[DEBATE] : Making history fit the multicultural script
soenke.zehle at web.de
Sun Apr 23 11:46:10 BST 2006
IRR > Comment
Making history fit the multicultural script
By Rosie Wild
12 April 2006, 3:00pm
A government pamphlet about the upcoming bicentenary of the abolition of
the slave trade in the British Empire, published last month, interprets
history in a way that serves government concerns.
On 25 March, the government published the pamphlet Reflecting on the
past and looking to the future: the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of
the slave trade in the British Empire. A joint effort by the Department
of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Home Office, the pamphlet has
been distributed free to a variety of cultural organisations and
community groups around Britain.
Divided into four sections, it gives a brief history of slavery and the
abolition movement; reflects on how the past has affected the present;
discusses contemporary inequalities and what the government is doing to
tackle them; and finishes with the specific plans the government has to
help community, cultural and faith groups celebrate the bicentenary.
Although the government's desire to remember and mark the start of the
end of British slavery is no doubt laudable, any attempt to make the
past serve the political agenda of the present should be looked on with
suspicion. In this case, the government clearly wishes next year's
bicentennial celebrations to be an empowering, inclusive multicultural
affair and so the history of abolition is presented in these terms.
This is probably why the pamphlet omits to mention the less altruistic
reasons for the slave trade's demise, like its increasing economic
unviability in the dawning era of industrial capitalism, or the
sustained and often violent resistance of the slaves themselves. The
contentious issue of reparations is also noticeable by its absence.
Remembering just how much some sections of White society profited from
the enslavement of Black people and how resistant to relinquishing these
privileges those sections were, does not fit the government's
celebratory, multicultural script. And whether people from African and
Caribbean heritages would agree that the history of slavery and
abolition belongs equally to all sections of British society is for them
The pamphlet jumps straight from 'Reflecting on the past' into 'Looking
to the future'. This, and a very narrow definition of slavery that
mainly focuses on people-trafficking, allows it to gloss over a whole
range of issues that are contemporary forms of slavery tolerated and, in
some cases, actively promoted by our government. 'In addition to
reflecting on this country's diverse past, 2007 is also a chance to make
a collective commitment that in another two centuries' time no-one
should feel the need to express regret on our behalf for our actions
today', explains the pamphlet.
In 200 years, however, it is likely to be the spread of economic slavery
in the Third World caused by multinationals and global capitalism, the
prolonged incarceration of political prisoners without charge under the
war on terror and the incarceration and violation of the human rights of
people seeking asylum in Britain that will be the subject matter of
government pamphlets about 21st century slavery. And future readers may
well think our society was just as morally bankrupt as we now see
slave-trading Britain before 1807.
Vague promises for the future
Instead of engaging with these thorny issues of contemporary
enslavement, or giving specific information on how the government plans
to decrease the racism and discrimination it says are a legacy of
historical slavery, the second half of the pamphlet makes statements so
vague and equivocal they are rendered meaningless. A representative
example is the following sentence about another government pamphlet,
Improving Opportunity, Strengthening Society, published last year. 'It
signals the government's intention to give greater emphasis to the
importance of strengthening society by helping people from different
backgrounds come together, supporting people who contribute to society
and taking a stand against racists and extremists.'
Elsewhere we are given a more specific pledge that one of the objectives
of the government's new Ethnic Minority Employment Task Force is that,
'[i]n seven years' time no-one should be disadvantaged in their
employment prospects because of their ethnicity'. But as no information
is given on who is currently disadvantaged and in what ways and there
are no details on how the task force hopes to achieve its objectives, it
is just an aspiration masquerading as a strategy.
Funding for bicentenary events
The pamphlet concludes with a short section on specific plans for the
bicentenary and how groups can apply for funding if they wish to run
events of their own. Although the government is directly funding a
national educational project, Understanding Slavery, the funding
allocated to all other bicentenary events is being disbursed by the
Heritage Lottery Fund. The role of the government's bicentenary advisory
panel, convened in January, is therefore only to coordinate and
publicise the various events and projects that are being planned by others.
The panel is chaired by John Prescott, a prestigious figure, certainly,
but otherwise not generally identified by his personal commitment to or
knowledge of the issues surrounding ethnic diversity and racial
equality. But then the tradition of great and good White people being
appointed to decide what's best for Black and minority ethnic
communities is long and deeply held. In this respect, at least, the
government perpetuates one historical inequality even while trying to
celebrate the demise of another.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate
view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.
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