It seems to me that many of the most popular books, theories and movements around race are imported from the United States. My kids, aged 7 and 9, have learned about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks at primary school. They are iconic figures, but it’s also easier to talk about other nations’ racism rather than your own.
Britain’s own racist legacy is less visible and hotly contested, but it feels like there’s a moment of examination going on at the moment. Writers like Shashi Tharoor, Priya Satia, Akala and Sathnam Saghera are shedding new light on empire and its racist legacy, with a dozen new books on the subject in the last year or two (I’ve made a list).
Kehinde Andrews brings a specific angle to this conversation. He is the founder of Europe’s first and so far only Black Studies degree, and a leading Black radical voice. For him, “racism still governs the entire political and economic system,” to the point that “the primary logic underpinning the Western world order is that Black and Brown life is worth less.”
The book explores this idea with an overview of the West, showing how the ‘enlightenment’ brought supposedly rational racial hierarchies that legitimised slavery and barbarity. With Black people considered less than human, Western elites convinced themselves that slavery was the natural order of things, and that Whites even had a duty to expand and civilise. It justified the land clearances that accompanied settler colonialism, and the violence of empire.
Some of the material here is covered elsewhere, but there are also many sections where I had to put the book aside a minute and consider an entirely new point. His take on the Holocaust is striking for example, arguing that “the Holocaust represents colonial practices coming in to play in Europe” and that there was no word for genocide until it happened to White people. If that sounds like hyperbole, that’s only because we’re not taught the ugly bits of our own history.
Not knowing our history is a recurring theme. The story of slavery, for example, is so dominated by the abolition movement that you could forget that Britain had to trade slaves in order to eventually stop. Then Britain continued to support slavery by buying cotton from the American south, while exporting chains and guns. “Britain should, apparently, be proud of ending slavery but not feel guilty about profiting from it.”
And profit we did. Britain’s industrialisation depended on the profits from the slave trade, as well as the resources from the plantations. Profits from slavery and empire built the railways and the bridges and the infrastructure, while extracting that wealth from elsewhere. “That wealth remains with us today” says Andrews. “We think of slavery as belonging to the distant past, but the world we live in remains created in its image.”
The legacy of White supremacy and racial hierarcy is still evident in global power structures today, in distribution of wealth, in voting power in international institutions. As Andrews mentions briefly and my forthcoming book discusses in depth, race is a huge factor in the injustice of climate change. Since people of colour are at greater risk from climate change, despite having lower carbon footprints, the failure to act on climate change is a stark indicator of whether Black lives really matter in the global order.
While it’s written with real clarity, The New Age of Empire is not an easy read. It’s a challenging and powerful book that compels its readers to confront difficult truths. But truths they are, and I recommend spending some time with the book and the questions it poses.
The cultural identity of the West is build on flattering myths about science, democracy and industry. They leave out the fact that “genocide, slavery and colonialism are the key foundation stones upon which the West was built. The legacies of each of these remain present today, shaping both wealth and inequality in a hierarchy of White supremacy.”