ln Jesus College, Cambridge, an ornate marble monument to the college’s benefactor, Tobias Rustat, an influential 17th-century merchant of enslaved Africans, towers over the nave of the chapel. In 2019, the faculty and students of Jesus decided that the Rustat monument should be moved to a new space on campus as part of an exhibit on slavery and colonialism. But a few dons and an organized group of university alumni vehemently opposed their plan. Former Spectator editor Charles Moore described the move as an act of “cancellation” that would endanger “education, religion, built heritage, history and the rule of law.”
When faced with attempts to address the causes of institutional racism in Britain, Conservatives often resort to one key strategy. I call this strategy “ghostlining”. It is a technique long used by the ruling classes to frame public debate in such a way that the experience of the oppressed is sidelined and silence calls for social justice. Ghostlining uses a one-two punch: deny the lingering effects first of slavery, colonialism and racism; and second, play the benefactor and the victim at the same time. Ghostlining removes the experience of the oppressed from the focus of the discussion and instead reframes the debate around the interests of a ruling elite.
Opposition to the move of this graceful record bore all the hallmarks of ghostlining: a small group, supported by reactionary high-profile opinion-makers, attempted to deny the reality of institutional racism, then set themselves up as victims of zealous revisionism. For the foreseeable future, Rustat will remain in place (a judge representing the Church of England, which has jurisdiction over the chapel of Jesus, rejected the move plan in March this year). But opinions continue to turn against that decision. In April, the Church of England’s racial justice commission denounced the court’s ruling. Sonita Alleyne, the Barbados-born master of Jesus College, called the judge’s decision “objectionable.”
Like leaders of the National Trust and the University of Glasgow who seek to denounce their institutions’ involvement in slavery, those who sought to remove the monument draw energy from the restorative justice movement. This movement recognizes that racial inequalities are rooted in unfinished histories of colonial plunder and oppression. It wants to reshape our social institutions to end these persistent inequalities.
It might be strange to think that this is all set in a place like Jesus College, which is part of an old and elite university. still a lot institutions that were beneficiaries of slavery and colonialism has become the basis for a wider struggle against persistent injustices stemming from Britain’s colonial past.
Indeed, Jesus College has set the bar by: formally acknowledged the damage caused by his involvement in colonization and slavery, and returned his Benin bronze rooster to the National Commission on Museums and Monuments of Nigeria. Under Alleyne’s leadership, the college has also changed its outreach strategy to significantly increase the number of students admitted from various backgrounds. The college’s Legacy of Slavery task force is now developing plans to restore the psychological and emotional toll of slavery and the consequences of slavery. institutional racism on its black students, staff and teachers.
The right has already prepared for a counter-offensive. Looking back at the ghostlining pattern that runs through Britain’s recent history, it turns out that this approach just doesn’t work in the long run. The right-wing resistance to the visionary African Repairs Movement in the 1990s looked and sounded a lot like our current ‘culture war’. Led by Labor MP Bernie Grant, this movement called for the government to redistribute wealth to communities of African descent and for British museums to return looted African artifacts to their rightful homes. It demanded significant investment in the arts, education and media to address the psychological damage caused by racial discrimination against black communities. Crucially, it demanded a radical overhaul of education, health care, housing and legal policies to abolish institutional racism.
When Anthony Gifford, a senior lawyer who worked with this movement, raised the issue of reparations in the House of Lords in 1996, he got a response. A colleague suggested that the reparations movement made Britain the victim of a false story, and that the British government actually played an honorable role in suppressing the slave trade. Another said African people are “extremely forgiving” and that reparations “go against their nature”.
It was the haunted playbook in action: deny the history, play as the hero and play the victim of false attacks. And it stopped the discussion of reparations in the House of Lords (the subject has rarely been mentioned in the chamber since). But attempts to ghost-line such demands for progress only cause these demands to return with renewed vigor. In recent years, Lloyds of London and the Bank of England have apologized for their role in the atrocities of slavery; meanwhile, institutions like London’s Horniman Museum are developing plans to transfer looted cultural artifacts to African countries. These changes have happened because the tide of opinion is shifting. People are tired of ghosting and want institutions to tackle racism at the root.
Jesus College is only one part of a larger movement of reparations. In Britain, the newly formed Black Equity Organization focuses on changing policies and legal processes that harm black Britons. The Stop the Maangamizi campaign organizes mobilization of the local community for reparations. There is increasing demand to “decolonize the curriculum” in schools, colleges and universities, with a number of UK universities, including Glasgow, Bristol and Manchester, proposing concrete initiatives. Glasgow University announced in 2019 its intention to partner with the University of the West Indies on restorative justice initiatives.
Bernie Grant, in his famous 1993 speech, Reparations or Bust, asked the big questions: “What kind of reparations do we need? Why do we need them? Are we entitled to them? People are asking all these questions.” The reactionaries then, as now, hoped that these questions would be discredited in public discourse and avoided in policy debates, but their anger only increased. publishes and promotes the cause.
Kris Manjapra is a professor of history at Tufts University and author of Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation
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