Let’s dispel the myth of the post-racial society
How times flies. It seems not so long ago when almost everyone was cheering on as Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009 as the first African-American US president. And now he’s just about back on the re-election trail. I’ll leave the arguments of whether or not Obama’s presidency as an African-American or “black” president has been markedly different from his European predecessors for another day.
However, what I wish to deal with here is one of the early legacies of his presidency, which is the “post-racial society” (PRS) term. I’m not sure about the genesis of the term. But the chances are that for most of us, its use became prevalent following Obama’s election in 2008.
But before we rewind, let’s me point to two incidents that happened in August 2012, just before I wrote this piece.
Firstly, a Spanish magazine, Fuera de Serie, in its infinite wisdom decided to run a feature article on Michelle Obama by running on its cover the superimposed head of the first lady over an 1800 Marie-Guillemine Benoist painting of an enslaved African with one breast exposed has some people crying foul. The question one has to ask is: Would such bad taste be meted out any of Obama’s European predecessors?
And in the land of the free, at the Mitt Romney-endorsing Republican party convention in Tampa, an African camera woman for CNN covering the event was taunted and racially abused by two peanut-throwing European men. Thankfully, the men were ejected from the building. It seems that nothing has changed, even with an African at the country’s helm sitting in the White House.
Back to the subject at hand - generally, what the pundits and advocates of this rosy society wish to conjure, is a society where race is no longer important or a significant determining factor. In order words, get on with things and stop shouting racism when you hit a stumbling block, such as not getting that job or university place, even though you are suitably qualified.
I imagine that broadly speaking racism isn’t an issue that exercises the minds of most Africans on the African continent, although this may not be the case particularly in parts of southern and eastern Africa, where there are significant pockets of Europeans. What is however quite common, is what could be classed as insidious racism, often manifested in the sickening deference some Africans show Europeans, simply because they retain that unquestioning post-enslavement/colonialist mentality that a person is superior simply by being European.
Also, all of Africa may be supposedly “independent”, but that does not stop there being pockets of “whites only” fiefdoms. Even Ghana, which was once at the forefront of the liberation of the continent and which is in the throes of celebrating its 55th anniversary of “independence”, has a recent “whites only” story. Last October, a Ghanaian lady in the company of non-Africans dined at a fish restaurant in the capital city Accra. But when she asked for membership, she was told by the management that “it's only for white people.”
That might be an unusual story from Ghana, or indeed Africa, but not in the diaspora – I’ll focus on the US and Britain, where these types of stories are not so uncommon. Hence, the need to continually debunk new, nice-sounding terms which belie the old reality, which is that racism still exists.
It may be over half a century since the American civil rights activism, which heralded laws that enshrined racial equality and affirmative action programmes to provide a more level playing field, but the scourge of racism hasn’t gone away.
The story some wish to tell is that there’s an African in the White House, who has possibly the most powerful job in the world. World leaders defer to him, whilst ironically, some media personalities at home speak disrespectfully about him perhaps because he’s African, others mock his very non-Anglo name, and “birthers”, including some military personnel, question his authority by casting doubts regarding his status as a natural born US citizen.
Never mind that as far back as the late 1860s (not 1960s), the US amended its constitution and enshrined laws – the 13th Constitution amendment of 1865 abolished enslavement, whilst the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 14th amendment of 1868 and several subsequent acts, focused on racial equality.
But in spite of all these laws, earlier this year, restaurant workers filed a class action against their employer, citing, among others, the 1866 Civil Rights Act, and also launched an e-petition demanding a change in the discriminatory employment practice of the chain of US restaurants where African-American workers are kept in the lowest paid jobs and excluded from serving in the high profile parts of the top restaurants, because their ethnicity/race do not fit the exceptional image promised guests.
One of the chain’s top restaurants is in Washington DC, where Obama resides, and ironically, the chief executive of the chain is African-American.
This is a country where no matter how high some Africans may have come within education, business and politics, racism still rears its head. In 2009, a prominent African-American history scholar was arrested by police following an incident in which he had to break into his home. The stories of wealthy African-Americans being approached with a “May I help you?” from high class shop or restaurant staff, which can be a code for “you are not wanted here” abound. So too are stories of African-Americans, rich and poor, being followed around in shops by staff and sometimes even by European customers, who think their only business for being in there is to steal.
Only last year, a British family caused a furore and were at the receiving end of a law suit from an aggrieved waiter, when it was revealed that they had instructed a US five-star hotel that they “did not want to be served by a black person”.
It’s amazing how despite its major role in the trans-Atlantic enslavement and subsequent colonisation of Africans on the continent and in the Caribbean, Britain has this benevolent, “fair play”, “mother country” image among many Africans.
Because of our lack of history, it’s so easy not to realise that racism has been rife in Britain for a long time, and that the fight for civil rights is not something that only took place in the US or South Africa. From the early 20th century, when Africans came to Britain, they faced racism, which was for most of them in sharp contrast to the image painted by the former colonial power.
Consequently, several organisations were formed by Africans to address the issue of racism in Britain, and colonialism in their home countries. Examples are the African Association (later known as the Pan African Association) founded in 1897 by Trinidadian law student Henry Sylvester Williams, and WASU (West African Students Union), which was formed in 1925 by Nigerian law student Ladipo Solanke, and had Kwame Nkrumah as one of its later executives.
In the 1960s, when the world’s media was focused on the civil rights activism in the US, Britain had its own. However, it’s so much under the radar that the US civil rights is part of the British history curriculum, whilst African British civil rights struggles are not.
Consequently, few people have heard of Asquith Xavier, who with his trade union, successfully fought the “whites only” colour bar at London’s Euston train station after he was refused to transfer there as a guard. On July 15 1966, he was offered the job and the station’s management announced the abolition of the colour bar.
Open racism was rife then, asnd it was not unusual to see notices pasted on boarding houses and other rental accommodation, stating no Irish, no blacks, no dogs!
Britain’s first Race Relations Act of 1965 came about as a consequence of African-led activism by organisations such as the West Indian Standing Conference, and the Bristol Bus Boycott, which was led by community worker Paul Stephenson, whose father came from West Africa. The boycott ended on August 28 1963, when the bus company announced it had abolished the colour bar, which had prevented non-Europeans from being employed as bus drivers and conductors.
Stephenson’s move had been influenced by US activists such Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Interestingly, in a recent article still on the New York Times website, an Oxford University history lecturer, erroneously stated: “Mr. Stephenson’s bus boycott was actually a strike by drivers seeking better working conditions rather than a copy of Montgomery’s passenger boycott.”
How could this respected historian get it so wrong, and conflate a boycott against racist employment policy into that of drivers striking for better conditions? Could this be a stretch of PRS revisionist history? We owe it to ourselves to learn more of our history, and not leave it to Oxford dons.
Keeping with the Oxford University connection - last year, the university was highlighted in the news from two different quarters. In April 2011, British prime minister David Cameron, told a public meeting: “I saw figures the other day that showed that only one black person went to Oxford last year. I think that is disgraceful. We have got to do better than that."
The university countered by stating that its admissions figures for 2009 included one "black” Caribbean out of 27 “black” students admitted for under-graduate study that year. David Lammy, an African MP and Labour party’s shadow higher education minister, revealed that more than 20 Oxford University colleges had not made any offers to African candidates for undergraduate courses in 2009, and that one college had not admitted a single African student in five years.
At the end of last year, an African chef accused Oxford University’s New College of bullying him out of his job. The basis of his racial discrimination case, to be heard later this year, is that after twenty years working for the college, the head chef’s post became vacant. He became acting head chef, but lost the permanent position to someone he alleges was not even short-listed.
How dare these proponents advocate we’re in a post-racial society? What planet do they live on?
When it comes to the world of high finance, Africans may be, but they are both under-represented and hardly seen. Recently, I read about an African broker in a British investment firm, who was told that his boss “doesn’t want to send a black guy to one of the clients”. Apparently, seeing an African representing his investment firm would “shock him”.
What perhaps is becoming less shocking is the recent proliferation of mixed heritage couples seen in the media, particularly in British TV commercials. It paints a rosy image of a multi-cultural, multi-racial Britain. This image may have had another boost, if it was not for the resolve of some African TV producers who tried to sell their sitcom about an African family living in London to one of the big TV companies. They turned down an offer which entailed not just getting a new and better known cast, but also changing the family to one of mixed heritage.
If we live in a post-racial society, why is it that it’s expected that we can all watch sitcoms where the whole cast is European, but not one where the central family is African?
This summer, the world will be seeing a lot more of London because the British capital city will be hosting the Olympics. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games states that “during the bid process, diversity was a key reason why London, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, was chosen to host the 2012 Games.”
Nice words. However, although there have been procedures put in place which are supposed to provide a fair compliance regime, critics see it more as window-dressing. Because in spite of the official diversity and inclusion mantra, many African-led businesses believe they’ve been discriminated against.
Voice Of Africa Radio, the only legal African radio broadcaster, which is based in Newham, one of the key east London Olympics boroughs, says it’s been discriminated against by not being awarded media accreditation to cover the games that will be taking place literally on its doorstep.
Interestingly, CompeteFor, the portal through which the Olympics contracts are bid by small businesses, states that just over six percent of so-called BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) led businesses have been successful. Engage Enterprise, a London organisation that deals with BAME procurement issues, has launched a petition at engage-enterprise.com/burning-injustice.html to feed concerns of African and ethnic minority-led businesses to Government and the Olympic authorities.
Even deputy minister Nick Clegg isn’t buying into the PRS myth. Last November, he spoke about the discrimination against ethnic minorities by British banks. He said: “If all black entrepreneurs and businesses could borrow, compete and grow on equal terms, our whole economy would grow faster.”
One dangerous result of believing the PRS hype is to drop the baton of those who fought for the civil rights we enjoy in Britain. Yes, some Africans have risen through the system – we’ve had Africans as attorney-general, government ministers, and even chief executives of some of the the biggest public companies. But for all the progress made, Africans continue to die in the custody of the state.
Particularly since the end of last year, the anti-racist fight, which has traditionally focused on accommodation, employment and education, is now focusing on the issue of deaths in custody. Organisations seeking justice for victims include the likes of Friends of Mikey Powell Campaign for Justice, Campaign 4 Justice 4 Smiley Culture, Sean Rigg Justice & Change Campaign, Justice For Brian Douglas, and United Families And Friends (UFFC), a multi-racial collective that highlights such deaths on its website (uffc-campaigncentral.net), marches and other activities.
PRS advocates would have us believe that the focus has moved on from racism, thereby creating a disconnect with the anti-racist fight of the past. However, besides the families and friends of the death in custody victims, some of those on the forefront of this activism asking for answers and accountability, have taken the baton from the likes of Solanke and Stephenson. This includes the likes of former London Mayor race and policing advisor Lee Jasper, now chair of London Race & Criminal Justice Consortium, and Matilda MacAttram, director of Black Mental Health UK.
Last December, most of these players, along with a coalition including church leaders, came together to campaign against deaths in custody. Jasper, who opened that meeting informed the media that “it is absolutely critical that we have a full, open, public and transparent judicial enquiry into deaths in custody.”
An Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody report published late 2011 revealed that between 2000 to 2010, almost 6000 people have died while in the custody of police and prison officers, or detained under mental health or immigration laws. Whilst this statistic is not made up exclusively of Africans, racism is a dominant factor in the case of many Africans within those figures.
“Government figures show that black men and people who use mental health services are the most likely to lose their lives while in custody,” says MacAttram, one of the supporters of the UFFC’s e-petition for 100,000 signatures in order to force a Government debate on the call for an independent judiciary inquiry into suspicious deaths in state custody.
I’m not one that makes a living from the so-called “race industry”, harps on insistently about racism, or sees racism in every bad turn. So I’d wrap up by mentioning an incident involving Britain’s only African super-model Naomi Campbell. Last year, she is said to have threatened to sue a confectionery company for running a print and poster ad campaign for a chocolate bar with this strapline: “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town.”
The super-model felt it was insulting and racist, saying: “I’m shocked. It’s upsetting to be described as chocolate, not just for me, but for all black women. It is insulting and hurtful.” She received an apology. But was it racist?
In the past, Campbell has spoken out against racism within the fashion industry, such as less opportunities and discriminatory pay rates for African models. In 2009, she said in an interview that "the American president may be black, but as a black woman, I am still an exception in this business. I always have to work harder to be treated equally."
Whilst I agree with her sentiments regarding the fashion industry, I’m of the opinion the chocolate ad was playing to Campbell’s much reported diva image. NA readers are welcome to express their views on my simplistic view in not recognising what they, like Campbell, might see as a racist slight.
Let’s wake up to the PRS myth. However, I also urge that we step up our game – not just in sports and entertainment, but in all spheres. That way, the racists will have less upon which to hang or propagate their pitiful views.