Chaining black youth to the victim culture
Are the commemorations of the abolition of the slave trade helping to foster fatalism amongst young black Britons?
After months of build-up and some cringing apologies, the two-hundredth anniversary of the British abolition of the transatlantic slave trade takes place this weekend. Commemorations of such events from the distant past are rarely subjected to much debate. But they should be.
This week London mayor Ken Livingstone joined in by apologising for London’s role in the slave trade – has Ken really been Ye Olde Mayor for that long? Elsewhere the BBC, always quick to promote ‘racial awareness’, aired numerous programmes on the slave trade in the run-up to the bicentenary. On Sunday, BBC2 will show a documentary titled Ms Dynamite In Search of Nanny Maroon, which follows the titular 25-year-old London rapper as she uncovers the story of the titular black-slave resistance fighter.
And yet, for many it seems that the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade does not serve as a reminder of how far humanity has progressed, but rather of how little things have changed (1).
In Sunday’s documentary, Ms Dynamite (known to her mum as Niomi McLean-Daley) argues: ‘There are things which are the direct result of slavery which still affect us today as black people.’ She claims the problem of ‘absent fathers’ can be seen as a ‘result of slavery’, because ‘men were not allowed to be fathers but were used to breed, to create more slaves’ (2). Ms Dynamite has often been criticised for blabbering spectacularly naive comments in the press, but on this issue she’s not alone. Other black commentators and academics also attempt to make a link between slavery then and problems within black communities now (3).
In recent months, news items seem to have been devoted to monitoring how difficult life is for black Britons. Whether it was ex-Tory frontbencher Patrick Mercer’s comments on ethnic minorities in the army, or the violent arrest of a young black woman, Tomi Comer, in Sheffield, the message constantly rammed home is that if you’re black and living in Britain, the chains of slave-rooted oppression are all around you.
Twenty or thirty years ago, of course, racism was a powerful social force. Back then the police routinely targeted (and sometimes killed) black people living in Britain; local councils frequently denied equal access to resources such as in health and housing. The often open hostility of the state towards black people encouraged freelance racists to go on the offensive (4).
While black people may experience occasional petty prejudices and verbal abuse today, such actions are no longer given broad sanction by the state. In fact, official ‘anti-racism’ has become so enshrined within every corner of British public life over the past five years that any isolated incident is seized upon as ‘proof’ that Britain is rife with racism (5). It can equally be argued that it is precisely the rarity of racial incidents today, especially violent ones, that make them so shocking to us.
The demise of racial oppression as both an ideological weapon and economic tool should, by all accounts, be something to celebrate. And yet in many different ways the old racial divisions, and the consequences of those divisions, are being reproduced in more pernicious ways – not through any long-standing impact of slavery on modern Britain, but through the dogma of multiculturalism and the alarmist rhetoric of race relations officials.
After all, who exactly is saying that black people are not really welcome in British society? Who is implying that black people are only motivated by the past and not the future? And who is persuading black people that the best they can do in Britain is to lower their heads and lower their horizons? Step forward, please, the official ‘anti-racists’.
As a Further Education college lecturer based in inner London, in recent months I have noticed how young black Londoners seem to be internalising today’s gloomy prognosis. Even allowing for the excessive particularism that multiculturalism fosters, there seems to have been a palpable shift amongst some black teenagers in how they see themselves within society. They often perceive Britain as a place that is either ‘out to get them’ or not really ‘for them’.
In fact, some of my black students are preoccupied with a sense of racial persecution above all else. Classroom chatter revolves around the neglect of black people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; the banal comments made about slavery by a contestant on Channel 4’s reality TV show Shipwrecked; that deranged madman who randomly shot at black people in Islington; and, of course, the ongoing ‘relevance’ of slavery. Black students from more middle-class backgrounds reference iconic black figures such as Gil Scott Heron and Stokely Carmichael, though often only in the context of today’s victim culture.
Seeing as young black students are constantly told they will face obstacles in later life, it may not be so surprising that they pass fewer GCSEs than other ethnic groups. No doubt the disadvantages of social class have an enormous impact on educational attainment, but that raises the question of why, say, Indian students from similar social backgrounds do far better than black students. From my experience in front of the whiteboard, students of Indian parentage don’t perceive Britain as peculiarly hostile, whereas black students do.
Maybe that is only to be expected. After all, these students are approaching adulthood at a time when the defining discourse in British society is that Britain has historically wronged black people and must apologise for it now, and that Britain is still a hostile place for young black people to live in.
Nearly everyone today is encouraged to identify themselves as victims of some sort. But black youth are encouraged by anti-racists to identify themselves as perma-victims, both then (slavery) and now (all-pervasive racism). The upshot is that some black teenagers develop a fatalistic approach to their chances in study and their chances in the world beyond. ‘As a black person I don’t think I’ll ever be allowed to get on’, is a common refrain amongst some of my students. This worrying development hasn’t gone unnoticed. During the spate of shootings involving teenagers in south London last month, one veteran black community leader told BBC London News that ‘it must be acknowledged that black people don’t have it as bad now as it was in the past’. Older generations of black Britons whose sons have ended up in serious trouble with the law say similar things.
All of this does not mean, however, that young black students are seething with hostility towards ‘the white man’ or the society they live in. Contemporary discussions on race are rarely located in anything as old-fashioned as identifiable power relations. Instead, racism becomes mystified as an all-pervasive and timeless feature of rotten humanity. Whereas racial oppression in the past generated demands for equality and produced solidarity, today’s solemn grandstanding by official ‘anti-racists’ only generates a kind of individuated defeatism rather than rage.
The black commentator Darcus Howe has picked up on this. He recently argued that black identity in postwar Britain was forged around struggles for equality, which would have meant transcending society’s ideas about ‘blackness’ (6). In the course of fighting for equality, many blacks encountered solidarity from whites who actively supported their cause. In an interview on BBC6 Music two years ago, the black poet Benjamin Zephaniah warmly remembered that 1970s Britain was as much about discovering trans-race solidarity as it was about dealing with racists.
In today’s discussion about issues of race, however, the idea that whites fought alongside blacks against racism is rarely acknowledged. Indeed, to do so, such as by mentioning the white anti-slave campaigners of 200 years ago, would be to allow whites to ‘dictate the agenda’, apparently, or to be ‘excused’ for their past crimes. The outcome of this approach is that the roots of such oppression, and the solutions to inequality, are never properly debated or explained. Instead, unequal treatment in society (both then and now) becomes re-cast as a permanent and unfortunate feature of human life in general.
As a corollary to this process, there seems to be an attempt to airbrush from history any hint of a transformative agency to deal with inequalities and oppression. That might be why, for instance, the German Communist Party rarely warrants a mention in contemporary debates about the Third Reich. Likewise, the role that liberal modernity played in the abolition of the slave trade is quietly shelved, too. Indeed, the transformative dynamic of modernity, and the agency it nurtures, is seen by some as having given rise to Nazi Germany. In many ways, commemorating the abolition of slavery has become another way of suggesting that modernity isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
The cruellest irony of this weekend’s commemorations is that it is young black people who will lose out. Aside from fostering dodgy notions that black people are objectively driven by the hand of history, by what happened to their ancestors hundreds of years ago, a process is underway whereby the perma-victim label becomes corrosively internalised.
In America during the 1960s, President Johnson’s promotion of ‘The Good Society’, of liberty and prosperity for all, galvanised a whole generation of young activists to try to realise that grand promise – and they often came into conflict with the forces of the US state as a result. Commemorating the abolition of the slave trade will hardly enthuse young people in anything like the same way. Rather, the commemorations falsely suggest that oppression and inequality are eternal facts of humanity, so it is probably best not to raise your expectations and aspirations too high.
For official ‘anti-racists’, it seems this miserabilist message is the real legacy to be learned from the abolition of the slave trade.
Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.
(1) See Slave Britain: chained to an outdated label by Nathalie Rothschild
(2) My Journey in footsteps of anti-slavery heroine, David Smith, Observer, 18 March, 2007
(3) Heirs to the Slavers, Andy Beckett, Guardian, December 2, 2006
(4) Under Siege: Racial Violence In Britain Today, by Keith Tompson, Penguin, 1988
(5) See The price of multiculturalism by Michael Fitzpatrick
(6) ‘The Power and the Glory’, Darcus Howe, Observer Sport Monthly, March 4, 2007
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