I’m getting tired of this “Should we say sorry for slavery” row.

(See the BBC, The Scotsman, The Times, for examples)

On the one hand we have a bunch of people, headed by Our Noble Leader, Mr Blair, who say it is appropriate now for us to acknowledge the wrongs done to slaves, and that we should express regret and say that we are sorry that it happened. It is right that we should do that.

On the other hand, we have another bunch of people who say – Don’t be ridiculous, I didn’t enslave anyone, why should I apologise for it? Why should Tony Blair say that he is sorry for something somebody else’s great-grandfather did to people who are all long dead? Come to think of it, why should white people apologise when it was black Africans who sold their black brothers and sisters in the first place? It is meaningless and stupid.

Of course, each in their own way, both camps are right. But they are also completely missing the point.

Yes, Slavery was a bad thing and we jolly well should be sorry that it happened and that our nation played a significant role in the slave trade. The fact that others (including the Africans whose forefathers did the selling) should also be sorry that it happened and that their nations played a significant role does nothing to diminish the historical guilt of Great Britain.

And, yes, apologising for it is totally meaningless and empty. Partly it is empty because we do not now own or trade slaves, and abolished slavery many years ago* – so to apologise for something that nobody alive today actually did seems pretty stupid. But mainly it is empty for a reason that doesn’t enter the heads of people like Sir Peter Tapsell who mocked Blair’s statement with the question: “When are we going to get a prime ministerial apology for King Henry VIII’s disgraceful treatment of his wives?”

[*Well, apart from the estimated 27 million slaves and the six to eight hundred thousand people who are trafficked in any given year, I mean. Apart from them.]

Shame on Sir Peter? Privileged white man that he is, he no doubt has no clue that the after-effects of slavery continue to resound today, and that the woefully racist world in which we live – a legacy of slavery – continues to create poverty, suffering and damage among the descendants of slaves. As an MP, he should have a clue. He should have more that a clue – he should have the whole sorry chapter.

An apology, or even a not-quite apology, is not meaningless because “it wasn’t our fault”. It might not have been my fault personally in the sense that I personally did it or actively participated in it. But it is my responsibility because I continue to benefit from its legacy.

An apology is not meaningless because we have no responsibility: it is meaningless because it doesn’t actually do anything to change the legacy of slavery. It doesn’t do anything to step up to that responsibility.

The descendants of people who were the direct victims of slavery are still its victims: black people are still more likely to live in poverty, to end up in prison, to suffer ill health; still less likely to do well in education or get highly-paid jobs; still excluded; still the victims of racism in a racist society.

The descendants of people who directly benefitted from slavery continue to benefit from its legacy: white people are still less likely to live in poverty, to end up in prison, to suffer ill health; still more likely to do well in education or get highly-paid jobs; still getting the upside of living in a racist society.

It’s called white privilege. Every damned one of us white people have got it, whether we realise it or not. And until we recognise that fact, recognise that historical slavery is a continuing cause of injustice today, how are we ever going to do anything about it?

People like those speaking up for black rights campaign group Rendezvous of Victory (e.g. see here) demand not just an apology, but active reparations. That means money going into projects that will help to undo the wrongs done to Africans. It means projects in Africa, but more importantly (in my view, given where the descendants ended up) it means projects in developed countries that developed their economies through slavery.

We should give a little back. Hell, we should give a lot back. We should give money to groups that promote education and self-help in the black community, to projects that fight racism and promote racial equality. We should cough up a little of this privilege we’ve been hogging for too long – we should share our ill-gotten gains with the people who lost out and who are still losing out because of the way we got them.

But that won’t happen. Because people rarely give up privilege once they’ve sunk their claws into it. White privilege isn’t going to be given up willingly, any more than male privilege is going to be given up willingly.

I think we’re all completely stuffed, and it makes me really, pointlessly, impotently angry.

We screwed you. We’re sorry it had to be that way – but too bad, we’re not gonna fix it now.

Anyone hate people?

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