When Black Lives Matter

Toyin Falola

Distinguished Teaching Professor of History
The Jacob and Frances Mossiker Chair in the Humanities
The University of Texas at Austin

It is quite uncanny that the Oxford dictionary defines prejudice as a ‘‘preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience,’’ with a legal interpretation that reads ‘‘harm or injury that results or may result from some action or judgement,’’ and an illustration with the example of ‘‘English prejudice against foreigners.” Suffice it then to approach racial prejudice as a preconceived opinion of the superiority of races, that is not based on reason or actual experience but results or may result in actions and judgments that cause harm or injury as first practised by the British and other European countries, notably the Portuguese and Spanish.

What the ‘black’ man has survived in the hands of his light skinned counterpart has been ‘mildly’ described as ‘prejudice,’ racial prejudice. Not for the lack of a more befitting-appalling term, nor for the reason of political correctness, but probably because this term, insufficient though it may appear, explains the irrationality entrenched in the common white hate towards darker peoples. Although prejudicial attitudes between races can be argued to have existed between peoples for thousands of years, it featured only in a handful of cultures. Systematic racial oppression as we experience it today only arose in the 1600s alongside capitalism. It could be seen as a product of mercantilism; that is, the dominant ideology among European elites who shaped national policy at the time (1600-1800). In essence, this was the period that racial prejudice found a fertile ground in an environment where the chief considerations were wealth and power.

 Racial classifications were originally the product of economic considerations. As a grand plot to acquire cheap labour, the critical component in realizing the day’s agenda, the powers that be having discovered the advantages accorded them by their superior technologies—their sailing ships and firearms—through years of trade interactions with Africa, decided to plunder its wealth and take slaves. To justify this activity, European ‘traders’ perpetuated their actions by propagating the idea that these Africans who were tobe slaves before their capture were savages bereft of any culture. This idea was to be developed into a ‘scientific’ theory of white superiority and black inferiority by the Americans who were to later participate in the slave industry, marking the beginning of a long history of violence against people of African descent. The call by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner and later American president, for science to determine the ‘obvious’ inferiority of blacks, is regarded as one of the most important stages in the evolution of racism and the beginning of systematized racism in the United States.

Nearly two centuries after the Atlantic slave trade (1600-1860) that saw the carting away of more than twelve million human beings from Africa as slaves and the disintegration of the social contract that sustained the institution of slavery and resulted in the abolitionist movements, racial prejudice is still rife in the United States of America.

With the industrial revolution in the 1800s, the economic conditions that necessitated the existence and use of slave labour were no longer prevailing. Therefore, the African slave ceased to be an asset to the American economy, and thus had to be relocated to where some economic value could still be expropriated, in Africa with colonialism and eventually, globalization. The American Colonization Society (A.C.S.) with primary support from the racially intolerant Southern states, led the ‘assisting’ (repatriation) of thousands of former African-American slaves and free black people to Liberia, a colony it established in 1821, where they could supposedly enjoy greater freedom. Some slaves were manumitted (set free) on condition that they would emigrate. This was a clear indication that white America was not willing to share its growing wealth and privilege with their ‘black’ counterparts on whose back this very wealth had been built. As Henry Clay of Kentucky, the founder of the A.C.S. put it, ‘‘unconquerable prejudice resulting from their color, they never could amalgamate with the free whites of this country. It was desirable, therefore, as it respected them, and the residue of the population of the country, to drain them off.”

 This is 2020 and the sentiments still remain the same. The white racist establishment, that is, the U.S. government is still doing its best to ‘drain off’ the ‘black’ population through systemic discrimination in a plethora of aspects of life. In employment, economic opportunity for ‘blacks’ have been relegated to the lowest status with restrictive mobility. In the housing market, discriminatory measures and targeted violence have been deployed in steering black populations away, to maintain more racially homogenous suburban and exurban regions. In law enforcement, the ‘black’ population has also drawn the shortest straw; with 12% of the adult population, it accounts for 33% of the sentenced population against a 64% white adult population with only about 30% of prisoners. The use of excessive force and longer prison sentences for minor offences involving ‘blacks’ has seen too numerous deaths and ruination of the lives and prospects of ‘black’ youth, especially in a society that discriminates against persons with criminal records.  

Unrepentant, a substantial number of the white population in the West (Europe and North America) and indeed Africa still in various ways celebrate the slaving past as a symbol, a constant reminder of their racial superiority and as a matter of national pride. Why else would anyone object to the removal of monuments erected in commemoration of infamous slavers, slavery sympathizers and mass murderers; statues erected in a bid to oppress both African-Americans in the post-bellum south and Africans (especially in Southern Africa)? Notwithstanding the national apology given (the U.S House Representatives in 2008) for slavery and Jim Crow laws, the reality of the existence of ‘blacks’ and African-Americans in America is one that betrays the hypocrisy of the alleged state anti-racism stance. This is especially evidenced in the handling of questionable, extra-judicial killings of ‘blacks’ by American police officers. And this is why the video-taped and widely viewed murder of George Floyd, one too many, has sparked global outrage and is forcing such large-scale dialogue. This begs other questions: what possible changes can sustained and widespread protests yield? Would the killings not continue as they usually do when protests subside? And what can be done to ensure the protection of ‘black’ lives?

Given the intransigent stance of the ‘‘make America great again’’ crooner and current president of the United States, Donald Trump, who invoked the callous ‘‘Law and Order’’ caudillos, the stage appears to be set for a protracted show-down between the state and combative dissidents. This move to appease the most conservative voting elements of the American populace, while appealing to the base sentiments of the average adult white American has some roots in the ‘Southern strategy.’ This act of appealing to racial sentiments is, as the late leader of the Biafra secession, Col. Odumegu Ojukwu puts it, a case of ‘‘the more empty the leadership, the more reliance on primordial forces.’’ And President Donald Trump probably hopes to ride on the sentiment into his re-election. However, the antecedent of state reactions to various forms of protests and revolt has been a hard crackdown on participants leading often to deaths and frequently to incarceration. And the American president knows he has the full weight of this culture behind him should he wish to tow that line. In the light of this, it might be too soon to expect a rolling-back of systemic racism, but something has to give if things continue on this path.

The United States police, the institution at the center of this quagmire, as an instrument of the establishment for the enforcement of a ‘fabricated’ social order has been known to have Ku Klux Klan affiliations dating back to the 1920s. The historian Linda Gordon recounts numerous collaborations between police and these sworn enemies of the African-Americans. Second, Klan founder William J. Simmons, playing up the group’s commitment to ‘‘Law and order,’’ openly declared that his ‘organization’ boasted of members from every level of law enforcement. In Anaheim California, the Ku Klux Klan-dominated city council, allowed police with Klan membership to go on patrol with full Klan regalia. More recently in 2019, a Michigan police officer, Charles Anderson, was terminated after prospective home buyers found confederate flags and a framed Klan application in his house. This illuminates another possible source of police attitudes towards ‘blacks’ in America.

That the extra-judicial killing of ‘blacks’ by agents of the state keeps rearing its ugly head points to one fact: the life of the average ‘black’ man in America is considered to be of insignificant value. Over the years, the tale of the terror unleashed on ‘blacks’ in America, if transcribed into a Hollywood feature, would make for hours and hours of the most horrific pictures to grace modern cinema. From calculated group attacks like the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 to individual acts of terrorism like the mass shooting at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015, ‘black’ people have lost their lives for no apparent reason except that the perpetrators knew they would get away with just a slap on the wrist. Somehow, it seems that, the more these individual and group attacks lose momentum the police pick up the pace.  

The following years witnessed more police brutality cases that sparked mass outrage in the form of public protests and rioting. Such cases included the televised Rodney King beating incident where all four officers were acquitted; the fatal shooting of 23 year-old Guinean immigrant Ahmadou Diallo, shot 19 times in 1994; the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford Florida 2012; the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, Ferguson Missouri 2014; and more recently George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. We should not forget the Black women who were also gunned down: Sandra Bland, Charleena Lyles, and Breonna Taylor. These high-profile police shootings of African-Americans gave birth to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. As a movement, it has been able to draw more global attention to the plight of ‘blacks’ in America, carrying on the legacy of the struggle for the equal rights begun by earlier black rights movements. Leveraging on the gruesome murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement has been able to capture global attention; within America, it has mobilized (national) black, non-black communities of color, and indeed some white anti-racist commitments into public action in a movement for change, enjoying support from the United Nations, scholarly bodies, foreign nations, and other private and public establishment.

A co-originator of the Pan Africa, movement, W. E. Burgart Dubois, himself, having been exposed to the inhumanity in the treatment of ‘‘blacks’’ around the globe (in Europe, Africa, America, and the West Indies) spoke of a ‘‘common cause of the darker races against intolerable assumption and insults of Europeans…’’ adding that ‘‘Most men in this world are coloured. A belief in humanity means a belief in coloured men.’’ The movement against white on black violence in America today echoes in more ways than one what W.E.B. Dubois and his co Pan-African originators, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Sekou Toure, stood for and with the Pan-African movement and fully upheld that ‘Black Lives Matter.’’ This division of the world along “colour lines,” which has existed through most of the 16th to the 21st century, has been so entrenched and reflected in world affairs, both in the economic and socio-political spheres, that the pioneers of Pan-African movement thought it necessary and exigent to rally all black peoples around the world to one cause: upholding ‘black’ rights, while charting a course towards self-determination.

There is no better time than now. Now that the movement for the recognition of the sanctity of ‘black’ lives is commanding global attention; now that countries and organizations around the world are rising in solidarity to the ‘black’ cause; and now that the call for justice still shrieks from the crimson patch of Rayshard Brooks’ expiration and Gorge Floyd’s last breath yet whispers in our ears. It is time to rally every pro-Africa sentiment around the world to make a stand. It is time for us to look within ourselves, to identify and find ways to bring an end to black-on-black tragedies, the debilitating effects of centuries of oppression that have had us revelling in the role of victims and kept us from many respectful achievements. Let us, in the Pan-African spirit find a common ground to launch a ‘black’ offensive against every obstacle that has stood in the way of the peaking of ‘black’ endeavour.  Black matters should matter to all Africans. It is when Black lives matter that we begin the long process of regaining our lost mission and rebranding our future vision.

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