History, like slavery, isn’t a matter of colour

While Leys News devotes much of this issue’s column inches to commemorate Black History Month, not everyone agrees that we should be joining the party. IWCA Councillor Stuart Craft believes it is time to pull the plug on publicly funded celebrations of ethnic differences. Here Stuart argues that those who claim to oppose the white nationalism of groups such as the BNP, while promoting the political strategy of multiculturalism and black nationalism, are hypocrites playing a dangerous game.

This article was written for the local paper, Leys News. The version which appeared in Leys News was edited for reasons of space. The version below is the complete article.

A generation ago, working class activists addressing the propaganda of the far-right had one major advantage – that most of this propaganda, such as statements about non-whites receiving special treatment was nothing more than the wishful thinking of those desperate for any justification for a race war. Today things are not so straightforward. With all the main political parties committed to a political strategy of divisive multiculturalism, which has seen a dramatic increase in the number of religious schools, segregated housing and youth clubs, the fascists at last have something concrete on which to base their ultra-conservative, political propaganda. And with 55 councillors at the last count, at least one party – the BNP – has not been shy to exploit this gift-wrapped new opportunity.

Those who are tempted to believe there is no cause for alarm in Oxford should think again. The African Caribbean Youth Project and Asian Young Men’s Youth Project in Blackbird Leys and Rose Hill respectively, were set up with local government funds. Recently the city council considered financing exclusive free swimming for ‘Muslim’ mothers at Hinksey Pool. There are plans to turn Peers School into a Church of England-backed Academy, which is likely to open the door to more ‘faith schools’ across the city. And only last week, Oxford’s South-West Area Committee discussed separate housing for ‘Black and Minority Ethnic People’.

If the far right had made any of this up only a handful of years ago, they would have been accused of being racist scaremongers, but those making such accusations now find themselves on shifting sand. Welcome to Blair and Brown’s Britain.

With the general reduction in the allocation of government/council funds to the working class (regardless of background), the political strategy of multiculturalism plays an important role. By encouraging people to exaggerate their cultural differences in order to ‘win’ funding for youth clubs/schools/housing etc, potential allies are dissuaded from working together for the common good, while middle class careerists from ethnic minority backgrounds are placated through potentially lucrative positions within the ‘race relations industry’ and through a myriad of state funded separatist projects across the country.

Yet in real terms (and especially in the context of what has been lost through the clawing back of universal gains over the last 25 years) these schemes benefit working class ethnic minorities very little. Inevitably, it also encourages resentment not just within the majority white working class, who understandably feel aggrieved at the injustice of racialised funding from which they are excluded, but also amongst different minority groups battling each other over funds.

In the confusion created by this complex situation, most overlook the fact that the slice of the pie that the working class receive, across the board, continues to be reduced at an alarming rate. Yet this (from the establishment’s point of view) is the whole point. The promotion of multiculturalism was never intended as a stepping-stone to universal social justice—but as a replacement for it.

Constructive criticism of multiculturalism is nothing new. As far back as the late 1960’s, across the Atlantic, The Black Panther Party for Self Defence had come to the conclusion that multiculturalism was a deliberate strategy devised to undermine pro-working class politics. The panthers believed that, ‘those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses of the people’

When an article by the Africa Research Group titled ‘The CIA as an Equal Opportunity Employer’ appeared in 1969 in Ramparts magazine presenting convincing evidence that ‘the CIA has promoted black cultural nationalism to reinforce neo-colonialism in Africa,’ it was reprinted in the Black Panther newspaper to support the analysis that similar tactics were being employed closer to home.

The Black Panthers recognised what they called ‘Black Cultural Nationalism’ as a tool created by the establishment to undermine the organised working class. The party’s co-founder, Bobby Seale, attacked the cultural nationalists on many occasions: ‘Cultural nationalism sees the white man as the oppressor and makes no distinction between racist whites and non-racist whites, as the Panthers do. The cultural nationalists say that a black man cannot be an enemy of the black people, while the Panthers believe that black capitalists are exploiters and oppressors’. Again: ‘The ruling class and their running dogs, their lackeys, their bootlickers, their Toms and their black racists, their cultural nationalists - they're all the running dogs of the ruling class. These are the ones who help to maintain and aid the power structure by perpetuating their racist attitudes and using racism as a means to divide the people.’

That Bobby Seale’s criticisms of the political strategy of multiculturalism – jive talk aside - are as relevant today as when first applied in the USA, nearly four decades ago, is depressingly self evident and indicates the level of success that the ruling establishment has had in applying the politics of their American cousins to the UK.

Racial nationalism is dangerous in all its forms, most notably when adopted by the largest ethnic group. In theory this means that a minority black nationalism is less dangerous in this country than white nationalism. However, minority black nationalism can easily feed majority white nationalism. By playing up injustices, whether real or constructed, and more importantly by attempting to place the blame squarely on the ‘opposite national’ or racial group, minority nationalists can easily stoke up the kind of resentment that pushes people (and not just white people) towards the BNP.

Slavery has always been a major weapon in the Black Nationalist armoury; proof indeed that ‘the white man’ alone bears responsibility for the historic ills suffered by ‘black people’. The sense of grievance over the legacy of slavery coupled with the claim that black people are an especially oppressed group at this present time, allows (usually middle class) black nationalists to occupy the moral high ground over the guilt ridden white middle class liberals who are in turn able to influence the allocation of public funds and other resources.

There is no question that the millions of Africans who were enslaved or born into slavery under the plantation system instituted by the western colonial powers suffered horrific injustice. What is less obvious, at least from standard accounts, is who and what were to blame and what the legacy of that injustice is today.

The idea that chattel slavery was a crime thought up by whites to oppress blacks is a myth. Slavery existed in Africa for centuries before the arrival of white European colonialists and this barbaric tradition still continues in parts of Africa today. The prolific use of slavery throughout the Chinese, Ottoman and (multi-ethnic) Roman empires is also a slice of history, which sits uncomfortably with the Black Nationalist cause, as does the fact that White Europeans – including English men and women, were kidnapped and taken for use as slave labour throughout the 17th Century by black, North African pirates.

The English slave trade also, initially, preferred white slaves and looked to its closest neighbour and earliest colony for a ready supply of free labour. As early as 1612, Irish men and women were being shipped to the Amazon River settlements for use as forced labour. In 1625, the English authorities issued a Proclamation ordering that Irish political prisoners be transported and sold as slaves to English planters in the West Indies, (pre-dating the arrival of African slaves to the Caribbean). In 1629 a large group of Irish men and women were sent to Guiana, and by 1632, Irish were the main slaves sold to Antigua and Montserrat in the West Indies. The small island of St Kitts, alone, held 25,000 Irish slaves during this period and by 1637 a census showed that 69% of the total population of Montserrat were Irish slaves. Although Africans were thought to be better suited to work in the Caribbean sun, they had to be paid for. The Irish on the other hand cost nothing, so were inevitably the preferred option. African slaves did, of course, eventually outnumber the Irish, but in relation to the size of population, it can be argued, that Irish society paid the bigger price.

But in common with all racial nationalists, Black Nationalists are not interested in historical episodes that undermine their stake for lucrative victim status. Their cause is far better served by encouraging us to view the past through the skewed lens of storytellers such as Alex Haley, who’s book ‘Roots’, televised in the 1970’s, did much to colour our view of black history. Roots was a hugely popular television series in the 1970’s, and was for many black people, the book and, more importantly the television programme, that played a significant role in the awakening of their ‘racial consciousness’. American academic Jim Sleeper, commented on this in his 1997 book ‘Liberal Racism’:

Haley ‘Depicted a pre-colonial Eden that hadn’t existed; created his account of Kunta Kinte’s youth there more out of current anthropology than history; paired all that with the story of his own communing with village elders in postcolonial Gambia; and wildly inflated black Americans’ expectations of sub-Saharan Africa, past and present. Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia Rwanda, Burundi, Zaire – one could double the list before finding a sub-Saharan nation that isn’t now run by thugs, wracked by bloody tribal wars, or watching hundreds of thousands starve. Black Americans visiting such places have experienced ‘solidarity’ with their inhabitants only by letting skin colour eclipse virtue and blaming everything on the legacies of colonialism. Africans can’t do that because they are busy fighting other black Africans, as did their pre-colonial forebears, who enslaved and sold millions of people to the whites who transported them here. This is not hyperbole; it is a reality which it takes hyperbole to deny, especially now that South Africa no longer serves as a foil against which black nations to its north can be made to seem more grand, or at least legitimate, simply for being black’.

The important thing to recognise in Western colonial slavery is that it was driven less by racism, than by money. In fact racism was largely constructed after the fact to motivate the perpetrators and justify what had become a highly profitable enterprise. It is also important to remember that no ethnic group has the monopoly on greed.

The move away from chattel slavery to wage slavery was purely down to the realisation by the capitalist entrepreneurs of the time, that more profit could be made if slaves were dispensed of and workers were hired for wages. In 1910, James Connolly, who himself suffered execution in 1916 for his part in opposing British colonialism in Ireland, explained this using the following parable: ‘A Negro slave in the Southern States of America was told by his owner to go up and fasten the shingles on top of the roof of his master’s dwelling. ‘Boss,’ said he to the slave owner ‘If I go up there and fall down and get killed you will lose the 500 dollars you paid for me; but if you send up that Irish labourer and he falls down and breaks his neck you won’t even have to bury him, and can get another labourer tomorrow for two dollars a day.’ The Irish labourer was sent up. Moral: Slavery is immoral because slaves cost too much.’

Having punctured the black nationalist myth that slavery was chiefly a matter of racial domination rather than economic exploitation, let us look at another staple of the nationalist repertoire – the appropriation of role models singled out for their membership of a particular ethnic group.

Only a racist would deny that this country has produced, and continues to produce great black men and women, but as is the case across the board, their greatness is not by virtue of their skin colour. If, however, we are looking for a role model in British history, who happens to have been black, a role model who believed that class, not race, is the main fault line in British society we could do worse that single out William Cuffay - who has all too often been airbrushed out of history by the supporters of multiculturalism and Black Nationalism.

Alongside Irishman Fergus O’Connor, Cuffay was leader of the ‘physical force’ wing of the British Chartist movement in the 1840’s. The Chartists were Britain’s first major working class movement of the industrial age, so- called because they campaigned for a charter of human rights including the right of working class people to vote. Cuffay, a tailor by trade and son of a freed slave, was respected as a leader by his almost exclusively white working class peers, regardless his skin colour. This respect was not inspired by liberal tokenism but because he was best man for the job and led to his election first to the five man National Executive of the Chartists and later to the role of President of the London Chartists. William Cuffay’s prominence at the forefront of the Chartists can be seen in the tone of newspaper accounts of the time, which positioned him as leader of the movement. The Times went as far as to describe militants in London as ‘the black man and his party’.

As part of a sustained attack on the Chartist movement by the establishment, which included violent police disruption of Chartist meetings, black propaganda, summary arrests and the destruction of property and offices, Cuffay was eventually set up by a Government spy, arrested and convicted of ‘Conspiracy to levy war against Her Majesty’. He was sentenced to transportation to Tasmania in the summer of 1848 where he spent the rest of his life. When sentence was passed Cuffay defiantly stated:

‘I say you have no right to sentence me. Although the trial has lasted a long time, it has not been a fair trial, and my request to have a fair trial - to be tried by my equals - has not been complied with. Everything has been done to raise a prejudice against me, and the press of this country - and I believe of other countries too - has done all in its power to smother me with ridicule. I ask no pity. I ask no mercy. I expected to be convicted, and I did not think anything else. No, I pity the Government, and I pity the Attorney General for convicting me by means of such base characters. The Attorney General ought to be called the Spy General. I am not anxious for martyrdom, but after what I have endured this week, I feel that I could bear any punishment proudly, even to the scaffold.’

We are lucky enough to live in England at a time when we have neither transportation to Australia nor the scaffold as punishment for having the audacity to stand up for working class interests.

Nonetheless, the militant working class can still expect to see underhand methods employed against it, one of which is the well-worn tactic of divide and rule.

While the study of any area of history is worthwhile in itself, it is particularly urgent, at a time when our communities come under threat - from the political establishment as well as white and ethnic minority nationalists - that we take heed of the rich history of militant working class struggle for equality and justice for all.

 

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