Boris Johnson has ‘announced’, if that’s no too grand a word for a bit of a burble in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, an inquiry into inequalities. I’ve found it intensely depressing that a powerful moral argument about racism and police brutality has somehow been diverted into a discussion of public statues. The slave trader Edward Colston died in 1720, three hundred years ago. The focus on people like him is a poor substitute for addressing the problems now.
The diversion from the real issues reflects, unfortunately, a failure among many people who think of themselves as anti-racist to focus on what matters. The dominant narrative in the 1980s tried to link the explanation for all racial problems in terms of a combination of slavery, colonialism and contemporary racism. I hoped and thought the debates had moved on since then: it seems I was wrong. The same narrative makes sense only for particular ethnicities. The narrative says a lot about the USA, and quite a lot about people who came to Britain from the Caribbean; but it overrides the experience of other disadvantaged groups, whose circumstances just didn’t fit the same pattern.
The first set of issues concerns slavery. The dehumanisation and brutality associated with slavery is often represented as something that is distinctive to colonialism, but it’s something that has been widely practised in a wide range of other circumstances. In contemporary terms, the serfs and peasants of the middle ages were pretty much treated as slaves. Various types of serfdom were practised in Europe over eight hundred years or more; serfs were still having to redeem themselves in Russia in the early 20th century . Let me pick up, for instance, the example of the 1351 Statute of Labourers (one of the major causes of grievance in the peasants’ revolt, thirty years later) which stipulated that “every person, able in body and under the age of 60 years, not having enough to live upon, being required, shall be bound to serve him that doth require him, or else be committed to gaol until he shall find surety to serve.” This is not the same thing as a slave trade – land and property could not at that time be bought and sold. But the staggering assumption at the root of this law was the assertion that everyone must have a master, and not having one constituted grounds for being taken and set to work. The lives of most people, in most places, were not their own.
Next, there is colonialism. A dogged Marxist might, I suppose, argue that it all boils down to money: empires work by extracting resources from one place and moving them to another. However, what money does depends on where it does it. It seems painfully obvious that what colonialism or Empire meant in South America, India, Ireland, China and much of Africa was quite different. The East India Company, a private concern, was based in trade leavened with piracy – it was not much like anything before or since. Slavery in the Spanish empire was characterised by degradation, inhuman treatment and chattel slavery, but it still didn’t look much like the system in the USA. To my mind, the claim that any of this can be reduced to a common factor of ‘race’ disregards the distinct history – and the pain – of people in the colonies and the conquered nations.
And then there is contemporary racism – what is happening now. It’s clear enough that history plays a part in forming the condition and opportunities which shape the experience of disadvantage: the position of indigenous peoples, or the continued inequalities affecting people of Irish descent in the UK, are markers. History matters, but it doesn’t matter that much. The kind of issue that should be exciting all our concern is not about a remote history. People who have some tenuous connection with foreign countries are being stripped of their rights. The policy is, deliberately and explicitly, ‘hostile’. Citizens are being expelled from their countries. Migrants are left to drown. People are being killed in the streets.
This is about the world as it is now, not as once it was. This morning, David Lammy has been making a powerfully articulate case for government action about things that matter – among them, policing, safeguarding people from minority groups and workplace discrimination. We have loads of information, reports and recommendations for action. Nothing is being done about them.