“People are super-sensitive about slavery.” Writes Matthew Parris today discussing the Sewell report.
“Super-sensitive” ? Well yes perhaps we are a bit. Write that Britain’s colonialism, of which slavery was a part, was a bit dodgy and you’ll soon be put right by those who laud the glory of Empire. Mention the export of deadly diseases to First Nations peoples which accelerated their genocidal destruction and you’ll be told about the bravery of the first settlers fleeing persecution. Explain how land confiscation by the white man had no legal basis and was theft and you’ll be advised about the road systems that these pioneers constructed. And on and on and on.
The essential premise of slavery was that black Africans could be transported thousands of miles from their homes and bought and sold. That they were not humans but the property of humans. Well yes that premise does make one a bit “super-sensitive”.
The Empire was built on the idea that race was hierarchical. Britons, naturally, at the top. Then through the subtle gradations of class, colour and wealth until you got to the manual labour at the bottom of the pyramid. In Adam Smith’s factors of production the trickiest one “Labour” was commoditised by the slave-owning entrepreneurs. The big strong savage sold for more than the less advantaged. Just like a cart horse. That also makes us super-sensitive.
There is no need for “controversy” nor for Jesuitical debate about whether racism is “institutionalised” or not. Let’s simplify things. British society is still stratified like it was in the days of Empire. Less formally so maybe but still the hierarchy is ever present. Tokenism is rife so if you’re a second or third generation black Brit with Caribbean heritage, a good education and a solid middle class style and accent you’ll do well. Maybe chair the odd Commission where you can deliver the comforting platitudes that your (white) masters want to hear. House of Lords fancy dress down the way for sure at the end of your upwardly mobile journey.
Meanwhile your distant cousins children and grandchildren struggle in the sink schools. The police will pull them aside ahead of their erstwhile white classmates if there’s a bit of trouble. The Crack dealers will see you as a potential recruit – you’ll “fit in” in this sub culture alright. And that also makes us a bit “super-sensitive”.