The west is built on racism; and not in some abstract or merely historical way. Genocide of over 80% of the natives of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries paved the way for the enslavement of millions of African people and the conquest of the world by European powers. At one point Britain’s empire was so vast that it covered two-thirds of the globe, so large that the sun never set on the dominion. The scientific, political and industrial revolutions the British school system is so proud to proclaim, were only possible because of the blood, toil and bounty exploited from the “darker nations” from across the globe. Colonialism left Africa, Asia and the Caribbean underdeveloped, as the regions were used to develop the west while holding back progress in what we now call the global south.
Any discussion of progress in racial equality in Britain or the rest of the world has to acknowledge the damage that the west has inflicted on the former colonies and their descendants. Malcolm X explained that “if you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made”. Instead of attempting to fix the damage, we are completely unable to progress on issues of equality because countries such as Britain “won’t even admit the knife is there”.
It is the height of delusion to think that the impact of slavery ended with emancipation, or that empire was absolved by the charade of independence being bestowed on the former colonies. Descendants of enslaved Africans in the west find themselves subject to steep racial inequalities in every area of social life and are more likely to be killed by the state, as evidenced by the eruption of Black Lives Mattermovements across the globe. This year marks 70 years since the partition of India and the region is still dealing with the consequences of British rule. The underdevelopment of the African continent continues with corrupt trade policies and the domination of the economy from the outside. One in 12 children dies in sub-Saharan Africa before their fifth birthday, in large part because the continent continues to be crippled by western “development”.
Make no mistake, the knife is still planted firmly in our backs and it is time we not only removed it, but healed the wound. The only way to do this is for reparations to be paid to wipe out the unmistakable debt the west owes.
Reparations have been routinely dismissed by British leaders, including David Cameron who told Jamaica that it was best to “move on” rather than expect so much as an apology. But as dismissive as Cameron was, there are plenty of precedents for the repayment of historical and economic debts.
Reparations were paid out by the British government after the abolition of slavery – albeit to the slave owners. So great was the loss of wealth from the exploitation of human flesh that the equivalent of £2bn was paid, which has now been tracked by researchers at UCL. In 1804, Haitians had the audacity to carry out the only ever successful slave rebellion and declared independence from France. One of their rewards was being forced to pay 90m French francs, from 1825, with the final payment only being made in 1947. Slavery was clearly a lucrative endeavour and one for which those who produced the wealth have never received any compensation.
It is not just governments that owe a debt; some of the biggest institutions and corporations built their wealth on slavery. Lloyds of London is one of Britain’s most successful companies and its roots lie in insuring the merchant trade in the 17th century. The fact that this was the slave trade has already led to civil action being taken by African Americans in New York. The church, many of the biggest banks, much of the ironworks industry and port cities gorged themselves on the profits from human flesh.
It is clear that it would be just to pay reparations, and it is also possible to calculate the amount that Britain and other nations owe. A lot of work has been done in the United States to determine the damages owed to African Americans. The figure owed comes to far more than the “forty acres and a mule” that were promised to some African Americans who fought in the civil war. The latest calculations from researchers estimates that for unpaid labour, taking into account interest and inflation, African Americans are owed anywhere between $5.9tn and $14.2tn.
In many ways the calls for reparatory justice do not take go far enough. Caricom includes a demand to cancel third world debt, and the Movement for Black Lives for free tuition for African Americans. Both of these are examples of removing the knife from our backs, rather than healing the wound. Third world debt was an unjust mechanism for maintaining colonial economic control and; allowing free access to a deeply problematic school system will not eradicate the impacts of centuries of oppression. In order to have racial justice we need to hit the reset button and have the west account for the wealth stolen and devastation caused. Nothing short of a massive transfer of wealth from the developed to the underdeveloped world, and to the descendants of slavery and colonialism in the west, can heal the deep wounds inflicted.
We would need to perfect the mechanism for delivering this wealth transfer. Many governments in the developing world have as little interest in their native populations as the colonial administrations did, and sharing the money between individuals is the surest way to ensure that none of the issues are solved. But real reparatory justice would allow the developing world to build strong, sustainable economies that could eradicate global poverty. No one would need to live on less than a dollar a day and children would not die by the second. Racial equality at home would heal divisions between communities and absolve politicians from more handwringing.
There’s even something in it for the “little Englanders”. People are not risking their family’s lives crossing deserts and the Mediterranean on makeshift boats because they crave the British way of life. Migration to this bleary island would turn to a trickle if people could make a decent life in their homelands.
Of course there would be stark economic consequences for repaying this mountain of debt and no longer exploiting the developing world. But it is time we admitted that society currently works to benefit the few, and a rethink of how wealth is distributed more generally is long overdue. A factory reset of the political and economic consensus, in the form of reparations, would lead to a radically different and potentially fairer world for all.
• Kehinde Andrews is associate professor in sociology at Birmingham City University. His research specialism is race and racism and is author of ‘Resisting Racism: Race, Inequality and the Black Supplementary School Movement’ (2013) and co-editor of ‘Blackness in Britain’ (2016)