Monday, 27 October 2014

How far have we come? Slavery, Civil Rights & Contemporary Racism. What Can We Learn from British Black and Anti-Racist History?

This posting is based on a talk I gave to the 
Ethical Society at Conway Hall in Holborn on 
Sunday 19 October. Its purpose was to stimulate debate

What is Racism?

‘The race problem means … the problem of adjustment between two dissimilar populations, locally intermingled in such proportions that the one feels its racial identity potentially threatened, while the other knows itself in constant danger of economic exploitation.’ (William Archer. Through Afro-America. 1910)

If we replace ‘the race’ by ‘the East European and the Moslem immigration’ does this succinctly summarise the attraction of UKIP?

If it does then does this represent a growing toxic growing mix of racism, xenophobia and confusion?

Racism implies racial discrimination, racial supremism and a harmful intent.

The word ‘racism’ is only about 80 years old. It came into use in the 1930s in the context of discussion about Nazi theories about Jews and Slavs, i.e. white peoples.

It replaced earlier words, racialism (1871) and racialist (early 20thC), while those from the 19thC like race hatredrace and colour prejudice remain in use today.

So when we use the word ‘racism’ to talk about attitudes prior to 1930 should we do so in inverted commas as a reminder that it is a relatively modern word?

But the roots of ‘racism’ have a long history. Supporters of the slave trade and slavery justified their activity on the basis that Africans were uncivilised. Analysis by some British scientists  of the differences between ‘races’ in the mid-19thC laid the foundations for seeing those who were not ‘True Englishmen’ or ‘Europeans’ as inferior, as savages and uncivilised. This is what Sir Francis Galton, wrote in a letter to The Times on June 5, 1873:

‘My proposal is to make the encouragement of Chinese settlements of Africa a part of our national policy, in the belief that the Chinese immigrants would not only maintain their position, but that they would multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race ... I should expect that the African seaboard, now sparsely occupied by lazy, palavering savages, might in a few years be tenanted by industrious, order-loving Chinese, living either as a semidetached dependency of China, or else in perfect freedom under their own law.

Such views interacted with the development of colonial and imperialist policies and practice across the British Empire. In his book Science, race relations and resistance. Britain 1870-1914 Douglas Lorimer summarises the definitions of ‘civilised’ and uncivilised’ conditions as developed through British imperialist experience as:

‘Civilised’: including ‘private ownership of property, the adoption of the English language and the Christian religion, the adoption of western practices in regard to marriage and family life, and cash income as educated professionalism, as independent or tenant farmers, as traders or shopkeepers, or as wage –labourers.’

‘Uncivilised’: including communal ownership of land, retention of an indigenous language, heathen religious and cultural practices in contravention of Christian norms, non-western forms of governance and law usually described as ‘tribal’, or ‘traditional’, and non-capitalist forms of production and labour.’

By the beginning of the 20thC the problems relating to the relationship between whites and non-whites were discussed in categories such as the ‘Native Question’, ‘Colour Problem’. ‘Race Problem’ and in the United States the ‘Negro Question’.

By the time of the start of the Boer War in 1899 ‘racism’ had become deeply ingrained. Even the Dutch Boers were seen as a separate race from Britons. By the end of the War The Daily Telegraph could write in August 1902:

‘The potential equality of the typical African with the white people, as we now know, never has existed and never can exist. No black race is capable of assimilating the higher spirit of mastering the political and economic mechanism of modern civilization.’ (p. 45)

In the aftermath of the War the concept of the ‘Black Peril’ developed in South Africa over black men raping white women, even though the majority of women there who were raped were black by white men. This broadened out in some people’s minds to the dangers of black men in Britain. In May 1906 the People’s Journal of Dundee ran a special report ‘’A “NEGRO” INVASION – Britain’s New Racial Problem - White Women and Blacks.’ (p.48)

Even someone like Annie Besant, a supporter of Indian nationalism deploring differentiation between skin colour and prejudice subscribed to the concept of the ‘Black Peril’. (p. 225) The Black Peril was picked up again after the War by E. D. Morel about the use of African troops by France to police the German Ruhr, despite the fact that he had been prominent in the earlier campaign about the atrocities in the Belgian Congo.   

Racism Today

Look How Far We’ve Come…? is a film recording the reflections of black and white activists on how far Britain has come since the 1950s in dealing with racism. I attended two showings in Westminster earlier this year and then organised its showing as part of the Croydon Heritage Festival.  It is clear from discussions on the film that many people still consider that racism is still a problem, that the issue of race has been taken off and needs to be put back on the agenda.

Bishop Dr. Joe Aldred, commenting at one of the showings said: “Racism is an embedded reality in Western society. We cannot afford to deny its stubborn presence rooted in powerful vested interests. To combat it, those affected by racism must seek ways to become strong spiritually, culturally, economically and politically - carving out and perusing a self-determined destiny.”

These concerns that racism is still a problem is backed by research.

·                     30% of people in Britain admit they are racist, up 5% since 2000. (British Social Attitudes Survey)
·                     People with names associated with ethnic minority groups were 29% less likely to be called for an interview than someone with a ‘White British’ name. (Department for Work and Pensions  2009)
·                     In July 2012, 29% of Asian and 47% of black young people were unemployed in the UK compared to 20% of white.
·                     Institutional racism continues in the police (e.g. the Stephen Lawrence and Groce families experience; the disproportionate use of stop and search).

Some Joseph Rowntree Foundation findings (2014):

·                     Prejudice is compounding poverty.
·                     Racism, and the fear of it, restricts access to social networks, preventing people from making links which could lead to jobs, support for small businesses, training and other opportunities. 
·                     It can prevent people from being promoted at work, wasting their skills and potential. 
·                     It can lead to people from ethnic minority backgrounds being directed into work for which they are greatly overqualified. 
·                     It intimidates people from leaving their own area to look for work or access services. 
·                     Children’s education is affected by low expectations among teachers and by racist bullying. 
·                     Access to vital services, such as primary healthcare, is affected by experiences of racism, particularly from frontline staff such as receptionists. 

At least two-thirds of people classified as black and ethnic minority in Britain live in those areas labelled ’socially  deprived’ – i.e where those at the bottom end of the working class and the poor predominantly live.
But you may say Britain is a multi-cultural society in which racism is reducing. Are we actually not a collection of national, ethnic and faith silos, with high levels of distrust and intolerance towards each other?
Governments find it easier and easier to divide and rule by attacking different social groups: lone parents, the unemployed, those on benefits, the baby boomers, addicts, the obese, the socially deprived. They are eroding people’s understanding and ability to express  solidarity. Those under attack either lay back and take the punishment or lash out and get into trouble.


What is meant by legacies of slavery and Empire?
·                     The shaping of Britain in the 18th and 19thCs based on the profits of the slavery business and colonial exploitation.
·                     The divisions created by colonialism in the Caribbean, West Africa and South Africa.
·                     The post-emancipation of under-development of the Caribbean.
·                     The race divide in the United States.
·                     The continuing mistreatment and stereotyping of Haitians, who pioneered the overthrow of slavery and have been paying for it ever since.

And of course the large scale migration to Britain from the West Indies, the Indian Sub-continent and Africa.
The Windrush ship from the West Indies in 1948 symbolises both the defeat of Nazi racism as it was a former ship for Hitler Youth holidaying on the Baltic, and the beginning of the large Afro-Caribbean migration after the War by people who answered the Mother Country’s call for help in reconstruction, with that extra spur of the under-development of the British West Indies that stretched back to the end of slavery.

While Black people in Britain since the end of the Second World War have experienced racism, as shown in Donald Hines’s novel Mother Country launched a few days ago. While that experience was nothing compared with that of African Americans, activists took inspiration from the US civil rights movement.

Since the 1950s the racism of Mosley, Colin Jordan, Enoch Powell, the National Front, and the British National Party has been countered by black organisations and by anti-racists through campaigns such as the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, the Anti-Nazi League, Rock Against Racism, Kick Racism Out of Football. But while the racists fall out with each other as we have seen with the expulsion of Nick Griffin by the BNP, they are constantly reorganising, which is why the monitoring work of the magazine Searchlight is so important.
The film 12 Years A Slave woke up many in Britain to the horrors of slavery. While it is a first class film, we need to remember it is not about a man born into slavery and it took place in the US Southern States cotton belt that fed the Lancashire cotton mills, a key component of 19thC British economy. Britain underpinned the slavery system in the American Southern States, and British money was embedded into the financial and transport infrastructure which supported it. It was England that introduced slavery into the British West Indies and the American colonies which became the United States.

The Legacies of British Slave-ownership project at UCL has been looking into who benefited from the £20m compensation given to the slave owners and what they spent the money on. All around us in Britain are building and cultural legacies of that money and the profits that were made in 18thC. The project team is now tracking back to the 1760s.

British Black History

The modern African presence in Britain began in early Tudor times. Research  identifies more and more individuals as visiting, working, marrying and raising families, and dieing here. Those who are becoming better known up are people like John Blanke, Henry VII and VIII’s trumpeter, Olaudah Equiano the late 18thC black abolitionist and supporter of political reform, William Cuffay the London Chartist leader, Mary Seacole because of her role in the Crimean War,

Arthur Wharton, the footballer and sportsmen, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor the composer, John Archer the Mayor of Battersea in 1913/14, Walter Tull the footballer and officer in the First World and C. L. R. James, the writer and activist. While they did experience racism, they also experienced popularity and solidarity. Archer was elected by whites, as were two Indian MPs in the late Victorian and Edwardian period and Saklavata in Battersea in the 1920s.

Coleridge-Taylor was perhaps the most famous and popular composer, conductor and adjudicator in Britain who tragically died aged 37. The life stories of more and more individuals are being told, like Esther Bruce and  Bill Miller. Two individuals particularly stand out in the period of the 1880s to the early 1920s. Samuel Celestine Edwards, a priest and editor of the an ‘anti-racist’ journal Fraternity, and Duse Mohamed Ali editor of The African and Orient Review.


There is a rich history of anti-racism, of solidarity, of opposition to the treatment of Africans and others in their countries starting in the campaign for the abolition of Britain’s official involvement in the slave trade achieved in 1807, and then in the campaign to end slavery in the British colonies achieved over a five year period following the emancipation act in 1833.

Religious, ethical and humanitarian considerations and concepts of liberty and civil rights helped underpin the abolition cause.  These remained part of the anti-slavery and native rights campaigns after emancipation in the 1830s.

Once Britain had extricated itself from direct involvement in slavery in 1838, the debate over abolition of slavery in the United States, Brazil, Cuba and parts of Africa and the Middle East continually referred to the problem of ‘colour prejudice’, and race  oppression. The Britain government, merchants, bankers and industrialists entered a period of what are clear contradictions, on the one hand intervening to force other countries to end their slave trades, and on the other hand ‘civilising’ Africans and other savage native peoples through colonisation, and supporting slave economies in the United States, Brazil and Cuba through free trade and investment. It was inevitable that British colonists and administrators were riddled with those racist attitudes as they sought to rule on the ground.

The abolitionists themselves had their own contradictions. Yet they saw the British concepts of freedom and equality as justifying colonisation. They resolved the contradiction by campaigning for the rule of law in the colonies, and the establishment of rights for the colonised. It was an uphill unwinnable struggle. By the end of the Boer War in 1902 it seemed an even greater problem with the strengthening of the ideas of separate development especially in South Africa.

The increasing colonisation of Africa and suppression of those who fought back helped to highlight the abuses of the rights of those who were oppressed. The Colenso family in particular were vigorous campaigners for the rights of the Zulus and opposed to the rape of East Africa by Cecil Rhodes. An increasing number of individuals began to express concerns, like Charlotte Impey, who founded the journal Ante-Caste in the 1880s and the Society for the Recognition of the Brotherhood of Man (SRBM) in the 1890s to oppose racial discrimination, whose journal Fraternity Celestine Edwards edited.  Examples of such solidarity have continued down to the present day.

Some questions
1.         Does knowing about the history of Black and anti-racist Britain change individuals’ understanding of British history and why we have the multi-ethnic society we now do?
2.         How was it possible to build effective anti-racist organisation and campaigning involving large numbers of white Britons in the 1970s and 80s?

3.         Can effective anti-racist organisation be built in today’s climate dominated by UKIP?

No comments:

Post a Comment