Wednesday 4 February 2009

History Matters

Late last year, a fascinating new paper came out of Harvard University that examined levels of trust in Africa and related this to the historical legacy of the slave trade. Entitled, ‘The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa’, it used many of the kinds of indicators we tend to think of today as social capital to assess the differing levels of trust within Africa today, It then compared these findings with the ethnic origins of the groups concerned and their experience of the slave trade. As its abstract says:

“we show that individuals whose ancestors were heavily threatened by the slave trade today exhibit less trust in neighbors, family co-ethnics, and their local government.”

It goes on:

“the evidence shows that a significant portion of the effects of the slave trade work through vertically transmitted factors that are internal to the individual, such as cultural norms of behavior, beliefs and values.”

The research itself is interesting but it also raises once again the importance of history and context on current issues of equality. The conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan uses the research to make a connection to the future of Iraq, but it might also tell us why inequality is so persistent in Britain today. It is not simply a matter of changing the law or even of a present-day redistribution of wealth, welcome thought that would be.

Discrimination and brutality have impact well beyond their immediate victims. Inherited norms are too often underestimated when we consider persistent under-achievement today.

It also tells us something about why race still does and will continue to matter. Perhaps Simon Woolley was right to warn at the Fabian New Year Conference that we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we live in a post-racial world. The pernicious legacy of racism will be with us for many years to come.

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