Thursday, 5 May 2011

Slavery, reparations: Unfinished business

Slavery has left a legacy of racism, poverty and the notion of white supremacy. The campaign for reparations here in the UK needs to be re-energised, writes Lee Jasper.

Britain was made ‘great’ on the back of the massive profits made from Transatlantic Slavery. Profits paid the national debt and provided the huge sums of cash that kick started the British industrial revolution, financed the expansion of the British Imperial army and the subsequent military domination of Africa, Asia and Latin America, whilst funding the great expansion of Victorian philanthropy in British cities.

The massive accumulation of capital from first slavery and then colonialism provided the jump off point, the continuing cash injection necessary to fund expanded scientific research, the application of that science to industrial mass production and the building of the civic and the domestic and international transport infrastructure of the UK and most of Europe.

Over 500 years of brutal racism, psychological and, cultural and economic rape of African peoples followed and the sadomasochistic brutality used to inform plantation slavery has left permanent psychological scars and a toxic economic legacy of generational poverty for the majority of contemporary descendants of African slavery.

The most corrosive legacy has of course been racism and the notion of white supremacy that ‘justified’ the kidnap, maiming, raping and murder of hundreds of millions of non white people worldwide.

Racism has killed and destroyed the lives of more people than all of the wars in the 20th Century combined. The rise of Hitler and fascism can be traced to the scientific, theological and philosophical myths of white superiority and black inferiority that are the founding cornerstones of the modern concept of racism

The political, philosophical and theological arguments made against slavery informed the modern concept human rights and the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was a unique gift to the world borne from the tragedy of African exploitation and oppression.

Nearly 10 years ago, a United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance  was put together and held in Durban, South Africa in September 2001.

Although beset by controversy as a result of a coordinated campaign by Western nationals and Israel to discredit the conference and obscure addressing the legitimate demand for reparations and its conclusions, the Conference was nevertheless a landmark in the struggle to eradicate all forms of racism.
The final outcome was two Durban conference documents one the official UN and the other a NGO drafted declaration.

The issue of Compensation for Colonialism and Slavery was addressed in the final Declaration and Programme of Action. A strong international alliance led by African nations and supported by Latin American and Asian bloc countries supported the call for Transatlantic Slavery as a crime against humanity and called for reparations to be paid – but this was quietly buried by Western nations.

The Declaration had managed to establish the principle of Transatlantic Slavery as crime against humanity, but the Declaration failed to legally enforce reparations ignoring the precedents that had been set.

Although both the first and the second Conference in 2009 were sabotaged, another DurbanIII  is scheduled for September 2011, to be held in New York.

No doubt the ongoing fractious political debate will once again come to dominate the agenda forcing into the shadows the legitimate debate about the case for African reparations.

In the meantime though, I believe that the campaign for reparations here in the UK needs to re-energize itself and focus on building the broadest united front in demanding that the UK government and institutions make reparations.

The reality is that as the majority of African descendants of slavery here in the UK live with the accumulated legacy of racism that can be seen playing itself out in black communities today.
We continue to live with the legacy of poverty and racism. Poverty as a result of our fore parents having no real economic assets to leave to their children, unlike those who profited from the trade. We still live with the fact that we are not equal citizens in a nation that likes to portray itself as a beacon of freedom, democracy and equality.That is a lie and whilst the crude racism of the past has been largely eradicated in the 21st Century UK, the reality of institutional racism and the relegation of black people to the status of third class citizens in a supposed first class democracy remains a indisputable fact.

Systemic inequalities are much more wide ranging than known individual instances of prejudice. However such large scale systemic discrimination is maintained by decisions, actions and inactions of individuals, institutions and Government.

Of course the current climate is one that seeks to deny the extent and depth of racism and its effects on both black and white communities. Attacks on the concept of multiculturalism, the dismantling of race equality monitoring and consultation frameworks, the closure of local race equality councils, the decimation of the back voluntary sector and the prohibition by Government in funding specific programs aimed at distinct cultural communities unless they are white British, provides damming evidence of a dangerous level of Government complacency on race issues.

Informing this denial is the notion that racism is an all or nothing concept that either one is a complete Third Reich racist or completely free of racial prejudice. This discounts the possibility that an individual can hold progressive political views and at the same time engages in action or inactions that promote racism.

Today in the UK if you’re pro black your ‘anti white’, if you politically challenge racism you’re a ‘race baiting agitator’ and if you personally challenge racism you have a ‘chip on your shoulder’. All claims of racism are considered politically motivated and grossly inflated. All forms of black self organisation are considered racist and by their very nature hostile to whites and the really interesting thing is that some of the people who sympathise with these generalisations are people who would consider themselves left of centre.

This new phenomena of these left centre neo liberal reactionaries is ably explored in a series of excellent articles exploring new research that sheds new light on the psychology of racism. The publication is a series of essays written by eminent and leading research scientists entitled Are we born racist? New Insight form Neuroscience and Positive Psychology this is recommended reading.

No doubt my approach in this article will either provoke wails of compliant and accusation from certain quarters or be completely ignored by others.

Today’s racism is more sophisticated and therefore much more insidious. Be under no illusion though racism today is just as effective in denying the fundamental human rights of non white British citizens to justice and equality.

The Durban III conference could be a unique opportunity to create a new world vision for the fight against racism in the twenty-first century. No doubt political opportunists and the international conspiracy of silence against racism will ensure that this great opportunity will descend into chaos and farce.

Lee Jasper is co-chair of BARAC

(First published in OBV-Operation Black Vote: The Home 0f Black Politics )