Thursday, July 7

My family benefited from slavery. Why can’t we accept that whites still have a great debt? | Thomas Harding

METERThere were notable things at the trial of the Colston Four, who last week were found not guilty of criminal damages for tearing down the statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston and dumping it in Bristol Harbor. Among them was the fact that all four defendants were white, as was the judge, and reportedly most of the juries. It got me wondering, are whites increasingly recognizing the importance of Britain’s legacy of slavery?

In my opinion, whites in Britain have a special responsibility when it comes to this legacy. After all, the vast majority of those transporting captured Africans to the Caribbean were white. Likewise, the vast majority of those who “bought” these slaves and forced them to work on the hideous sugar, cotton, and coffee plantations were white. The same is the case with shipowners and sailors, bankers and insurance agents, merchants, dockworkers, shopkeepers and many others involved in the sale of goods in Great Britain. This includes my own family, who made money importing tobacco from American and Cuban plantations where enslaved people worked. As for the general population that benefited from the enormous wealth that came to Britain through slavery, again the vast majority were white.

Of course, there were some black and mixed race people who helped capture the men and women enslaved by the British. In fact, the presidents of Benin and Ghana have acknowledged and apologized because of the guilt of their ancestors in the slave trade. There were also some black and mestizo sailors, merchants, plantation owners, even slave owners. But this was on a tiny scale compared to the systematic brutality of the white-controlled Caribbean slave societies.

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More than this, it is clear that the legacy of slavery is very much alive in Britain today. And while it is difficult to demonstrate a direct link between Britain’s role in slavery and contemporary social conditions, it does exist.

You can see it in the higher arrest rates for Black Britons, the differences in economic opportunity and health outcomes, the widespread racism. Clearly, other groups experience social and economic hardship in Britain, including members of the white working class, but this does not preclude addressing the specific challenges faced by African and Caribbean descendants. So while Britain is an increasingly diverse society today, it is still reasonable to say that the white population has an additional responsibility when it comes to the legacy of slavery.

This is then what could be called “white debt”. A cultural debt, acknowledging and apologizing for the horror that was British slavery. A financial debt, which compensates for the economic losses suffered by the enslaved and the generations of their descendants. And a debt of gratitude to the enslaved freedom fighters, who not only won freedom for themselves through bravery, courage and organization, but for everyone, all of humanity, including white people.

I am not saying that only whites have a debt, I am saying that whites have additional responsibility. In the same way that affirming Black Lives Matter does not mean that everyone else’s lives do not matter, but rather that special attention should be paid to the lives of blacks, as they suffer disproportionately from inequality and abuse.

I know a little about repairs: I received money from the German government for what the Nazis did to my Jewish family in the 1930s. They kicked my grandmother out of college and robbed my family’s home. My family was forced to flee the country. Several family members were killed in the Holocaust. To be clear, the British slave trade and what the Jews endured in Nazi Germany are two separate historical tragedies, and drawing similarities and differences, or worse still, judging which crime is greater, would be a mistake. But I think there may be some lessons to be learned.

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Clearly, not everyone agrees with me. When my book came out last week, the right-wing press criticized me for “wallowing in guilt.” Of course, going after individuals, rather than talking about the collective responsibility of whites, let alone the legacy of slavery for the descendants of the enslaved, is an effort to distract, minimize and marginalize. It is also not unusual. Midway through the Colston Four’s trial, an anchor for the right-wing news channel GB News proclaimed: “I am in favor of whites denouncing racism … but the Colston saga reeks of white guilt.”

The good news is that there are more and more conversations about our shared history. Think of the Black Lives Matter protests. The National Trust reports on properties financed by slavery. The University of Glasgow, the Bank of England, the Lloyds of London and others committed to their legacies of slavery. Rather than being erased, as Boris Johnson and his associates often claim, our story is coming out, so it can be reexamined and appealed.

We don’t know why the jury in the Colston Four trial made his decision, but perfectly legitimate reasons were presented to them to acquit. It seems there was a moral dimension to the process. Toppling the statue was an “expression of my alliance and solidarity with people of color,” one of the defendants, Rhian Graham, told the court. “By removing that statue, we were removing a symbol of great harm and oppression that towered over our community and offended so many.”

That’s why the decision to find the Colston Four not guilty last week gave me hope. Because maybe it just pointed out that whites are beginning to really recognize Britain’s slavery legacy. The next question is, what should be done about it?

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