations in Black. I’ve met a significant number of prominent Black people – Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Andrea Levy, Louis Farrakhan, Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, Spike Lee – but although there were lots of interviews, not all of them were that good. When I interviewed Tracy Chapman, she was chronically shy and didn’t really want to speak; Spike Lee was just difficult. To make it work, I would have had to pad it out a bit. Then I thought, there’s a way of assembling my work around the Black diaspora. I finished at the Guardian in January 2020, started as an academic in April 2020, and then by the end of May came the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. I thought it would make sense to do it now. I started having conversations with people who were 25 or 26 and I realised that they had been born the year that Mandela stepped down; that they were barely conscious of Hurricane Katrina; that Barack Obama had been elected right at the beginning of their awareness of politics; that Stephen Lawrence was always dead for them; that the Macpherson Report [about Lawrence’s murder] happened before they were politically conscious. There was political value in establishing some kind of lineage between these events. But the selection, as all selections should be, was tough. There were a few pieces that didn’t make it in: the interview with Jesse Jackson, with Louis Farrakhan, one with the Barbadian prime minister, Mia Motley, who led the country to become a republic. But it became very long, and I did want to keep it to the size of a book that people might actually read. 

MG With the benefit of hindsight, did you feel like re-editing?

GY I was tempted to re-edit for style! The Obama election piece was written on about three hours of sleep. The piece about the night that George Zimmerman was acquitted was written in an angry hourand- a-half, because I wanted to get it done so I could send it to the Guardian in Australia. I was really anxious that it went up quickly. They’re not the best pieces, necessarily; they are the pieces that are written in the moment or for a moment.

MG That’s what makes the book such a refreshing read. Essays have a propensity to be wise – “I always knew it” – whereas this collection has a freshness and spontaneity reminded me more of [James] Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son [1955].

GY The primary job of a journalist is to be descriptive rather than predictive. Our job is to try and understand in the hope that it will give some clues to the future. You only get things wrong if you think you have the capacity to get them right.

MG How do you view the progress of identity politics and representation overall?
GY “Identity politics” is one of those terms like “woke” or “political correctness” that can mean whatever you want it to mean, so long as it describes something you don’t like. My third book, Who Are We? said, “There is identity in politics. There’s no avoiding it; people come from a place.” The only difference between me and a posh white male columnist is my awareness of the fact – the more powerful your identity is, the less likely you are to know about it. Identity is a great place to start in politics, but a terrible place to finish. One of the places in which I think we were insufficiently cautious is around the politics of representation. Take Obama’s victory – throughout his candidacy, I would say: “This is a symbolically important moment, but let’s not confuse it for substance. It’s very important that less than 50 years after Black people secured the right to vote, we have a Black president. But his agenda is not much more left wing than Hilary’s. He is a product of a party that is awash with money, that is tied to a whole corrupt system.” Obama declared on the same weekend as my son was born, and people would say: “This is going to be a wonderful thing for your son.” I’d say, “Why? Is Obama going to limit the chance of my son going to jail? Is he going to reduce the chances that he will be shot? I can see what this win is going to do for Obama, but what’s it going to do for my son?” They didn’t want to hear that, but if you don’t have those arguments then when Rishi Sunak and Kwasi Kwarteng show up, you’re left with your pants down. When I interviewed Angela Davis, she said: “There is a model of diversity as a difference that brings no difference and a change that means no change.” Photo opportunities instead of equal opportunities. I don’t think that there’s anyone sitting on a plane destined for Rwanda thinking, “Well, at least it was Priti Patel and Suella Braverman who’s put me here.” You can change the colour of the people operating the system, but so long as the system is working, it really doesn’t matter. Sometimes, the system operates even better when it’s multicoloured. 

MG The Indians in Africa were the last loyal British subjects who stayed after the white people left. People rarely really address the complex system of repression that had brought Indians over to fulfil a certain function in a fundamentally racist, exploitative and extractive system. By electing these specific non-white people, the fantasy of Empire is continuing, rather than ending. With people like Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman, they validate a form of racism that is far harder to fight than the one that says, “You brown people are less intelligent”.

GY That’s also true of Black people, if you distinguish between those who have come from West Africa and those who have come from the Caribbean. West Africa has a significant ruling class, whereas the Caribbean has very small bourgeoisies that by and large are not that powerful. Obama was Black, but he wasn’t African American, and that mattered. He didn’t have a history of slavery or if he did, it was through his white mother. He had a different story: he could say, my father came to America, a magical place, even though it was 1959 and African Americans couldn’t vote. If you get stuck in an understanding of race and racism as just being about phenotype, you will nearly always miss the point. What these non-white people who come through the system illustrate is their connectivity to a global sense of class. What class were these people in Uganda or in Kenya?

MG How did you come to view Britain through the eyes of a foreign correspondent?

GY I was 18 before I would even describe myself as British – I would say I was from Barbados, even though I’d only been there once when I was four, for six weeks. I became more appreciative of certain things after I had left, some of it cultural, a lot of it trivial. I became more appreciative of swearing and drinking culture, and a certain kind of broad dismissiveness and irony that was lacking in America. I became more appreciative of the NHS. I became more appreciative of the limits to English social violence. I grew up in a new town, and on Friday and Saturday nights, people go out, they get drunk, they beat each other up. Generally speaking, nobody dies. Then on the other side, I also became more aware of the degree to which England was embedded in the transatlantic hellscape that unleashed the Iraq War. I was aware of it before, but I wasn’t aware of how deeply it ran.

MG You’ve been on the outside and you’ve been very deep inside. How do you view journalism’s evolution, from both vantage points?

GY From the outside, I understood it as being like most of the things of that level: that it was done by elite people for elite people, what has been called “the internal memos of the middle classes”.

MG And once you were inside the mothership?

GY Once I was inside, it became clear that that’s exactly what it was! I did see beautiful writing, penetrative reporting, engaged commentary, but journalism will always be fighting against an oligarchic tendency, which has become increasingly evident over the last decade. There are three times when that became clear: Brexit, Trump and Corbyn. In all three examples, there was the sense that these people or subjects had violated the sacred space between the media class and the political class who were, more or less, the same people. There was a report in 2019 about social mobility which showed that newspaper columnists were more likely to be drawn from private schools and Oxbridge than high-court judges or Lords in the House of Lords. When Trump happened, there was a chronic lack of curiosity. You don’t have to like Trump, but if you’re going to call his supporters racists or bigots or xenophobes and say that that alone is what’s driving them, at least have the decency to speak to them. In my experience, those things weren’t absent, but it was more complicated.

MG I feel that of all the people who ever stood up for Corbyn, Black people in positions of prominence were those the blob found it most difficult to challenge. Stormzy, for example – he’s a brilliant man who has shown incredible moral courage. People are scared of challenging him. Maybe the blob at the Guardian would have found it much harder to challenge you than other people.

GY They would have found a way; they always find a way. For all of the ways in which Stormzy is brilliant, as a grime artist, a rapper, a Black man, it’s amazing how little tabloid presence he has. One of the reasons is because he hasn’t made many mistakes, but the moment he does, they will be on him like white on rice. Once they just made one up. He was asked by an Italian paper, “Do you think Britain is racist?” And he said, “Yeah, 100%”, and that became “Stormzy thinks Britain is 100% racist”. Sajid Javid got involved. Look at what’s happening to Diane Abbott at the moment. She made a mistake – there’s no doubt about that – but she owned it and she apologised. Yet as a Black woman she cannot make a mistake. Johnson can write a book crammed with anti-semitic caricatures and just get away with it.

MG And be racist about the Burmese, while in Burma.

GY Exactly – “Oh, silly me.” I wrote a piece after a series of Tory gaffes around race in which I said racism is not about gaffes, it’s a system of oppression. If you’re a Black person and the worst thing that happens to you is that someone calls you coloured, you are blessed! I’ve been chased down a road by men with baseball bats. I’ve been beaten up by cops.I’m not interested in people misspeaking. I remember when Ron Atkinson used the N-word and there was a kind of pileon, and I said at the time, there’s more to racism than the N-word. I grew up in Stevenage among white people who would say all kinds of things, and then be the first people to your door when you needed them. This means that you can be pulled up for something incredibly minor while real violence and disenfranchisement continues. The truth is, with a lot of the articles I wrote – I’m thinking particularly of “Riots are a Class Act” where I speak in defence of rioting – there’s a real knot in my stomach for when that goes live. This may sound self obsessive, and self aggrandizing, but people are lying in wait for you to make a mistake. They don’t like it that you, not just as a Black person, but a Black person with a certain kind of politics, occupies a certain kind of space. And the moment you get the adjective wrong then they’re on you. ◉