Black Lives Matter; a new enlightenment?

In Lib Dem circles there has been much talk of the need for ‘better education’ as a necessary (but not sufficient) path to more enlightened social and governmental attitudes when it comes to race, perceptions of a colonial past, and ‘neo-colonial’ thinking.

This is very positive; but education enlightening students about what, precisely?

My proposition is that there are three areas where education will benefit from a bit of ‘light shedding’. Those are, in chronological order, the histories of BAME communities in the UK; colonial histories related to those parts of the world to which many communities in the UK are connected; and importantly, relevant global pre-colonial histories.

First, there are many surprising histories of BAME communities in the UK.

For example, in areas of East London such as Canning Town, there are many people descendant from Caribbean-origin soldiers and others returning from world wars on behalf of the British, that were given passage back to the UK but faced difficulties obtaining passage back to their home countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad.

The Windrush generation is another example, that should be better understood.

These histories, when explored, make the poor treatment of such communities by the British state all the more hard to accept.

Second, colonialism, theory and practice, has a special place in liberal-democratic thinking. Liberal-democratic ideas were forged hundreds of years ago in opposition to the European pro-colonial mercantilist view that the quantity of wealth in the world was fixed, and that one country could only become ‘rich’ at the expense of another. This gave a rationale for subjugation, war and slavery.

The idea of mutual benefit, part of the early Enlightenment, contradicted that rationale. In the end it was the cost of world wars and of fighting independence movements, as much as the logic, that liberated the European colonies.

However, whilst Marxists hold to a narrative about colonialism being an inevitable consequence of ‘capitalism’, modern liberals point out that colonialism is not exclusive to Europeans. It was European sea power which created the first wave of ‘non-contiguous’ colonialism.

Almost all prior colonial adventures were contiguous, including Arabs in North Africa, Russia and its Far East, Han Chinese in Xinjiang and Tibet, Ottomans, and Aztecs, Incas, Mongols, Persians, and countless other empires.

Liberalism isn’t the cause, it is the remedy, part of the enlightenment; a point that needs airing.

Third, the extraordinary thing about pre-colonial history, especially in African and South Asian countries is that it is rarely taught in schools and colleges there, let alone in the UK.

It is as if in South Asia, Africa and elsewhere history only began with the arrival of the Europeans!

African students (and those in the UK) therefore miss hearing about how the Nok culture 2500 years ago (approximating Nigeria), was more advanced technologically than European societies. South Asians miss out hearing about the universities where advanced sciences were taught; in Taxila from 2500 years ago or Nalanda 700 years ago. What’s more Portugese traders travelling inland from the West African coast more than 500 years ago were wide-eyed at goods for sale from the Middle East. Should we not wonder why so much of our food originates from the pre-colonial Americas ?

As a candidate in the 2017 General Election I made presentations in Newham, London schools on pre-colonial African and South Asian history; schools where ‘White British’ were a small minority. In each case there were extremely lively debates and excitement. It was a subject being experienced for the first time.

The original European enlightenment from the 17th century onwards was part-fuelled by empricism and scientific exploration, in a struggle against established religious orthodoxy. There are some parallels today, with new scientific discoveries about human migration, genetics, and the true origins of individuals, contradicting race-based theories and ‘eugenics’. Discoveries include the revelation that the British at the time of Stonehenge were … dark-skinned from birth.

Indeed there is much to be enlightened about. Let’s hope Black Lives Matter protests lead us thus to a better future, successfully resisting a retreat to isolationism, race-hate and neo-mercantilism.

 

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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7 Comments

  • Paul Reynolds 18th Jun '20 - 4:33pm

    Thank you to LDV editors for the lovely picture of Nok culture carved figures.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Jun '20 - 5:12pm

    Thanks too for this intelligent Liberal piece. And let’s not be afraid to use the word imperialist.

  • @Paul Reynolds – I enjoyed tracking it down.

  • Where Stonehenge is concerned research also comes to mind that ‘The Beaker People’ who were cremated in the beakers that gave them the name came from Europe as equally ‘The Archer’. These new arrivals stimulated the people of the time to learn and grow and technology developed. The human race has always learned from other ‘forinners’ who enlighten us. The BLM movement can teach us how to develop as ONE race. The human race.

  • Michael Bukola 18th Jun '20 - 8:10pm

    Liberalism isn’t the cause, it is the remedy, part of the enlightenment; a point that needs airing.

    Lets not be too self-righteous. The dominant narrative regarding liberalism as hagiography, representing a gradual process of the expansion of liberty to all people has been shown to be contradictory through the ages, but it is also marked by episodes where a group that is given rights can have those rights taken away. One such example is when black Americans lost many of their newfound rights as the end of the Reconstruction Era, gave way to the rise of Jim Crow laws.

    It shows how slavery was legitimised within the liberal space all the way back to John Locke himself. And it gets worse. Once slavery could no longer be defended, the same liberals who now made a big deal out of its abolition promptly turned to excluding and repressing former slaves in slightly more subtle ways, such as indentured labour. And not just across the colour line, but also countenancing the oppression of workers closer to home when they, too, got uppity. It was the liberal economists, from Smith onwards, who shackled the working class by demonising early trade unions and who then turned their hard faces on some of the consequences of their inviolable free market, whether in the form of pauperism in Britain or famine across the Irish sea.

  • We need more cross cultural and racial mixing from an early age. Summer camps are a great example of this. Personal experiential is far superior to class room learning. Though we need some fundamental universal factual learning about the history of race, much of this should follow personal interest. Too much dwelling on the past is unhelpful.

  • Rabi Martins 10th Aug '20 - 9:52am

    @Peter Hirst
    I partly agree with you that simply dwelling in the past will not being about the change we need
    But neither will ignoring the facts behind how Britain got to rich by plundering the wealth of Asian and African continents That is why I would welcome a museums of British Imperialism in London and Liverpool just for starters

    But relying on education alone to change the culture of white supremacy in our political system is surely not good enough for our Party because that will not bring about the radical change we need in our political structures NOW

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