I have spent the past month speaking to all the black people I know, and scouring the social-media feeds of many I don’t, trying to understand the explosion of emotions following the killing of George Floyd. I’ve tried to gauge what is driving these emotions in nearby London and faraway Lagos where I grew up.
While a black Brit may have personally experienced racism, chances are the Nigerian in Nigeria hasn’t. Yet both clearly seem to have shared something unifying in recent weeks, and I have wondered what exactly is at play here, beyond the ubiquitous and increasingly indefinite concept of ‘racism’. A discernible majority of the black opinion I have engaged points to the key role of another, slightly more specific, R-word: Respect.
The Nigerian who has never travelled abroad and the black Brit are united by a shared sense of global disrespect for the black race. The video of a white policeman casually snuffing the life out of George Floyd was a particularly humiliating reminder of that disrespect. Hence the outpouring of global support for the Black Lives Matter Movement from black people who otherwise face very different struggles in their everyday lives.
This feeling of disrespect has been articulated by Alicia Garza, the activist co-founder of BLM: “Black Lives Matter is not just concerned with what happens in policing. The disregard, disrespect, and lack of dignity for black life transcends through the fabric of our society.” Meanwhile, a recent CNN survey showed that 49% of black Britons have experienced disrespectful treatment from the police, compared to 26% of whites.
How literally we should be interpreting subjective evaluations of ‘respectful treatment’ might be an issue for debate, but what ultimately matters for race relations is that these feelings are out there. Public opinion on any issue hinges on popular perceptions. What the poll also revealed was that black Britons are significantly more likely to see racism as a major problem in Britain than other ethnic minorities.
On issues ranging from police treatment to minority chances of success, “the results are striking; it is often the case that black people are considerably more dissatisfied with race relations than other ethnic minorities”, said Chris Hopkins of Savanta ComRes who co-conducted the survey. This appears reflective of a feeling among many blacks that there persists an unspoken racial hierarchy which positions white people at the top, black people at the bottom and everyone else somewhere in between.
But is this feeling backed up by reality?
Whether it is Libyans selling black Africans into slavery, which is happening right now, Chinese people contemptuously discriminating against blacks in China, or Indians doing same in India, a general low regard for black people across the world does seem to be a constant. In fact, the reason we focus on racism in the West and not elsewhere is because western societies are the most responsive to black opinion. As a general rule, the Chinese, Indians and Arabs don’t seem to care very much whether we consider them racist or not. Their societies are openly assertive of their felt superiority.
So we know about the negative perceptions of black people created by slavery and colonialism, but what exactly is driving this hierarchy today? “White supremacist propaganda”, according to the BLM narrative. Western movies and media contain overt and covert messages propagating black inferiority. These are internalised by white people and others, including black people, thus sustaining global belief in black inferiority. Hence, the ongoing campaign to pull movies and TV shows deemed racist from the sites of Netflix et al.
However, even if we accept a racial hierarchy does exist, I think this particular approach is steeped in an excessive tendency to elevate the symbolic above the material when it comes to race. A belief that it is enough to stop white people from saying certain things for black dignity to become a given.
The “white-supremacist messaging drives global disrespect for black people and black self-hate” argument was technically plausible in the 20th-century, when Western entertainment and media were essentially the only game in town. But since the beginning of this century, we’ve lived in a world where people have access to multiple sources of information, can follow who they want on social media and one where Nigerians watch more Nollywood movies than Hollywood movies. Yet, white people are still welcomed with open arms everywhere while black people are often not. So what gives?
It is surprising to see radical Leftists so focused on white-supremacy ideology as the great explainer of racism, when Marx himself clearly argued it is the material which determines the ideological, rather than the other way around. We live in a capitalist world, hence, our values are shaped by capitalism’s values, both at conscious and subconscious levels. What does capitalism value most? Wealth and success. So these are what impress most of the world today.
It is why even intellectuals who love bashing capitalism make sure to emphasise they are “best-selling” authors on their social-media profiles. It is why most people adopt an instinctively respectful tone in the presence of the significantly successful. They listen to their words attentively, like they expect to hear something worth knowing. Because, like it not, the world has bought into the idea of success being an indicator of specialness.
As it works on an individual level, so it does on a group level. White and predominantly-white nations remain the richest and most successful nations in the world, while black ones remain the poorest and least successful. The rest of the world is somewhere in between. It is no coincidence the world’s informal racial hierarchy faithfully reflects its economic hierarchy.
Yes, the global economic status quo was arrived at often brutally and almost always unfairly. But no matter how many times we tell the story of slavery and colonialism, it will not change the material reality on the ground. The gargantuan wealth gap between the white and black races is by far the most influential factor shaping racial dynamics today. The combined GDP of 1.2 billion-strong Africa, where 90% of the black race lives, is smaller than that of 66 million-strong Britain. Such a disproportionate wealth and power gap is not conducive to balanced race relations.
It makes too many black destinies dependent on white action and white goodwill. It creates a reality in which the world regularly sees on its TV screens large numbers of black Africans risking their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, desperate to get into Europe. Because their own governments have failed them so badly, they see no opportunities for a better life back home. Surely, no one believes such realities don’t diminish global regard for blackness? Moral arguments are important, but given our experience of human nature, the surest and most realistic route to black people getting the global respect we so strongly desire, is by us becoming collectively wealthier and stronger.
Nigerian scholar and historian Toyin Falola characterised contemporary black-white relations thus: “If Europeans regarded Africans as the ‘primitive Other’, the colonial experience enabled Africans to construct themselves as a terrorised race, raped and exploited by the patriarchal, powerful ‘white Other’.”
This reactive construct of Africanness resembles the construct of global blackness very much offered by the BLM school of thought. The problem with this approach is that it appears more interested in portraying the present vulnerability of the black collective as a moral virtue rather than focusing on eliminating that vulnerability. It obsesses over the appeal and power of whiteness, instead of trying to figure out how to make blackness more appealing and powerful.
This construct may inspire the world’s sympathy, but it will not win its respect. Perpetual sympathy without respect means being viewed as a perpetual victim. I, for one, do not wish to be so viewed, and I suspect there are other black people who don’t either. The achievement of black strength and resultant respect can come from a consciously determined focus on black economic advancement within the diaspora populations and, crucially, in Africa. The Jewish story is a great example of collective vulnerability transformed into collective strength in the space of a generation. Powerless to stop their systematic slaughter during World War Two, Jewish leaders learnt the lesson that strength is the best guarantor of safety.
Today, the world doesn’t need to be told that the Jewish diaspora, backed up by the strong state of Israel, shouldn’t be pushed around. It is good to aim for a more morally fair environment, but wise to ensure that even if others are failed by their morals, you would not make an easy victim. Some of the greatest 20th-century black thinkers, such as Marcus Garvey and W.E.B Du Bois, recognised this need for black strength, hence their emphasis on the need for the emergence of powerful black nations.
I realise most black Britons were born here and have never even been to Africa, but the reality is that blackness will always be associated with Africa, the black ancestral homeland, just the way whiteness will always be associated with Europe. Black destiny and African destiny are inseparable. There are already great cultural collaborations between black Britain and African artistes: Nigerian afrobeat stars Fela Kuti and Wizkid are household names in black Britain. It is time for more economic bridge-building by actively seeking to boost business ties between black Britain and the African continent.
It was the first Black Pound Day a few days ago, a planned monthly event encouraging people to popularise and patronise black-owned businesses in Britain. The brainchild of Swiss, a member of So Solid Crew, it is a much needed positive mobilisation of agency towards boosting black economic strength. With Britain seeking new trade relationships, this is a perfect moment to mobilise entrepreneurs to actively seek business opportunities in Africa while encouraging British consumers to buy Made in Africa products — whether that’s Ethiopian coffee, Kenyan roses or South African wine.
It is only if we consciously strive to harness and multiply our collective resources that a globally stronger black position can be achieved. One where no black person has to “ask” for equality or justice. One where black dignity is a given. The road to black respect lies in economics, not in sociology or history. And it is a road that must pass through Africa, the heart of the black race.