Wednesday, March 28, 2007

On black empowerment

A deeper and yet more problematic and controversial issue related to the previous post is the question of whether black people living in the West deserve special treatment in order to heal the historical wounds of the past and the ways in which they impact negatively on the present.

In the UK and US since the 1980's, there have been various policies, principally focused on education and the job market, that focus on "positive discrimination" (UK), or "affirmative action" (US). Alongside these practical policy options, there has been the continuing discourse of reparation. The NGO founded by yesterday's demonstrator, Ligali, is a good example of the kind of background political stance that such pressure groups take.

The framework belief is that the playing field is simply not level: a combination of racism and white supremacy continue to make access to education, jobs and resources more difficult for blacks than for whites, therefore there must be forms of structural redress in the form of pro-black intervention mechanisms. Running alongside the specific lobbying points, there is often a pan-African theme which aims to provide softer forms of support, spiritual, psychological etc. See Ligali's chat rooms for examples of this. More recently, the South African government has developed its own "Black Economic Empowerment" (BEE) initiatives which have tended to focus on education and business networking and support.

It must be said that both positive discrimination and affirmative action discourses are on the wane in the UK and the US, in the sense that the words are no longer in prominent currency. That said, the consciousness of black participation (or not) in various sectors is often present, in the form of job adverts that stress that "such-and-such organisation is an equal opportunities employer keen to receive applications from ethnic minorities." There are also the occasional news stories about a specific sector being a white enclave, such as the article on the BBC's website about the UK publishing industry yesterday. Only last year, there was a furore about the BBC itself being 'hideously white'. In many ways, it still is.

As with the logic of the apology, there are two entrenched viewpoints. On the one hand, it is clear that slavery has a tangible legacy, in the plantocracy that is America today, and to a lesser extent, in the terminally disempowering council estates up and down the UK, such as the concrete monstrosities in Peckham and Elephant and Castle. One only has to wander around Roxbury in Boston, or the precincts of South Chicago, to see communities that continue to be ravaged by inequity and injustice. Although Boston has a subway system, Roxbury ain't on it - it literally is not on the map, even though it is just a few miles from one of the centres of New England liberalism.

In these circumstances, relying on the individual's will to succeed will never be sufficient. The combination of lack of access to quality education, the pyschological stain of living in a dirty, disenfranchised and under-resourced area, the media's incessant negative stereotyping and a heavily biased penal system will do its best to ensure a disproportionate number of black men go to prison, and black children grow up fatherless. The case for a positive and progressive structural intervention rings loud and clear.

On the other hand, there is the sense that if one positions one's community as always needing external intervention and support, one's community is perpetually framed as weak, vulnerable, in need of support. This is often the stance of Nigerians to issues around positive discrimination, affirmative action and BEE. With the in-built self-confidence that many Nigerians are blessed with, the idea that one goes around asking for help is anathema. Being labelled as someone who needs special treatment is viewed as patronising and automatically disempowering.

This is just one way in which the Afro-Caribbean community in the UK is put at odds with an ascendant African (most especially Nigerian) community. Its easy to see that the demographic trend of increasingly more Nigerians in the UK and the US making the West their home, setting up businesses and generally applying an energetically entrepreneurial 'can-do' attitude to their circumstances is challenging the racial status-quo. Rather than hand-outs or interventions, Nigerians are showing what cultural and psychological self-confidence can do. More significantly, they are undermining the basis for affirmative action programmes, by demonstrating forms of economic and cultural autonomy that disrupt the liberal agenda.

What to make of all this? Which stance to take? While black empowerment programmes may be critised for unwittingly sustaining a black-as-victim paradigm (and falling within a liberal hand-out control agenda), at the same time, superabundantly confident Africans/Nigerians need to reflect on the psychological difficulty of the homeless feeling of many black Britons (and equivalent psychological/symbolic challenges in the States): "this is not my home, the Caribbean is not my home, Africa is not my home, therefore I have no home". It often seems almost impossible for Nigerians brought up amongst their own, grounded in a strong sense of home, to appreciate the difficulty of growing up within an historically excluded racial group in the context of a white supremacist society (as in the UK and the US).

Perhaps what is most needed is an internal dialogue between the two communities: the difficulty of living close to the wound of slavery and a plantation economy on the one hand, and the sheer power of collective self-belief on the other.

What do I know about all this? More than ever, I welcome your comments.


Nkem 12:59 pm  

This issue is a powder keg. And you're never going to get a universal answer. I can understand the need for positive discrimination, it's a noble idea to rebalance the playing fields as a result of discrimination from centuries past. For me, the key point is that if a black person is going to be fasttracked by virtue of race, they should be more than able. If I were to be given a job by virtue of race, I wouldn't turn it down because I would feel that I'm able to deal with the demands of that job. My colleagues may look upon me as a parachutist imposed on them, but I'd hope that in time I'll prove myself more than able, and race would cease to be an issue. However, for those who are less confident than yours truly, a stigma of "you're only here cos you're black" will forever hang over them. And not being able to do the job does the black empowerment movement no favours.

There's also the argument that changing the colour of an organisation will not change it behaviour. It will be an ethnically mixed organisation, with the behaviour of a WASP elite. Take the US government, one of the most ethnically diverse governments in the world - Condi Rice, Colin Powell, Norman Minetta, Alberto Gonzales, Carlos Gutierrez, Elaine Chao - yet one wouldn't describe the Bush administration as having the most diverse of views.

Onto the Beeb. When it comes to reporters, there's no rule about who can tell the best stories. In Africa there's still a lot of deference towards white people, which would make access to politicians much easier than with a black reporter. In certain situations, blending into the crowd would be better, which would put a black reporter at an advantage. And truth be told, many white BBC reporters know their terrain very well. When broadcasting to a global audience, there isn't necessarily a global view, which means something that's newsworthy in one country may not seem like such a big deal in another. And you almost need an outsiders eye to spot the foibles which would be lost on say, a local. That said, a local would probably be better at giving context. It's never so straightforward.

Another element to all this is the demographic most affected by underachievement - black Jamaican boys. Something must be done to fix what seems like a problem unique to this group of people.

The key to everything is education. If black kids are properly educated, then subsequent discrimination will be easier to root out. Black people have to find a way to get rid of the excuses, only that way can black empowerment take place.

Anonymous,  1:11 pm  

What do you know about this? Wow, Jeremy...that's a first. Sometimes, I fear your comments flirt so closely to smugness and then you can't help but sound as if you are pointificating.What do you know about black empowerment indeed...or slavery...or for that matter about being black- about all the baggage having a black skin can bring with it, about the legacy of a victimised past, a tumultous present and an increasingly uncertain future.
Were the current transition programme to throw up serious upheaval...well, it only takes a flight back to your beloved Motherland.
Now do not be quick to pidgeon-hole me. I enjoy your blogspot tremendously and I marvel at the way, big Brother-style, you seem to keep a tab on so much happening around. Indeed, I have a theory (a fantasy, really)that you are actually into espionage and intelligence gathering. I have no doubt that you love some aspects of nigeria but that don't make you an expert on these matters...not that you claim to be one...but you get the picture.
My take on the slavery thing is that an apology is an apology.Whether a superficial show of contrition or not, these things help to assauge some negative feelings in the minds of the victimised.Perhaps, if this had to do with the Holocaust, maybe Tony Blair might have been more amenable to Mr. Agbetu's request. Indeed, I wonder why the Holocaust commands such stupefying awe in the 'West' will the Slave Trade does not really have such a reaction. Has it got to do with the people championing these causes, or is it because no African nation is a world power yet? Or might it be, as you pointed out, a result of the time lapse...which has proved anaesthetic to the world's conscience?
Well,as a Nigerian and as you have once again astutely diagnosed, we do not believe in wading in the slough of yesterday's despondence.Today is the ticket to tomorrow's big pay off so I'm not surprised that Nigerians in the Diaspora exhibit a strong can-do attitude. We are a driven people: whether by poverty, a fear of failure or by the incentives of success, regardless of the fame or infamy it brings.I do not think any internal dialogue is necessary either. When other blacks begin to see some of the accomplishments of their maverick West African brethren...well...I'm daresay they'll gird their loins.
Simplistic...perhaps...but you asked for opinions.By the way, your work. But leave the Blacks to sort themselves out.

My Talking Beginnings 1:25 pm  

my points exactly jeremy! I agree with the issue of the black/victim paradigm that is unwittingly sustained however, we mustn't ignore the fact that if the matter isn't brought to will be oh-so-conviniently ignored!
There are a variety of issues that further complicate a rather simple issue, most of all being our not to distant shared history. I blogged about the legacy of slavery and the supposed change that has never come about; an evidence of this as contemporary western society with reference to its ethnic minorities. I also pointed out how this senario perhaps rubbishes the theories by scholars like Norbert Elias as they argue on the civilising process.
Understanding is a key theme as there seems to be a disconnect even within the races (i.e. afro-carribean and African). If this disconnect is present, how then can the race move forward. I would suggest African readers of this blog read books by writers like Charlotte Williams who gives an especially good account of what being homeless is(identity-wise i mean)in her book "sugar and slate".
I agree with nkem on examples like condi rice and co which further raise issues of the disconnect i mention. This, is trully a powder keg!!

@ anon:"their" argument is that the holacust was in the recent past while slavery wasn't! On the other hand, i don't think our Nigerian ability to forget the "the slough of yesterday's despondence" is such a good thing!

Anonymous,  2:45 pm  


Excellent post

Your observations about Nigerians and their immense self-confidence are spot on.

I do not believe there should be any reparations at all. Or for that matter postive discrimination. It will always imply that you, as a black person, are less than and have only been imposed on the organisation to fill a quota. Resentment will increase, from non-black workers, and I think it will have a detrimental effect on entire progress on black people within society as a whole. I for one will no accept any job offered just because I'm's insulting. I am capable of competng with anyone because I believe I have the ability and the self-belief to do so.

I completely despair of the black demographic. They constantly moan about slavery that happened over 400 years ago. Don't get me wrong, it was an evil practice but if anything black people should feel strengthened by the memory. Those slaves had to draw on large reserves of fortitude and strength to withstand the horrors of the day. But they came through it and produced generations of black descendants. At no time have I heard that acknowledged.

The world is out there for the taking. I was brought up in the 70s in England and I saw how Asians were villified and showered with abuse on a daily basis. Why haven't they asked for reparation for the fact that Britain occupied India for close to 100 years! Now fast forward to today. Most of the highly successful businesses in Britain and the US are run by Asians. They are super successful. Most of the new billionaires created last year were from India. What a huge turnaround of events.

We are so fortunate that we live in a technological age but I notice the complete dearth of black people starting tech firms (and I don't mean doing consultancy or support). Why can't one of us create the next google, the next myspace or bebo..Black people should wake up and see the opportunities that exist around and stop moaning about the past.The gap between the haves and have nots is widening on a daily basis and if you can't adapt then you will become just like a dinosaur...extinct

Anonymous,  3:46 pm  

Jeremy...thanks for this reflective post.I'm a Nigerian born professional living in the States. I realise the divide between the African Americans and the immigrant Africans. I say it's a big shame.A lot of Nigerians ignorantly say that why haven't they done better for themselves with all the resources available to them if we can come from the #rd world to struggle and fend for ourselves. The reason is we don't have the baggage of slavery and racism.As a Nigerian child my parents told me I could be anything...even the president of my country. I've spoken to a lot of African Americans who believe a Black man can Never be president.In writing this response I don't mean to generalise because I've seen many open minded people on both sides of the fence. However, some African Americans resent the fact that Africans come here and seem to thrive because they perhaps feel more deserving(I don't know)>
There is an ongoing debate now in the States about Barack Obama's blackness. It's unbelievable that African Americans say he's not really black and not representative of them I saw ablack American saying he's not black because his dad was Kenyan and black Americans are of West African descent. I know they don't consider me black American so that doesn't hold any water. The man is phenotypically a black man and perceivesd as such by society. He's a black man who grew up in the USA and faced the same daily struggles as any other black male in the states.After he graduated from Harvard Law school he did pro bono work for the African American community and is married to an African American. It's delusional to say he's not black. The reality is he is unlikely to win but what irks me is not only the lack of support but sometimes the obvious resentment for him from the African American community. summary I think we as black people need to have more empathy for each others experiences and histories and embrace our similarities and differences.

Thanks again for the reflective post. Sorry my response was so long.

Fred 9:32 pm  

Who today is "living close to the wound of slavery"? No one alive today was a slave, no one alive today benefited from the trans-atlantic slave trade. There are many reasons black Americans (don't know about black Britons) are in trouble and it mostly has to do with the breakdown of the family.

You walk into just about any "Pore & Starven" black house in The Ghetto of any major American city and you'll find the "necessities": large screen television sets, Playstation 2 and 3, $200 sneakers and many other so-called luxury items. This is not a people in dire straits.

I am adamantly against your "positive discrimination" (which at least doesn't try to hide the reality, as opposed to "affirmative action"). I grew up in worse circumstances than any black American alive today. In many ways, leaving Nigeria for the US transported me some 50 years forward, and I turned out okay, as do many transplanted Africans and Afro-Caribbeans. Witness General Colin Powell and others.

This unceasing self-flagellation by white people is ridiculous. If we are to castigate white Britons for the slave trade, what do we do being that they led the way to its abolition--in the face of severe opposition from natives even. There is a letter I have seen, signed by many indigenous paramount chiefs of various ethnic groups in south eastern Nigeria begging Queen Victoria not to allow the end of the slave trade.

Discrimination in any of its forms is wrong, wrong, wrong! When one is in a race and one is running behind, one doesn't request that all the other faster competitors be shackled with a ball and chain to slow them down, one simply runs faster.

I am paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lolita 6:11 am  

Fred, my dearest, it will be wrong for you to believe that no one today benefited from the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade.

Also in a race, there's a certain something called a false start and whenever there's a false start everybody gets called back while the culprit of the false start is penalized.

Sweetie, unceasing self-flagellation by white people oh, come on, you give them too much credit.

Having said that, here's my take, Affirmative action is not about giving hand-outs, it is about charging good-old-white-boy owned institutions to leave their prejudices behind and hire people who do not look like them or sound like them or have a similar name to theirs.

BTW, Affirmative action does not just address race issues; it also addresses gender issues and disabilities too.

Nigerians in America particularly face an uphill battle; we have to work extra hard to prove ourselves. We have to make the best grades and strive for the best jobs. Our abilities have to be a blinding shine because of all the negative propaganda perpetuated by the news media around the world regarding Nigerians.

Just because white people are no longer allowed to have slaves does not mean they believe that we are all equal. My 9 yr-old nephew was saying that a white boy in his class said to him "do something for me, you're my slave, ain’t ya," it gets passed down from generation to generation.

I used to wonder why this affirmative action, what's that, we should all be given opportunities by virtue of our hard work and merit! Just imagine a descendant of a slave owner, with his beliefs that white people are superior, why would they want to hire a person they believe is beneath them?

Affirmative action is not a licence for mediocrity but an open door policy and I certainly don’t see it as discrimination either more like accountability.

N.B.:Please place "some" where necessary.

Fred 3:07 pm  

Having said that, here's my take, Affirmative action is not about giving hand-outs, it is about charging good-old-white-boy owned institutions to leave their prejudices behind and hire people who do not look like them or sound like them or have a similar name to theirs.

Except, that's exactly what it is, forcing hand-outs and hiring practices that result in bringing on under-qualified people, or stripping some white kid's ability to attend college who has better grades than the requisite "brown" person admitted.

As for your nephew, thank goodness no heed is paid to what a dumbass 9-year-old thinks because if we did, well then, your nephew would be a slave! Tongue-in-cheek yes, but who cares what some idiot kid thinks? What one child said to another doesn't mean anything.

Affirmative Action is reverse discrimination, simple. Besides, as a Nigerian, why should you or I be given breaks based on it? Which one of your direct ancestors was a slave brought to America?

Just imagine a descendant of a slave owner, with his beliefs that white people are superior, why would they want to hire a person they believe is beneath them?

That's right: it's all imagination. Do you know how many people in America today have no idea what their ancestors did, much less if they owned slaves? And even if that descendant did know, that does not follow that he is a racist. You're making way too many assumptions here, L.

Affirmative Action is a failed social experiment that engenders mediocrity and that's why it's on its way out, as it should be.

And as with any government socialistic experiment, it has gone terribly wrong: there are statistics to show that in at least one area, university admissions, those brown folk being admitted under AA with sub-par scores were children of the wealthier black middle-class. It's a fuck up.

Lolita 1:38 pm  

Not to beat a dead horse, especially since everybody is going to maintain their stance on this issue.

There is an article on Brown University's Exhibit that shows how the Ivy league University benefited from slave trade; Well, I tried to place a link to it but it won't let me, oh hell, I'll just post the article here!

I'm sowwwwweeee Jewwwweeemmmeeee:

Brown exhibit traces links to slave trade By Jason Szep
Thu Mar 29, 12:02 PM ET

More than 100 Africans perished on the slave ship Sally in the voyage from Africa in 1765 -- some hanged themselves or starved to death. Some rebelled and were shot dead or drowned.

The ship's log book, detailing the deaths of slaves that occurred almost daily aboard the ship, is encased in glass in a new exhibit at Brown University that illustrates links between the Ivy League school and the 18th century slave trade.

The exhibit follows a "Slavery and Justice" report by Brown in October that acknowledged its co-founders used money from the slavery of Africans to build the school, a reminder that slavery once flourished in New England -- hundreds of miles (km) from the U.S. South, where it became entrenched.

The U.S. Northeast, whose politicians, Quaker pastors and abolitionists led the fight against slavery, benefited extensively from the trade before it was abolished in 1807.

Brown, the seventh-oldest U.S. university, was built with contributions from people who owned slaves or traded in Africans, including the original Brown family, who owned the Sally and sponsored the voyage that killed 109 of its 196 captives.

"This history surrounds us and we've learned not to see it," said James Campbell, chair of Brown's Committee on Slavery and Justice, which produced the 109-page "Slavery and Justice" report after three years of research and debate on campus.

Newspaper clippings, ledgers of merchants, passages from journals, drawings and other evidence of Rhode Island's domination of North America's share of the transatlantic slave trade are spread over two libraries at the prestigious school in the state capital Providence.

It includes the first North American advertisement for slaves, published in 1704: "Two Negro men, and one Negro Woman & Child; to be Sold by Mr. John Colman, Merchant; to be seen at Col. Charles Hobbey, Esq. his House, in Boston."

A 1652 document shows slavery outlawed in Rhode Island, but it was never enforced. More than 1,000 slave voyages were mounted from Rhode Island, mostly in the 18th century, carrying more than 100,000 Africans into slavery, the university said.

Four brothers in the Brown family -- Nicholas, Joseph, John and Moses -- were not major slave traders but owned slaves and invested in the trade, which the university said "permeated every aspect of social and economic life in Rhode Island, the Americas and indeed the Atlantic world" at the time.


The display, which opened to the public in February and runs through April, is part of Brown's efforts to make amends for contributing to slavery.

Brown has also announced a $10 million endowment to educate urban children in the state's capital and is planning memorials, new teaching initiatives and a research center to educate its students and the public about the practice.

Brown's Committee on Slavery and Justice, which stopped short of seeking reparations as urged by some African Americans, was appointed by Brown president Ruth Simmons, a great-granddaughter of slaves and the first black president of an Ivy League institution.

The exhibit traces the origins of New England's slave trade beginning with the capture of Native Americans in the 17th century and their sale in the West Indies, in contrast to the region's later history and image as emancipator of slaves.

The disastrous voyage of the Sally to the Windward Coast of Africa marked a turning point for the Brown family. Moses Brown freed his slaves eight years later and became a vocal opponent of slavery, while his brother Joseph, who was the school's treasurer, became a public defender of the trade.

The exhibit shows how their debate influenced politicians of the time, and how Rhode Island slowly transformed into a leading voice against slavery in the unfolding national debate, helped by the campaigning of Moses Brown.

The southern Rhode Island port city of Newport passed one of the first anti-slave trade resolutions in U.S. history.

"By the 19th century the Browns started doing manifestly anti-slavery things and when you study the family's history you see a 10- or 12-generation record of philanthropy after philanthropy," said Richard Ring, a librarian at the John Carter (news, bio, voting record) Brown Library, where one of the exhibits is on display.

The United States abolished the practice of slavery in 1865 after a four-year civil war.

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