In the century after independence, the United States went from being a province of Britain’s empire to building its own empire “from sea to shining sea” and then overseas in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam.
When President Thomas Jefferson set the country on a path of westward expansion, he imagined an “empire of liberty” that would spread freedom across the continent and protect the nation from the “dangerous extension” of British power. But the growth of slavery and the “removal” of native peoples on the mainland were achieved by force, not consent.
Across the Atlantic, Britain responded to the loss of the 13 colonies by developing a “second,” much larger empire in Asia, Australia and Africa. Both the American and the British Empires post-1776 were structured by racial hierarchy, violence and a systemic devaluation of black and indigenous lives.
Consider, for example, the case of India. In the decades after U.S. independence, the British East India Co. conquered most of the subcontinent. British colonizers embedded racism in the law, political economy, geography and culture of British India from the late 18th century. Expressions of anti-blackness were widespread. In the colonial cities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, the racialization of space divided “Black Towns” (for natives) from “White Towns” (for European residents). In Calcutta, the British demarcated the “White Town” with iron railings, walls and gates in an attempt to define a segregated zone for whites.
Blackface minstrel groups, a stereotypical spectacle of American anti-black racism, toured and performed in India starting in the mid-19th century. On May 31, 1923, Lady Reading, the wife of the viceroy, hosted a “Moonlight Fete” at the Viceregal Lodge. The evening’s entertainment included an English county fair, outdoor dancing, an elephant and a minstrel group — three white men in blackface with banjos and a racial slur in the group’s name.
White violence against Indians was pervasive and unchecked by British justice. Whites in India demanded — and secured — legal privileges that effectively allowed them to get away with murder.
The idea of blackness was capacious and mobile and served to justify acts of racial violence. Britons regularly referred to Indians using slurs and as “blacks” to signify their subordinate status and legitimize their inferior treatment. A British soldier recalled in his memoir that if during the night “the punkahs [fans] ceased to sway for only a second, somebody would shout: ‘Cinch, you black b-----d, or I’ll come out and kick hell out of you.’ ”
Britain’s settler colonies in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Africa caused the violent dispossession of indigenous peoples and frequently justified the idea of black extermination. In 1825, for instance, a white settler in Australia publicly proposed: “The best thing that could be done would be to shoot all the Blacks … the women and children should especially be shot as the most certain method of getting rid of the race.” Despite self-aggrandizing claims to the contrary, Britain’s abolition of slavery in 1833 did not stop racism. In fact, colonial expansion intensified colonial racism.
Genocidal violence was a foundational pillar of the British Empire, not an accidental or unintentional outcome. As a consequence of colonial policies, as many as 30 million Indians died of starvation during three major famines that ravaged the subcontinent in the last quarter of the 19th century.
After America declared independence from Britain, both countries maintained powerful traditions of racism and violence that were distinct and interconnected. The Americans became agents of many of the same British ideas and practices that the colonists had challenged. The United States itself became an imperial power, extending its overseas empire in the last years of the 19th century. Rudyard Kipling — a British national born in colonial India — penned his famous poem in 1899, urging the United States to “take up the white man’s burden” and conquer the Philippines. “Fill full the mouth of Famine,” Kipling wrote, whitewashing Britain’s responsibility for mass Indian death as he advocated the hollow colonial claim of a civilizing mission.
Brutal tactics of warfare employed by American soldiers during the Philippine-American War, which President Theodore Roosevelt called “the triumph of civilization over forces which stand for the black chaos of savagery and barbarism,” have led some historians to call it a “race war” while others claim it was genocide. .
The British and American empires mutually reinforced the notion that black and indigenous lives did not matter.
The entangled histories of British and American empire demand that we adopt a wider perspective on what is often framed as a domestic story about race and racism in the United States. After 1776, the United States remained part of an extended global system of white supremacy — one that continues with deadly consequences today.
Today’s demonstrations and demands that have emerged in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis can be better understood from a global historical perspective. The knee to Floyd’s neck has provided black and indigenous peoples with a metaphor to express their own centuries-long experiences of and struggles against systemic racism. These protests are not only expressions of solidarity with black Americans — they represent a collective reckoning with a past that is not past.
The racism that led to the killing of George Floyd, to quote Malcolm X, is not “just an American problem, but a world problem.” And that problem did not die on the Fourth of July.