COVID-19 – 2020’s fulcrum event – has inflamed decades of anger on racial inequality and injustice, triggered by the heinous murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department. Floyd’s death was the tipping point after a series of police murders of Black Americans in recent months. News of the murder quickly spread globally, hard-pressed by months of domestic isolation during nationwide lockdowns. Protests spread like wildfire. The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston (a 17th-century slave trader) in Bristol, England, marked a critical junction to subsequent acts. A significant consequence was the establishment of an official London Commission to examine the capital’s statues for possible historical links to slavery. The University of Liverpool’s buildings, named after individuals with links to the slave trade, were also renamed, and King Leopold’s statue was removed from its central Brussels location.
The tearing of statues from their public strongholds and the corresponding national reflection on collective histories – to which individuals are deeply attached, make no mistake – inflamed existing rhetoric. This extended beyond just social media. Those arguing against the removal of statues find the roots of their vernacular in deep historical attachments, evocative of portentous cultural heritage. Tony Abbott, former Australian prime minister, expressed pulling down statues as “cultural vandalism of the worst sort”. He said, “We should learn from their strengths and their weaknesses but we should never imagine that we have the last word in wisdom and insight.”
Contrary to Mr. Abbott, Marvin Rees, the Black British mayor of the City of Bristol, asserts that public monuments – statues, memorials, etc. – must reflect societal values. Thus, as values change, we are obligated to ask ourselves which statues deserve our public spaces. More so, Mary Ononokpono – a PhD candidate in History at the University of Cambridge – provides a historical dimension to Rees’ comments. She urges, “Britain, Europe and America – and Africa – have to confront their history. We urgently need to have a long-overdue and honest discussion about the history of slavery and its legacy of impoverishment.” Legacies of impoverishment are startling – and not just in the U.S. These include disgraceful policies such as red-lining, where poor/largely black families were denied mortgages. In addition, the G.I. bill, which saw guaranteed mortgage denied to black U.S. veterans post-World War Two. An example of the enduring legacy of impoverishment is that in 2016, the average wealth of a typical British and American white family was 10 times that of their black counterpart.
Undoubtedly, the releasing of societal tensions brought about by the flexing of mother nature’s viral epidemic has initiated – as many had hoped – a domino effect. This implores the West to confront its dark history. Nations – composed of individuals – follow similar development trajectories to those of individuals. This can be seen in political standing, economic wealth or national/personal image and character. Similarly, looking back at historical immoralities – including slavery or colonialism – need not arouse guilt nor shame. Rather it should facilitate acceptance and acknowledgment. This allows collective grief and hurt to be processed, and ultimately leads the way to progressive reforms. For example, racially inclusive education (from the Bristol Bus Boycott to the U.K.’s South Asian civil rights movement ) and institutional reform. The fractures currently present will hopefully force the West to acquiesce in the face of an increasingly intense demand for justice and to take an honest and sobering look at our collective history. This should reach far and wide, from British Belize and Barbados’ slave plantations to British India and the massacre of Aboriginal people in Australia. Ultimately, the Western body politic – in adopting a globalist and multi-racial identity – has obligated itself to reflect on societal values and therefore weave a more inclusive and eclectic historical narrative.
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