24 June 2020

White Saviour Syndrome won’t save black lives


In 2012, the Nigerian-American novelist and art historian Teju Cole wrote a much noted essay called “The White Saviour Industrial Complex”. In it he he argued that what had been, in the full tide of European imperialism, the “duty” of white men – to ‘educate’ and ‘save’ the colonial subject –  had resurfaced as the phenomenon of ‘white saviours’. This new “White Saviour Industrial Complex is not about justice”, Cole argued, “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege”.

That’s unfair on people like the academics Jeff Sachs and Paul Collier who work in international development, and give much of their lives to figuring out how bad governance in developing countries can be improved. There are many more, less well known, like them. But it’s an acute observation about some of the present reaction to Black Lives Matter and more.

The Complex, as Cole sees it, is a mix of guilt; fear of being seen as a laggard in the concerned liberal stakes; confusion of gesture and rhetoric with action; and lack of awareness that this time will pass – leaving the question of equal citizenship unresolved. It does not sum up the white supporters of a movement, many of whom have histories of principled opposition to racism. But Cole’s analysis is a warning against the “woke” politics of gesture: as the philosopher John Gray wrote recently, those who privilege dramatic show over hard grind “seek a cathartic present. Cleansing themselves and others of sin is their goal. Amidst vast inequalities of power and wealth, the woke generation bask in the eternal sunshine of their spotless virtue”.

Cole is right in a deeper way than in just his observation of the gesture. In a democratic society, the demands of an aggrieved group, however defined, have to be understood and accepted by those in the majority – which includes those in the working and lower-middle classes, about 60-65% of the whole in the UK. These men and women, whose living standards are moderate at best, could be open to see pressure from one ethnic group as competition for scarce resources, rather than a campaign worthy of support.

This means finding allies through negotiation and debate with labour unions, employers’ organisations, churches, schools and universities, NGOs, local as well as national governments and in local forums, in order to produce consensual understanding. This is a slow, indeed permanent process, which is the best – if not only – way to achieve real lasting change. A process of this kind no longer depends on white saviours, but is a negotiation among equal citizens about their common citizenship, and the necessity that it applies, in practice, to all.

This will be taxing. Black Lives Matter, like many of contemporary protests, is by choice a leaderless movement. The French Gilets Jaunes of last year, now quiescent, was another such – though in practice, most groups throw up at least some who speak for the rest with a degree of authority when interviewed in the media or in talks with the police.

Until the 1970s, men and women in the working and lower-middle classes had been strongly represented by trade unions. Their leaders’ main task was negotiation, mediation, conciliation: their rhetoric was at times fiery, but usually the aim was a settlement, not regime change (the outstanding exception was that of Arthur Scargill, who led his National Union of Mineworkers through a year-long strike to defeat in 1985, with the explicit aim of unseating Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government). Enfeebled as they are, not so much by governments’ cropping of their privileges as by the fragmentation of the labour market, they are mainly bystanders in the great social issues which affect those who would have been their members.

Football clubs – because of the popularity of the game and their historic association with the working and lower-middle classes – have a large part to play in fostering understanding and allyship in society. By their composition, especially in the Premier League, they are  institutions that represent a diverse society coming together in a common cause of support. Their clout means they can go beyond gesture politics, to find ways in which distance and mistrust can be confronted and reduced.

Sadly, clubs have missed a trick and instead focused almost solely on the gesture of kneeling in solidarity with Black Lives Matter before Premier League games. This appears to have helped generate an embarrassing backlash, as a ‘White Lives Matter’ flag was flown over Burnley’s ground before Tuesday night’s match.

An alternative, more unifying scenario, which could – should – have been thought about before the game, goes like this: when players knelt to express their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement’s claim for equal rights for black citizens, an announcement would have been made that the gesture was also one of sorrow for the death of three men in Reading on Saturday.

Now, the two cases differ sharply in much: one was a killing by a police officer, the other by a man suspected of terrorism. The act of murder or manslaughter is always more shocking when committed by one sworn to protect the public: the other is – if shown to be motivated by religious or ideological hatred – a return to the sporadic savageries relatively common in Europe two or three years ago.

But both concern rights: the right to live and associate freely in a public place, and the right to be treated, even under arrest, with reasonable but certainly not deadly force. These differences matter: but a bowing of the head to both recognizes each, brings together the victims as fellow human beings, fellow citizens, even if they are of different countries.

The most prized top division players earn up to ten times more in a week than the majority of the country earns in a year. Away from the field and the gestures, the scope for resentment may be large. It is true, as Sanjay Bhandari, chairman of the anti-racist organisation Kick It Out, said, that the core message of BLM is to “highlight that black people are being denied certain human rights simply by virtue of the colour of their skin. It is about equality”.

But the fact of the matter is that it will not always be seen so. Real equality, a stable achievement of human rights observed by police and every other public authority, needs processing through society. That is done by conversations which enter into the details of the lives of hard-pressed men and women, white and black: which must range across employment, education, housing and more, and must take what time it needs. That, rather than gestures, is the only way real change is made.

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John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor and co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Oxford.

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