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George Floyd: Race, Injustice And Hope A Personal Reflection

by R. David Muir (Roehampton Univ. and National Church Leaders Forum)

Langston Hughes’ poem was uppermost in my mind when I saw the tragic death of George Floyd and thought about racial injustice in America. In his A Dream Deferred, the poet captures the great disappointment, the constitutional and cultural contradiction, and illusion of the American Dream for the African:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

 On Monday 25 May, George Floyd lost his life as a white police officer kept his knee on his neck, asphyxiating him, strangling him, choking the life out of another black body. Thanks to the near universal technology, ownership and use of the mobile phone and its democratic distribution and dissemination of messages and images through social media, the world saw the public and brutal murder, execution, assassination of an unarmed black man by a law enforcement officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was unarmed; he was not resisting arrest; he was compliant. Thanks to this new form of citizen’s journalism and reportage we witnessed the meaning of America; a sign and symbol of what it is, has been and continues to be for many African Americans.

The African American philosopher and cultural critic, Cornel West, would argue that what we saw is far from exceptional in America: it’s normal, black bodies have had the life sucked out of them from the day they arrived in the so-called ‘New World’ whether by extracted labour through chattel slavery, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws, practices or public lynching.[1] If I were to ask my friend, the late Professor James Henry Cone, he would respond in his inimitable high pitched voice: ‘David, this was a public lynching on the streets of Minneapolis – extrajudicial punishment sanctioned by centuries of dehumanization of black bodies.’ Doubtless James would point me to what he argued in one of his latest books about the cultural politics of the lynching tree: namely, that it is ‘the most potent symbol of the trouble nobody knows that blacks have seen but do not talk about because of the pain of remembering’.[2]

But let us not be naïve. The defence of ignorance is infantile. What we saw in the death of George Floyd was neither episodic nor singular; it’s institutional structural, perpetual. African Americans have known through their long night of slavery, dehumanization,[3] racial discrimination and death, the experiential, psychological and existential meaning of ‘I Can’t breathe.’ The white officer’s knee on George Floyds’ neck is a visual reminder, a picture and a metaphor that will be etched on our memory for generations to come. It will be one that African Americans (and other diaspora communities) will be unwise to forget. They know all too well how Uncle Sam has kept his knee on their neck for decades, for centuries, strangling their humanity, dignity, hopes, dreams, aspirations. Depriving them of the breath of equal opportunity and justice. Killing them.

And what has it inspired here and globally? In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been speaking with government officials and doing a series of BBC interviews about both Covid-19 and the Death of George Floyd. (Breathing and the lack of breath is the uncanny reality that links the two.) The question I am often asked is, “What has the death of a black man in the US got to do with us here in the UK, surely things are not that bad here?” Whether out of provocation or ignorance, my answer is what was said by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., more eloquently than I could put it. This American prophet, preacher and public theologian reminds us: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The tragic death of George Floyd has inspired a global insurrection of solidarity, sympathy, and common decency in the face of a brutal and brazen murder of another black man. If you have blood in your veins and you know the free and divine gift of breath, you cannot watch what happened to George Floyd and remain unmoved. Indeed, on white American commentator writing for a predominantly white Christian audience puts it thus: “If you are not angry and feel deep sadness in this moment, it may be time for a soul check.”[4]

Along with protests, demonstrations and marches, the death of George Floyd has inspired more debate about race and racism in Britain. This is neither the time nor the place to explore this and what we do about statutes and monuments to figures of oppression, slavery, and injustice like Edward Colston that we saw in Bristol over the weekend. However one decides to answer the perennial question as to whether Britain is a ‘racist country’; or whether Stormzy’s response of ‘yes, one hundred percent’ means it’s a 100% racist or merely affirming in the positive that ‘racism’ still exists in the UK could be a good essay question. Whether one listens to David Olusoga, Ben Okri, Nesrine Malik, or the editorial of this week’s Economist, one cannot help but to see the ubiquity of racial injustice in both the UK and the US.

From my experience of working in the criminal justice system and as a special adviser to a number of Home secretaries and Police ministers, I can say that the UK is a less racist place than it used to be decades ago, or when I was growing up. Of course, we no longer have signs saying: “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” and we no longer see virulent racist campaigning like the one my parents witnessed in Smethwick by the Conservative parliamentary candidate, Peter Griffith, with the slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”, or Teddy Boys going “Paki-bashing” and “Nigger-hunting”.

Thankfully, those days are behind us, but racism and White supremacy still kills and poison the body politic; racism find ways of reconstituting itself, morphing in other guises, cultural politics, practices, and iconography. 

Of course, Britain is not America; we have a different history and experience but are subject to the same defective anthropology that stops us from reaching our full potential, that stops us from breathing fully and flourishing in all our institutions. The comparisons with the US will continue to be interesting and instructive. Many of our experiences will be similar. There is no place for complacency or historical amnesia; racism is indifferent to geographical boundaries.

We remember Eric Garner (repeated ‘I can’t breathe twelve time before he was killed in New York City by the police); we remember Michael Brown who was shot by the police in Ferguson, Missouri); we remember Breonna Taylor, the medical technician shot in her own house by the police); we remember Ahmaud Arbery (the young black jogger shot by the police because he was jogging in the wrong neighbourhood). The list goes on. But in my own borough, the Royal Borough of Greenwich, I know what racism and White supremacy looks like. I remember the young Asian school boy, Rohit Duggal, who was murdered by racist thugs in July 1992; I remember Stephen Lawrence who was also brutally murdered by white youths the following year; I remember Cherry Groce (shot by the police in September 1985) and Joy Gardner: Joy lost her life in August 1993 at the hands of immigration officers who placed 13-foot length of adhesive tape around her head and mouth. Unable to breathe she collapsed and suffered brain damage. A young woman asphyxiated, having the breath of live taken from her by state officials. I knew her Mother Myrna well, she went to our church; her life was never the same again after she lost her beloved daughter.

This too is our history. This too is our shared British history. It is not America, but David Olusoga is right when he says that, like America, we too are disfigured by deep and pervasive racism; and that as a society, we too have to look in the mirror of our history.

I think it was Mordechai Vanunu the Jewish scientist who said: “To know is to be responsible.” That’s the challenge that we all face in times of controversy and crisis. How will we respond to injustice in our institutions and in society? The Vice Chancellor’s statement on Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd and Professor Marilyn’s leadership in bringing us together set the tone for our conversation and discussion, affirming the university’s long tradition of standing up for social justice and its commitment to equality and antiracism. Our students and staff have been impacted by the death; many are traumatized, feeling the cadence of desolation.

Some of us feel (and certainly hope) that the death of George Floyd will be a defining moment in American history and race relations; it is a turning point, a tipping point. It has inspired interracial and intergenerational protests on both sides of the Atlantic. The name of George Floyd will be memorialized. Individuals and institutions will remember his name as they reflect and respond to racial injustice and other challenges they face. ‘I can’t breathe’, as Ben Okri says, will become the ‘mantra of oppression’ globally.[5]

Let me conclude by saying that I’m hopeful about the future and the actions we will take together as we respond to injustice wherever we find it. I for one will re-double my efforts and courage to fight injustice wherever I confront it. In our Black Church Political manifesto (link) we will continue to hold ourselves, and the government, to account on our recommendations on criminal justice reform, political engagement, and health inequality in the aftermath of Covid-19 (see our Ten-Point Plan).
On Tuesday, the family laid George Floyd to rest in Houston, believing that that in the presence of the One who gives breath and life has breathed on him again. His breath has been restored. I am perpetually challenged by the great North African Doctor of the Church. “Hope”, says St Augustine, “has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” Lord help us all to breathe and remember that this gift comes from you.
Dr R. David Muir
Co-Chair, NCLF


[1] See Gordon S. Wood, The Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, Oxford, Oxford University Press: 2009. Wood makes the same argument made by the great Caribbean scholar Eric Williams (Capitalism & Slavery) about the extracted labour of the African in the prosperity of Europe and America.  Wood says: “The prosperity of the European colonies in the New World depended upon the labour of these millions of African slaves and their enslaved descendants (p.509).”

[2] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books: 2011, p.3.

[3] Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro: 1550-1812, Baltimore, Maryland, Penguin Books: 1969.

[4] John Kingston, Christianity Today, 4th June 2020.

[5] Ben Okri, The Guardian, Monday 8 June, 2020

‘I can’t breathe’

By GOSNELL L. YORKE, Zambia Times, June 16, 2020

AS ONE who hails from the Caribbean in the African diaspora, currently lecturing at the Dag Hammarskjold Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (DHIPS) at The Copperbelt University (CBU), and married to a Zambian, I join countless others around the world (including here in Zambia) in denouncing the tragic and needless killing of 46-year-old George Floyd, the African-American, who died at the hands (make that: the knee) of a Euro-American police officer who kept pressing his left knee to the neck of a defenceless Floyd who frantically begged for his life in repeatedly saying, “I Can’t Breathe”.

Joining my denunciation of the “Floyd fatality” are also some prominent persons and others. I think, for example, of Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In terms of the UN as a whole, this denunciation is also consistent with the fact that, after some protracted and persistent advocacy on the part of many in the African Diaspora such as Prof. Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of the University of Zambia (UNZA) equivalent, namely, the Caribbean States-owned The University of the West Indies (The UWI) and Chair of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission, the UN decided to declare the current decade, The International Decade for People of African Descent. The Decade runs from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2024.

Not to be overlooked is our own DHIPS as an Institute here at CBU as well. Named after the second Secretary General (Swedish) of the UN who lost his life on Zambian soil (Ndola) in September 1961 while on a UN Peace Mission to next-door DRC (as it now is), DHIPS was officially established with the full backing and blessing of the Zambian government.

Over the years, there have also been recorded incidents of Euro-police brutality in places like the UK, France and Canada. As for Canada, this is so in spite of Canada’s commendable national policy, since 1971, of “Multiculturalism within a Bilingual (English and French) Framework.” To his credit, Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, has already gone public by using the Federal Parliament as a Forum within which to issue a strong anti-racism Statement in light of the Floyd affair.

Embedded within all such human rights-violating Euro-police incidents is the message that, for some of our Euro-descendant colleagues, the ideology of white supremacy/superiority and African inferiority still prevails. This is a most pernicious ideology that we find being defended by some of their natural and social scientists, historians, philosophers and even Christian theologians of yesteryear. And sadly, this mind-set prevails in spite of the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights and other related Instruments which boldly declare that all human beings are endowed with inalienable rights based on the conviction that the fundamental human right is the right to be human. For such White supremacists, African or Black lives still “don’t matter”.

For such, justification is further sought in the false perception of Africa as a “failed continent”–a continent known only for its seemingly incessant intra-state and ethnic conflicts; its diseases, disasters and deaths; its lack of so-called development; its presumed pathological dependency on the goodwill of donors and other perceived shortcomings.

What such racially motivated White supremacists fail to consider and concede is that, and in the memorable language of one of our own outstanding Caribbean scholars, the late Walter Anthony Rodney, who once taught at the University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, is that we are really dealing with about how, historically, Europe underdeveloped Africa by unconscionably robbing Africa of its rich and various resources—both human and natural. Or, no less true in my considered opinion, it is really about how Africa has helped to overdevelop Europe and its European offshoots across the Atlantic such as the USA and Canada.

Much of this pernicious misperception of Africans further stems from the fact that our ancestors were taken against their collective wills from across the continent in their millions by various European colonial powers and then enslaved in the Americas for some four hundred years. And there, they were coerced into toiling either in their masters’ homes as house slaves (African women) or on various cotton, rice, sugar, tobacco and other plantations as unrewarded “hewers of wood and drawers of water” (mostly men). That is, Africans—be they here on the continent or there in its diaspora and constituing what UNESCO now rightly refers to as Global Africa, are still not considered worthy of the dignity and respect which all human beings, made in the image of God, both desire and deserve.

This being the prevailing state of affairs, I would also wish, in closing, to commend the African Union (AU). Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chair of the AU Commission, has since joined the global chorus of voices by issuing a Statement denouncing the inhumane killing of Floyd. Granted, Floyd, like the rest of us, had his own faults and failures, some even attracting criminal sanction. Nonetheless, he still symbolises the larger existential life-and death crisis facing all of us as Africans. In a stiflingly globalised world in which profit maximisation prevails usually at the expense of the vulnerable poor and driven by a neo-liberal economy that tends to disfavour the Global South, those of us as Africans can each justfiably exclaim, as Floyd did, that “I Can’t Breathe.”

The commendation of the AU is also consistent with the AU’s African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights as well as with the AU’s laudable mission and mandate as a whole. Lest we forget, Floyd was actully murdered on Africa (Freedom) Day–on May 25. From its early beginnings, the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), formed in 1963, adopted an anti-racism position in Egypt at its Meeting in 1964–the very year, for example, of both Jamaica’s and Zambia’s independence from British rule.

Further, in 2003, the AU amended its Constitutive Act in its attempt to make the African Diaspora its Sixth Region alongside the “BIG Five” Regions on the continent. And beyond that, the AU has also extended an invitation to its global Diaspora to contribute both minds and means to the further development of Africa, our Motherland, so that, in time, we can each cease and desist from saying, “I Can’t Breathe.”

The author, who teaches in the Dag Hammarskjold Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, The Copperbelt University, is a former honorary consul (diplomat) of his Caribbean State (the Federation of St. Kitts-Nevis or St. Christopher-Nevis) to the Republic of South Africa. He is also the Central and Southern Africa (except for South Africa) Coordinator for Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race.

Many Days Late and Many Dollars Short: COVID-19 Institutionalised Racism and the Black British Experience

William Ackah, Birkbeck Comments, May 22, 2020

Dr William Ackah, Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector studies, reflects on how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black, Asian and other global majority heritages.

I watched my first virtual funeral this week. I and around 80 others joined the 15 or so people who were physically present in Bristol UK to say goodbye to an amazing woman. I first met this woman nearly 20 years ago, when I moved to the city. She was then recovering from a brain tumour operation. My wife and I would give her a ride to our local church and on the way she would tell us stories about her nursing career in Britain and the obstacles she had to overcome as woman of Jamaican heritage to gain recognition in her profession. She would talk with pride about her children making lives for themselves in the UK and in the United States and of her dream that when she was able to drive again, she would buy herself a Jaguar. I never quite believed that she would get the car, but lo and behold eventually she did. She was the quite the character, one of a number of wonderful people in that congregation in St Pauls in the heart of the city.

I fondly remember tasty lunches with people of Indian heritage, playing games with families from Singapore, becoming a godfather to a daughter of Malawian descent, being pastored by a man of white south African descent and praying and fasting with Nigerian descendants, Guyanese, Ghanaians, Jamaicans, Brazilians, Romanians, Croatians, Australians and white and black British. In that small church we weaved an international tapestry that criss-crossed continents, cultures and identities. Doctors mingled with taxi drivers, who talked to cleaners, dentists, lawyers, barbers and cooks. It was a living, breathing community with a network that was global in its reach and connections. The death of one the precious members of that community at this time is a very hard pill to swallow.

The bitterness of death is made even harder by the fact that the precious life of this woman will barely register outside of her immediate community. She alongside so many others will invariably be reduced to a BAME statistic. Night after night via the media and the data machine of the day, complex individuals with amazing stories and profound life experiences are reduced to racialised entities. In this reduction they are robbed of their humanity and their dignity. In life they faced discrimination in death they face denigration by statistics.

The primary data sets that reference the Black British experience primarily tell their/our story in proportion or disproportion to the ‘white’ population. The value of Black lives therefore according to the data only exists in relation to ‘whiteness’.  This invariably leads to them/us becoming a freak side show. Them/us are people that require further research and investigation, as opposed to being human beings that first and foremost need support and protection!

The statistics reveal that people from Black, Asian, and other global majority heritages are dying in some cases at four times, the rate that ‘white’ people are. A question that should be asked is why is this public health disaster only warranting calls for a public enquiry and a Public Health England investigation? We might not know why they/us are more prone to the virus, but we do know without question that they/us are particularly vulnerable so why are they/us not being shielded as a matter of priority? Why are they/us not being placed on automatic furlough?  Why are the circumstances around Black deaths not considered a national health emergency that demands immediate action?

Why oh why yet again after Windrush, Grenfell and so many other countless failings by the authorities of this nation are Black citizens once again left to suffer and die? Time after time like clockwork all we hear are words of regret and the promise of an investigation. Is that really all we are worth? Is this nation pathologically predisposed to continually s…t on its non-white citizens?

When a migrant descendant doctor, nurse, care worker, bus driver, supermarket assistant dies the impact often goes far beyond that of their immediate family. ‘Successful’ migrants and their descendants are often at the apex of complex and unfolding pyramids of influence. Their finances, knowledge and influence support communities and individuals both locally and globally. Where the state is absent here and abroad these women and men are often a vital cog in sustaining families and communities. COVID-19 is fracturing these community structures and the state through its lack of action to protect its ‘global majority’ citizens is adding salt to the wounds.

The country faces challenging times ahead. How we treat minorities and the vulnerable in a time of crisis is a true test of how ‘Great’ a nation we are. Britain’s Black, Asian and other descendant communities with origins from all over the globe have demonstrated once again their courage, loyalty, and integrity to support the nation in its time of need. What will the nation do in return? We need a systematic and comprehensive plan backed by substantial resources to eradicate racialised discrimination from our society. It is ultimately the only way to end the curse of the BAME label and stats with all their marginalising characteristics and connotations. There are many lessons that the nation needs to learn from this life-changing event, but one must be that it is time to end the madness of racialised inequality in this country once and for all.

Undaunted Resistance: Joseph Lowery and the Spirit of SCLC

R. Drew Smith, April 30, 2020, Black Perspectives, AAIHS

Against all odds, a movement for racial justice took hold in mid-20th-century America, emerging from within the racially-heated South, and drawing sustenance from a rich-array of Black religious sources. A cadre of activist Black clergypersons were among the central figures in this historic social movement, with organizations such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) epitomizing the promise of a socially-mobilized Black clergy sector.

Although SCLC had its period of prominence, the ebb and flow of its organizational influence, as movement days gave way to post-movement organizational uncertainties, symbolizes a more general expansion and contraction of Black clergy public influence from the mid- to latter-20th century. Although embodiments of a resistance politics may have been transitory, the spirit of that resistance proved larger than its forms, carried from one place or time to another by those consecrated to its cause.

Many Black clergy achieved public prominence during the Civil Rights Movement, but few with greater impact or clearer consecration to the cause of resistance than Joseph E. Lowery, who passed away on March 27, 2020 at the age of 98. Lowery was an esteemed activist pastor whose theological calling, social convictions, and leadership capital positioned him among the foremost standard bearers of the “prophetic” Black Christianity so integral to the Civil Rights Movement. Furthermore, the length of his public leadership career, extending across roughly seven decades and many tactical and ideological shifts within American public life, is suggestive of his resilient and durable leadership and of his inextinguishable prophetic fire.

Lowery, a co-founder of SCLC and one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest associates, was one of the chief architects of the creative protest dynamics that propelled the movement. Seven years older than King, Lowery began pastoring a Methodist congregation in Mobile, Alabama in 1952 and also served as president of the Alabama Civic Affairs Association, which helped desegregate public transportation in Mobile and provided financial support for the Montgomery bus boycott. Upon the founding of SCLC in 1957, Lowery was designated as vice-president and held that position until being named SCLC board chairman in 1967.

In 1977, Lowery succeeded Ralph Abernathy to become the third president of SCLC, taking-over as SCLC point-person almost ten years after the death of King, and at a time of intensive and extensive Black leadership contestation. Challenges to SCLC-style “jeremiadic” resistance politics had escalated throughout the late-1960s and early-1970s, as Black nationalists, womanists, and social pragmatists promoted alternative messaging and methods they deemed better-suited to the next phases of the Black freedom struggle. The outsider-protest paradigm also seemed increasingly out-of-step with new opportunities for social participation, which by the late-1970s had led to a noticeable expansion of Black professionals, including governmental officials, public intellectuals, business leaders, and others who could lay claim to and deploy system resources.

The expansions within Black professional sectors resulted not only from a cultivation of newly-emerging Black talent, but also from a migration of experienced movement leaders and activists into professional realms considered potentially more impactful, prestigious, or rewarding. Historian Charles Marsh views that migration as understandable, but regrettable, in that it depleted the ranks of seasoned activists that could have sustained a Black movement politics. Referring to a post-movement decline of activism in poor neighborhoods and communities, Marsh writes: “as members of a generation of creative and skilled black (and white) activists moved out of poor communities and into networks of political influence, non-profit work, cultural and academic leadership, and corporate boardrooms, no one took their place in the freedom houses and community centers.” The spirit of radical resistance that had animated Black Christian resistance politics during the movement was giving way (as movement momentum often does) to noticeably more conventional pursuits.

Black professionalization contributed to another dynamic that ran counter to the trajectories of Black Christian resistance politics. The authority conferred upon activist Black clergy during the Civil Rights Movement by strategic deployment of religious organizational and leadership resources was rapidly dissipating in the face of unleashed secularizing instincts and tendencies among emergent Black professional sectors. Professionalism’s potential departures from a religious metrics of progress and effectiveness weakened the need and the basis for a leading role by the religious sector in defining and executing a Black agenda that might be considered broad-based. That fact that “broad-based” in this instance meant tracking largely in social mainstream directions, Black religion that was congenial to mainstream American objectives could prove useful to Black professionalization, but a Black religion oriented toward prophetic resistance could prove a liability.

Despite the eroded strength and influence of SCLC prophetic activism, Lowery was undeterred in his commitment to being a force of resistance and locating alongside the socially marginalized and oppressed. In February 1982, during a U.S. presidency especially unreceptive to critiques of systemic injustice, SCLC launched a campaign to bring attention to persistently fierce Black economic inequalities and attacks on Black voting rights. In direct response to the sentencing of two Black women community organizers — Maggie Bozeman and Julia Wilder, convicted of voter fraud for assisting illiterate Black voters in Carrollton, Alabama with the signing of their ballots — Lowery organized a 160 mile march from Carrollton to Montgomery. This march (considered to be “the longest march in civil rights history”) was joined at points along the way by numerous prominent leaders, including Martin Luther King, Sr., Coretta Scott King, Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, Birmingham mayor Richard Arrington, Angela Davis, and Congressman Walter Fauntroy, and by Black and white activists from across the Southeast and Midwest. Also, public hearings on voting rights were held along the route in Selma and Greensboro, Alabama, with the testimony generated from those hearings delivered to the Congressional Black Caucus and Senator Ted Kennedy who entered the testimony into the U.S. congressional record.

The Carrollton-Montgomery march was followed by a pilgrimage from Tuskegee, Alabama to Washington, DC, beginning in early-April and concluding in Washington early-June. Headed by Lowery and Operation PUSH director Jesse Jackson, the two-month pilgrimage across five states generated voter registration drives and rallies to increase pressure on Congress to support an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The pilgrimage was to conclude in Washington with the erecting of a Tent City near the White house (reminiscent of 1968 Poor People’s March), but Congress approved the voting rights extension just prior to the Washington arrival of the protesters.1

This high-profile 1982 mobilization revitalized SCLC’s reputation as a leading champion of voting rights and anti-poverty advocacy, while propelling Lowery toward additional dimensions of national leadership and influence. For example, 1982 was also the year Lowery became president of the National Black Leadership Forum, a consortium of approximately 20 civil rights and political advocacy organizations founded several years earlier to collectively advance a progressive Black public policy agenda. As leader of this broad consortium, and in conjunction with two additional Black leadership networks (the Black Leadership Coalition and the National Black Leadership Roundtable), Lowery was instrumental in composing a set of policy proposals in early 1984 designated as “The People’s Platform.” The Platform, designed to influence policy discussions during the 1984 election season, strongly emphasized anti-poverty and community economic development measures including job training programs and small business development.2 In the midst of the early-1980s pushback against anti-poverty governmental safety nets and economic empowerment strategies, Lowery was among the few national leaders willing to place his leadership capital behind systemic and structural critiques that challenged an increasing national policy emphasis on socially exclusionary fiscal austerity ploys and meritocratic notions.

As the nation was reiterating its historical unwillingness to assist in the empowerment of its own socially-marginalized populations (especially if they were people of color), it also was renewing its well-established antagonisms toward Global South populations around the world who dared to rise-up against oppression. Lowery’s SCLC presidency had a strong foreign policy orientation almost from the outset, with his active defense of Andrew Young’s 1979 decision while U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations to hold unauthorized talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. After Young was fired by U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance for these actions, Lowery facilitated SCLC discussions with various Jewish and Palestinian leaders to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, including PLO President Yasser Arafat, PLO Observer to the UN Zehdi Labib Terzi, Israeli representative to the UN Yehuda Blum, and leaders from the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, and Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.3 When questioned by Jewish leaders about SCLC’s ongoing meetings with PLO representatives, Lowery replied: “We are making no apologies. Let’s stop the killings while we work out the problems … We have not endorsed the PLO. We have endorsed justice.” SCLC received criticism from Jewish leaders and lost Jewish support, but Lowery stood by the necessity of the PLO being included in policy discussions pertaining to the regional conflict.

By the early-1980s, the U.S. was deeply involved in efforts to counter liberation struggles in Central America, the Caribbean, and South Africa, and Lowery was strongly critical of the moral misalignments of these U.S. foreign policy initiatives. Lowery opposed the U.S.’s 1983 invasion of Grenada and the “Cold War” premises of its targeting of Grenada’s leftist regime, referring to the invasion as “premature and opportunistic” and “probably illegal and immoral.” U.S. Cold War thinking was also at work in its covert 1980s military operations against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. In responding to this, Lowery led delegations of high profile activists and Congressional representatives to Nicaragua, widely publicizing facts gathered during these visits, and conveying findings and assessments to governmental officials in Washington.4 Lowery was also highly critical of the Reagan Administration’s “Constructive Engagement” policy in South Africa, another Cold War policy construct, which lent support to the apartheid government’s efforts to subdue anti-apartheid forces within South Africa. When U.S. human rights and civil rights leaders rose up in 1984 in solidarity with South African freedom fighters and launched a “Free South Africa Movement,” Lowery was one of the very first in what would be thousands of persons to be arrested in subsequent months for protesting in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. The protests led to the passing of the 1985 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which was signed into law only after Congress overrode Reagan’s veto of the bill.

In Lowery’s domestic and foreign policy activism, the balance-of-power did not favor successful outcomes for the causes he championed, but whether or not the social changes were achieved, he spoke truth to power. Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated: “…there’re times when you must take a stand that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but you must do it because it is right.”5

Lowery stood for right even when it was unsafe, impolitic, and unpopular to do so. Whether standing with a few people or thousands, whether engaging with persons at the social margins or in the halls of power, Lowery stood up and spoke out.  He also stayed the course, throughout 40 years of SCLC activism, and for more than 20 additional years after his 1997 SCLC retirement.

In a 2008 interview he was asked about his sustained involvement in the social justice movement, and his response was: ”I never left. … I’m a pastor, a preacher, and it was part of my ministry. … I never partitioned my witness. I felt called to not only help people make heaven their home, but to make their home here heavenly. That included justice.”

A pursuit of justice, no matter the odds, was a spirit that defined SCLC and the arc of Lowery’s SCLC involvements, and it is a spirit that lives on, blowing from place to place and generation to generation.

Lowery remarked in the above-cited 2008 interview: “I think heaven blesses justice.” Indeed, there is a heavenly quality to justice — and to its champions whose life journeys prove a blessing to others. Joseph Lowery was just such a champion, and leaves behind a lasting witness.

  1. AP National Desk, “Civil Rights Leaders Plan New Ten City Near White House,” The New York Times, June 8, 1982.
  2. Francesta Farmer,  “The People’s Platform,” in “Campaign 84:  The Harvard Debates,“ Institute of Politics:  John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 1983-1984.
  3. Karin Stanford, Beyond the Boundaries, 57; and Carla Hall, “The Fervent Preacher and the Palestinians,” Washington Post, September 24, 1979.
  4. Julie Williams Johnson, “SCLC Against Latin Aid,” Black Enterprise Magazine, April 1984, 22; Ernie Suggs, “Remembering the Rev. Joseph Lowery—A Civil Rights Icon, 1921-2020,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, March 28, 2020.
  5. Martin Luther King, Jr., “America’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” Berkeley: UC Berkeley, May 17, 1967

Time to Shut Up! Racism, Royalty and the limitations of Britishness

By William Ackah, January 21, 2020, Birkbeck Comments

Meghan’s Blackness has lost its sparkle even quicker than I originally envisioned when I wrote an initial comment piece shortly after the royal wedding. As I alluded to at the time and reiterate here, the sparkle of Meghan’s Blackness could not last because at its core Britain is an institutionally racist country. From time to time the country wraps itself in multicultural garments of convenience like at the wedding, but as soon as Black people dare to question or challenge the multicultural facade, the garments come off and the nakedness of the faded empire’s racism is revealed.

The role of broadcast media has been pivotal in this regard. For the most part a multiracial cast of commentators have debated on various magazine and news programmes as to whether Meghan’s treatment has been racist. On the surface the debates seem fair, however a deeper dive reveals the deep-seated institutionalised racism of this form of broadcasting. Whether it is Andrew Neil, Andrew Marr, Robert Peston, Kay Burley, Victoria Derbyshire, Good Morning Britain, Politics Live, Newsnight, Question Time etc, etc all the permanent presenters, and regulators of the debates on these shows are White and the Black people that appear are temporary. White dominated media institutions make decisions about what is discussed, when it is discussed, how it is discussed and by who. Black people by contrast, have no control and are only invited to comment in highly contested spaces about our predicament. Even in these hostile spaces, in scenes straight out of Kafka, White males complain that they cannot speak about race and are victims of racism! This lets us know in no uncertain terms that there is very limited space to discuss on our own terms what it means to Black and British in this country.

As I have watched and read the debates surrounding the issue of royalty and race what has struck me is the stark difference between White British and Black British experience. White Britishness or to probably be more precise White Englishness exudes a sense of permanent entitlement within the fabric of British public life. Whereas Black Britishness even though it has a longer historical presence in Britain than whiteness (e.g. cheddar man) is seen as temporary. Black Britons have no permanent markers of presence in British institutional life, no public memory of our long- term citizenship. As in the current debate we appear and then disappear until the next episode of race and celebrity, race and violence, race and underachievement, race and music, race and sport, race and discrimination, race and culture generates enough controversy to merit a re-appearance. When we protest and insist that institutional racism in Britain is real and therefore Britain and its institutions need to change, then we are told once again to shut up and be grateful to live in the best multicultural society in the world. (thanks so much White people for reminding us we are so privileged!)

What the treatment of Meghan Markle (the tip of a huge underwater iceberg) exemplifies is that there are limitations to Black British citizenship. Ours is a transactional citizenship based on what we are perceived to contribute to the nation. That being the case I think it is time for the British State to be honest and to take appropriate action. In key areas where we are treated differently and adversely, we should be compensated, where the State provides us with a higher-level service than the wider community we should pay more. This should be the transactional basis of our citizenship until equality has been achieved.

For example, Black British citizens should pay a reduced TV license, as we don’t receive the same benefits from public broadcasting as does the wider society. We should pay less for university tuition, as it has been clearly demonstrated that universities provide a poorer service to Black students, so it stands to reason that we should pay less or receive compensation for services not rendered.

More broadly Black citizens should pay a reduced income tax. I can’t think of any institution in Britain that is maintained directly or indirectly by the taxes that Black British citizens pay that has provided a service to Black citizens that is equal to or better than what it provides to its White citizens.

Black British Citizens have cleaned your bums, manned your transport and done the jobs you did not want to do. In response we take abuse and experience racism from the terraces to the boardrooms to the classrooms. Living in an institutionally racist society has been and is a material and existential threat to our positive well-being in this society. So please no more TV debates framed by White privilege, shut up and pay up until genuine equality is achieved.

William Ackah is Lecturer in Department of Geography, Chair of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race .FacebookTwitter

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‘Until We Are All Free’: Learning from Tubman, King, and Stevenson

By R. Drew Smith, January 15, 2020, Sojourners Magazine

In 2020, January remembrances of Martin Luther King Jr. are occurring against the backdrop of two high-profile films emphasizing sacrificial servant leadership.

First, the film Harriet provided a renewed focus on celebrated abolitionist Harriet Tubman. This biopic chronicles her mid-19th century enslavement in Maryland, her daring escape to a hard-won freedom in Philadelphia, and her selfless decision to return to the South multiple times to lead others on the treacherous journey from slavery to northern freedom.

Harriet effectively captures the alarm among Tubman’s abolitionist hosts in Philadelphia at the idea of her returning South on these perilous missions. But Tubman’s actions were guided by deeply held convictions, as conveyed through her own published words, and in revised form within the film:

I had crossed de line of which I had so long been dreaming. I was free; but . . . my home after all was down in de old cabin quarter, wid de ole folks, and my brudders and sisters. [And] to dis solemn resolution I came; I was free, and dey should be free also.

For Tubman, freedom could never be understood as singular. She could not live fully into her own freedom, conscious of the continuously shackled existence of those she left behind.

This month also saw the release of the film Just Mercy, which tells the story of attorney Bryan Stevenson’s relentless pursuits of due process for Alabama death row inmates. Born and raised in Delaware, Stevenson’s exposure as a Harvard Law School student to legally flawed convictions of death row inmates, particularly in the South, became for him a matter warranting urgent attention.

Upon graduating, Stevenson decided, counter to all expectations about his career trajectory and despite personal dangers he might face, to return to the South to provide legal counsel to persons condemned to death. He went on to found Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based organization that has “won reversals, relief, or release” for hundreds of “wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced” prisoners, including 135 death row prisoners.

Stevenson would have us know, as stated in the film: “We can’t change the world with only ideas in our minds. We need conviction in our hearts.”

These accounts parallel the familiar sacrifices of Martin Luther King, Jr., who envisioned a path from his Boston University graduate studies to a career in the academy but returned to the South’s mid-20th century frontline struggle for racial justice, which led ultimately to his assassination.

As King would later say: “No one is free until we are all free.”

Today, although an ever-growing portion of African Americans press toward new social heights, a troublingly large portion of African Americans seem inescapably marginalized.

A persistent black marginalization has been masked by substantial social gains since the civil rights movement among a segment of African Americans that has achieved upward mobility, especially as a result of access to higher education.

The African American middle-class (defined in terms of persons working in non-manual, white collar jobs), was estimated by sociologist Bart Landry at 28 percent in 1970, 39 percent in 1980, 44 percent in 1990, and 51 percent in 2002.

Moreover, the percentage of African Americans with college degrees increased from 6 percent in 1970 to 19 percent (or 3.9 million persons) in 2011. Of that number, 1.6 million possessed advanced degrees (master’s, doctoral, or professional degrees) as compared with 677,000 blacks with advanced degrees in 1995.

Nevertheless, these social gains have occurred alongside a deepening and thickening of black poverty. Although the number of African Americans living below the poverty line in fact declined from 42 percent in 1966 to below 30 percent by 2008, several additional social indicators clarify the severity of black poverty and the reality of social isolation and marginalization evident among a large segment of blacks.

Particularly noteworthy has been the high unemployment rate among African-American youths age 16-19, which ranged between 23 percent and 48 percent from 1991-2010, and only recently declined to a low of 15 percent. Also of concern is a high school dropout rate among African Americans age 16-24, which has fluctuated between 10 and 15 percent throughout the 2000s (as compared to a rate of five percent or less among whites). Although by no means the only factor, high dropout rates contribute to the fact that roughly 80 percent of African Americans are without a college degree.

These economic and educational bifurcations among African Americans — and increasingly among Americans in general — raise nettlesome questions about possibilities for social mobility within the U.S.

Noted poverty analyst Douglas S. Massey makes a clear case against social mobility as a generalizable prospect within the American context. Massey details, instead, systematic impediments to social mobility deriving from America’s “allocation of people to social categories” and its “institutionalization of practices that allocate resources unequally across these categories.” The result, as Massey shows, is an “enduring” stratification tending to lock persons in place “across time and between generations,” and largely precluding upward mobility across class lines.

Urban slums are a contemporary spatial embodiment of this, as a growing percentage of blacks reside in neighborhoods where 40 percent or more of the residents are below the poverty line. The percentage of African Americans living in concentrated poverty rose from 8 percent in 1970, to 16 percent in 1990, to 23 percent in 2011. Moreover, recent research has shown that “concentrated poverty is tightly correlated with gaps in educational achievement.” As data confirm, there are virtually no poor school districts in the U.S. “where kids are performing at least at the national average.”

What also epitomizes concentrated black poverty and isolation is America’s outsized prisoner population. The amount of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails rose from roughly 200,000 in 1970 to 2.2 million in 2017, and another 4.5 million persons were under supervised parole or probation by 2018. The vast majority of these persons are poor and are disproportionally persons of color.

In confronting American educational inequities, carceral culture, or other factors that have frustrated collective advancement, many African Americans in more fortuitous circumstances have mobilized intellectual, institutional, and financial resources in efforts to bridge persons out of socially marginalized confines.

As Tubman’s, King’s, and Stevenson’s examples make clear, expanding social promise for those at the social margins may require us circling back more directly to these confined spaces in order to personally point the way to a better future.

Such examples of sacrificial service provide a leadership standard deserving much greater emulation.

R. Drew Smith, Ph.D. is a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and co-convener of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race. He can be followed on Twitter @RDrewSmith1

To solve the hidden epidemic of teen hunger, we should listen to teens who experience it

Stephanie C. Boddie, PhD.

(The Conversation) For many young people, the toughest choice they will ever have to make about food is what to eat at home or what to choose from a menu.

But for Texas high schoolers Tamiya, Juliana, Trisha, Cara and Kristen, the choices they have to make about food are more difficult. For them, the conversation is less about food and more about how to put food on the table.

“It’s kind of hard because like, I know I’m young, and my momma don’t want me to get a job, but it’s really helping out,” Kristin told us for a 2019 study regarding her decision to work as a waitress at a fast food chain. “Because basically, my check is paying for the food we’re going to eat … the tips I made today are what we ate off of.”

Such stories are part of a hidden epidemic that I – a social work scholar – and one of my students, Ana O’Quin, investigated for a recent study about food insecurity among America’s teenagers. Food insecurity, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, means limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods. It also means the inability to acquire foods without resorting to socially unacceptable means, such as stealing or transactional dating.

The consequences of food insecurity follow teens into the classroom and even reduce their chances of graduation.

According to the most recent federal estimates, 37 million people live in food-insecure households. This includes nearly 7 million young people who are 10 to 17 years old.

The problem of food insecurity is particularly pronounced among African Americans, who collectively are twice as likely as whites to experience food insecurity.

Teenagers took pictures of their meals to show researchers the quality of their food options. Author provided

Going without

Teens in these households are more likely to skip meals or not eat for a whole day because there was not enough money for food. Some teens drink water, eat junk food or go to sleep instead of eating a meal.

“Most parents will feed you before they feed themselves,” Trisha told us. “When food stamps first come, Mamma cooks a lot. But like a week later, it’s nothing. Maybe cereal, or noodles, sandwiches.”

Juliana added, “We used to always buy rice, because you can buy a lot of it, and it’s cheap. You can buy Spam and rice and that would be the whole meal for the rest of the week.”

While many teens rely on their parents and guardians well into adulthood, we found that these teens rely on themselves before they even become adults. Julianna says she started babysitting at about the age of 12 to help put food on the table.

“Whatever money I would get from that, I would give it to my mamma,” Julianna said.

It’s not uncommon for teens to sacrifice to make sure their mother eats.

For instance, Kristin told us that her thinking goes like this: “I know your health is worse than mine. So mamma make sure you eat. I don’t care … I can scrounge up some food at school.”

Taking risks to eat

The teens we spoke with shared how peers engage in risky behaviors that have long-term consequences. Out of desperation, some teens – rarely but still too often – find themselves shoplifting, stealing, transactional dating, “trading sex” for food or selling drugs to access food. “Stealing is the main thing,” said Cara.

Health impact

Teens typically experience a growth spurt and need more food during adolescence. Without adequate nutrition, teens often experience the short-term effects of food insecurity, such as stomach aches, headaches and low energy. Teens in our study mentioned having a difficult time focusing in class or even staying awake during school.

Food insecurity can result in long-term effects in the following areas:

Physical health conditions, like asthma, anemia, obesity and diabetes.

Mental and behavioral health including anxiety, depression, difficulty getting along with peers, substance abuse and even suicidal thoughts.

Cognitive health such as slower learning rates and lower math and reading scores.

What can be done?

These teens live in households eligible to receive free and reduced breakfast and lunch and food assistance benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the U.S. government’s largest anti-hunger program, which served 40 million in 2018.

Eligible families receive an electronic benefit transfer of funds each month to purchase food, on average US$1.39 per meal.

Teens from our study said they preferred electronic benefit transfer over the stigma of going to a food pantry or other public place to receive food. To address the hidden epidemic of teen food insecurity and its consequences, the teens first suggested increasing food stamp benefits to provide the extra food growing teens need.

The teens in our study also suggested:

• Encouraging teens to participate in school sports or afterschool programs like The Cove or the Boys and Girls Clubs where meals are served.

• Recommending that restaurants participate in food rescue programs like Cultivate that prepare weekend meals for schoolchildren.

• Cultivating gardens at schools or in the community through organizations like 4-H clubs, university extension programs and the Food Project.

• Developing job training programs like the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative to help teens gain skills to break the cycle of poverty and hunger.

Employment desires

Teens like Kristin prefer to work to help put food on the table. While research shows there are benefits of teens working to provide food for their families, it also highlights the trade-offs such as students abandoning school for work.

Young people who experience food insecurity bring a keen awareness to this challenge. It’s time for people who can do something about the problem to listen to what they have to say.

National reconciliation without accountability rings hollow

By R. Drew Smith, Sojourners, October 21, 2019

Twenty-five years ago, Nelson Mandela was elected South African president after serving 27 years in prison for leading resistance against racially-oppressive apartheid rule. During that same moment in April of 1994, a horrible tragedy was unfolding further north on the African continent as longstanding ethnic grievances within Rwanda irrupted into a spate of genocidal violence that took the lives of approximately one million Rwandans.

With 1994 signaling new beginnings within South Africa and social catastrophe within Rwanda, it certainly seemed at the time that South Africa was on better footing than Rwanda to address deep-seated conflict within its context.

But 25 years later, Rwanda has far outpaced South Africa in its progress toward social healing and unity, due in no small part to the breadth of the Rwandan people’s commitment to accounting for the atrocities of 1994.

Rwanda’s several months of massive violence were quickly followed by the November 1994 creation of an International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), established through a United Nations Security Council resolution. By the time ICTR closed its work in December 2015, it had prosecuted 93 persons and sentenced 61, including the former prime minister, Defense Ministry chief of staff, and Army chief of staff.

Nonetheless, the ICTR was widely criticized, especially for prosecuting so few people at such a high operating cost (more than $2 billion), and for its bureaucracy, elongated trials, and lack of attention to reparations.

With hundreds of thousands of genocide suspects imprisoned and awaiting trial, and with ICTR jurisprudence supplemented mainly by conventional Rwandan courts that had tried only 1,292 genocide suspects by 1998, the Rwandan government turned to a traditional system of community-based courts with deep roots in Rwandan culture. Historically, these traditional courts, known as gacaca, utilized local elders in resolving minor civil disputes related mainly to matters pertaining to property, inheritance, and marital relations.

By 2005, the Rwandan government established a network of more than 12,000 of these gacaca courts that presided over almost two million genocide-related cases through 2012, with 65 percent resulting in conviction. Sentences ranged from extended jail time with hard labor to release back into communities to assist with the rebuilding process. Critics have pointed out however that gacaca courts fell “well short of international legal standards,” particularly with respect to the training and impartiality of judges and access by defendants to legal representation. Nevertheless, details derived from court testimonies provided many Rwandans, individually and collectively, with information about the genocide that proved critical to closure and moving forward.

South Africa also initiated a national truth-telling process with the 1995 launching of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC, established by an Act of Parliament and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, centered upon detailing apartheid-era human rights violations through public testimony from victims and perpetrators. Testimonies received in these often-televised hearings were to provide a basis for charges against perpetrators, amnesty for the perpetrators who fully disclosed their crimes, and reparations and rehabilitation for victims.

By the time TRC concluded its work in 2002, more than 2,000 persons had testified before the Commission and more than 7,000 persons had petitioned for amnesty. Although only 849 persons succeeded in their amnesty petitions, the vast majority of those denied amnesty were never tried for their offences.

The TRC was roundly criticized for permitting so few grievances to be heard and for facilitating a national process where apologies from perpetrators — aimed at eliciting forgiveness from victims — seemingly served as substitutes for accountability.

Insistence on accountability for wrongdoing was responded to through varying degrees of commitment by the Rwandan and South African governments to reparations for victims. In South Africa, President Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, authorized a one-off $4,000 payment to 18,000 persons who had applied for reparations. In Rwanda, the post-genocide government established a Genocide Survivors Assistance Fund in 1996 to which it committed a six percent allocation from the annual national budget while also requiring a one percent contribution of gross annual salary from every public sector and private sector employee through 2008.

For all the good accomplished in the two countries’ efforts to account for the past, there were obvious limitations within each national approach, and noticeable differences between the two countries in the extent of testimony-gathering, punishment for crimes, and reparations to victims.

Not surprisingly, the wider scale and scope of Rwanda’s efforts compared to South Africa’s fueled greater confidence among Rwandans than South Africans in their nation’s ability to overcome its past.

According to a Reconciliation Barometer survey administered in South Africa in 2017, and in Rwanda in 2015, there was quite a contrast between the two countries in how citizens viewed reconciliation efforts. Ninety-six percent of Rwandans but only 56 percent of South Africans indicated their nation had made good progress toward reconciliation. Eighty-five percent of Rwandans but only 47 percent of South Africans reported they or persons close to them had personally experienced reconciliation.

Specific to economic metrics, 88 percent of Rwandans felt property looted or destroyed during the genocide had been compensated, while 70 percent of South Africans viewed black poverty and landlessness alongside white wealth as enduring effects of apartheid, Also, 62 percent of South Africans felt reconciliation to be “impossible as long as people disadvantaged under apartheid continue to be poor.”

Although achievement of unity and common cause relies on many factors, it is important to note 95 percent of Rwandans as compared to 78 percent of South Africans said their national identity was an important part of how they see themselves. Moreover, 94 percent of Rwandan respondents agreed with the statement, “Rwandans are now committed to fight … against anything that may cause again divisions and genocide,” compared to 68 percent of South Africans who believed it possible “to create one united South African nation” out of all its different groups.

Rwanda and South Africa have overcome much since 1994. Nevertheless, the variances between the two in accounting for wrongdoing and in facilitating social healing seem instructive to anyone concerned with peace.

R. Drew Smith, Ph.D. is a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and co-convener of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race. He can be followed on Twitter @RDrewSmith1

A visit to the Hekima university college chapel during the TRRR conference

By: Faith Ondeng | faith.ondeng@hekima.ac.ke

TRRR delegates in front of Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Reliations

The 8th Transatlantic Round table Conference on Religion and Race (TRRR) was convened in Nairobi, Kenya, at Hekima Institute of peace studies and International Relations (HIPSIR). Hekima is a Christian and Jesuit Institution that offers MA in peace studies and international relations, and BA in theology. In addition, the college has a center for research, training and publications. The T triple R conference is a community of discourse on religious responses to issues of race and brings together religious leaders, scholars, civil society organizations and governmental leaders in round table discussions.

Coincidentally, the 2019 theme of the TRRR conference, ‘old divisions new social formations: Africa and the diaspora’, fits with the symbolism of the painting in the Hekima chapel. They are not only thought provoking but also presents an urgency for action.

As you step in the university, the Hekima University College chapel is eye catching. It’s central location within the compound, the beautiful garden plants and the stained-glass doors welcomes you to a place of worship and adoration. As delegates get seated, one could easily notice a steady and intent look in admiration of the paintings and other art behind the center alter of the chapel. Dr. Elias Omondi, director of HIPSIR and a Jesuit priest, took the stage to brief the delegates and students on the triptych at the alter which was designed by an African Jesuit artist and scholar from Cameroon, Fr. Engelbert Mveng. The beautiful image at the center depicts an elevated Christ with a lustrous bright yellow color at the background, he said. At his feet are two figures, one with arms stretched out to him and the other pointing at ‘the city’. This magnificent image is sandwiched by scenes from the bible; on the right, is the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and on the left is the miracle of Cana.

Strategically located at the bottom center of the middle panel is ‘the city of Nairobi’. In an article published in 2012, Fr. Kpanie Addy, points out to the symbolism and ambivalence of the city through 3 lenses; First the biblical perspectives. Enoch as the first city of the bible, which originated as a place of refuge and protection for Cain and but also a birthplace for civilization and invention. Furthermore, the bible notes the emergence of several other cities, some representing evil like Sodom and Gomorrah while some others are outstanding like Jerusalem. The second perspective is within the African context. In this context, the city is representated in a clear dichotomy of the rural and urban, one that can be viewed as a deliberate establishment by the colonial masters of a social structure that restricts black people’s access to the urban cities. Thus, a place of alienation, exclusion and exploitation but also a place of acculturation and survival especially in the contemporary society. The third perspective is that of the artists. A lens that encapsulates the first two perspectives. According to the Fr. Mveng, the city represents the church in its inherent ambiguity. Whereby racism among other evils proceed Christ’s mission even among the missionaries on one hand and on the other, is the active role played by the church in advocating for social justice and peace in conflict situations.

400th Year Remembrances of Slavery Should Prompt Renewed Attention to U.S.-Africa Policies

By R. Drew Smith
Professor, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary
Co-Convener, Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race

With 2019 regarded by many as marking 400 years since the beginnings of African enslavement on the North American continent, the costs and consequences of that historic atrocity and the case for reparations for descendants of slavery have been receiving considerable attention. It is crucial there be a serious accounting of slavery, including a financial accounting of slavery’s impact on economic disparities along race lines, and this year’s quadricentennial commemorative activities have served as an occasion for some of the most far-reaching political and even theological discussions of these matters to date within the U.S.

But as mobilizations around reparations proceed, there should also be a focus on repairing severed cultural, religious, political, and economic ties between African-descended persons throughout the Americas and African peoples on the continent.

This was the thinking behind the designation of 2019 as an Africa diaspora Year of Return to Africa, with that return taking place symbolically through visits to Ghana and the castles on its coast from which many Africans began their journey into enslavement in the Americas. Scheduled to coincide with the August 1619 arrival of enslaved Africans in Jamestown, persons from across the Americas have been assembling for remembrance ceremonies in Ghana this month, including a U.S. congressional delegation comprised of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 13 members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Nonetheless, 2019 also serves as a sad reminder of historically fraught political and economic relations between the U.S. and Africa—and of how little critical attention U.S. missteps in its governmental relations with Africa have received from American faith leaders.

After years of social neglect and economic abuse, U.S. governmental policies began showing improvements during Bill Clinton’s administration, especially with the signing into law in 2000 of the African Growth and Opportunity Act. This was a preferential trade agreement that increased sub-Saharan African exports to the U.S. from roughly $25 billion in 2000 to a high point of $86 billion in 2008 before declining to $50 billion in 2012 and then to $20 billion by 2016.1 George W. Bush’s administration produced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which allocated $15 billion for AIDS relief initiatives between 2003 and 2008 and authorized another $48 billion in 2008. Twelve of the 15 countries targeted by the program were located in Africa.2 Several key Africa initiatives emerged during Barack Obama’s administration, including the Power Africa Initiative (which pledged $7 billion in governmental aid and generated $14 billion in matching private sector funds) and the Young African Leaders Initiative (which produced a network of more than 250,000 young African leaders).3

Donald Trump’s Africa policy has been remarkable more for its inactivity, lack of focus, and pejorative tone. As Trump was preparing to assume the presidency in 2016, he tweeted: “Every penny of the $7 billion going to Africa as per Obama will be stolen — corruption is rampant!”4 In case that didn’t make clear how negatively Trump viewed Africa, his January 2019 disparagements of African and several other global south nations as “shithole countries” made his low regard for Africa abundantly clear.

Trump’s attitude toward Africa has been deeply problematic, but even where there were laudable developments in U.S.-Africa policy from the Clinton administration forward, the real legacy has remained largely one of ongoing neglect.

Meanwhile, many of the Africa advocacy organizations within the U.S. that had established discernible footing and voice during the 1970s and 1980s had lost momentum by the 1990s. This was an Africa advocacy infrastructure in which faith leaders and their religious constituencies played a strategic role—and African American clergy were a very prominent part of this Africa advocacy work. A cadre of African American civil rights movement clergy championed African decolonization and nation-building during the 1950s and 1960s, post-independence African development during the 1970s, and were on the front lines of U.S. anti-apartheid activism during the 1980s and early-1990s.

By the time South African apartheid officially ended in 1994 however, Africa advocacy organizations in the U.S. were struggling with their directional footing and with maintaining funding and support, including from the activist faith-based networks that had been primary partners in their advocacy work.

So when the U.S. government did little to respond as a million Rwandan lives were lost to genocide in 1994, and as more than 11,000 lives were lost between late-2013 and 2015 to an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and as protracted violent conflicts in Sudan, South Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo led to millions of deaths over the past two decades, Africa advocacy organizations within the U.S. could not apply the same level of pressure for action they did during their 1980s anti-apartheid activism.

The inability of these organizations to assert political pressure and the lack of a systematically mobilized U.S. faith sector around African urgencies from 1994 forward were closely interrelated.

Systematic and substantive responses to social urgencies are necessary, but Africa is also a context experiencing some of the greatest economic growth, technological expansion, educational vitality, and cultural and religious vibrancy of any place in the world.

U.S. policy approaches to Africa should be guided by a concern for social need but also by a commitment to allying with vital developmental initiatives taking place within Africa.

A strong Africa advocacy sector in the U.S. is essential to carrying out those objectives. As in the past, this ongoing work will require strong support from the faith community, and a new generation of African American faith leaders should be leading the charge to bolster the hard work being done by a diligent but institutionally diminished Africa advocacy sector.


  1. John Campbell, “What is the African Growth and Opportunity Act?” Council on Foreign Relations, February 17, 2017, https://www.cfr.org/blog/what-african-growth-and-opportunity-act
  2. R. Drew Smith, “Balancing Faith-Based Strategies in U.S.-Africa Policy,” Review of Faith & International Affairs, September 2008
  3. Danielle Kwateng-Clark, “The Obama legacy in Africa,” NewsOne, December 1, 2016, https://newsone.com/3605160/the-obama-legacy-in-africa/
  4. BBC, “Barack Obama: How will Africa remember him?” BBC News, January 18, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-38649362

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