Justice in Word Only? Addressing Racism and the Colonial Past in the UK

From the Series: Sustaining the Momentum: Reparative Justice for European Colonialism and Slavery

Photo by Elisa Rodriguez.

Ahead of a football championship final in 2020, a UK charity tracked the surnames of England players in a “map” of the country. Footballer Raheem Sterling “would discover his name has Scottish origins, that he’s one of 1,972 adult Sterlings, and they most commonly live in Durham.” Writer and professor Sunny Singh pointed out that if you typed “Sterling” into the database at the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at UCL, you’d find, for example, the names of fourteen individuals named Sterling who were then living in the Caribbean. One “John Sterling” enslaved 305 people in St Vincent; “not a feel good, multicultural, national unity story . . . to spin,” she tweeted.

Yet there are many such examples of a willful denial of Britain’s role in transatlantic slavery. Its colonial history is poorly known, much less understood; historian David Olusoga writes that it “amounts to a cultural blind spot” and is part of a “collective squeamishness” about the past (Olusoga 2021). There have been steps—Britain outlawed discrimination on the “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins” in public places in its 1965 Race Act. It added the bases of “religion, belief, age, disability, sex” in its 2010 Equalities Act, amongst others. However, systemic racism is a mainstay of UK politics, culture, society, and economics, as proven by the government’s handling of two events from 2017.

The Empire Windrush docked in Britain in 1948 with some 500 men from the West Indies, who made up for a labor shortage across the country. These postwar generations of mostly Caribbean people—many of whom had fought for Britain during the war—were told they had no legal right to be in the UK without “proof.” The “Windrush scandal” denied their rights to health care and state benefits, and led to deportations. And with the Grenfell Tower fire, a London local authority’s cost-cutting corruption mixed with racism meant that 72 residents—mostly from Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) communities—were killed. This echoes the intersecting contemporary legacies of colonialism, such as the disproportionate effect of climate change on marginalized populations, where immigrants from former colonies are overrepresented. For example, air pollution made a “material contribution” to the death of nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah in 2013, who lived by a busy road in London.

The UK government has denied institutional racism in a report decried by several groups, including the UK’s equality watchdog. The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent said the UK failed “to acknowledge how the legacies of enslavement continue to shape wealth disparities, social stratification and the experiences of people of African descent in Britain.”

How are reparations seen globally? The UN proposes that reparations should be extended to people of African descent through financial and institutional measures. And the EU’s human rights body, the Council of Europe, has linked anti-Black racism and colonial history, recognizing the estimated 15 million “people of African descent” in Europe. Eerily, a similar number was shackled into the transatlantic slave trade. In Britain, reparations have historically come in the form of “memorialisations, acknowledgements, apologies and litigation,” often with colonial undertones. For example, upon the abolition of slavery, British slaveholders—including relatives of former prime ministers—received payouts through taxes collected up until 2015. There is also criticism of three legal cases related to reparations for former colonized peoples in the UK, including a landmark precedent for Mau Mau activists. While the British government accepted accountability for its large-scale human rights violations in Kenya, reparations scholar-activist Esther Stanford-Xosei pointed out the burden was incurred by the claimants—elderly Kenyans—who were forced to undertake the long journey to the UK in order to appear before a British High Court judge.[1] The British government must also make it easier for experts to find documentation of its colonial past. The limitations of the Official Secrets Act is a case in point: the two other cases against the British colonial government could not be advanced due to destroyed evidence before Kenya’s independence in 1967.

British (and also African) curricula contain remnants of colonial systems of rule. The “positive examples” of colonialism shared in the UK’s sixth successive report on racism in four years advised that children could “reclaim British heritage” by learning about “the influence of the UK, particularly during the Empire”; or “the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.” The UK’s only Black Studies professor, Kehinde Andrews, proposed the British government “diversify” its curriculum (less than 1 percent of professors across all subjects at UK universities are Black, accounting for 140 people, according to the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency).[2] For example, the impact of slave ownership, such as the history of Liverpool as a slave port, is only recently a topic in schools (Eddo-Lodge 2017).

There is some good news about addressing racial justice in Britain: Glasgow University will pay £20 million in reparations for its historical links to the transatlantic slave trade. Jamaica will be the first of fifteen former colonies to present its claim for reparations to the head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II.[3] Grassroots or Black Power mobilization communities like Black Lives Matter are succeeding in doing much more than merely asking for the removal of monuments that commemorate the slave trade and colonialism, the restitution of looted artifacts, or police reform; they are bringing racial justice to the forefront of public debate. The ultimate reparations boil down to knowledge and awareness from the end of the seventeenth century and beyond—when dates such as 1698 (when colonial Britain began to dominate the African slave trade) are as popularly known as 1966 (the last time England won a major football championship).


[1] Esther Stanford-Xosei, quoted from the Justice Now Symposium: United Kingdom Roundtable of March 2021.

[2] Kehinde Andrews, quoted from the Justice Now Symposium: United Kingdom Roundtable of March 2021.

[3] In 2021 Barbados became a republic. Barbados is also part of a regional Caribbean reparations commission initiative, and the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, has stated reparations is about justice, not money.


Eddo-Lodge, Reni. 2017. Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Olusoga, David. 2021. Black and British. London: Picador.