Ministers’ initial refusal to say Frank Hester’s comments were racist speaks volumes

After Frank Hester’s comments about Diane Abbott were published, the businessman who is the Conservative party’s biggest donor said in a statement that he accepted he was rude about her but “the criticism had nothing to do with her gender nor colour of skin”.

Despite direct references to both – he said of Abbott that “you just want to hate all black women because she’s there” – the prime minister and ministers sent out on Tuesday morning’s broadcast rounds in effect backed his stance by refusing to describe his comments as racist. They also rebuffed calls to hand back his £10m of donations.

It was not until Tuesday afternoon that the prime minister’s spokesperson said “comments allegedly made by Frank Hester were racist and wrong”.

Shabna Begum, the interim CEO of the race equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust, said she found it shocking that there was any debate that what he said was racist and that it gave the lie to the Conservative narrative that the UK is a “post-racial society”.

She said: “That denial speaks volumes about where we’re at because there’s this constant kind of littering of our public life with what are absolutely categorically racist language tropes being repeatedly used and then people kind of backtrack and say it had no racist intent. That is somehow supposed to kind of make it all right, and I think that’s a real problem.”

She said that as an Asian woman she did not experience the same kind of racism as black women and it was vital to acknowledge “how painful it is for black women and for the black community to see that happen”. Notably, some senior Tories have spoken out, including the former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, who said Hester’s comments “are clearly racist and they are clearly sexist”.

Hester preceded his remarks about Abbott by saying that he was “trying not to be racist”. But Georgina Calvert-Lee, an employment and equality barrister at Bellevue Law, said – assuming he had said what was reported – that would provide no defence were he to face a civil claim for harassment, which she said he would have “a really hard job” disproving. She said even if he had genuinely not meant to be racist or sexist, that was irrelevant for harassment, which was about the effect it had on the person making the complaints.

She added: “A natural way of understanding his comments is that they overtly relate to Diane Abbott as a black woman. The very fact that he’s bringing race and sex into the conversation makes them relevant. It makes it a comment about those protected characteristics.

“Him saying ‘I’m trying not to be racist’, or ‘I’m trying not to be sexist’, implies that he’s doing the opposite because he’s overtly bringing race and sex into account and saying he’s trying not to, but blaming Diane Abbott for making it impossible for him not to be sexist and racist, which brings victim blaming into it as well.”

Sailesh Mehta, a barrister and founding member of the Bar Human Rights Committee, said Hester’s comments, if as reported, were “capable of fitting the ingredients of the criminal offence [of stirring up racial hatred] created by the Public Order Act”. He said it was rarely prosecuted, except in the most compelling cases, because of free speech considerations, but added: “Political leaders are increasingly using incendiary language, which appears to give licence to their followers to be ever more shrill in their rhetoric. It is only a matter of time before this worrying spiral triggers such violence or threat of violence that the police and Crime Prosecution Service will be forced to act.”

Begum compared the government’s initial refusal to call Hester’s comments racist to its recent refusal to label Lee Anderson’s description of Sadiq Khan and London being controlled by Islamists as Islamophobic, despite suspending him from the party.

She also contrasted its response with what she said was “the increasing criminalisation of black and brown people”, citing the characterisation of people on marches calling for a ceasefire in Gaza as Islamic extremists and the recent trial of a black man on hate crime charges (he was acquitted) for sending a raccoon emoji – an insult used by black people to describe someone they believe is black on the outside and white on the inside – to a prospective Conservative MP.

“So we’ve got on the one hand, this really heavy-handed, very blunt approach toward black and minority ethnic groups in terms of what they can say when they are committing hate crimes versus here we’ve got this powerful white man making a really baldly racist statement about hating a black woman, wanting her to be shot and we’re still debating whether it’s racist or not.”