Racism is not a bygone phenomenon – racial hierarchy is still a scorching reality that shapes modern social structures. It perpetuates inequality, referring to racial groups as either superior or inferior, and no society or culture is exempt.
This makes racism, wherever it appears, relevant to human rights. This involves different factors, including materialistic development, history, religion, physical appearances, education, and social statuses that define differences among individuals. Yet, skin colour remains central to the idea of a global racial hierarchy and systemic racism, broadly.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and ensuing protests against police brutality and systemic racism, a debate is stirring. This concerns what constitutes racism in the modern world, which is oblivious to its own prejudice.
The protests have been largely peaceful, save for isolated cases of vandalism and brawling with police. Amid protests in the UK and US, commemorative statues of slave traders continue to be vandalised, defaced, and even toppled. As a result, local authorities are considering the status of many slave traders’ statues in major cities across the West. All this prompts new scrutiny on the notorious history of racism and the transatlantic slave trade on western soil.
A game changer
These protests are seen as an awakening. While slavery has been abolished, the menace of racism still exists in western society, even if masked and underestimated.
Discussions about slave owners’ statues reinforcing the glorification of racial inequalities polarise opinions more than ever. Moreover, the question of why they should be removed to promote a more equal and cohesive society is deafening. This reveals a massive fault line. After all, this issue lays bare a clash of opinions across western societies that have, indeed, curtailed the slave trade and ended this inhuman practice on moral grounds.
All these points gesture toward a need to view the issue of racism beyond the prism of traditional perspectives. We need to look beyond the abolition of slavery as the ultimate emancipation for those discriminated against on the basis of their skin colour.
I’m not denying the fact that historical slave traders have glorified the institution of slavery and benefited from human suffering. Thus, commemorating history with statues of such traders, all of which reinforce the notion of racial hierarchy, is unwarranted.
In fact, these statues should’ve been long removed and emplaced democratically in an international slavery museum. People could thus be educated about those responsible for the slave trade. Symbols, street names, and statues built to celebrate a falsely constructed, glorified history hardly represent modern-day democratic society. In fact, they empower prejudice, seeing the Atlantic slave trade as an essential part of prosperous Western Empires. These monuments are not merely benign heritage symbols. Rather, they tell a horrific history of lynching, racial segregation, and voter disenfranchisement.
What we’re not asking
What about the argument that touts these statues as an invaluable historical heritage? Doesn’t it seem all too convenient to coin such a phrase? It implicitly seeks, deliberately or unintentionally, to clear those perpetrators of responsibility. Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge the atrocious past that inflicted insufferable miseries on African people.
There is a question we must ask. Why is it important for a civilized world to erect statues of slave owners to memorialize their western cultural heritage?
Most of us learn the history of racism from the perspective of either slave owners or glorified westerner abolitionists. This makes history look gloriously venerated as a source of immense pride. In general, we rarely teach and memorialise history through the perspectives of the people who have suffered entrapment in systemic slavery. Activists from the grassroots movements who fought and risked their lives for the emancipation of humanity remain forgotten.
Present-day Germany chooses to commemorate its history in a very different way. It honours groups that have been, historically, victims of prejudice and discrimination (Jewish, Sinti, Roma, disabled, dissident, Afro-German citizens, etc.) They have erased Nazi art and emblems that symbolise the hateful ideology of the Third Reich, and outright banned public displays of Nazi-affection.
There are more than 70,000 decentralized memorial blocks laid in more than 1,200 cities and towns across Europe and Russia. These stones are the chilling reminder of brutalities committed by humanity during the Second World War. These memorial blocks showcase how learning about history from the perspectives of victims can help preserve truths about the human quest for justice and equality.
Racism: moving ahead
Historical monuments built to grace street corners should remember the history that helps us build a better future. Historical monuments that glorify tyrants are anything but a proud historical heritage for enlightened nations.
Recall the slave trade in Libya, prostitution, human trafficking, and the exploitation of workers in the Middle East. Let’s also remember Gulf states, and sex slaves markets in Syria and Iraq. They are all a stark reminder that slavery is still pervasive. There is still much we must do to eradicate this menace, especially in the Muslim world. The Far-right is masquerading as a champion protecting the historical heritage of the West. Moreover, Islamists are capitalizing on legitimate fears and unrest among the vulnerable western communities.
It’s high time we came together and look up to the very people who strive for humane values. Let’s present them as role models to our coming generations. It’s imperative to denounce the language and expressions, traditions, beliefs, and inhumane practices that treat humans as sub-human. Let’s build a better and equal world for all.
History remembers us as we remember history.