Black Lives Matter Shines the Spotlight on the Shadow of Slavery

Until there remain the vestiges of thinking that one “race” can be superior to another, Black Lives Matter will remain an unfinished project.
Hans-Georg Betz, Black Lives Matter movement, BLM protests, Pauline Hanson Australia, history of slavery, history of white supremacy, Brazil racism, Australia racism, American racism, Australia blackbirding, Australia Aboriginals

Black Lives Matter protest, Sydney, Australia, 6/4/2020 © Rose Makin / Shutterstock

The Black Lives Matter movement has been sweeping advanced liberal democracies, from the United States to Western Europe, impacting even those countries, such as Switzerland, comparatively marginally involved in the slave trade. Black Lives Matter confronts all of these societies with their historical role in the trafficking and exploitation of human beings, whose only “defect” was that they were considered “not up to the standard” of civilization and, therefore, inferior — a convenient source of cheap labor.

The worldwide demonstrations protesting what is somewhat euphemistically referred to as police brutality in the United States have triggered a new awareness of Europeans’ involvement in the denigration, subjugation, exploitation and extermination of “the people without history,” as the anthropologist Eric Jones famously put it.

Slavery in the United States was part of that story. Yet it should not be ignored that the vast majority of African slaves ended up in the plantations of the Caribbean and South America, particularly in Brazil, where slavery was not abolished until 1888. Until today, in Brazil, racial discrimination, subtle or not, remains an issue, whether it involves coming to terms with the country’s post-independence efforts to embranquecer — to “whiten” its population — or the fact that even today, Brazilian parents are fretting over the question of whether their newborn child is “white enough.”


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A Brazilian student once told me that slavery in Brazil was “different,” milder, and that it cannot be compared to what happened in the United States. Perhaps. Films like the 1976 comedy “Xica,” which romanticizes the reality of slavery in Brazil, have done their part to sustain this narrative. The Portuguese continue to sustain the notion that they were “good colonizers” citing the fact “that inter-racial relationships flourished in Brazil,” as evidenced by “Xica.”

Different Story

Today’s reality, however, tells a different story. Empirical evidence shows that in Brazil, like in the United States and the UK, “the virus is killing proportionally more black Brazilians than whites, exposing, in sharp relief, the country’s staggering inequalities.” And like in the United States, black Brazilians account for a large majority of the victims of police shootings. Most recently, a 14-year-old became collateral damage during a drug-related police raid.

But, then, what do you expect from a country whose top official in charge of “promoting black culture” has dismissed the country’s black rights movement as “scum,” vowed to defund the country’s Black Consciousness Day and dismissed Black Lives Matter as “useless.” By the way, this top official happens to be a black Brazilian and, hardly surprising, a fervent acolyte of Brazil’s would-be autocrat, Bolsonaro. Apparently, political leadership does make a difference, after all — often with disastrous consequences.

Superficially, there is not very much that Brazil and Australia have in common. Australia was settled by the British, Brazil colonized by the Portuguese. Australia has a relatively small population, while Brazil is by far the most populous country in South America. Australia is part of the exclusive club of advanced capitalist economies, Brazil is still to a large extent a developing country. And yet, both countries have at least one thing in common — a history of seeking to preserve white supremacy.

In Brazil, this was particularly prominent in the period between the 1890s and the outbreak of the First World War. It was based on the notion that the white race was “more advanced” than other races. At the same time, there was the expectation that “racial mixing” was going to produce a “lighter population” either because “white genes were stronger” or because “people chose partners lighter than themselves.”

Australia officially introduced a “White Australia” policy in 1901. It was meant to preserve Australia as an “outpost of the British race” in the “South Seas.” In practice, this meant “the prohibition of all alien coloured immigration” and, moreover, “at the earliest time, by reasonable and just means, the deportation or reduction of the number of aliens now in our midst.” It was not until after World War II that Australia’s white-only policy was abolished.

Abolition, however, did not necessarily mean an end to the controversy over the future make-up of Australian society. One of the most prominent reflections was the election of Queensland fish-and-chips shop owner, Pauline Hanson, in 1996, who would become one of Austria’s best-known and most reviled politicians. At the time, Hanson ran on an anti-Asian platform, reminiscent of Australia’s white-only policy. Hanson’s fame did not last very long. After being investigated and falsely charged with electoral fraud, she disappeared from Australia’s political landscape, only to reappear some 20 years later. In 2016, Hanson was reelected, this time as a senator and on a platform that appealed to diffuse fears of Islam.

Stark Reminder

Hanson’s reelection serves as a stark reminder of the problems parts of Australian society still have with the country’s transition into a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. The arrival of Black Lives Matter on Australia’s shore has only but exacerbated existing tensions. Australia was never directly involved in the slave trade. Indirectly, however, it profited from it. In the 1830s, the British Parliament granted compensation to former slave owners for “the loss of their slaves (but not to those who had been enslaved).” The sum was gigantic, amounting to the equivalent of £300 billion ($369 billion) in today’s money, which, at the time represented 40% of Britain’s income.

Some of these former slave owners compensated for the loss of their income used the money to resettle in Australia. In Australia, they gained prominence in a number of major ventures, such as the Australian Agricultural Company. It is perhaps not entirely surprising that official biographies of prominent Australians who had profited from compensation money omit mentioning their involvement in slavery.

The question of slavery, however, is hardly the only stain on Australia’s history. Some three years ago, the descendants of Pacific Islanders started to call for amending the epitaphs of the statues of famous Australian settlers to provide an honest reflection of history. The reference is to statues of Australian “pioneers” who had been involved in “blackbirding.” Blackbirding refers to the often involuntary transfer of Pacific Islanders to Queensland, where they worked as indentured laborers on sugar and cotton plantations. Once no longer needed, they were deported so they “would not threaten Australia’s design of racial autarchy.”

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Altogether, some 60,000 islanders were shipped to Australia, “often kidnapped, tricked or coerced” and when they were deported, they oftentimes ended up in different islands from the ones they had come from. Although in a literal sense, blackbirding did not constitute slavery, it did in many instances “hold all the hallmarks of slavery.”

With Black Lives Matter protests sweeping across the globe, the role of prominent Australian settlers has once again become a major issue of contention, and with it, the statues erected in their honor. It has been particularly contentious in Queensland where two cities, Mackay and Townsville, are named after settlers involved in blackbirding. So far in Australia, statues have not yet been toppled, but some of them have been spray-painted with graffiti (“no pride in genocide”) or defaced with red paint. This has some tradition in Australia. It already happened in 2017, provoking outrage from then-prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who characterized the acts as “a deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history but to deny it and obliterate it” in a fashion reminiscent of Stalinism.

Any story about Black Lives Matter in Australia would be incomplete without making mention of Australia’s “indigenous population” — the Aboriginals and the Torres Strait Islanders — who make up around 2% of Australia’s population. It should also be remembered that it took until 1967 for Australia’s indigenous population to be formally recognized as Australian citizens — the result of a constitutional referendum that saw 91% of voters come out in support of indigenous people’s rights.

In the decades that followed, indigenous rights issues, such as the forcible removal by federal government authorities of indigenous children from their families as part of a policy of assimilation continued to remain on the political agenda, much to the chagrin of Australia’s far right — the 9%, presumably, who in 1967 had refused to grant basic human rights to Australia’s indigenous population.

Back With a Vengeance

Enter Pauline Hanson. During her first tenure in Parliament, one of Hanson’s favorite targets besides Asian migrants was what she called the “Aboriginal industry.” With Black Lives Matter, Hanson’s vitriol has come back with a vengeance. Already before the Black Lives Matter movement, Hanson provoked outrage. During a debate on how to close the gap between indigenous people and the rest of the country’s population, Hanson charged that the reason Aboriginal Australians failed to advance was their refusal to change, “their own lack of commitment and responsibility to helping themselves.”

Instead of devoting more funds to the advancement of indigenous people, the government should spend them elsewhere. With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining steam, and the role of prominent settlers once again coming under close scrutiny, Hanson went into attack mode. And for good reasons. After all, Hanson’s constituency is in Queensland, the state most associated with blackbirding.

In the past, Hanson has been closely associated with the defense of white supremacy in Australia. In late 2018, Hanson introduced a motion designed to recognize “anti-white racism” in Australia and to extend official recognition to the notion that “it is OK to be white.” At the same time, Hanson has gone on record charging that white men are the “most demonized” group in Australia.

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To a certain extent, Hanson’s rhetoric does seem to resonate among Australia’s white majority. A few weeks ago, a survey found a relative plurality of Australians agreeing with the notion that “police forces in Australia are not institutionally racist against Indigenous Australians.” Official statistics tell a different story. A government report from 2018 found that indigenous people were considerably more likely to end up in jail than the rest of the population. Under the circumstances, the focus of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Australia on discrimination on the part of the police against indigenous people was not entirely without cause. Except for Pauline Hanson. True to the narrative she has been peddling for decades, in early June she introduced a motion in the Australian Senate in support of the notion that “all lives matter.” The attempt to put the motion up for a vote was roundly defeated by the vast majority of senators, who refused to get duped by the senator from Queensland. As the Labor Senate leader, Penny Wong, put it, “Asserting black lives matter isn’t saying that other lives do not matter.”

The Many Faces of Racism

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, the question of white supremacy has been a constant in the analysis of contemporary American politics. The United States, however, is hardly the only country infected with it. The recent wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations has once again turned the spotlight on the vestiges of slavery, colonialism, racism, discrimination and white privilege.

These vestiges are felt wherever white supremacy took roots centuries ago, from the United States to Brazil, from Australia to, most infamously, South Africa. Most deplorably, perhaps, it did not even halt with “progressive regimes,” like the one in Cuba. Socialism apparently does not immunize against racial discrimination. The Cuban Revolution was led by white men, and, until recently, white men occupied all the positions of power. Black Cubans were the losers of Cuba’s opening to capitalist countries, which particularly benefited the tourism industry. Black Cubans were hardly ever hired in that sector, a source of hard currency tips; instead, the industry preferred hiring light-skinned Cubans, their more “pleasant aspect” considered to be more appealing to Western customers.

Racism has many faces. One of its most important ones is the notion that, for whatever reason, one “race” is superior to another. In the worst case, this means extermination or the reduction of the inferior race to the status of slave labor. This arguably accounts for Hitler’s continued appeal in various parts of the world. A milder form is reflected in the famous notion of the “white man’s burden” — the onerous task of cajoling “savages” to see and imbue the benefits and wonders of “civilization” and dragging them into the 19th, 20th or 21st century.  

Black Lives Matter is a reminder of the horrors this kind of thinking engendered, in Europe, North America, Latin America, the Antipodes and elsewhere. Spray-painting, toppling statues is easy. Coming to terms with the mindset that allowed British slave traders, Portuguese slave owners, Spanish conquistadores as well as German and Belgian colonial officers to commit heinous crimes against humanity is a quite different thing. Until this is accomplished, Black Lives Matter remains an unfinished project.

*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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