Even now, months after the event, Labour MPs have not forgiven Kemi Badenoch for saying that Britain is one of the best countries in the world in which to be black. It was during the Black Lives Matter protests and many politicians — including Sir Keir Starmer — were ‘taking the knee’ to show fealty to its cause. Badenoch took a different view, seeing within all this a pernicious ideology that portrays blackness as victimhood and whiteness as oppression. In parliament this week, she went further: this, she said, is ‘critical race theory’ — a new enemy for the Tory party and, as equalities minister, one for her to fight.
We met earlier this month in her old workplace, The Spectator (she was our digital chief), where she reassessed her earlier stance. ‘I’d go further and say this is the best country,’ she says. ‘I’ve lived in the US, I’ve lived in Nigeria, so I feel like I’ve got some context to compare. I look at South Africa and look around Europe and ask: are those places better to be black than the UK? I don’t think so. It doesn’t mean everything is perfect… But if as a politician, especially a black politician, I don’t say this, who will?’
When she spoke in the Commons this week in a six-hour debate on Black History Month, it was quite a moment for the Tories, who, as a party, have tended to shy away from the issue of identity politics. About 30 of them offered support from the normally empty benches as she declared war on critical race theory and BLM. She added that teaching children white privilege as a fact was ‘illegal’.
‘Many people don’t realise that [critical race theory] is political,’ she tells me. ‘It’s getting into institutions that really should be neutral: schools, NHS trusts, and even sometimes the civil service.’ She is particularly incensed by the boom in sales of texts such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (which claims all white people are racist and any denial of this is further evidence of racism) and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (whose thesis is that black history has been eradicated for the political purpose of white dominance). ‘Many of these books — and, in fact, some of the authors and proponents of critical race theory — actually want a segregated society.’ The ideas in such texts, she says, are reaching deep into large private companies and our institutions, as part of the movement to train people to be aware of their supposed ‘unconscious bias’.
She’s sceptical about such training, claiming that there’s no evidence that it works: if anyone is biased, she says, ‘You’re not going to change it within an hour’s training course.’ I point out that her own department, HM Treasury, offers this to civil servants. ‘I’ve asked to do the training!’ she replies. ‘I think there’s been enough time to have a look and see whether it’s working or not. And if it’s not, then we should remove it.’
I ask her about a recent story concerning the V&A, whose guidance for employees defines ‘black’ as ‘a term that embraces people who experience structural and institutional racism because of their skin colour’. ‘This is to politicise my skin colour,’ Badenoch says. ‘The logical conclusion of what they’re saying is that people in Africa who are not discriminated against on the basis of their race are not really black. It is associating being black with negativity, oppression and victimhood in an inescapable way. It’s creating a prison for black people.’
Black people who think like her, she says, tend not to be invited onto television. ‘There is a left-wing view of racial politics that’s assumed to be the black view of politics. Being black is not just about being a minority. On a global scale we are not a minority — but the rhetoric in this country is talking about us as if we are almost a separate sub-species.’
A Tory equalities agenda, she says, should be based on Martin Luther King’s ‘dream’ — that people should be judged ‘on the content of their character’ and not the colour of their skin. ‘Now, it’s all about the colour of your skin. That cannot be,’ she says emphatically. ‘You can’t pick and choose the rules depending on the colour of someone’s skin. That is what the racists do.’
I put to her that the Tories have dabbled in all this for quite some time, talking up racial injustice, then posing as the avengers. David Cameron notoriously claimed that a black Brit was ‘more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university’. ‘There can be an issue,’ she responds. ‘In trying to show that you are a party representing all people, you accept some of the false rhetoric in order to be able to demonstrate that you’re doing something about it. But there are enough problems for us without having to create new ones…The repetition of the victimhood narrative is really poisonous for young people because they hear it and believe it.’
Badenoch grew up in Nigeria and, aged 16, won a part-scholarship to Stanford University to study medicine, but the fees were still prohibitive. She then moved to Britain where, she admits, she experienced discrimination. ‘Some very lovely liberal headteachers said: “Why don’t you try being a nurse instead? It’ll be easier for you to get it.” I would call that racism. In their minds, they were probably trying to help me because they thought: “Oh, this poor black person, she seems to be doing OK at school, let’s get her on the nursing track. She won’t fail at that. But if we give her anything difficult to do, she will fail.”’
She began a career in software engineering before joining Coutts and then The Spectator. She then stood for the Greater London Assembly before being elected to the ultra-safe seat of Saffron Walden in 2017. When she was handed the equalities brief, it surprised her friends because she has had far stronger views on the subject than her party had, historically, been comfortable expressing.
‘Too often, everyone’s waiting for the prime minister to come out and say: “This is really terrible and we’re going to do something about it.” Of course, as politicians, we have a role to play. But it can’t just be us. If you’re just waiting for your MP to say something, then you’ve lost the battle.’