A British friend of mine suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. She has nicknamed her condition “Boris Johnsonitis.” I wouldn’t ordinarily repeat such intimately degrading aspersions—after all, I was voted “most lady-like” in high school—but sometimes, one vulgarity can only be conveyed with another.
Besides, I have an ax to grind with Boris.
The year was 1997. Although the trend was largely ignored in the United States, much of the rest of the world had formally bracketed 1997 as time to be dedicated to the goal of combating all forms of disabling prejudice, including xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Roma and other anti-minority sentiment. The United Nations had declared March 21 the International Day for the Elimination of Racism. The European Union had made ’97 the Year Against Racism. The World Council of Churches had marked it as the Ecumenical Year of the Churches’ Solidarity With Uprooted People.
In 1997, Britain was still churning from the 1993 murder of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence, a black student and champion runner who had been studying to become an architect. Lawrence was killed at a bus stop by a gang of white men who called out racial epithets as they stabbed him to death. The subsequent investigation was botched, and badly: only two suspects were charged but the charges were dropped, and allegations that the police department was tainted by institutional racism roiled public discussion. That year, then–Home Secretary Jack Straw opened an inquiry into the handling of the case, which ultimately resulted in the 1999 publication of the MacPherson report, concluding that there had indeed been racism in the Metropolitan Police Service. Still, it was not until the case was reopened in 2011 that two of the suspects were convicted.
I was in Britain in 1997, having been invited to present the BBC’s annual Reith Lectures. I was specifically asked to address the issues of the day and the themes of the year, so I spoke about the genealogy of racism. That was not an easy task. For all the exhortations to kumbaya at the international level, on the ground the culture wars were in full force. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was pilloried as too “politically correct,” too unscholarly, and terribly muddle-minded. The Daily Mail described me as descended from “slave stock,” calling me a “militant black feminist who thinks all whites are racist and that the family is wrong.” Conservative American think tanks weighed in to denounce me as a poor choice who was “no Toni Morrison” (although, really, who is?).
And Boris Johnson, then working for The Daily Telegraph, wrote a disparaging column titled “Lecture One: The Tedium Is The Message,” whose last sentence read, “Only the Americans Would Reward This Kind of Mumbo-Jumbo With a Professorship.” It stung, frankly, but in a column he wrote a year later, Johnson quoted me favorably: “[A]s Professor Patricia Williams was saying in last year’s Reith Lectures, you can see the danger of pretending that [racism] does not exist.”
Then, with the happily incoherent straddling for which Johnson is now known, he looped my idea into a strange endorsement of fascist Enoch Powell’s contention that “racism is part of human nature.”
As for Boris: A lot has happened for him since 1997. He went on to become twice mayor of London, then foreign minister, and now prime minister. He has continued to entertain the world with his signature gros mots: To him, the entire continent of Africa is “that country”; gay men are “tank-topped bumboys”; black people are “pickaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”; women figure as “blubbing blondes,” with “ample bosoms” whose bottoms may be patted before sending them on their way—unless they wear niqabs, in which case they are closer to “bank robbers” and “letter boxes.”
And did you know voting Tory will give your wife “bigger breasts,” that Papua New Guinea is rife with “orgies of cannibalism and chief-killing,” and that gay marriage is akin to bestiality? Boris seems certain of it. While campaigning for Brexit, he even claimed that the European Union is a return to the Roman Empire similar to what “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried….and it ends tragically.” He and Steve Bannon hang out like best buds.
But, for the record, here’s an ironic little story about what didn’t make it into print when Boris Johnson interviewed me for that Telegraph article. He arranged with the BBC to meet me at the bar of London’s very posh Langham Hotel. When I arrived, he spent most of the time holding forth about how young black men should only “naturally” receive more scrutiny in public spaces, including by police—not because of any inherent criminal disposition but because they “stand out” like the black sheep on the farm at his country house.
“One can’t help seeing them differently,” he pronounced. “And they’re just going to look like criminals.”
At that moment, a man walked into the bar and Boris interrupted his disquisition about how it’s fair to assume suspicion or not based on looks and race. With great excitement, he leaped up from his seat and ran across the room to warmly embrace his “Old friend! Old chum!” from Eton and Oxford, Darius Guppy. Johnson hadn’t seen him in a while, because Guppy had only recently been released after several years in prison for insurance fraud against Lloyd’s of London. (If you don’t know who the Guppy is, it’s worth taking a peek at this Wikipedia page.)
Indeed, as Johnson now ascends to power, his long bond with Guppy is linked in the minds of many Brits to yet another dereliction: In 1990, a 21-minute-long tape was recorded and later leaked to the press in which Guppy presses Johnson to hand over the home address of Stuart Collier, a reporter for News of the World, who Guppy feared was digging too deeply into his affairs. Guppy is heard saying that he wants to arrange for Collier to be roughed up, given a couple of black eyes and have a few ribs cracked: “I am telling you something, Boris, this guy has got my blood up, all right, and there is nothing which I won’t do to get my revenge. It’s as simple as that.”
Although the assault never took place and Johnson now says he was merely joking, humoring an old friend, Britain’s newest prime minister can be heard at the end of that call saying, “OK, Darry, I said I’ll do it. I’ll do it, don’t worry.”
But back to the bar at the Langham in 1997. When Johnson and Guppy finished slapping each others’ backs, Boris returned to our table and sat back down: “Funny…,” I said carefully. “He doesn’t look like a criminal.”
Boris responded as Boris does: “Ho-ho-ho!” he boomed. “Touché! Touché!”