Colonialism Made the Modern World. Let’s Remake It.

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.

Why Should Immigrants ‘Respect Our Borders’? The West Never Respected Theirs

Immigration quotas should be based on how much the host country has ruined other countries.

There is a lot of debate these days about whether the United States owes its African-American citizens reparations for slavery. It does. But there is a far bigger bill that the United States and Europe have run up: what they owe to other countries

  • for their colonial adventures,
  • for the wars they imposed on them,
  • for the inequality they have built into the world order,
  • for the excess carbon they have dumped into the atmosphere.

The creditor countries aren’t seriously suggesting that the West send sacks of gold bullion every year to India or Nigeria. Their people are asking for fairness:

  • for the borders of the rich countries to be opened to goods and people, to Indian textiles as well as Nigerian doctors.
  • In seeking to move, they are asking for immigration as reparations.

Today, a quarter of a billion people are migrants. They are moving because the rich countries have stolen the future of the poor countries. Whether it is Iraqis and Syrians fleeing the effects of illegal American wars, or Africans seeking to work for their former European colonial masters, or Guatemalans and Hondurans trying to get into the country that peddles them guns and buys their drugs: They are coming here because we were there.

Before you ask them to respect our borders, ask yourself: Has the West ever respected anyone’s borders?

A vast majority of migrants move from a poor to a less poor country, not a rich one. Immigration quotas should be based on how much the host country has ruined other countries. Britain should have quotas for Indians and Nigerians; France for Malians and Tunisians; Belgium for very large numbers of Congolese.

And when they come, they should be allowed to bring their families and stay — unlike the “guest workers” who were enticed to build up the postwar labor force of the colonizers and then asked to leave when their masters were done exploiting them.

The Dominican Republic, where the United States propped up the dictator Rafael Trujillo for three decades, should be high on the American preference list. So should Iraq, upon which we imposed a war that resulted in 600,000 deaths. Justice now demands that we let in 600,000 Iraqis: for each death we caused there, someone should get a chance at a new life here.

Some 12 million Africans were enslaved and carried across the Atlantic by European powers. Should not 12 million people from Africa be allowed to live in the countries enriched by the toil of their ancestors? Both will be better off: the African still suffering from what slavery has done to his country, and the host country that will again benefit from African labor, but this time without enormous pain and for a fair wage.

Just as there is a carbon tax on polluting industries, there should be a “migration tax” on the nations who got rich while emitting greenhouse gases. The United States is responsible for one-third of the excess carbon in the atmosphere; Europe, another one-quarter. A hundred million refugees fleeing hurricanes and droughts will have to be resettled by the end of the century. The United States should take a third, and Europe another quarter.

A huge bill would come to the West, but it is one it should look forward to paying. Without immigration, America’s economic growth would have been 15 percent lower from 1990 to 2014; Britain’s would have been a full 20 percent lower. Immigrants are 14 percent of the American population, but

New York Life Insurance Sold Slave Insurance

Banks like JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo accepted Slaves as Collateral

Rachel Swarns of the New York Times joins us to discuss what she discovered when she followed the money trail of one of the nation’s top financial institutions all the back to the 19th century.
.. RACHEL: In 1847, Godfrey died in the Midlothian Coal Mines. We still don’t know exactly how he died, but in New York Life’s accounting of the deaths that happened, they simply described, “burned to death.


New York Life was good for its policy. And Nicholas Mills put in a claim and within months of Nicholas Mills’ claims— three months, actually— they paid up: $337. The folks at New York Life collected a lot of information, but not information that his family, today, might wanna know, or people looking at the institution of slavery might wanna know. They did not record his last name. They did not record where he was, or if he was, buried. Simply “burned to death” and “$337 payment.”

CHENJERAI: This payment to a Southern slave owner wasn’t coming from Charleston, or Richmond, it was coming from New York.
.. And slaves were often used by people who went to a bank, wanted to get a loan, and had to, as we often do today, show some property for collateral, and would say, “okay, I got these 20 guys here. This is my collateral.”

That was a very pernicious system because, if you think it through, what happens when that guy defaults? Well, we know what happens if you default on your car loan today. The bank will come take it. The same thing happened back then.

JACK: Wait a minute. There were slave repo men?

RACHEL: There were slave repo men.

It’s very simple. You default on your loan, you have given up some collateral, the banks then become the owners of that property. And so the banks became owners of human beings, of these enslaved people. They took them, repossessed them, and tried to sell them, because it’s just like in foreclosures, you know, they don’t wanna hold on to these distressed properties. You know, they’re not in the real estate business. Banks are not really in the slave owning business.

RACHEL: We are talking about, you know, there, there are contemporary banks that have this history, you know.

CHENJERAI: Could you, could you name them?

RACHEL: So some of the banks that were involved in this business, banks who accepted slaves as collateral were J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo.
.. CHENJERAI: So this how the descendants are responding? How are the insurance companies responding to this?

RACHEL: You know, no one really wants a call from a reporter saying, talking about…. their ties to slavery. It’s, it’s just not … A lot of people are looking-

JACK: Mm.

RACHEL: … for coverage from the New York Times. This is not an issue where anyone is happy about a connection.

This information about slave insurance and these records came out in the 2000s, when states and municipalities required companies to disclose their ties to this period of time. So, you know, there was some trying to say, “well this is old news, there’s no reason to delve into this.” In some ways, it’s no surprise that-
.. There was a lawsuit that was filed particularly against New York Life and other companies that was dismissed in 2004, after a judge ruled that the black plaintiffs had been unable to establish a direct link to the companies that they had sued, and that the statute of limitations had run out.

With the advance of genealogy and the digitization of records, it’s now possible, difficult, but possible, to trace these people, and their descendants to the present day.
.. JACK: And in terms of just Americans coming to grips with this history, how should we- how do we tell that story?


RACHEL: You know, I think, with a lot of these issues, you know, there is the moral question, right? And what do we do with that, as, as Americans? It is simply true that African Americans were not paid for labor, right? For a long time. (laughing).
.. Ta-Nehisi Coates obviously did that really provocative piece about reparations and arguing for reparations. And he actually was at a conference and he was talking about that debate in American society and saying… You know people were saying, “Well, what would it look like?” and he said, “You know, we can’t really talk about what reparations looks like if there is no consensus that there was a debt.”

And I think that’s where America is right now is trying to figure out is there a debt? And part of the work that I do, and the work that a lot of people are doing in this area and looking at these kinds of connections between slavery and today, is just illuminating those kinds of connections.

A Different Bargain on Race

Instead, the demographic transformation of America has given us a Democratic Party more attuned to racial injustice or committed to ethnic patronage (depending on your point of view) than ever, and a Republican Party that has exploited white racism or ridden a white backlash against ethnic patronage (again, depending on your perspective) on its way to control of the House, the Senate and the White House.

.. At the other end you have the fears of those white Trump voters who feel like the new liberalism offers affirmative action for everyone but them, allowing immigrants and minorities to “cut the line” (to borrow an image from Arlie Russell Hochschild’s recent study of working-class Republicans) and claim an American dream that they themselves can no longer reach.

.. Abolish racial preferences in college admissions, phase out preferences in government hiring and contracting, eliminate the disparate-impact standard in the private sector, and allow state-sanctioned discrimination only on the basis of socioeconomic status, if at all. Then at the same time, create a reparations program — the Frederick Douglass Fund, let’s call it — that pays out exclusively, directly and one time only to the proven descendants of American slaves.

The De-Hitlerization of Your Brain

This one isn’t easy because fear is the top form of persuasion and you can’t out-fear a Hitler fear. If I were president I would try to break the spell by doing something so out-of-the-box that observers can’t hold this new information in their head and still hold the Hitler frame. For example…

Imagine Trump proposing reparations for slavery. That’s as out-of-box as you can get. And imagine that reparations take the form of a special tax on the top 1% of the wealthy to fund free college for any African-American students (including adults returning for trade school or college) for the next 25 years.

.. You can argue about whether this is a good plan or a bad one. I can see both sides. But in the context of persuasion, it would go a long way toward breaking the hypnosis spell that imagines Trump is the next Hitler. You can’t be Hitler and also in favor of reparations for slavery.