Statues, slavery and racism

A conversation between China, the US and the UK

People in the United States and the United Kingdom are confronting their countries’ historical records on slavery, colonialism and discrimination. The debate follows worldwide protests related to the death of the black man George Floyd at the hands of police in America. Some protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement are targeting statues that have glorified slave traders, or historical figures who kept slaves or supported imperialism.

Ge Anna, a presenter on China Radio International, hosted a discussion on the issue with reporters Duncan Barlett and Patrick Flanary.

Vandalised statue of Christopher Columbus/ Image source: CNN

Patrick, let’s start with you. What is the latest in the conversation around statues and monuments in the United States that seem to celebrate figures with a racist past? 

Well, the latest demand is for the city of Boston to remove a statue of Abraham Lincoln in a public park. It is a statue displays the president with a slave on his knees. Abraham Lincoln is regarded as the great emancipator, who in 1863 signed the emancipation proclamation. But the statute in question has a slave on his knees as if he’s being spanked. There’s a petition with thousands of signatures on it to get it taken down. The city’s mayor Marty Walsh says he supports the effort to remove the statue. The proposed solution is to have a local black artist to design a new statute that represents equality. 

This comes a week after a Christopher Columbus statue was decapitated in Boston and several Columbus statutes throughout the U.S. have been taken down and monuments and statues dedicated to Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederacy and the Civil War have been tagged with messages like “Black Lives Matter” or “Stop White Supremacy”. 

The argument in favour of removing these statues comes down to confronting the birth of the US as a nation, which is built on racism and colonialism and slavery. It doesn’t mean we’re wiping out history by taking down the statues. It means we move on and we honour those whose lives were taken to help those statutes exist. And those are black people. 

Edward Colston’s statue/ Image source: Getty

Also, Patrick, another police shooting in the United States has been ruled as a homicide. What does that mean in the context of racism within police departments? 

Over the weekend in Atlanta, Georgia, a white police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man. This happened during a confrontation at a Wendy’s restaurant, which is a popular fast-food chain. It was ruled a murder. The medical examiner reported that Rayshard Brooks had been shot twice in the back. He was running from police when he was killed.

The significance can not really be overstated here. It is happening again. And this killing by police comes days after the burial of George Floyd, the unarmed, handcuffed black man in Minneapolis, whom a white officer killed after leaning on his neck for nine minutes, as three other officers watched. 

Colleagues of the officer who killed George Floyd wrote an open letter saying: “This is not who we are. We stand ready to listen and embrace the calls for change, reform and rebuilding.”

The statue of former British prime minister Winston Churchill is seen defaced, with the words (Churchill) “was a racist” written on its base in Parliament Square, central London/ Image source: ISABEL INFANTES / AFP

So Duncan, how is the situation in the UK? 

Well, as Patrick has made clear the images of the death of George Floyd were truly shocking. Those images were shared on social media, not just in the United States, but around the world. Many people were appalled by what they saw. And those protests, which started in America, spread to Brazil, France and the United Kingdom. 

In each of those countries, the protesters wanted to express their anger and frustration about some of the racial injustices in their own societies. Here in the UK, this turned into a debate about the way people in Britain view our history. All we willfully covering up the legacy of slavery and colonialism? Are we making heroes out of people who held racist views? It’s a very lively debate and it’s spilled out onto the street, including the dramatic action of toppling statues. 

Yes, statues seem to be a bone of contention for this movement, don’t they? Some are seen as monuments with links to colonialism and to slavery. 

One of the controversial statues which was thrown into the water in the British port of Bristol was of Edward Colston, who had owned and traded slaves. And in central London a couple of weeks ago the statue of Winston Churchill was defaced. Somebody wrote on the plinth: “Churchill was a racist.”

The statue of Winston Churchill was erected in front of the Houses of Parliament was because people wanted to pay respect to him as a great prime minister. He led the United Kingdom through the Second World War and a historic victory over Nazi Germany. The Nazi view of the world was entirely racist. They believed white people were superior to all other races, and that is what led to the Holocaust. 

Winston Churchill was the enemy of the Nazis. If he had not fought them alongside Britain’s ally, the United States, there was a very good chance that would have been invaded by Nazi Germany and the UK would have been subject to a brutal and very racist regime. 

Yet Winston Churchill was born at a time when most white people believed that they were superior to other races ane he served as a soldier in the Imperial army. And some of the things he said, well, they were derogatory about other races, including the Chinese. The statue is suggesting that this is a great white man, a person of whom Britain should be proud. But the protestors are challenging that message. 

Reading though some of the things Churchill said, I noticed that in 1937 he said that “no great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or to the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by a stronger race, a higher grade race, a more worldly wise race.” How do you assess those remarks? How will it affect the way children in the UK understand their past?

Well, I don’t think Churchill was the only politician back in the 1930s who took that kind of view but obviously there’s been a great reassessment of Britain’s place in the world since then and particularly the legacy of colonialism and the UK’s relationship to other countries, including Asia and China. 

I think for young people, it’s important that they’re given a full picture. They should of course see the very important victory that Britain won over the Nazis and the implications that that’s had for the freedom of our country. But that doesn’t mean that we should overlook some of the things that Winston Churchill and many other politicians said about race and colonialism during their lifetimes.

And the demonstrators in Oxford are demanding the removal of a Cecil Rhodes statue. They also want a scholarship creating his name to be reformed. What does it mean to be a Rhodes scholar? 

Cecil Rhodes was one of the leading figures in British imperialism at the end of the 19th century, so he belongs to the era before Winston Churchill. At that time, Britain was pushing to take control of vast areas of the world;  Southern Africa in particular, where Cecil Rhodes was involved in diamond mining. That’s where he made his fortune. 

When he died, a lot of his money went to Oriel College in Oxford. Some of it was used to establish the Rhodes scholarships. They enable young people from around the world to come and study at Oxford; clever people like Bill Clinton, who went on to become the president of the United States. 

Rhodes believed Britain and the United States of America should unite and establish a global empire, run by white people, which would govern much of Africa and Asia. So it’s inevitable there is resentment against his legacy. It’s quite understandable that gets called into question at this time when people in the UK are looking at issues of race relations and inequality.

This discussion was broadcast on the World Today on China Radio International on June 15th, 2020

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