No one said the words “Uncle Tom” when Sajid Javid, Britain’s first Muslim ethnic minority home secretary, was appointed to his powerful position at the very top of government and nor should they, at least right now.
There is little indication Javid will display the characteristics of an “Uncle Tom,” one who humiliatingly serves his political master without just and humane regard for his own community.
In the United States, “Uncle Tom” is a description that’s more commonly used and understood than in the United Kingdom. The reference is to the main protagonist of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Tom, a faithful African-American slave, is used and abused by his white master and eventually dies at the hands of a malicious owner.
“Uncle Tom” is not a term much used outside the United States, though the concept is well understood everywhere. The issue, however, is not what epithet might be used for Britain’s new home secretary. It is the decided symbolism of his appointment, the elevation of a second-generation immigrant son of a Pakistani bus driver to one of the highest offices in the land.
It is obvious British Prime Minister Theresa May is desperate to convey an image of inclusiveness. As was France’s former President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007. He tried to soften his tough stand on immigration by appointing Moroccan-Algerian Rachida Dati the country’s first Muslim cabinet minister.
Javid’s new job came as the British government was being assailed for pursuing an immigration policy that is populist, ineffective and cruel. Matters came to a head when it became evident the government had wrongly threatened long-time residents from the Caribbean with deportation and denied them health care and the right to work in Britain.
This triggered a wider debate about the governing Conservative Party’s hostility towards foreign workers and fee-paying foreign students, family members sponsored by immigrants already settled in the United Kingdom and towards Syrian refugees.
It falls to Javid to fashion a migration policy that combines sense and sensibility and that fleshes out Britain’s nonsensical claim it will be more “global” as it leaves the European Union.
On his first day in office, Javid deftly used his background as proof that change was on the way. He referred to his family as possible victims of the immigration policy had they been Caribbean and he declared he did not want a “hostile” but a “compliant” environment towards illegal immigrants.
The symbolism — of the man and what he said — has undeniable power but will it be no more than ritualistic? Some years ago, anthropologist Abner Cohen assessed the dynamics of political symbolism with the following question: “Why does political man — shrewd, calculating, utilitarian — also have to be symbolist man — idealist, altruistic, non-rational?”
It’s self-evident that to go beyond the merely symbolic, high-profile political appointments need to do more than just physically embody change. They must bring fresh thinking and new approaches supposedly inherent in their organic credentials for the job.
Sometimes, this doesn’t happen, leading to the derogatory categorisation “Uncle Tom.” Justice Clarence Thomas, the second African American to be appointed to the US Supreme Court, is criticised for siding with conservative judges in striking down part of a law originally meant to prevent racial discrimination in elections.
As justice minister of France, Dati was just as hard line, if not more, than Sarkozy. She defended minimum sentences for young offenders and backed calls to jail criminal offenders as young as 12.
Britain’s new home secretary may also attract criticism for his policies on immigration. Before his elevation, he wrote a newspaper article lauding Brexit for “taking back control of immigration by ending the unrestricted freedom of movement.”
That doesn’t prove Javid is an “Uncle Tom,” though. Not yet.