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OP-ED: Statues have fallen, but racism hasn’t

  • Published at 08:02 pm July 19th, 2020
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Photo: BIGSTOCK

Uprisings happen but, unfortunately, mindsets remain the same

With the death of human rights icon John Lewis, the protracted struggle to ensure social rights for people from all ethnic backgrounds comes back to the headlines. 

A few weeks ago, the death of George Floyd due to police brutality ignited a global outrage against racism entrenched deep within developed societies and the deep racial fault lines in the US and UK were laid bare when thousands took to the streets to bring down statues of people who represented the oppressive doctrine of colonialism. 

In the US, a large number of statues of leaders from Confederate states during the Civil War came down while the Confederate flag, displayed with pride because of its rebellious flavour, has finally been outlawed in certain spheres. 

The rise of the masses following the death of Floyd has brought many results but the question remains: When it comes to inherent racism, how much will actually change? 

Purging the mind

Pulling down the statues of figures representing imperialism, enslavement, and colonialism deserves kudos, though asking for these statues to be taken out of sight is certainly not advisable. These must remain, as British PM and the US president called them integral parts of history, but with the facts and not with an embellished, glossed up description. 

In the Satyajit Ray film, Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds), an evil king controls the minds of his subjects by with the help of a machine. When the people come out of the trance imposed by the tyrant, they pull down the king’s statue chanting: “Dori dhore maaro taan, raja hobe khan khan” (pull the rope in unison, the king will crumble to the ground). 

However, to perform this daring act, they had to get back their minds first. They also had to realize that the king was malevolent because he wanted to control their thoughts and perceptions. 

In a similar fashion, the masses in countries which were once imperial powers need to understand, that unless the imperial phantoms are laid to rest, prejudices which go to the deepest layers of society will remain. 

No one is asking former colonial countries to pay reparations or bow down to apologize, although the Belgian King Philippe has sent deepest regrets to the Congo for atrocities committed by Belgium as a colonial power under King Leopold II in the early 20th century. 

However, in addition to expressing contrition for the colonial crimes, a step that will be welcome is the presentation of a truthful imperial history where ruthless slave traders, rapacious opium dealers, conniving military leaders, duplicitous mineral seekers, and sly missionaries are not portrayed as benevolent/altruistic empire builders. 

Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour Party leader, once said that the best way to atone for colonial brutality would be through teaching the truth at British schools. 

As we saw, the bringing down of the statues was vociferously denounced by those in government, both in the US and the UK, with what can be dubbed as utterly vacuous rhetoric. There wasn’t a single comment from a person in government underlining the need to tell the facts. 

The problem is that when there is complete denial mode on one side, chances of long-term change in social outlook are low. 

Uprisings happen, mindsets remain the same

Let’s go back to the 1936 Olympics -- a massive sporting jamboree held under the fascist regime of Hitler. The aim of Germany was to showcase to the world the supremacy of Aryan sporting prowess shrewdly packaged with Germany’s resurgent military might. 

In the games, Jesse James, an African American athlete, stole the show, winning four gold medals. While he represented a seemingly heterogeneous US, in reality, James went back to the US not to find fame and glory, but to be rebuked because he had had asked to get involved in commercial proposals made to him after his Olympic success. 

The paradox is that, while Germany was under close scrutiny for its mistreatment of Jews, the racial bias faced by athletes from the US was brushed under the carpet. 

32 years later, at the Mexico Olympics in 1968, two US athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their black-gloved fists to make a glaring statement about human rights, proving that very little had changed since James represented the US in Berlin. These two athletes also faced stigma after going back home. 

Coming to the current day, we see people raising the fists once more and the message is clear -- racism persists.  

From time to time, an unfortunate event, like the death of George Floyd, ignites age-old grievances; there are rallies, movements, and, after some time, the fervour dies out. 

Once the hullabaloo is over, the establishments appear to be relieved while the actual demon of racism remains unscathed because governments want to avoid bringing out the sordid past.

The US is going into a pre-election frenzy while the UK is gearing to open up from August 1 after months of lockdown. British PM Boris Johnson gave a lengthy speech, highlighting plans for a cautious opening of life which is certainly laudable, though neither he nor any of his colleagues managed to allay the fears of the masses regarding entrenched racism, leading people to blatantly disregard safety regulations to come to the streets to protest. 

Once more, we are seeing the application of the “kick it into oblivion” strategy. 

I am not clairvoyant but will say this: Unless there is a candid discussion about social divisions linked to imperial era policies, societies in both the US and the UK will have to contend with public discontentment. 

This time they brought down the statues, next time, the public may go even further -- and perhaps burn those books, such as the Second World War by Winston Churchill, which plays down the colonial roots of racism. 

To avoid future flare-ups, the best way is to admit the facts. As Shakespeare said: “Truth is truth to the end of reckoning.” 

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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