Conversation with Noam Chompsky
This is what real “decolonization” should look like.
“Decolonize this place!” “Decolonize the university!” “Decolonize the museum!”
In the past few years, decolonization has gained new political currency — inside the borders of the old colonial powers. Indigenous movements have reclaimed the mantle of “decolonization” in protests like those at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access pipeline. Students from South Africa to Britain have marched under its banner to challenge Eurocentric curriculums. Museums such as the Natural History Museum in New York and the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels have been compelled to confront their representation of colonized African and Indigenous peoples.
But what is “decolonization?” What the word means and what it requires have been contested for a century.
After World War I, European colonial administrators viewed decolonization as the process in which they would allow their imperial charges to graduate to independence by modeling themselves on European states. But in the mid-20th century, anticolonial activists and intellectuals demanded immediate independence and refused to model their societies on the terms set by imperialists. Between 1945 and 1975, as struggles for independence were won in Africa and Asia, United Nations membership grew from 51 to 144 countries. In that period, decolonization was primarily political and economic.
As more colonies gained independence, however, cultural decolonization became more significant. European political and economic domination coincided with a Eurocentrism that valorized European civilization as the apex of human achievement. Indigenous cultural traditions and systems of knowledge were denigrated as backward and uncivilized. The colonized were treated as people without history. The struggle against this has been especially central in settler colonies in which the displacement of Indigenous institutions was most violent.
South Africa, where a reckoning with the persistence of the settler regime has gripped national politics, reignited the latest calls for decolonization in 2015 with the #RhodesMustFall movement. Students at the University of Cape Town targeted the statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, but saw its removal as only the opening act in a wider struggle to bring white supremacy to an end. Under the banners of “more than a statue” and “decolonize the university,” students called for social and economic transformation to undo the racial hierarchies that persist in post-apartheid South Africa, free university tuition and an Africa-centered curriculum.
Now, partly riding the global surge of Black Lives Matter mobilizations, calls for decolonization have swept Europe’s former imperial metropoles. In Bristol, England, last month, protesters tore down the statue of Edward Colston, the director of the Royal African Company, which dominated the African slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Across Belgium, protesters have focused on statues of King Leopold II, who ruled the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) as his personal property from 1885 to 1908. King Phillipe II of Belgium recently expressed “regret” for his ancestor’s brutal regime, which caused the death of 10 million people.
Colonialism, the protesters insist, did not just shape the global south. It made Europe and the modern world. Profits from the slave trade fueled the rise of port cities like Bristol, Liverpool and London while the Atlantic economy that slavery created helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution. King Leopold amassed a fortune of well over $1.1 billion in today’s dollars from Congo. His vision of the Royal Museum for Central Africa, which opened in 1910 soon after his death, reproduced a narrative of African backwardness while obscuring the violent exploitation of the Congolese.
By tearing down or defacing these statues, protesters burst open the national narrative and force a confrontation with the history of empire. This is a decolonization of the sensory world, the illusion that empire was somewhere else.
Laying a flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo on the statue of King Leopold or hauling the Colston statue into the sea, where thousands of enslaved women and men lost their lives, tears apart the blinders and boundaries between past and present, metropole and colony. Insisting on the presence of the past, the protests reveal Europe’s romance with itself, unmasking its political and economic achievements as the product of enslavement and colonial exploitation.
This historical reckoning is only the first step. Acknowledging that colonial history shapes the current inequalities and hierarchies that structure the world sets the stage for the next one: reparations and restitution.
Reparations is not a single act. The Caribbean Community has already demanded reparations for slavery and Indigenous genocide from Britain, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Although there is little movement at the level of states, the University of Glasgow agreed last year to pay 20 million pounds (about $25 million) for development research with the University of the West Indies in recognition of how the university benefited from the profits of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The Herero of Namibia, who suffered the 20th century’s first genocide at the hands of Germany, have also called for redress. Their efforts follow the successful bid for reparations by the Mau Mau of Kenya, many of whom were tortured during Britain’s brutal suppression of their independence movement in the mid-20th century. In other contexts, activists have focused on the return of the looted artifacts that fill Europe’s great museums. France, for instance, has committed to returning 26 stolen artworks to Benin.
But reparations should not focus only on the former colonies and their relations with European states. Colonialism lives on inside Europe’s borders, and Europe itself must be decolonized. Black Europeans experience discrimination in employment and education, are racially profiled and are subject to racist violence at the hands of the police and fellow citizens.
The European Union recently avowed that “Black lives matter,” but its policies deprive Black people of equal rights, imprison them in camps and drown them in the Mediterranean. Overseas imperialism was once believed to be a political necessity for European states; today, anti-immigrant politics plays the same role. In either case, European policymakers disavow responsibility for the misery they bring about.
Repair and redress is owed as much to Black Europeans as it is to former colonial states. It would mean treating Black Europeans, and all migrants from the colonized world, as equal participants in European society. And this form of reparation cannot be perceived as one-off transactions. Instead, it must be the basis of building an inclusive and egalitarian Europe.
This is no easy task and will not happen overnight. But we should remember that just 80 years ago, colonial rule appeared to be a stable and almost permanent feature of international politics. In just three decades, anticolonial nationalists had transformed the world’s map.
The struggle for racial equality in Europe is a fight for a truly postcolonial condition, and its creation is implied by each dethroned statue. If colonialism made the modern world, decolonization cannot be complete until the world — including Europe — is remade.
“Dunbar-Ortiz demonstrates that the violence sanctioned by the Second Amendment was a key factor in transforming America into a ‘militaristic-capitalist’ powerhouse. . . . Dunbar-Ortiz’s unhealthy relationship with guns ended after about two years. America’s has lasted a lot longer, but in the wake of Stoneman Douglas, there might be reason, at last, for some very cautious optimism.”–Kevin Canfield, San Francisco Chronicle
“There’s a new book that just came out that lays out a provocative argument for getting rid of the Second Amendment in its entirety, and the book asserts that the NRA has become a white nationalist organization.”–Jeremy Scahill, The Intercept
“Dunbar-Ortiz’s subtle deconstructions of the various works which contributed to our misunderstandings of the Second Amendment’s roots are vitally required reading, especially in our current era of daily mass shootings and political inaction toward better gun control. The white supremacy that Dunbar-Ortiz exposes with surgical exactness is the true foundation of the America we know today.”—Sezin Koehler, Wear Your Voice Magazine
“Loaded recognizes the central truth about our ‘gun culture’: that the privileged place of guns in American law and society is the by-product of the racial and class violence that has marked our history from its beginnings.”—Richard Slotkin, author of Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America
“From an eminent scholar comes this timely and urgent intervention on U.S. gun culture. Loaded is a high-impact assault on the idea that Second Amendment rights were ever intended for all Americans. A timely antidote to our national amnesia about the white supremacist and settler colonialist roots of the Second Amendment.”—Caroline Light, author of Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense
“Loaded unleashes a sweeping and unsettling history of gun laws in the United States, beginning with anti-Native militias and anti-Black slave patrols. From the roots of white men armed to forge the settler state, the Second Amendment evolved as a tool for protecting white, male property owners. It’s a must read for anyone who wants to uncover the long fetch of contemporary Second Amendment battles.”—Kelly Lytle Hernandez, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965
“Now, in Loaded, she widens her lens to propose that the addiction to violence characteristic of American domestic institutions also derives from the frontiersman’s belief in solving problems by killing. Whether expressed in individual cruelty like the collection of scalps or group barbarism by settler colonialists calling themselves ‘militias,’ violence has become an ever-widening theme of life in the United States.”—Staughton Lynd, author of Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution
“For anyone who believes we need more than ‘thoughts and prayers’ to address our national gun crisis, Loaded is required reading. Beyond the Second Amendment, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz presents essential arguments missing from public debate. She forces readers to confront hard truths about the history of gun ownership, linking it to ongoing structures of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and racial capitalism. These are the open secrets of North American history. It is our anxious denial as much as our public policies that perpetrate violence. Only by coming to peace with our history can we ever be at peace with ourselves. This, for me, is the great lesson of Loaded.”—Christina Heatherton, co-editor of Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter
“Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz’s Loaded argues U.S. history is quintessential gun history, and gun history is a history of racial terror and genocide. In other words, gun culture has never been about hunting. From crushing slave rebellions to Indigenous resistance, arming individual white settler men has always been the strategy for maintaining racial and class rule and for taking Indigenous land from the founding of the settler nation to the present. With clarity and urgency, Dunbar-Ortiz asks us not to think of our current moment as an exceptional era of mass-shootings. Instead, the very essence of the Second Amendment and the very project of U.S. ‘settler democracy’ has required immense violence that began with Indigenous genocide and has expanded to endless war-making across the globe. This is a must read for any student of U.S. history.”—Nick Estes, author of the forthcoming book Our History is the Future: Mni Wiconi and Native Liberation
“With her usual unassailable rigor for detail and deep perspective, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has potentially changed the debate about gun control in the United States. She meticulously and convincingly argues that U.S. gun culture—and the domestic and global massacres that have flowed from it—must be linked to an understanding of the ideological, historical, and practical role of guns in seizing Native American lands, black enslavement, and global imperialism. This is an essential work for policy-makers, street activists, and educators who are concerned with Second Amendment debates, #blacklivematters campaigns, global peace, and community-based security.”—Clarence Lusane, Chairman and Professor of Political Science at Howard University and author of The Black History of the White House
“Just what did the founding fathers intend the Second Amendment to do? Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s answer to that question will unsettle liberal gun control advocates and open-carry aficionados alike. She follows the bloodstains of today’s mass shootings back to the slave patrols and Indian Wars. There are no easy answers here, just the tough reckoning with history needed to navigate ourselves away from a future filled with more tragedies.“—James Tracy, co-author of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times
“Gun violence, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz compellingly shows, is as U.S. American as apple pie. This important book peels back the painful and bloody layers of gun culture in the United States, and exposes their deep roots in the killing and dispossession of Native peoples, slavery and its aftermath, and U.S. empire-making. They are roots with which all who are concerned with matters of justice, basic decency, and the enduring tragedy of the U.S. love affair with guns must grapple.”—Joseph Nevins, author of Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid
“Loaded is a masterful synthesis of the historical origins of violence and militarism in the US. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz reminds us of what we’ve chosen to forget at our own peril: that from mass shootings to the routine deployment of violence against civilians by the US military, American violence flows from the normalization of racialized violence in our country’s founding history.”—Johanna Fernández, Assistant Professor of History at Baruch College of the City University, and author of the forthcoming book, When the World Was Their Stage: A History of the Young Lords Party, 1968–1976
“More than a history of the Second Amendment, this is a powerful history of the forging of white nationalism and empire through racist and naked violence. Explosively, it also shows how even liberal—and some leftist—pop culture icons have been complicit in the myth-making that has shrouded this potent historical truth.”—Gerarld Horne, author of The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the USA
“Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has done an outstanding job of resituating the so-called gun debate into the context of race and settler colonialism. The result is that the discussion about individual gun ownership is no longer viewed as an abstract moral question and instead understood as standing at the very foundation of U.S. capitalism. My attention was captured from the first page.”—Bill Fletcher, Jr., former president of TransAfrica Forum and syndicated writer
“Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz provides a brilliant decolonization of the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution. She describes how
- the ‘savage wars’ against Indigenous Peoples,
- slave patrols (which policing in the U.S. originates from),
- today’s mass shootings, and
- the rise in white Nationalism
are connected to the Second Amendment. This is a critically important work for all social science disciplines.”—Michael Yellow Bird, professor and director of Tribal and Indigenous Peoples Studies at North Dakota State University
“This explosive, ground-breaking book dispels the confusion and shatters the sanctimony that surrounds the Second Amendment, revealing the colonial, racist core of the right to bear arms. You simply cannot understand the United States and its disastrous gun-mania without the brilliant Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz as a guide.”—Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age
“There is no more interesting historian of the United States than Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. And with Loaded she has done it again, taking a topic about which so much has already been written, distilling it down, turning it inside out, and allowing us to see American history anew.”—Walter Johnson, author of River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Mississippi Valley’s Cotton Kingdom
“Loaded is a compelling antidote to historical amnesia about the brutal origins of the United States’ unique ‘gun culture.’ Dunbar-Ortiz draws on decades of historical scholarship to illuminate the practice of Native genocide while framing the Second Amendment as the grounds for a violence-based nationalism.”—Caroline E. Light, “Public Books”
About the AuthorRoxanne Dunbar-Ortiz grew up in rural Oklahoma, the daughter of a tenant farmer and part-Indian mother. She has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. After receiving her PhD in history at the University of California at Los Angeles, she taught in the newly established Native American Studies Program at California State University, Hayward, and helped found the Departments of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies. Her 1977 book The Great Sioux Nation was the fundamental document at the first international conference on Indigenous peoples of the Americas, held at the United Nations’ headquarters in Geneva. Dunbar-Ortiz is the author or editor of many books, including her acclaimed An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. She is the recipient of the Cultural Freedom Prize for Lifetime Achievement by the Lannan Foundation, and she lives in San Francisco, CA.