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Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Racism: the uniquely American problem

I find the subject of racism very difficult to discuss within an American context.
In the UK things can get heated, misconceptions can be made and misunderstanding can drive mutual hate. Even so it can still be discussed sensibly between most individuals. I've shared my opinions openly and candidly with people from all over Europe from varying backgrounds.
I once discussed this most sensitive of subjects with two Caribbean matriarchs when we were stuck in a weeks long course. (awesome ladies, I think even I'd have put on weight if I worked with them regularly, all the sweets I got offered :P)
The only time I'm called a racist is online by "activist" types, though I genuinely think most racists aren't evil and can be reformed. (a controversial opinion, it seems)

America seems an entirely different story.
They spend money with slave owners on.
They are protected by a constitution which LITERALLY described black slaves as less than a full human, written by slave owners, in a nation built on slavery.
They even learn about how awesome those slave owners were in school and celebrate these men regularly.

This is why when I hear "confederates were evil racists" from Americans it is almost comical.
It's an easy argument.
"People in the past did shitty stuff based on false morality"
History just isn't that cut and dry.

The example I prefer to use is General Lee.
He was widely celebrated during and after the civil war and publicly denounced racism, racist crimes and encouraged the inclusion of Black Americans in public life. I'd say that qualifies him as a moral man... of his time. Imperfect, subject to the whims, laws and attitudes of his culture and ruled by a moral system we find misguided if not outright evil.
Yet in the modern world he's often tarnished by the outright hateful racism shown by Jubal Early and some other confederates.

Racism in the "north" is likewise lessened or dismissed. Whitewashed from history in favour of this self congratulatory "mission accomplished" posturing even by the best of Americans.
People need to put things into historical context.
Not all slave owners were evil people, many sincerely believes they were custodians of a "lesser race."
It's daft, misguided and racist, but not hateful.
I'm with the esteemed Morgan Freeman when he suggests racism won't get better until we stop talking about race so much. When "the sins of the father" are taken off the table maybe we can achieve something constructive.

To make a point with a tangent; my nation (England) is directly responsible for the end of the historical slave trade.
Without the embargoes on Africa carried out by the royal navy, without the blood and treasure of the Empire spilled on the principle that all men should be free, slavery would still be as ubiquitous now as it was then. (though slavery does remain a global problem, it is now in the shadows, for better or worse as some choose to turn a blind eye)

You will not hear this invoked to lend moral authority to the British though.
Instead we are taught our history warts and all.
We learn the positives with the negatives, we learn NUANCE.

We ended the global slave trade, but it was not done for altruism alone.
The document used to justify employing the Royal Navy this way was written by men desperate to preserve the rights of the privileged from the excesses of the King. It entered the British Zeitgeist as a personal ideal.
All men are free.
That individualism propelled us far as a nation and as a culture.

Another reason was political expedience. Our rival nations were profiting greatly from the slave trade.
By placing an embargo on Africa we were undermining the economic competition.

I'm sure there was also a great deal of arrogance and colonial thinking involved too. The Brits (the aristocrats at least) of the time saw themselves as superior. It was their responsibility to interfere and better other people.

So, any attempt to cast the British role in ending the transatlantic slave trade as romantic would be a lie based on a grain of truth,
It is certainly something to be proud of, but only a fool with delude himself with a beautiful untruth.

This ability seems sadly lacking from American education, even amongst scholars.
I think this is part of what fuels the identity politics of the nation, which is everybody's business because it seems to be a major export.
America's racism is unique to America, but it doesn't seem to be staying that way.