The New Age of Empire—A Review

The New Age of Empire—A Review

John Lloyd
John Lloyd

A review of The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World by Kehinde Andrews. Bold Type Books, 288 pages. (March 2021)

In the days and weeks following the death of George Floyd, as Americans marched, and in some cases, burned their own cities, the world of public relations swung into action. They advised their clients to take note of these developments, and to be aware that hitherto innocuous attitudes and products might cause unintended offence in the new climate. This produced some surprising and counter-intuitive behaviour. When a happy customer congratulated Yorkshire Tea on Twitter for resisting the urge to make a fashionable political statement, a representative curtly responded that Yorkshire Tea “stood against racism” and then, for good measure, added: “Please don’t buy our tea again.” The PG Tips tea company owned by Unilever rapidly expressed solidarity with its rival. As anti-BLM bloggers and tweeters began demanding a boycott of Yorkshire Tea, Unilever issued a statement: “If you are boycotting teas that stand against racism, you’re going to have to find two new brands now #blacklivesmatter #solidaritea.”

Unilever also changed the name of the skin lightening cream made by its L’Oréal subsidiary from “Fair & Lovely” to “Glow & Lovely,” since it had already taken some flak for promoting negative racial stereotypes of dark skin tones. And it pledged to remove references to “whitening” or “lightening” on the products, acknowledging that the branding unfortunately suggested “a singular ideal of beauty.” Worse still, Unilever’s British-Dutch ownership linked the company to two states which once commanded very large empires and this now made it more than usually vulnerable to allegations of racism.

I learned of the Unilever/L’Oréal move from The New Age of Empire, a new book by British writer and academic Kehinde Andrews. At 38, Andrews is a professor of Black Studies at the University of Birmingham (where he obtained his PhD), and his department runs what he claims is the first Black Studies programme in Europe. He is also the Director of the Centre for Critical Social Research, co-chair of the UK Black Studies Association, and chair of the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity—Harambee means “pull together” in Swahili, and it is the subscript on the Kenyan coat of arms. Based in Birmingham, its website is short on details of its activities—its page “What We Do” refers only to the founding in 1964 of an organisation named “The Organisation of African American Unity” by Malcolm X, whose goal was to “co-ordinate and strategize the way forward for the [black] community.” Malcolm X was a powerful and militant agitator against police and other racist treatment of black Americans, and a racial separatist (although he moderated his views somewhat when he left the Nation of Islam).

Andrews’s book, which appeared in February of this year, is published by Penguin, in itself something of an imprimatur of importance. The author’s take on the Unilever/L’Oréal affair in the book’s opening pages is brusque, an indication of the approach he will adopt throughout its 288 pages. “Rebranding a racist product is not a step in the right direction,” Andrews announces, “it is a kick in the teeth to all those who suffer the impacts of White supremacy.” His ability to make this kind of terse categorical judgment unburdened by qualifiers is almost impressive. A couple of pages on, he affirms that “The primary logic underpinning the Western world order is that Black and Brown life is worth less.” That particular declaration is intended as a comment on the disproportionately high death rate COVID-19 has inflicted upon blacks.

Andrews’s characteristically blunt assessment of the “Western world order” obviously isn’t accurate. Studies in the US and in the UK argue that the disproportionate number of black men and women in service jobs and crowded living conditions is more likely to be a significant cause of higher black mortality. American blacks are also more likely than whites and other ethnicities to suffer from pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, obesity, and hypertension. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a prominent member of the White House COVID task force, has acknowledged that “Health disparities have always existed for the African American community… It’s shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is because, yet again, when you have a situation like the coronavirus, they are suffering disproportionately.”

Andrews believes that the roots of contemporary racism are found in the Western Enlightenment, which he casts as a racist project fashioned to enforce white supremacy. In place of the three revolutions in science, industry, and politics usually attributed to the Enlightenment, he substitutes genocide, slavery, and colonialism.

The Enlightenment was essential in providing the intellectual basis for Western imperialism, justifying White supremacy through scientific rationality. In other words, the West invented scientific theories to “prove” the superiority of White people and acted as if they were truth. It is also in the Enlightenment that we can see the roots of the new age of empire, the universal application of colonial logic… It is heresy to question the dead White men because their bodies of work lie at the foundation of the current unjust social order. To push them aside would lead to the system crashing down. Understanding how the Enlightenment and racism cannot be separated is the first step in truly appreciating that colonial logic still governs the world today.

Blaming racism for the greater risk to which blacks are exposed by COVID, and for the development of the European Enlightenment, has vestiges of justification but only if other assumptions are made. If poorer living and working conditions for black citizens of the US, the UK, and other white-majority states are the result of deliberate racism, and if it is agreed that the racist attitudes of key Enlightenment figures was the main purpose and enduring legacy of Enlightenment thinking, then Andrews has a point. But neither assumption is true. Poor housing and low-paid employment are endured by plenty of whites and other ethnic groups as well, and are usually the result of late entries into the labour markets, limited education, and the malign workings of class rather than ethnic categories.

Key Enlightenment figures, meanwhile, did indeed hold some views on black (and other ethnic groups’) inferiority now seen as ridiculous, and those beliefs remained part of a general racist consensus into the early 20th century. But those views were incidental to their main interests and works. Andrews makes a practice of projecting the beliefs of “dead White men” onto living white men and women, and of describing the Enlightenment—a diverse set of movements with some common elements—as if it were a cudgel forged to keep blacks down. He does this throughout the book in differing contexts.

In an essay for the website Persuasion, the former New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma responded to professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s recently expressed belief that the study of classics inculcates racism. Buruma observed that:

The best argument for continuing to read Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare, or Jane Austen is not to teach people to think like whites. Quite the contrary, the whiteness of these writers is their least interesting facet. We should read them because they express a common humanity… To make a fetish of identity, whether of race, class, or nation, is always an impoverishment, a provincial narrowing of perspective. Great civilizations come from mixing, not from exclusive representation. Perhaps this is the best lesson to learn from the Enlightenment thinkers. They may have had all kinds of “blind spots” that we now recognize in our incomparable wisdom, but they were never content to stick to what they happened to be born into. They tried to find their answers everywhere, and the world is still the richer for it.

But Andrews believes that the development of human rights—“deeply invested in the Enlightenment tradition”—is invalidated by the enlighteners’ racism: “You cannot separate their theories of rights from their racism, which goes to the core of their intellectual output.” So even human rights, to which black reformers like former slave Frederick Douglass and Baptist minister Martin Luther King were important contributors, fall before this theory because a racist belief infects and rots every other activity of the holder of that belief. For much of the book, nothing exists but racism and the objects of racism.

An example: Andrews admits that the World Bank, the main medium through which investment is made in developing societies, especially in Africa and South-East Asia, has “good intentions.” But, alas:

Believing that you are doing good while inflicting damage is not a new feature of Western imperialism. Even during the horrific violence of its first iteration, colonialists imagined that they were doing the savages well by dragging them into civilization. Kipling said it was the “White man’s burden” to lift the world out of its state of nature. We can see this rhetoric at work in the new centre of empire when in 1901 Vice President Theodore Roosevelt declared the need to annex the Philippines, explaining that “it is our duty toward the people living in barbarism to see that they are freed from their chains.”

Thus, examples from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are heaved in to dismiss the work of the World Bank in the post-war period and the 21st century. The sites of horror in the imperial world—the decimation of peoples in South America, slavery in the American South and the Caribbean, the near genocide of the Native Americans and Indigenous Australians, the ferocious and bloody “scramble for Africa,” the famines and massacres in India under British Empire rule, and more, are covered, often at some length:

Atrocities in the Americas were not carried out because of some pathology within the European settlers. Erasing the natives was a necessary foundation upon which to build the development of the West. The expansion out of Europe was an essential step in the creation of industrial capitalism because it provided all the ingredients for the modern world.

The point, however, is not to set these events on the record as in other imperial histories (and that record of oppression is now a full one—the work of many hands), but to show that imperialism underpins the wealth of the West. This is in some degree true (see the sources of wealth in many Oxford colleges and institutions revealed by the Uncomfortable Oxford group). But the main reason for Western wealth was the application of new technologies to production, distribution, and exchange, coupled with the rationality derived from the Enlightenment. Also, Andrews’s inevitable addendum—that imperialism remains as voracious and bloody as ever—is manifestly wrong. The extensive campaigns against racism are now a feature of all political groups except those on the far-Right. In the past four or five decades, they have set in motion a series of shifts in public and private attitudes, a widespread discarding of old beliefs, and a raft of integrationist initiatives, especially in education.

Andrews believes none of this. He is right in seeing that the United States is now the world’s foremost imperial nation—it dominated most of the 20th century, assuming the white man’s burden from the British and the French. But he is again wrong in his belief that it remains a beacon of racial inequality, since segregation in the US is a bigger problem today than it was after the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision declaring segregated schooling unlawful. His proof is that poverty remains endemic to black communities, and that “The police continue to gun down the black population; and there are new problems like mass incarceration that have made apartheid-era South Africa the correct analogy for the US race problem.”

But the issue of disproportionate police violence against black Americans is not so straightforward. Black Americans make up 13 percent of the US population, yet according to Department of Justice and FBI statistics (for 2016), black Americans commit 52.6 percent of murders, 37.5 percent of violent crime, 54.5 percent of robberies, and 29.1 percent of rapes. In only two categories, drunkenness and abuse of liquor laws, do the figures approximate to the percentage of black population (just over 14 percent in both cases). Murders by blacks are overwhelmingly of other blacks. In 2018, 62.6 percent of murder victims in New York were black, and their murder suspects were 61.9 percent black. Figures for imprisonment of all ethnic groups, meanwhile, have declined significantly in recent years. According to 2020 figures, they decreased by 34 percent for blacks, 26 percent for Hispanics, and 17 percent for whites. Even so, the black rate of imprisonment is still more than twice that for Hispanics and five times that of whites. Roughly twice as many whites are killed by police shooting than blacks—which still means they are killed disproportionately. The number of whites killed in 2020 rose sharply from the previous year—432 from 370—while the number of blacks killed fell slightly, from 235 in 2019 to 226 last year.

Andrews fancies himself as a revolutionary, so he reserves particular scorn for reformers. He singles out the 1963 March on Washington for criticism and describes Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech as “infamous.” Having earlier complained about blacks’ inability to integrate into racist American society, he adds that “Malcolm X denounced the 1963 March on Washington as a ‘farce,’ a ‘circus with clowns and all,’ due to its integrationist ‘love thy enemy’ approach.” So what would he make of Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old black poet who recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Joseph Biden’s inauguration. Gorman used “we” as in “we Americans” in lines like these:

We are striving to forge our union with purpose.
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

If King’s “I have a dream” speech was “infamous,” Andrews presumably considers Gorman’s inauguration poem to be an obscenity, especially as it was delivered by a young and extraordinarily composed black woman who described herself as “a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother [who] can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.” The poem had a spreading of schmaltz, and it surely pulled hard on the vox humana stop of the Democratic Party. But it was moving too, like all good schmaltz, and it reaffirmed the right idea—that only by aspiring to become “we” can any society overcome, or anyway soften, the divisions of race, class, and gender. Racism in the US is deep and can still be alarming, including in police departments: three North Carolina policemen were fired last year after they were caught on camera making racist comments. But opposition to prejudicial hatred is increasingly a mission shared by Americans of all ethnicities at the very centre of US politics.

Gorman spoke to an America that still offers and yearns for hope—an America that isn’t an empty trope brought out for show. In 1958, four percent of Americans thought inter-racial marriage was a good thing; in 2013, 87 percent did (96 percent of blacks; 84 percent of whites). There are many more black police officers and black police chiefs, and research by Stephen Wu, published in January this year, shows a significant drop in fatal shootings (of both whites and blacks) when the department has a black chief.

Andrews refuses to be impressed by progress of this kind. Often he just rants, perhaps to fill up space. Returning, as he frequently does, to the Enlightenment, he quotes the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder who wrote that “The Negro has invented nothing for the European… From the region of well-formed people we have derived our religion, our arts, our sciences, and the whole frame of our cultivation and humanity.” To which Andrews remarks:

This is nothing short of White identity politics, racist propaganda to boost the collective self-esteem of Europe. The truth is that Europe was not superior to the rest of the world in the fifteenth century. If anything, the only part of the world in a Dark Age during that period was Europe, and it was only through violence and the murder of hundreds of millions that the West established its superiority.

This isn’t true, either. In the 15th century, the Renaissance was spreading through Italy to France and thence throughout Northern and Western Europe. The “dark ages”—just how dark remains a matter of academic dispute—conventionally fall between the fall of Rome at the end of the fifth century and the 13th century. During this time, Europe was surpassed by the Muslim-majority regions in science, mathematics, philosophy, and medicine.

But Andrews’s narrow urge to condemn whites as the root of all the world’s evil leaves no room for complexity. No mention is made of black violence, empires, or massacres. In the 20th century, some 10 million people living in Central Africa were slain in various wars and attacks, of whom more than half were killed in the Congo. (Insofar as Andrews mentions these carnages, he blames them largely on the effects of colonialism, thereby absolving the perpetrators of agency and moral responsibility.) Africa was also the site of a series of large empires—the Empire of Mali, the Songhai Empire, and the Zimbabwean Empire—which were rich, sophisticated, and militarily powerful. All trafficked in slaves—as did many African chiefs—who supplied the European slavers, including the British, who were the largest transporters of slaves to the Caribbean and the American South, after the Portuguese.

In his drive to demonise whites and elevate blacks, Andrews ignores what ought to be an elementary lesson after the ravages of the 20th century. The Polish-Jewish scholar Zygmunt Bauman, who narrowly escaped the Holocaust and is in a better position than most to bear witness to this lesson, has written that:

[E]xecutioners used to dehumanize their victims before putting them to death… Albert Camus wrote that genocide is nothing new in the history of mankind; what is new is genocide carried out in the name of human happiness, historic justice or other equally noble goals. And, as demonstrated by genocide carried out on behalf of racial purity, just like genocide carried out in the name of class purity, what is new is also the ease with which decent people, exemplary fathers of families, faithful husbands, kind neighbours, can be convinced that the lofty goal of purifying the world makes zealous participation in the purge a virtue and obligation for decent people. Perhaps the most shocking information found in Hannah Arendt’s report of Adolf Eichmann’s trial was the opinions of distinguished psychiatrists who were asked to examine the defendant’s soundness of mind. They all agreed that Eichmann was not only normal by all common standards of normalcy but that he could be considered a model virtuous citizen—and in fact was regarded as such by his neighbours.

Thus decent British sea captains could cram Africans into fetid holds and transport them to the Caribbean and the American South because it was profitable; clever thinkers could despise “the Negro” even though they knew nothing about Africa except that it contained “no history”; sincere and well-intentioned believers in socialism could transport millions into Soviet gulags where many died and almost all were traumatised; Hutus, certain that the Tutsi were their enemies and would kill them (as, earlier, they had) could believe they had a duty to ethnically cleanse Rwanda; and various groups and militias could kill, dismember, and rape their way across the Congo in a war of all-against-all, believing that if they did not do so first, they would be victims. In each case, the common element was the dehumanization of the victims.

But Andrews seems to be determined to ignore this lesson. In his final pages he lays out an immodest ambition, writing that “the bulk of my work is about developing the politics of Black radicalism, which centres on uniting Africa and the African diaspora to create a true revolution, which remains the only solution to the problem of racism… revolution is absolutely essential if we truly want freedom.” (Is this part of his work as a professor at a major public university or is he doing this on his own time?) But a black revolution (and with what goal in mind?) is a terrible vision, and not just for whites. In Western societies, where blacks are 13 percent of the US population, three percent of the UK population, about 3.5 percent in France (the French do not officially collect data on ethnicity), and even smaller percentages elsewhere, such a revolution would be a series of doomed uprisings, smashing bonds of family and friendship, while promoting distrust, resentment, hatred, and likely worse.

And all of this is being proposed even as black citizens rise in professions, universities, business, and politics. White societies and governments now strain to find integrationist strategies. Racist and imperialist attitudes are challenged and, where identified, they perish. It’s now hardly conceivable that black citizens of relatively well-ordered democratic states would follow his lead. Andrews describes himself on his university webpage as an “activist.” He would be a dangerous man, if he were not such a deluded one.

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John Lloyd

John Lloyd is a contributing editor at the Financial Times and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.