Idols must fall. We can’t address racism in the present without condemning Britain’s colonial past.

Four white men grabbing a Black man in a caricature of "slave hunters" which appeared in the 1839 Anti-Slavery Almanac
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As the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement continues to make waves and hold racist power structures to account, the marketplace of ideas is thriving. People wanting to reduce racism to a debate and consider ‘both sides’ insist that while racism is bad, vandalising statues is arguably worse.

The prime minister expressed his views (behind a paywall, of course) saying we can’t “photoshop” history by removing figures we don’t agree with from our public spaces. Launching into a defence of former PM Winston Churchill, Johnson gives an impassioned argument for why Churchill’s statue should remain standing in Parliament Square.


But Johnson’s bad-faith arguments are as breathtaking as they are insulting. In fact, they probably amount to what could be described as gaslighting – an abuse tactic often employed by narcissists. This is because demanding the removal of statues of racist figures, including Churchill, is actually about not wanting to “photoshop” history. It’s about demanding that we acknowledge Britain’s racist colonial past, and the people it harmed. It’s about removing the label of ‘hero’ from someone like Churchill who is guilty of a number of heinous crimes against People of Colour, including, but not limited to, genocide.

To call such a man a hero, despite his well-documented record of white supremacist oppression, is the very definition of photoshopping history.

What’s a greater cause for concern, however, is the sheer number of people in Britain who agree with Johnson’s viewpoint; those who believe Churchill was an anti-fascist hero rather than a proud white supremacist. These people aren’t limited to the far-right either – they seem to lie across the political spectrum. And it’s these very people who prove why Britain so desperately needs to be re-educated on its history in the manner that the BLM movement is seeking.

BLM activists aren’t the ones who want to revise history – in fact, it’s the opposite. They want to correct the revision of Britain’s colonial past that’s been propagated through the education system and popular discourse so far. The photoshopping Johnson is decrying has already taken place. BLM activists are now seeking a truer, more accurate picture of history. Because we can’t address racism in the present if we don’t acknowledge its roots in the white supremacist system of colonialism.

Then and now

It’s important to recognise that politicians saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ means very little if they don’t stop to address the origin and root cause of racism. The roots of racism lie in white supremacy as an ideology – but this doesn’t just mean swastikas or burning crosses. It means eugenics – the field responsible for ‘race science’ and notions of humanity, intellect and spiritual worth being tied to hereditary traits. (Incidentally, Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings’ notions of wealth being linked to educational attainment are grossly eugenicist). Although the term ‘eugenics’ wasn’t coined until 1883, the idea of some people being superior dates back to the ancient Greeks. Eugenics formed the pseudo-scientific foundation for white supremacy. It informed the belief in the superiority of white people and their entitlement to appropriate foreign lands from ‘savages’, which then led to the colonisation of non-Western nations.

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And the crimes of colonisation are many. Along with land appropriation, it resulted in the slave trade, famines, genocide, and mass looting of natural resources which led to poverty so crippling it’s still felt in ‘developing’ nations today. It also resulted in the decimation of native languages and cultures, as well as the desecration of spiritual symbols and destruction of cultural artefacts.

People may argue that what happened in the past can’t be changed, so we shouldn’t be angry about it now. Indeed, we can’t change the past – but if we never talk about what happened, we won’t learn from it either. Racist stereotypes about Black people and other People of Colour emerged in the wake of eugenicist ideas about race. And the association with criminality persists to this day. The dehumanisation persists to this day. The notion of moral inferiority persists to this day. So many preconceived ideas about People of Colour, which create a hierarchy of who is and isn’t deserving of due process, dignity, and basic rights, persist to this day as a result of the colonialism Western nations don’t want to talk about.

Structural racism

So we can neither talk about nor effectively address ‘structural racism’ today without acknowledging, loudly and openly, the role colonialism played.

It’s what’s playing a part in Windrush citizens getting deported, even in defiance of court orders.

It’s what leads to People of Colour being criminalised at disproportionate rates.

It’s what leads to increasing deprivation for the poorest BAME communities.

It explains why People of Colour aren’t listened to or granted admission to hospital when needed, potentially resulting in a higher number of coronavirus (Covid-19)-related deaths.

And when we learn that the police force in the US emerged as a continuation of racist ‘slave patrols’, present-day police brutality begins to make more sense.

So this is why BLM activists are demanding that statues of slave owners and white supremacists are removed from public spaces. At the heart of this demand is a need for Western nations to take responsibility for the crimes of their colonial, white supremacist past. And this conversation would probably never have happened if BLM activists hadn’t thrown that statue of slave trader Edward Colston into the river.

Conversations about racism and white privilege are rarely easy. It’s uncomfortable for white people to accept that they might still be benefiting from a system that they played no active role in setting up. It’s easier, instead, to talk about ‘diversity and inclusion’ or ‘unconscious bias’. However, while the injustice of racism is casting a shadow on the present, it’s rooted in the past. Equality, diversity, inclusion, unconscious bias – none of these are effective tools in addressing the deeply rooted, systemic injustice that Black people and other People of Colour have been subjected to for centuries. We can only bring justice to victims of racism, and begin to address racism effectively, if we tear up these roots. It’s not an easy task, but it is a necessary one.

Featured image via Wikimedia

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  • Show Comments
    1. Against all the odds Churchill lead this country to victory, had Halifax replaced Chamberlin we would have ended the war with Nazi Germany and left them in control of most of Western Europe. ( the cabinet minutes bear this out)That small throw of the historical dice probably saved Europe and is the reason why Churchill will always stand head and shoulders above his peers. Had the Nazi’s remained in control of Europe many more Jews, Romanies, Masons, homosexuals and of course left wingers would have died in the death camps.

      1. I do not subscribe to a ‘great man of history’ explanation for massive processes such as the outcome of WW2. You have repeated an oft-quoted ‘meme’ about Churchillian ‘exceptionalism’ which is just another side to ‘English exceptionalism’ but other than asserting your faith in this propaganda you offer no proof of ‘exceptionalism’.

        My father was in the RAF during WW2, joined as a boy of 18. He flew bombing raids into the Roumanian oil fields. He was shot down twice. Both times he was found by partisans who smuggled him back to the Allies. The first time, he miraculously walked unscathed out of the wreckage of his plane. He claimed he saw the ghost of his grandmother and she led him by the hand through the smoke and flames to safety. The second time, he survived – was the only survivor of his crew – but was badly burned. He was smuggled back to Palestine then sent to Egypt for plastic surgery. Fortunately for my dad, the plastic surgeon had developed a new technique which restored my father’s face and hands so he still looked human. But his new skin was tanned by the Egyptian sun and never lost its colour. When stripped down he had a lily white body and what looked like brown gloves and face paint. Very odd. But he was alive.

        Now, in terms of ‘who won WW2?’ in my family I would say my dad was exceptionally brave. But his sole efforts would have achieved nothing without the RAF, the Yugoslavian partisans, the Palastinian and Egyptian medical teams who saved his life and restored his hands and face. And my dad always credited his grandmother’s ghost with the greatest miracle. I am sure Churchill played his role in WW2 but it was not more important than all the billions of others who were involved one way or another. Churchill is not a ‘special case’ and his good achievements (which are very few when objectively evaluated) do not outweigh his evil acts such as ordering troops to fire on Indian or Welsh unarmed civilians. Churchill was no better than his allies – people like Stalin. Or have you forgotten Yalta? Indeed, you seem to have forgotten all that Russia or the Russian winter contributed in defeating Hitler. Very selective view of WW2 on your part.

        It was the collective effort of millions, including innumerable Indian and Welsh soldiers, with no reason to love Churchill, which stopped Hitler. It was the sacrifices of Russians, Chinese, and others fighting on battlefields far from Europe which won WW2. I think you discount their sacrifices when you claim Churchill won their war.

        Churchill was never the popular figure in Britain or Empire that you seem to think he was or should have been. He always divided opinion, even amongst Tories. And the verdict of those who did win the war was delivered in the 1945 general election when they threw him out and gave Labour a landslide.

        In brief, you are deluded about Churchill and as a result have rewritten history and have failed to recognise your own bias and failed to question why you are so comfortable defending a racist and reckless colonial adventurer who caused the deaths of many British subjects. You defend a man who would have thrown away the life of a man like you if he thought it furthered his aims. Why!?!

        Churchill walked to undeserved glorification on other peoples’ dead bodies. I find him uninteresting except as a study in psychopathology – just like Johnson. By which I mean not just that the pathology of the historical person is fascinating, but also the bizarre need some people have to create ‘heroes’ and worship them. I thought my father’s belief in ghosts was weird (but very common in post-WW1 Britain – not just Conan-Doyle believed in ‘Spirits’) but this belief in Churchill is stranger. I thought my dad clung to a belief in ghosts to get him through PTSD – a terrified, badly burnt boy of 20 needed a comfort in his distress. But what does worshipping Churchill do for his C21st admirers in their traumatic lives? What psychological need does Churchill meet for the obviously troubled Johnson? I think that is something all hero-worshippers need to ask themselves.

    2. This article makes some valid arguments.

      Yes, lies must be exposed and false assertions refuted. That has to happen on multiple fronts: new curriculum, new GCSEs in schools, new degrees etc, in education. New t.v. programmes, movies, artworks, books etc in culture. New rules for MSM and social media so that hate speech or fake news are debunked and publishers sanctioned. New ettiquette created so that racist talk is as repugnant as other offensive acts and gets the speaker ostricised. New standards for political debate so that racism cannot sneak its way back into government policy or public services under disguise (e.g. as Cummings uses ‘genius’ as double-speak for ‘White Supremacist’).

      However, I am worried that focusing too much on ‘culture wars’ just plays into racists’ hands – this is their ‘comfort zone’ and they have decades of alt-right memes in stock to trot out in debates about empire, colonialism, Churchill, and statues of Baden-Powell. They can just play these on a loop and bog BLM activism down in an unending ‘fire-fighting’ effort to throw water on the latest toxic meme. Meanwhile, BAME people continue to die or live under oppression.

      Thus I think the top priority has to be ongoing political struggle to demand a plan of action (not another time-wasting ‘review’) to redress detailed contemporary BAME grievances. That puts the onus on government to think about the problems and suggest solutions. Ditto public services like police or nhs or care homes. Ditto private sector e.g. landlords or architects or refurbishers of unsafe high rises like Grenfell. They are paid to serve. They are paid to meet BAME needs. BLM does not need an ‘oven-ready’ plan for reforming e.g. police methods but the police do. That is their job! True, these solutions will have to be made in consultation and collaboration with BAME communities or they will fail. Thus onus is on public servants and private sector service providers to provide adequate services, with BAME service users giving feedback on whether services meet reasonable needs. That is the correct approach. BLM does not get bogged down in ‘meme wars’ nor in trying to micro-manage institutions. BLM sets a standard for service and service providers have to raise their standards. BLM sets the agenda.

      A lot could be done to fight racism within existing processes, given good will. However, Johnson/Cummings are intent on destroying ‘existing processes’ in their drive to turn UK into a ‘small state’ heaven for disaster capitalists. They do not want to openly admit that they are destroying government’s ability to serve the public. Thus BLM is a real challenge to the cabal in power. If they admit there is a real problem, they have to admit they have no capacity to deliver real solutions, and are helpless not by accident but by deliberate choice. BLM must keep pressing government for redress and solutions firstly, because this helps save BAME lives and secondly, because they are helping the whole of British society realise that government is also destroying all capacity to help everyone of any race. BAME citizens are just at the sharp end of a wedge which will hurt all of us.

      BLM UK could turn into a futile ‘culture war’ which would gratify the racists as it is their home ground. Or BLM could keep focused on politics and legal rights to equal services and use this as a tool to open up the ‘can of worms’ at the centre of the Johnson government and show the whole of the UK, and the world community, exactly what reckless destruction the ‘small state’ ideologues are engaged in. Expose that destruction because it is taking away society’s capacity to recognise, regret, and successfully correct structural failures. Expose ‘small state’ destruction of the means of redress otherwise there will never be even an opportunity to raise grievances still less fix them in the future ‘global Britain’ Johnson is bringing into existence. Expose that destruction of society, of access to services, of access to justice, of a government able to meet human needs, and everyone of any race will see why they need to support BLM and will see how fighting racism protects their human rights and personal interests. BLM should focus on political demands for justice because that makes their struggle a universal human rights struggle that can unite opposition to this racist government and its toxic ideology.

    3. As a veteran of 37 years RAF aircraft engineer, I will say that I have never been proud of the British past.
      Having said that the statues that are erected, were erected for a reason.
      Edward Colston for example was, to all purposes, not a very moral man.
      But he laid the foundations of Bristol becoming an important trading port in England.
      Slavery at the time was an accepted practice, and it started in Africa with Africans enslaving those from tribal conflicts.
      If we take down the likes of Colston, then surely we should also take down, and dispense wit, all that he built, caused to be built, and funded.

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