History Long Reads Opinion

The Guardian’s apology and proposal are unacceptable

The Guardian / King’s Place” by asvensson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The three-century-old Guardian, “one of the leading [Whitestream media] high-quality digital news organizations in the world” that reaches “hundreds of millions of people” is the latest institution to formally (and awkwardly) apologize for its editorial support for, wealth drawn from and links to slavery. Specifically for the roles of the founding editor, John Edward Taylor, and his funders and associates, many of them influential members of Manchester society, in profiting from Manchester’s cotton and textiles industries. Industries that were part of a global industry that was dependent upon the transnational trafficking of millions of enslaved Afrikans. These profits were used to found the Guardian in 1821. Also, for the paper’s journalism for siding with the slave-owning south in the American civil war and supporting the evil economy of enslavement.

This transparency comes from the Guardian’s trust, the Scott Trust (formed by Taylor’s nephew’s family in 1936), which commissioned an independent expert academic review into these origins. The review started in year 1 PGF (post-George Floyd) and the findings were presented in the “Legacies of Enslavement report” last month. Others have preceded the world-renowned British newspaper in apologizing for contributing to and profiting off slavery and colonialism including the Church and the Bank of England, the Dutch central bank, and the German government.

Hip hip, hoor-, wait now. Hold your horses. Why all of a sudden are they admitting to these heinous human crimes? Spiritual racial awakening? Stepping out of Whiteness? The psychosis of Whiteness is in remission? Is the end coming and they want to atone for their sins? Virtue signaling? Do they know something that we do not? All we know is that systems and institutions that have everything to lose should the real truth be uncovered, are seldom driven by feelings of justice, morality, and ethics. Even when it seems they are doing the right thing, it is still to their (profit and) advantage.

“Even when it seems they are doing the right thing, it is still to their (profit and) advantage”

Take the French Empire. In a monumental book, different authors, journalists, historians and economists dissect the colonial, imperial and capitalist relationship that France has held with Afrika. L’Empire qui ne veut pas mourir: Une histoire de la Françafrique (The Empire that does not want to die: A history of FranceAfrica) is a 1008-page long analysis and indictement to France and its role in subjugating the continent as well as its Asian and Caribbean colonies. Under the supervision of Thomas Borrel, Amzat Boukari-Yabara, Benoît Collombat, and Thomas Deltombe, in the book we find out, among other things, why suddenly the French Empire “generously granted” its dominions independence.

As noted by Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch and Thomas Deltombe in Chapter 2, the colonies started costing too much. As colonized subjects protested and demanded to be paid and given the same working rights as their metropolitan French brethren, France decided to follow what the Dutch did. The Netherlands “left” its Indonesian colony and experienced an economic boom. In order to lessen its economic and financial burden, France decided to give Afrikan politicians a certain level of autonomy regarding the costs to bear while continuing to exploit Afrikan soil for its riches. Vive la liberté. Vive la France.

The Guardian did not even make an effort though. Three Black producers working on a podcast project for the Guardian about the Guardian’s historical links with slavery anonymously revealed their experiences. It was not good. According to the Deadline article, the producers were met with “microaggressions, colorism, bullying, passive-aggressive and obstructive management styles.” The Guardian suggested mediation with the producers and offered them a mediator of their choosing. However, this was likely in bad faith. Jalal Afhim, the co-founder of Wide Open Door, a safe space where Black and global majority folks can share their experiences of racism at work, commented: “Mediation is often used in bad faith to present the party in a lower power position as being intransigent and problematic.”

“They just extend the violence into a different space which is somehow imagined to be neutral or impartial, which is a misrepresentation and usually reductive ie. not reflective of the nuances of power dynamics that might be central to the complaint and issue,” said Jalal.

Beyond the apology, over the next decade, the Scott Trust expects “to invest more than £10m, with millions dedicated specifically to a restorative justice fund supporting descendant communities in the Sea Islands and Jamaica.” And beyond the fund, it is committed to creating a wider program that includes “raising awareness of transatlantic slavery and its legacies through partnerships in Manchester and globally; media diversity; further academic research, and increasing the scope and ambition of the Guardian’s reporting.”

“They are cleaning their dirtied reputation with an even dirtier cloth”

Intentions and expectations look and sound good on paper, but while the ink is drying, they showed they are incapable of treating three Black professionals with dignity, justice, and respect. They are cleaning their dirtied reputation with an even dirtier cloth.

Malcolm X once said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”

It is now looking like institutions are beginning to admit that the knife is there. The bar is definitely in hell because we are already too happy and hopeful that this is a sign of progress. Now, we do not want to sound too pessimistic, and yet, the scale of injustice is too big for a mere “sorry, our bad” and a “restorative justice fund.” It will not cut it (pun intended). We need to keep the pressure on. We must keep our foot on their neck.

The report reveals that the founder of the Manchester Guardian (shortening its name to the Guardian in 1959) “was a cotton merchant… involved in Manchester’s textile and cotton trades, which were deeply connected to the enslavement of Afri[k]an people in the Americas.” There’s more, the Guardian’s editorial position was also “unduly influenced” by Manchester’s cotton and sugar industry booms, and “when slavery was abolished in Britain in 1833 [the Guardian] supported the award of huge sums of compensation to enslavers.” The founder and subsequently his newspaper directly profited off of plantation slavery. Full stop. Period. We will probably never know the number of people and hours that took for him to build his fortune. No amount of grants, new journalism jobs and professional development dedicated to Black journalists, or coverage of Black people across the globe will ever make up for this.

“Apologies, reports, and proposals without a radical approach to redress the course of history are just theatrical performances lacking substance”

With its moral integrity threatened, the Guardian is maneuvering its way out of this dilemma. Hoping to lead the way in anti-racist progress and to, as editor-in-chief of the Guardian Katherine Viner wrote in her apology letter, “inspire other institutions to do the same; that Britain can start to atone for a national scar that is deeply unexamined yet is all around us; and that out of that we can continue to build a new, more modern national identity based on a true acknowledgment of our past, a true understanding of the source of the nation’s wealth, and an honest self-image.”

Apologizing and recognizing one’s heinous past has never tainted one’s reputation and certainly has never significantly impacted one’s bank account. Germany is still a powerful nation, the Church of England and the Bank of England still exist in all their splendor, Benedict Cumberbatch (whose seventh grandfather owned 250 enslaved Afrikans in Barbados) is still part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Ben Affleck (who asked the Black “Finding Your Roots host to delete the segment which showed that his ancestor owned 25 enslaved Afrikan people) is back with J.Lo (last year they tied the “knoose” knot in an imitation plantation house on a former plantation). Apologies, reports, and proposals without a radical approach to redress the course of history are just theatrical performances lacking substance.

In a shifting culture where representation politics and media diversity is overly emphasized, any apology and the subsequent sprinkle of Black faces are interpreted as a sign that we are moving in the right and just direction. That is not, however, reparations. We cannot reduce it to visibility. We do not need to be seen. Diversity cannot be conditioned on deradicalization. We need reparative, not restorative, justice and liberation. A radical anti-racist project of transformation, not a liberal anti-racist reform program. Real reparations are the complete end of cis-heteronormative patriarchal White supremacist capitalism and not racial incorporation into existing systems.

Until we get there, until nothing changes, the fight continues.

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