Anti-black racism unpacked

The issue of anti-Black racism is an incredibly complex one that has inaugurated itself into vast temporal and spatial landscapes. Over the past few weeks the tragic, high profile murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have reignited the mainstream coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement. The fundamental exhortation of this movement is the call to end anti-Black racism, and as perpetrators of this strain of racism, the onus is thus placed on all non-Black people to enact that change. Whilst this instruction is straightforward, centuries of white supremacy have coddled the white political sensibility to a place of blissful ignorance. The enthusiasm with which many Instagram users shared a black box, despite having offered no other reflection on current events made it painfully obvious just how disengaged the vast majority of people are with the history of anti-Black racism. To ease the burden of explanation on the Black community, I have made an attempt to give a brief overview of this history, so as to help people connect the dots and paint a clearer picture of how we have got here. The exact starting point of racism is one that is very difficult to grapple with. For the sake of this article, I’m going to start with the colonisation of the Americas. We must firstly note how incredibly cheeky it is that the majority population of North America today is white. Most of these people are descendants of colonisers, who stole indigenous land and life- as in, they literally inoculated blankets with smallpox and distributed them to Native Americans so as to systematically murder them and destabilise their communities. But of course, this was directly contradictory to the Europeans’ Christian values of ‘equality’ and ‘liberty’ and so, they created racism as a scientific ideology that posited non-white races as biologically inferior. They were presented as being ‘barbarians’ and ‘savages’ who were incapable of self-governance and therefore required the white man to rule for and over them. On the surface, this was presented as the ‘White Man’s Burden’, but in reality it was the white man’s greed. The Americas were rich in resources like cotton and sugar and tobacco, the cultivation and trade of which was incredibly lucrative. Capitalism, as we all know, thrives on the exploitation of its workers, but because the Europeans had systematically weakened the Native American population, they needed a new workforce. For this, they turned to Africa and thus, we have the advent of the Atlantic Slave Trade. It is estimated that 12 million Africans were shipped from Africa to the Americas to work in plantations. The propagation of racism as justification for slavery meant that the Black body became subject to European scientific scrutinisation. Black people had their skulls studied, their genitalia and their organs and their temperaments studied; a claim was even made that Africans had thicker skin and therefore a higher tolerance for pain. These racist ideologies had so confidently and so ardently masqueraded as legitimate scientific fact for so long that the structural continuities of them are still impacting Black people today. For example, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America published a study in 2016 that demonstrated a clear racial bias in pain assessment between Black and white people- they also proved how this belief that Black people feel less pain was prevalent in both medical personnel and laypeople. Coincidentally, there was a recent study in the UK that showed that Black women are 5 times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. On the surface these things appear unrelated but in reality, they are examples of how the structure of slavery dehumanised Black people so as to iconise them as non-pain feeling subhumans, and how this perception is still so pertinent today in our own National Health Service that it serves to absolve these medical institutions of their duty of care towards Black patients. This is exactly why Public Health England were forced to issue an investigation into the disproportionate number of deaths of BAME people from Covid-19 compared to white people and it explains exactly why this investigation found that Black people are at 10-50% higher risk of death compared to white Britons- again, these things are all inextricably connected.

Photo: Stowage of a British slave ship (1788)

A lot of people point to abolition as this mystical watershed that marked the end of racism, claiming that it was 200 years in the past and that we need to do like Elsa and ‘let it go’. But the reality of post-abolition is depressingly different. Firstly, in the African continent, Europeans had orchestrated huge parts of the economy to be reliant on the Atlantic Slave Trade, so when the slave trade ceased, these economies collapsed. And in the absence of reparations, many places in Africa were left open to conquest and colonisation. Indeed, out of the 54 countries in Africa only 1 country, Ethiopia, was never colonised (but even they were not completely free from western imperial influence). The horrors of colonisation were vast and enduring, but here I want to make a point about its social, political and economic legacy. Firstly, colonisation was a global apparatus; it connected the various colonies in the global south to their colonial masters in the west. This is precisely why we have an African diaspora today. Even if African-Americans were given the means to return to Africa, it would not have been the same Africa that their ancestors had left behind, as centuries of colonialism had pillaged and desecrated the continent. This also affected the Black diasporas in the UK, many of whom only came to the colonial heartland of Great Britain precisely because Great Britain had robbed them (and then had the gall to invite them to help rebuild the country after the Second World War). In this sense, we have to understand the positionality of Black people as global citizens. We cannot localise racism enacted by white people as only occurring in white countries, as white supremacy does not require the physical presence of a racist white person for it to exist. Instead it is enshrined in global capitalist structures that still govern the world today. For example, to this day, 14 African countries, that were previously French colonies, are required to keep 50% of their foreign exchange reserves in the Bank of France, and they are only allowed to access up to 15% of that in any given year. You don’t have to be a qualified economist to understand how this would squander these countries’ social and economic progress. Further, Haiti, the only country to have seized independence through their own revolution, still owes a debt to France for their independence, the modern equivalent of which equals to $21billion. Even in the UK, the abolishment of slavery in 1833 cost the state £20million that they paid in reparations to slave owners for ‘loss of business and property’. This debt was still being paid off until 2015, using taxpayer money. That is to say, the descendants of enslaved people in the present were paying reparations to slave owners in the past- the descendants of whom are still benefitting from the intergenerational wealth garnered through the slave trade. Meanwhile, no reparations had or have been paid to any enslaved people, or their descendants or any previous colonies. 

 Former private Prime Minister David Cameron. Who's extended family were paid "compensation" for loss of "property" in the form of slaves.

Photo: The Independent

Moving back to the American context, the abolition of slavery in 1865 meant that the country’s economy, which was contingent on slave labour, had significantly weakened. On top of that, the Civil War had ravaged much of the American south, but because they couldn’t rely on slave labour in the traditional sense to build it back up, they needed a new way to extract Black labour power and they did this through the systematic criminalisation of Black people. This was accommodated for by the 13th amendment of the US constitution, which stated that all people should be free people, unless they are a felon. Thus began America’s project of mass incarceration. Here, the functioning of the state as an oppressive, white-supremacist structure becomes intimately reliant on the role of the police as custodians of such a structure. In fact, the modern police system in America today has directly evolved from fugitive slave patrols. Over the past 200 years this commitment to criminalise and incarcerate Black people bore many different manifestations. Some pertinent examples include the stereotyping of Black men as animalistic sexual predators who prey on the innocence of white women. This dynamic between Black men and white women justified the brutal murder of Emmett Till in 1955 and more recently, it was present in the interaction between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper, where she weaponised her white femininity to falsely accuse Christian Cooper, knowing that the historical contingency of this dynamic automatically posited him as a threat to her, therefore warranting police intervention (read: brutality). A further way that Black people were criminalised was through the drugs trade- namely the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s. In Gary Webb’s 1996 newspaper series, ‘Dark Alliances’, he exposed the involvement of the CIA in the channeling of crack cocaine into impoverished African American neighbourhoods. Not only did this destabilise those communities, but in creating the stereotype of Black people as crack users and dealers, President Raegan and his administration presented the crack epidemic as a national threat, which in turn allowed them to depict the Black people who were associated with this drug also as a national threat. This is evinced through the colossal disparities in drug sentencing: in 1986 US Congress passed a law that created a 100 to 1 sentencing disparity between the possession and trafficking of crack compared to cocaine- and it is of course no surprise that the latter was more commonly consumed and trafficked by white middle-class suburban communities. In 2012, 88% of imprisonments from crack were African-American, and today, Black adults are 2.8-5.5 times more likely to be arrested on drugs charges than white adults. More importantly,  we must note how hugely and insidiously profitable the prison-industrial complex is; CoreCivic, one of the largest companies that own and manage private prisons and detention centres in America earn $752 million a year from federal contracts. Significantly, for these companies to keep on making money, they need prisoners to fill their prisons. As such, though America has only 5% of the world’s population, they have 25% of the world’s prisoners. Furthermore, though African-Americans make up only 13% of America’s population, they make up 40% of the prison population. As a result, 1 in 15 Black men are behind bars and 1 in 13 African-Americans are unable to vote. During slavery, Black bodies were operationalised as property from which profit could be yielded for white slavemasters and though this has taken on a different form today, the exploitation of Black people is still present in their systematic incarceration, from which white private corporations are able to yield profits. And of course, the story is very similar in the UK, where Black people can be up to 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched (read: harassed) by police than white people. They are also twice as likely to die in police custody than white people and in 2020, the Sentencing Council found that Black offenders are 40% more likely to receive an immediate custodial sentence for drugs-related crime than white offenders.

These statistics help to portray the image of the police as what Louis Althusser called the ‘Repressive State Apparatus’, created and employed to maintain the state’s systematic persecution of Black communities. In order to understand the wider institutional implications of the disproportionate incarceration of Black people, we are forced to consider how victims lose access to housing, employment opportunities and voting rights. It is essentially a way to disenfranchise entire swathes of the African-American population so as to cripple their potential for democratic political mobilisation. It is therefore simply not enough to call for police reforms, rather we must lobby for its complete abolishment. 

Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/NETFLIX

A separate but related point I want to make here is on the spectacle of Black suffering and how alot of contemporary allyship is aroused by spectatorial sympathy. In the 18th century, there emerged a cult of humanitarianism that reshaped the way English people looked at pain- it was suddenly unacceptable to inflict pain even on previously despised groups of people such as enslaved people. This condemnation of suffering was seen as a direct indication of the good morality and virtue of the English folk. However, this also went on to form what can be labelled as the ‘pornography of pain’, that is to say, spectacles of suffering became enticing precisely because they were taboo. In the 18th Century, this was demonstrated through white people’s inclination towards slave narratives. Many of us understand the importance of slave narratives in the abolition movement, but there was another dimension to this, where slave narratives became popular due to their detailing of suffering and violence inflicted on enslaved people. On the one hand, the spectacle of Black suffering as evidenced by slave narratives was titillating for white audiences because it was a reassurance of the superiority of whiteness as well as the safety of whiteness. And on the other hand, the condemnation that white people espoused in response to the spectacle of black suffering allowed them to depict themselves as good, virtuous people. This issue of the spectacle of black suffering and its relationship with white humanitarianism is a huge problem today, and we see this through the absolute voracity with which people share footage of dead and abused black bodies. Again, I make a reference to how systems of slavery icononised the black body as subhuman, and I use this to expose the sham of white sympathy as simply being spectatorial sympathy: we have to stop normalising the circulation of footage of abused and dead black bodies. If that is the required precursor for your condemnation of racism, then your intentions are seated in a performative, self-serving subjectivity and not genuine humanity and allyship. I end this article with my final exhortation: now is absolutely the time for us to radicalise ourselves. Being ignorant to the reality of racism has cost lives and livelihoods, and it will continue to do so unless we take to educating ourselves as a matter of urgency. Though I have touched on a range of topics, each has a much more in-depth history than I have been able to cover. Use this as a starting point. We have a duty towards our Black siblings, let us not fail them. 

And remember: fuck 12! 

Article by Halima Nashir. See more from Halima here

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