Lessons for black South Africa in black America

Many middle-class black South Africans hold poor and working-class blacks in disregard if not disdain, and believe poor blacks hold themselves back.

Image: Joe Brusky. Via Flickr CC.

There were more people at Chumley’s sports bar during Saturday’s Ohio State University game against arch rival Michigan than there were days later at the Ohio Union nearby on Thursday night for #deconstructingferguson, a conversation and teach-in that centered around events in Ferguson, Missouri, in the United States. Don’t get me wrong. The turnout at the teach-in was tremendous; at least twice the number of people came than the organizers, the OSU history department, expected. It was also standing room only earlier in the week at a panel discussion on the same topic hosted by the university’s college of law.

But these numbers were a fraction of those at Chumley’s on Saturday, which, like the streets of the OSU campus, Columbus and probably every other city in the Buckeye state, even Beavercreek and Cleveland, was overflowing with mostly white revelers in scarlet and grey. It was hard not to get caught up in the revelry, despite being only a visitor.

All eyes were on nearby Ohio Stadium, filled with a record 108,610 people who witnessed OSU run out 42-28 winners, keeping their hopes of a Big-Ten championship alive. The victory was costly. Star quarterback J. T. Barrett broke his right ankle and will be out for the rest of the season. His plays up to that point had seen him billed as a potential Heisman trophy winner, but that dream is now deferred.

As I listened to people at the teach-in seated in circles of eight to ten people speak from experience and research of racial stereotyping, police brutality and the US justice system, my mind turned to Barrett and his black OSU teammates. The circle I was in had mostly black undergraduates, mere babies who each had a personal story to tell of their distrust of the police, experience of police brutality and lack of faith in the criminal justice system.

It was in particular a comment from a young woman next to me rejecting the idea that blacks should don on the military fatigues of and go to war for a country that does not care for them, that made me think of Barrett.

Barrett, too, no doubt, has his own stories of distrust and police brutality to tell. Yet majority of the hundreds of thousands who tune in to watch him put his body on the line for OSU tune out when his body is endangered by a system of policing that sees him, above all things, as a danger to society. But things are different when he’s on the field in scarlet and grey, aren’t they? Being on the field in scarlet and grey lets white folk and machinery of the state of Ohio and the City of Columbus care about what happens to him because, just for that moment, in their eyes, he stops being just another n—er.

Would Ronald Ritchie have called 911 to falsely report that “a black male, probably about 6ft tall” was pointing a gun at people in a Beavercreek Walmart, “probably to rob the place”, had John Crawford been Barrett in his scarlet and grey? Would the police who responded to the call in a state that has gun laws that allow people to carry openly have shot Crawford on sight? Probably not.

It’s likely, too, that had 12-year-old Tamir Rice had something to act as his scarlet and grey—a shield, albeit temporary, from the stereotype at the heart of white America, American institutions and the country’s criminal justice system that defines blackness as illicit—he might still be alive today. Instead, his family is in mourning. And in Cleveland, as it was in Missouri for Darren Wilson for the death of Mike Brown and New York City for Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, the blue wall of silence is converging with prosecutors’ dependence on future cooperation and electoral support from local police to conspire for the Cleveland police department and Timothy Loehmann, the unfit-for-duty cop who shot Rice on sight, to escape accountability.

Holding up a handwritten sign at a recent protest, University of Maryland wide receiver Deon Long asked America and its anti-black institutions: “Are we still thugs when you pay to watch us play sports? #blacklivesmatter

Long probably knows the answer is no, America’s black football players are, for the most part, loved when on the field and in their jerseys. It’s another matter entirely when they’re not wearing them, as the death of Jonathan Ferrell at the smoking end of police officer Randall Kerrick’s gun illustrated. Sometimes, even putting life and limb on the line for team pride isn’t enough to escape the stereotype that black equals thug.

In a way, every black American has since the 17th century been striving for something they hope will take on the role of a permanent, impervious equivalent to Barrett’s scarlet and grey, something that makes their humanity visible through the shades of anti-blackness nestled on eyes in America. For essayist Kiese Laymon it could have been his Vasser College faculty ID, but it doesn’t always work and as it protects him and him alone, it is thoroughly useless for the general deliverance of blacks from American evil, although it provides that comforting illusion.

For New York attorney Lawrence Graham, as it is for many other black folk, the hope is that attaining status among the elite will protect from anti-blackness. But Graham, too, conceded that this does not work.

Surely even Michelle and Barack Obama must also concede this. When America’s first couple is alone and not performing to alleviate the symptoms of an ailing country built on the bodies of native Americans and people of color, and through an imperialist foreign policy agenda that puts the lives of certain Americans above all others, they, too, must accept that even the title President of the United States does not make a difference to people and institutions who refuse to see you and your kids as anything else but bunch of n—ers.

I confess envy. The ease, conviction and singleness of purpose with which the young black Americans in the circle was I in spoke about their social realities and the imperative for justice made me reflect on similar conversations I’d attempted with young black South Africans and my peers in the middle class.

While many of those I spoke to are able to break down the social realities of being black in a supposedly post-apartheid South Africa, many more are insular and believe assimilating into structures and practices forged in the country’s colonial history will protect from its inherent anti-black biases. Black America’s already learned, or is at least learning, that this is not true, and is conceptualizing ways to organize against it. Well, most of black American anyway, excepting for people like Pharrell, Bill Cosby and Don Lemon who preach respectability as the savior of blacks.

There will always be people like that. There were even two who spoke and their arguments rejected on Thursday night. It’s just that among middle-class black South Africans, there seem to be many more people who hold poor and working-class blacks in disregard if not disdain, and believe an unearned sense of entitlement, poorly worded resumes or self-doubt are what holds blacks back. In so doing, they turn the obligation of adopting a change in behavior on black people and not the structures and systems that disenfranchise and devalue them.

Thus when thinking of what troubles poor black people, middle-class blacks in South Africa would do well to heed Ta-Nahesi Coates channeling Steve Biko: “There’s nothing wrong with black people that the complete and total elimination of white supremacy would not fix.”

The #deconstructingFerguson circles came together later that night to propose solutions to the problems discussed. Everyone present was onboard with the idea that America is not post-racial, a nebulous term matched in emptiness by its South African equivalent, non-racial. Although both words propose a theoretical future where race is no longer a factor, they provide no means of imaging what the path there looks like and what actions will get us there. And in popular use, both terms have been captured by neoliberal projects that present this future as imminent, attainable and inevitable through the status quo when, in reality, such a future is possibly only through a radical departure from the current.

The solutions proposed were mostly good and centered on organizing and mobilizing around specific issues; special prosecutors in cases involving police, automatic indictment, community policing, reforming the selection and social-awareness training of police officers, turning greater attention to electing local and state representatives who stand in solidarity with the movement, supporting black businesses and targeted boycotts of those that back anti-black policies.

Also suggested was intersecting and working with other movements organized against the same system of oppression: imperialist white-supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.

I wanted to read out a contentious tweet sent to Coates, but I was reticent. The conversation intersected with mine, it’s true, but I was still an outsider, so I just listened. The tweet was sent by The National Memo’s Eric Kleefeld and it read: “The single greatest moment of social progress for black Americans was in violent, massive war [the American Civil War]. Worth pondering.”

I think it’s worth pondering because working toward a similar singular moment of social progress should be on the cards as a solution, too—not through war necessarily, but something major that forces America to reconstruct itself from the bottom up under a new, equitable ethos. The long slow grind of gradualist approaches can at times feel (and be) akin to mopping the fevered brow and lancing the boils of the patient that is America, suppurating from the inside out.

Adapting an argument from Coates about the merits of the American Civil War: those who fear that agitating for such a moment could lead to tragedy have likely chosen not to recognize the tragedy in their mid that falls disproportionately, if not exclusively, on poor people, people of color and native American communities, women, queer, transgender and intersex people, immigrants and refugees, and people with disabilities.

It is now up to black America to decide what its next big moment of social progress should be and what to do to make it happen.

In South Africa, in averting civil war, we had the negotiations to end apartheid, Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Constitution that maintained the status quo with the promise of a better tomorrow for black folk. Theoretically, the approach was sound. But the process was captured by a neoliberal project that injected conservatism into just about every aspect of the transition to democracy and prized economic growth and profits over black lives, as the massacre in Marikana brought into sharp relief.

Through this white South Africa, the apartheid state, and its agents and lackeys were let off the hook. Apartheid corruption metastized into democracy, there were no reparations, restitution is achingly slow and contested doggedly, the effects of redistribution are massively oversold, racist attacks are on the rise, affirmative action is often decried as “reverse racism” or a baby killer (seriously), police protect property at the expense of poor black lives, and transforming the country’s institutions is often left to well-meaning but often clueless liberals. If that’s not enough, the appetite for interaction across the racial divide is waning and only 53% of white South Africans believe apartheid was a crime against humanity. The rest either disagree or have no thoughts on the matter.

There is nothing to suggest any of this will change except the false promise that staying the neoliberal course will birth the promised nonracial future. Thus, by my assessment, black America presently is in the throes of a conversation that, without a radical intervention, black South Africans will be having in another 20 to 30 years, maybe more.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.