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The Hidden Structural Racism in the American Response to Public Health Emergencies

by R. Drew Smith, Public Seminar, July 23, 2020

In recent decades, in reacting to threats to public health, the U.S. government has often resisted mobilizing a robust response until the dangers were perceived as hitting “close-to-home.” A closer look at what counts as “home” suggests that experts often assumed the term meant the white homeland understood in terms of evangelical Christian values.

When faced with emerging epidemics related to HIV/AIDS in the 1970s, to crack cocaine in the 1980s, to Ebola in 2014 and 2018, the U.S. government was slow to intervene on behalf of homosexual populations, or urban poor populations, or African populations, who respectively were most-affected by those public health emergencies.

Currently, there is a striking statistical association between HIV/AIDS and Black people, with Black people accounting for 42 percent of persons in the United States living with HIV and 44 percent of deaths, and with HIV deaths in sub-Saharan Africa roughly 10 to 20 times the rates in most of the rest of the world. The Ebola and crack cocaine epidemics were also strongly associated with Black people.

When COVID-19 first appeared as a health threat earlier this year, it was initially dismissed by President Donald Trump and other administration officials as a problem for China — not America. Today, as COVID-19 cases continue to soar across the United States, disproportionately impacting Black and brown Americans, Trump has continued to downplay the threat. Of the almost 140,000 American COVID-19 deaths so far, 40 percent have been of Black or Hispanic persons.

In confronting previous health crises, the U.S. government has tended to behave as if safeguarding Black lives mattered less than protecting white lives. The political, public health, and moral imperatives of mounting the fullest possible response to COVID-19 seem self-evident. And yet the U.S. government has yet to rise to this challenge.


Racial bias looms large as an explanation — and all Americans will pay a high price if the implicit racist calculus in the government response is not acknowledged and systematically addressed.

Racial aspects of recent epidemics and responses

When HIV/AIDS began sweeping across the United States in the 1980s, the government and media response was initially a mixture of silence about the disease’s increasingly tragic dimensions and stigmatization of AIDS as a disease trending among persons whose lifestyles or demographics marked them as “social others.” The federal government’s response at first was mostly one of neglect, with the U.S. Congress making its first allocation toward AIDS research and treatment in 1986 in the amount of $12 million, even though 1,450 HIV infections and 558 deaths had been reported by that time.

Even in the 1980s, Black people comprised a disproportionate number of U.S. infections. Now, in 2020, the number of persons in the U.S. living with the disease has grown to 1.1 million, with Black people comprising roughly 45 percent of HIV cases.

Given government neglect, it has been left to Black organizations, following in the footsteps of the white gay institutions that mobilized to fight AIDS in the 1980s, to do similar outreach within at-risk Black communities.

In the meantime, sub-Saharan Africa has become the global epicenter for HIV/AIDS cases. Of the 38 million persons worldwide living with HIV/AIDS, 26 million currently reside in Africa. Ironically (and for religious reasons we will explore in what follows), the U.S. government — initially under the leadership of George W. Bush — was at the forefront of responding to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa, having committed almost $90 billion since 2003 to the global fight against HIV/AIDS through its Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Sub-Saharan Africa is also associated with major outbreaks of the Ebola virus, including the largest Ebola outbreak in history which occurred 2014­–2016 in West Africa and resulted in more than 28,600 cases and 11,325 deaths. The second largest outbreak of the disease, which occurred 2018–2020 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), involved more than 3,400 cases and 2,200 deaths.

Although the West African outbreak of 2014 was acknowledged internationally in March of that year, it was six months before significant U.S. governmental resources were deployed. Unfortunately, even during the Obama presidency, African affairs received limited U.S. government priority. What belatedly provoked U.S. involvement was the arrival of several travelers infected with Ebola on our shores that fall. This inspired a full-blown panic, fanned by the American media.

In response, the United States committed $350 million in aid and a potential allocation of $1 billion more through Pentagon channels. This included a deployment to West Africa of several thousand military personnel tasked with enhancing medical response capacities through logistical support and construction of treatment and training facilities.

By the time these U.S. government mobilizations occurred, the number of persons infected with the virus had grown dramatically, more than doubling from 3,500 cases in early-September to 7,500 cases in early-October. According to a 2015 U.S. Presidential Commission, the delay by global powers such as the United States in responding to the virus was cited as a critical factor in the spread of the disease. Accusing the government of a “fumbled” response, the Commission’s report pointed to the United States’s scientific unpreparedness in combatting epidemics and its political unwillingness to act. The lesson for the future, the Commission warned, is that a “failure to prepare and a failure to follow good science . . . will lead to needless deaths.”

That lesson, alas, would subsequently go unheeded. When Ebola flared up again in the Congo in the spring of 2018, the American Centers for Disease Control immediately dispatched agents to Africa, but the Trump administration just as immediately withdrew the CDC from the field, with the result that far fewer Americans were enlisted in the global fight against the second Ebola outbreak than in the first.

The reaction of the Trump administration to COVID-19 has followed a similar pattern of a sluggish response to a large-scale health emergency disproportionately impacting persons of color. President Trump has been dismissive of the COVID-19 crisis throughout, ignoring for months reports of an emerging outbreak, then deriding it as a “China virus” or “Kung Flu,” and consistently resisting and actively disputing protocols and prescriptions from medical and scientific experts on how to respond to the outbreak.

Racial disparities in COVID-19 infection rates had become clear by the end March, with figures showing Black people (who are 13 percent of the U.S. general population) making up 33 percent of those hospitalized due to COVID-19.

By June, COVID-related hospitalizations of Black people numbered 221 per 100,000 population and Hispanics 178 per 100,000 population. By contrast, white hospitalizations were 40 per 100,000 population. With respect to COVID-related deaths, both Black people and Native Americans died from the disease at rates disproportionate to their percentage within the U.S. general population, with Black people comprising 21 percent of COVID-19 deaths and Native Americans comprising 4 percent (though making up only 1.6 percent of the U.S. general population).

Racial and Religious Dimensions in Designating Public Imperatives

At the same time, the Trump administration has demonstrated that when it is white Americans bearing the brunt of a public health emergency, a systematic and sympathetic response can be marshalled. This was made plain during the first years of his presidency, when Trump in 2017 officially declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency necessitating treatment programs. In addition, Trump threatened targeted law enforcement actions against opioid supply chains — including the pharmaceutical corporations flooding communities with these drugs and the medical professionals over-subscribing these drugs to patients. Building upon $181 million authorized during the Obama presidency for substance and opioid abuse, the Republican-controlled Congress in the first year of Trump’s presidency authorized an additional $6 billion to “triage opioid emergencies.”

As welcome and long-overdue as this governmental response has been, the recent government mobilization to attack opioid abuse among America’s “forgotten men” makes obvious the many decades of public health inaction when it seemed that mainly Black and brown people were using heroin and crack cocaine. Instead of funding treatment programs and helping cities and states cope with overdoses, the government ratcheted up its incarceration of poor people of color arrested by the police with even minimal quantities of drugs.

In 1974, the number of Black males who had ever served time in prison within the United States was 595,000. By 1991, that number had grown to 1,181,000, and by 2001 to 1,936,000. The cumulative number of incarcerated Hispanic males also grew exponentially during that period, increasing from 94,000 in 1974, to 392,000 in 1991, to 911,000 in 2001. In 2018, one-fifth of the roughly two million persons incarcerated in the United States were serving time for drug charges, and almost 80 percent of the persons serving time in federal prisons on drug-related charges were Black or Hispanic.

Privileging of white life is likely one factor that accounts for differential U.S. government responses to various health emergencies during the last fifty years. But another key factor is the extent to which a health emergency registers as a “moral imperative.”

Take what seems like the anomalous proactive response of the George W. Bush administration to AIDS in Africa. American evangelicals were influential advocates for American intervention in this case, because they could tie this aid to their own missionary outreach. With significant input from evangelical leaders, Bush Administration officials and Congressional allies built into PEPFAR’s design an emphasis on abstinence before marriage, faithfulness within marriage, and discouragement of condom use. Organizations receiving PEPFAR monies were also required to sign a pledge renouncing prostitution.

In the process, what was also made clear was the power of conservative sexual doctrines in converting a tepid U.S. governmental response to HIV/AIDS within its own homeland to one driven by moral urgency in a foreign context where Christian missionaries were actively recruiting new followers.

This sheds light on our current moment in another way. As long as the flourishing of people of color remains less a moral imperative than the flourishing of white lives, or of less moral priority than the kind of socially self-interested religious parochialism advanced in the PEPFAR case, “Black Lives Matter” declarations and activism serve as essential reminders of the ways in which the status quo has in fact discounted the value of Black lives, and brown lives, and the lives of Indigenous Americans.

Meanwhile, President Trump continues resisting calls for rooting-out the systemic racism that disproportionately places people of color in harm’s way.

As the Black and brown death toll climbs from COVID-19, President Trump has made clear his top priority is reopening American society, no matter what: “There’ll be more deaths,” he’s remarked with a rhetorical shrug: “Will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be badly affected? Yes. But we have to get our country opened and we have to get it open soon.”

Indeed, people need to work. Students need to learn. But how important will those things be if a large and growing number of Black Americans literally “can’t breathe”?

R. Drew Smith, PhD, is co-convener of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race, and serves at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary as professor and Metro-Urban Institute director.

Ties that Bind? Emerging Race-Conscious Alliances Between African Immigrants and Black Americans

By R. Drew Smith July 7, 2020, Black Perspectives

Photo: Black Lives Matter Protest Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The atrocity of George Floyd’s killing by police has stoked anger over systemic racism while also helping redraw geographic, demographic, and conceptual lines of antiracism advocacy.

Encompassing young and old, urban and rural, and a diversity of nationalities, religious orientations, sexual and gender identifications, and racial and ethnic backgrounds, the antiracism movement is being infused with new energy and perspectives.

Certainly, the enlargements of interracial and international antiracism alliances are a very welcome development, but the past few weeks have also witnessed expansions of intraracial solidarities between African Americans and African immigrant populations in the U.S.

Given African immigrants typically have not accorded racism the same social importance as U.S.-born blacks, the noticeable rallying of Africans in the U.S. around a “Black Lives Matter” call for justice in response to George Floyd’s death represents a significant development.

Could new levels of political connection between African Americans and African immigrants be emerging that signal justice-oriented alliances capable of bridging diverse black vantage points on race?

Africanness not Blackness

In a study of racial and ethnic dimensions of black identity in the U.S., Haitian-American scholar, Patrick Oray points out that defining blackness within the U.S. has become a process of “ongoing negotiations among the growing diversity of black peoples residing in the U.S.”1 Within those diverse trajectories of social construction, negotiations  between African immigrants and U.S.-born blacks have had their unique challenges.

Race has been baked into African American social life and consciousness—a legacy of the tragic and tortured history of America’s genocidal racial history not always appreciated by persons not forged in that racial cauldron. Aspects of African American internalizations and externalizations of race are captured in recent Pew Research Center data on racial identification among Americans. The data show black adults more likely than persons from other groups within the U.S. “to see their race or ethnicity as central to their identity,” with 74 percent of blacks indicating such identity markers were extremely important or very important, as opposed to 59 percent of Hispanics, 56 percent of Asians, and 15 percent of whites. Moreover, 81 percent of blacks surveyed said they feel very or somewhat connected to a broader black community in the U.S.  While some may feign colorblindness, often as a cover for social privilege, African Americans remain explicit about their racial framings.

A common perception has been that African immigrants in the U.S. have tended not to place so strong an emphasis on race, either in their personal or group identification, or in explanations for social challenges encountered within the U.S. Instead, according to scholarship by Katha Guenther et al, “black immigrants often strive to assert the primacy of ethnic identity over racial identity,” both in “an effort to maintain ethnic group solidary and self-esteem, and to increase their chances of upward mobility.”2

Scholars have also drawn attention to connections between black immigrant concerns with upward mobility and a reluctance to become associated with black political or cultural expressions that appear too racially explicit, confrontational, or outside the American social mainstream. As religion scholar, Jacob Olupona points out, African immigrants have often pursued identities separate from African Americans in the hopes of avoiding the racist treatment and constricted social prospects suffered by many U.S.-born blacks. The result, says Olupona, is both a dilemma and a tension for African immigrants, as they seek to ensure the best possible life for their families and the communities with which they most immediately identify while at a broader level being drawn by camaraderie or compulsion alongside African Americans in “a common goal of fighting racism.”3

Moreover, African immigrants often bring with them a strong religiosity that has tended to emphasize a religious claim on private more than on public life, while according value to the public realm for its facilitation of the free practice of religion more than its facilitation of social justice or integrous governance. The lower priority on governmental facilitation of social goods is not surprising though within contexts where there may be lower overall confidence in the ability of government to deliver on these goods.

Recent Pew Research Center data are instructive on these points, providing revealing contrasts in the importance Africans assign to principles defining private vs. governmental life. For example, while 87 percent of survey respondents in Mozambique and 82 percent in Democratic Republic of Congo said religion is very important in their lives and only 2 percent in the former and 5 percent in the latter said it was not at all important,  a full 25 percent of respondents in the two countries stated it did not matter or that they had no opinion as to the form of government within their country.

Many Africans have looked to the U.S. as a beacon of good governance, both in its ability to preserve religious freedom and to make good on its democratic and social promises. African immigrants have tended to bring with them a view of America’s favorability in these respects, and have found it difficult to align with critics who call into question these popular conceptions of American religious and political ‘exceptionalism.’ As Olupona points out, African immigrants have struggled with reconciling how the United States can be “both a Christian and a racist nation.”4

Consequently, African immigrants have resisted more than embraced race-conscious critiques and strategies advanced by longstanding racial justice organizations such as the NAACP, and by more recent organizations such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI).

That now may be changing, however, amidst a drumbeat of black death at the hands of police.

Africanness and Blackness

BAJI since 2006, and BLM since 2013, have been prominent organizational lightning rods recently on race within the U.S., sparking both insurgent action and public ire in their demands for justice. …African immigrants have been strategically engaged with BLM and BAJI since their organizational formations.

Before the BLM movement irrupted in 2013 in collective outrage over the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer and the racist law-and-order zealotry the case represented, a wave of younger-generation black civil disobedience in support of black immigration justice had already been sweeping across major U.S. cities via BAJI’s organizing efforts. With the foreign-born black population in the U.S. currently numbering around four million (out of an overall U.S. foreign-born population of 44 million), BAJI has been on the front lines of documenting and drawing attention to U.S. policies bearing-upon black  immigration and naturalization, with an eye specifically toward racial injustices built into these processes. For example, BAJI has challenged and staged large-scale protests against the Trump Administration’s cancellation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and against incarcerations of black undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers upon arrival at the Mexico border and within the U.S.

There has been both thematic and leadership crossover between these immigration-oriented and police reform-oriented mobilizations, as embodied for example in the high-profile leadership of Nigerian-American activist, Opal Tometi, a principal co-founder of BLM and a leader and once executive director of BAJI. Just as  BLM’s initiators were a team of immigrant and U.S.-born black activists (Tometi, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Alicia Garza), BAJI was initiated by South African immigrant Kelvin Sauls and civil rights activist Phillip Lawson, two clergymen who mobilized San Francisco Bay Area black activists and African cultural bridge-building networks in pursuit of BAJI’s objectives.

The BLM movement has swept across the nation and the world via its 15 formal U.S. and Canadian chapters and its many informal networks extending across the globe, but a major center of BLM activism since at least 2014 has been Minneapolis.

In December 2014, BLM Minnesota drew more than a thousand protesters to the Minneapolis-area’s celebrated Mall of America to generate local support for justice in the August 2014 killing of 18-year old Michael Brown by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. When in November 2015, Minneapolis police killed 24-year old Jamar Clark (who, like Brown in Ferguson was unarmed), BLM Minnesota protested outside a police station at the center of the storm for 18 days. BLM also staged major protests that year at Mall of America to disrupt Thanksgiving and Christmas season shopping and at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to disrupt Christmas season travel. Despite the attention brought locally and nationally to the Clark case, no charges were filed against the policemen responsible for Clark’s death—(who reportedly was killed while lying on the ground in handcuffs).

Activists in Minneapolis, therefore, were a strategic part of BLM’s growing influence long before George Floyd became a more recent case of black execution by police. One of BLM Minnesota’s most prominent organizers, Miski Noor, who is part of Minneapolis’ large Muslim African immigrant community, had this to say in 2017 about the importance of the Minneapolis context to global antiracism work:

“Our city has served as one of the major battlegrounds for the sanctity of Black life over the last four years . . . Like other cities in the U.S., poor and young Black women and femme activists in Minneapolis have created space over the years for people to take action, organize their communities and change the material conditions of Black folks. Their work has created a national platform for Minneapolis . . ..”

George Floyd’s recent killing has magnified attention on Minneapolis and amplified the influence of Minneapolis’ front-line activists, including its strongly mobilized African Muslim immigrant community. The fact that George Floyd’s death occurred in a neighborhood where Minneapolis’ Somali community is heavily concentrated clearly contributed to the active involvement of Somalis (especially younger-generation Somalis), already highly mobilized on racial justice issues. Commenting upon recent Somali activism, Minnesota journalist Mukhtar Ibrahim reports: “The younger generation clearly came out this time. Probably they have more interactions with the police than their parents or they can relate more with the African American experience than their parents . . . I saw a lot of young Somalis participating, especially young females, wearing the hijab . . ..” Many within the Somali business community also were very supportive of the protests, reportedly donating food and supplies to the protesters.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who represents this district in the U.S. Congress, has also been a high-profile representative of a politically activated Somali Muslim community, while increasingly forming strategic political alignments on race matters with African American communities. She has teamed-up legislatively with Congresswoman Ayana Pressley (D-MA) on more than one recently introduced racial justice bill, including the Student Debt Emergency Relief Act, and the National Police Misuse of Force Investigation Board Act.

These illustrations of expanded front-line racial justice activism by African immigrants display a potential (too often unfulfilled) for broadening and deepening African immigrant alliances with black racial justice undertakings.

Indeed, the glaring injustice of George Floyd’s killing further galvanized broader alliances, but the fires of intercultural black protest have fed and must continue to feed off the fresh commitments to social justice being cultivated among new generations of activists, including among new generations of Africans born into immigrant households within the U.S. Lifelong socialization by U.S.-born Africans into the American racial experience increasingly makes possible their fuller appreciation of the psychic dissonances imposed by racism. Also, reevaluations of the adherence within their communities to mainstream ideas of respectability and American exceptionalism are eroding conceptual barriers to wider African defiance of prevailing American racism.

These developments bode well for efforts to more fully realize potential for intercultural Black racial justice alliances.

  1. Patrick B. Oray, “Another Layer of Blackness: Theorizing Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in the U.S. Black Public Sphere,” PhD. Dissertation for the University of Iowa, December 2013: 14 
  2. Katja M. Guenther, Sadie Pendaz, and Fortunata Songora Makene, “The Impact of Intersecting Dimensions of Inequality and Identity on the Racial Status of Eastern African Immigrants,” Sociological Forum, 26/1, March 2011: 103 
  3. Jacob K. Olupona, “Communities of Believer: Exploring African Immigrant Religion in the United States), in African Immigrant Religions in America, edited by Jacob Olupona and Regina Gemignani, New York University Press, 2007: 35-36; see also Janel E. Benson, “Exploring the Racial Identities of Black Immigrants in the United States,” Sociological Forum,  21/2, June 2006: 233) 
  4. Olupona, 36 

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


‘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.

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