Life Matters: An Editorial on Race and Racism

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This post has been edited since initial publication. Thank you to those who have read it.

The politicisation of race over the last few weeks has been something that I have supported, and something that I have begun to become concerned about. Since the tragic death of George Floyd, protests that erupted from righteous anger have transformed into wider protests regarding media, police brutality, and the history of countries. Is that the right thing to be fighting? I don’t think so.

Race and Racism: A Brief Word

I don’t believe that the concerns of any ethnic minorities are to be discredited or downplayed. Racism is existent and endemic in society. No one can reasonably argue with that. If you do, then you are racist. People of ethnic minorities suffer from discrimination. Anthony Walker, Stephen Laurence, and many many others have been murdered due to the colour of their skin.

I also don’t believe that protesting is bad. I believe that it is a valid expression of democratic values. The protests that erupted from the death of Emmet Till, or Rosa Park’s arrest brought massive change to the United States. We cannot simply say that black people, or any other race don’t experience racism. We cannot stop people from protesting racism. This post is a critique of the ongoing fights that are happening in 2020.

The War on History

I am a History Teacher and a Politics Teacher. Why I chose to study those two topics is because of my beliefs. I believe that man’s purpose is to evolve and better himself and to do that, man must be educated on their past failures and past triumphs. Societies have lived and died on those principles. Politics, as a topic, allows you to understand the inner workings of why past, present, and future actions take place.

For example, A country like Germany, which had prided itself on military and economic dominance turned to Nazism because their national pride was injured. Hitler could only get into power due to anger, hardship, and mistrust of fellow countrymen. Germany, as we know it now only, came into being 30 years ago. Germany only became a successful democracy, and Europe’s main power player, because it learned from its failings.

Race Relations in America

The argument that statues of notable figures with a history of racism should be removed is complicated. It is easy to remove people when they are considered ‘enemies of a nation’, like Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederate States of America. But what about people like George Washington? He’s one of America’s Founding Fathers and was a Slaveowner.

Of course, the statues of Washington, and other ‘heroes’ of American history were not put up to commemorate their want for slaves, but for their Historical role, the role that they played in fighting British tyranny. People are not looking to take down George Washington’s statue. Unless it turned out he was a Jimmy Saville-level sex offender, who killed babies, and ate women, he’s not going anywhere.

Robert E Lee’s statue should never have been put up in the first place. In my third year of University, I studied race relations in America between 1895 to today, under Dr Charlie Whitham, who is a very knowledgeable and skilled practitioner of American history. His course talked about the Jim Crow Laws, the rise of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B DuBois, and many of the other big American civil rights leaders.

Race relations in America have always been contextualised, from a British perspective, as wrong. That is how I teach it. You essentially are taught that it is wrong and that it all got solved in the ’60s. The depth of history that is taught to kids about slavery winds me up. There was much more to the fight, and the fight is ongoing. According to a 2015 study, 7.2 African Americans per million died at the hands of the police – while 2.9 per million white Americans were killed by the police.

America’s history with slavery and its legacy are bloody, controversial, and many suffered. America as a continent was built on the extermination of races, and the profiteering of those races. Black Lives Matter in America, with the modern context of George Floyd’s death, seems to have catalysed and angered enough people to want change. In this context, it makes sense

A Brief look at the History of British and European Slavery

Comparing America and Britain, and its BLM movement is interesting. Initially, I would argue that it doesn’t make sense to remove statues, because our history is different from America’s. I would argue that the British Empire was no different from any other colonial empire in the 19th Century, including France, Belgium, Germany’s, and Italy. All of them colonised Africans, all of them did horrific things, but eventually did right by them.

This is wrong, of course. Or at least, it is much more complicated. Europe has been using slavery much longer than Americans.

Some would argue that white people were slaves before black people. Slavery has existed in Europe since before the Roman Empire. In many European Kingdoms, this evolved into something called Serfdom. Serfs, in particular, were peasants under debt bondage to lords, dukes, and owners of the land. Serfdom was a key part of the Feudal system that many Kingdoms in Europe had in that time. To call that on par with the slave trade would be quite inaccurate. Especially considering that it was an evolution of society.

Though England did not start the Transatlantic slave trade (The Portuguese did that in 1526), it did eventually become the main player in this field, especially during the second Atlantic System. England never had codified laws for slavery. In fact, free black people lived in London during the 1500s (SOURCE: Encyclopaedia of Blacks in European History and Culture Vol. I). Any slave that set foot on English soil could, in fact, be considered free. If they could choose, and did choose, not to board a boat, they didn’t have to (SOURCE: African Slaves and English Law).

British historical sources seem to take pride in its eventual ending of slavery in Britain and the Imperial Dominions. This is in spite of both Haiti and the Northern states of the USA stopping it in 1804, compared to Britain in 1807 and 1833 respectively. Though France and Spain banned it in their colonies 100s of years before, these laws were not enforced.

Race Relations in Britain

3% of the British population consider themselves to be Black British, as of 2011. This is compared to 7% of British people who are of Asian origin, though it must be stressed that both of these designations are diverse. The largest black group in the UK’s Black population are Black African in origin, followed by Black Caribbean.

Especially since WW2, British governments have been keener on the integration of minorities who arrived in the UK, such as people from former Imperial dominions and colonies. Research from 2011 suggests that while multiculturalism has benefitted minorities, White people are being ignored, and their support is waning (SOURCE: LSE). This is creating tension in areas with large immigrant populations.

In the context of race relations with black people, comparing the UK to the USA, it can be reasonably argued that black people in this country are more integrated, and have it a lot better here than in America, thanks to more tolerant laws and such. However, Britain is not innocent.

Conclusion

There are lots of ways to interpret any history, and this is Historical Negationism, not Revisionism. Revisionism is reconceptualising history with the facts and evidence available, including new evidence. Negationism allows people to cherry-pick history, and create narratives contrary to the orthodox interpretation. The former is what we need to be doing

Statues of Edward Colston, Cecil Rhodes, and Winston Churchill are problematic for their roles in British history. None of these men can be called a clear cut hero. Churchill was a notorious racist, on one hand, but he was also the man who won the war. Cecil Rhodes believed in Imperial superiority, and that white people were ‘The First Race’, amongst other scummy things. But modern South Africa exists because of him.

Contextualising history in a revisionist perspective is what I am getting at. It shouldn’t be a simple removal of statues, but the education of people about these figures. Let them know the figure, warts and all. I would, in fact, argue that information boards are put up for each of them. I would argue for better teaching of topics also. My issue is the seemingly clear-cut good and evil narrative, and that needs to end.

The War on Media

In the wake of #BLM, we have seen countless reports of media platforms removing figures, episodes, and changing things about their shows. The Simpsons and Family Guy will no longer have white people voice characters of different minorities. Episodes of Parks and Recreations, Scrubs, The Peep Show, and other comedy programmes are removing episodes that contained blackface. On the face of it, pardon the pun, this is sensible, in isolation.

Removing TV Shows due to Race

Blackface isn’t funny or acceptable in this day and age. Blackface is bad. It was used to stereotype and ridicule people. In Britain, blackface was popular well until the ’70s. Enid Blyton character Noddy’s initial antagonists were, in fact, Golliwogs (These books since being edited, and the Golliwogs no longer feature). Race isn’t a punchline, and I can understand why these episodes were removed.

However, on the other hand, were we laughing at these depictions of black people, or were we laughing about how offensive and edgy it was that they did it? Old Tom and Jerry shorts had blackface gags all the time, and they flew over my head as a kid. They probably would mostly do so now. They have never stopped showing Tom and Jerry, in spite of the blackface gags.

As a tangent, if you buy a Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes DVD today, they all start with a warning about the historical context of the cartoons. They also say that these cartoons won’t be edited, because it is wrong to do that. Ain’t that interesting?

Recasting characters due to race

Moving onto The Simpsons and Family Guy, are the people that they are recasting treated badly by their original actors/creators? Apu is a successful businessman, and a devoted father and husband. He was also nearly removed from the show after a documentary about him aired. Let’s get rid of a minority because he doesn’t represent those people. There are other minority characters in The Simpsons. Dr Hibbert is, well, a Doctor. A well paid, owns his own practice, respectable Doctor. Lou is a put-down cop. Judge Snyder is a Judge.

Talking about Apu, there is a really excellent video on You Tube about Apu being racist, and the outcry about it. It is worth a watch:

My point is that these people are pillars of the community, and are largely played as some of the ‘straight’ characters for the show. This show having characters who are deviants (Moe), alcoholics (Homer and Barney), abusive fathers (Homer and Abe), bad teachers (Principal Skinner), inbred hicks (Cletus). For characters of racial minorities, they have it good.

Its good that minority actors are getting roles that reflect their race, but can’t actors just act? Can’t we create new roles to better represent our demographics? I think we should. What can new characters add to our media? A lot.

Conclusion

Stereotyping is wrong, in all forms. Blackface, stereotypical characters, and questionable skits are wrong. However, taking characters off of TV is wrong, and removing episodes because of questionable content is also wrong. Making that content is wrong, I grant you. But we know it is wrong, and we cannot whitewash past entertainment to suit today’s sensibilities.

A War of Politics

Race is a heavily politicised issue. It always has been, and it always will be. What makes me angry about the way people are fighting against racism is that it has been infiltrated by the liberal left. I consider myself to be firmly on the left when it comes to social and economic issues. I value nationalisation, a strong welfare system, and equality.

What I have seen, however, from a worrying number of compatriots in the left is intolerance, hatred, and gaslighting. A lot of this has been through personal experience and meeting people. In university, the SU was run by a gang of people, some of whom were moderate, but others who were not.

The liberal left has become illiberal. From my dealings with them, they see themselves as holier than thou, and better because our generation hasn’t had the keys to the kingdom yet to commit their own crimes against people. These people suffer from extreme exceptionalism and want things their own way.

Any attempt to reason or argue is met with attacks and accusations of not being loyal, which is unfair gaslighting. I’ve had many a friend who dealt with this, and it is unfair. Black Lives Matter is a movement that is being infiltrated by people like this. Which is making me concerned

Black people are being used by some to further certain agendas of their own, and I see that as disgraceful. It sickens me. They are turning this into a war of politics, and not the national debate that it needs to be. We are right. You are wrong.

Life Matters

Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter, as slogans, are wrong, ill-thought-out, and two dimensional. In the case of the latter, it is simple: It detracts from black people’s concerns and belittling claims of racial injustice. Of course all lives matter, but it is black lives that are under threat.

Black Lives Matter, however, is becoming an empty slogan. It’s becoming a catchphrase for well-intentioned white people, celebrities who sing Imagine to solve the world’s problems, and people who its meant to be for. Its lost meaning.

The aim of this post was to inform, and to educate people, and encourage more meaningful debate on BLM, and what could be done better, from all parties, on both sides. I think we have started that meaningful debate. Whether you are Black, White, Asian, mixed-race, Man, Woman, Non-Binary, I say one thing:

Life Matters.

Life Matters isn’t another way of saying all lives matter, as that waters down the issue. Life Matters because everything lives, everything contributes to everything. We should fight for life. We should fight for a life of comfort, a life of ease, and of rational debate, education, and understanding. The lives of black people are part of that, and we need to fight for them, and we need to learn. I certainly have.

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Ben

Since 2012, Benjamin Attwood has written for the If you Ask Ben blog.

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