‘We have no Harlem in Sudan’

The current global discourse on Black Lives Matter does not yet adequately include anti-black racism beyond how the West experiences it.

Image credit Xavi Ariza via Fotomovimiento on Flickr CC.

A white, off-duty New York policeman fires three fatal shots at a black teenage boy. Sparked by this senseless killing and decades of police brutality, six days of riots erupt in Harlem, spreading to Brooklyn, Queens, and beyond. Law enforcement responds to the thousands of people demonstrating against police violence with more of it, as the police commissioner calls for heavy-handed force. Three months later, the officer responsible for the boy’s death is acquitted of all charges.

This could have been June 2020, but it was July 1964. The 15-year-old was Jason Powell and the police officer was Thomas Gilligan.

Nearly 60 years later, the use of deadly force by members of US law enforcement continues, most recently with the widely reported killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, as well as the less visible cases of black men such as Tony McDade and Sudanese-American Yassin Mohamed. The state continues to prioritize so-called “law and order” over justice and dignity.

Right now, America’s structural racism is exposed afresh to a watching world. In response, protests are ongoing around the globe—from Accra to Athens, Melbourne to Monrovia, and Tehran to Tel Aviv. The extraordinary anti-racism solidarity is both historic and heartening, suggesting that the future can be different.

In many places, protesters are refracting local racial injustices through George Floyd’s death. The outrage over the police killings of Collins Khosa in Johannesburg, South Africa and Adama Traore in Paris, France, demonstrate how productive it can be to use a US-inspired lens of racialized security sector brutality. The removal of racist iconography in Bristol, London, and Oxford, UK, and in Antwerp, Belgium, also demonstrates the generative and transformative potential of the three-week wave of anti-black racism protests originating in the US.

The American framework for anti-black racism is rooted in white supremacy, stemming from Europe’s long history of racism and through its imperialist occupations in large parts of the world. However, although this specific prism illuminates anti-black racism in postcolonial cities and countries, it inadvertently conceals it in places with different histories.

The current global public discourse does not yet adequately include anti-black racism beyond how the West and white settler states experience and theorize it. Indeed, white supremacy has given us the most sophisticated forms of racism—replete with expansive colonialism and convoluted legal systems that produced seamless segregation and virulent oppression, from the Jim Crow South to apartheid South Africa. Yet, far less is known and done about the bellicose forms of anti-black racism suffered elsewhere.

If we do not ensure that our frames of reference include white supremacy, and expand beyond it, we will betray our Eurocentricity. Moreover, we will simply reinforce the center-versus-periphery paradigm that drives anti-black racism. This is a time to seek to understand anti-black racism in less influential countries, where it might not fit into neat narratives but maims and kills nonetheless.

After the Harlem riots of 1964, race riots broke out in another city, this time not in the US and not in any of the usual suspects on the southern tip of Africa. This time it was Sudan, where proximity to Arabness (not whiteness) determines social hierarchies. In the country’s capital city, Khartoum, protesting and violence erupted between southerners—who are racialized as black—and Arabized northerners after false rumors circulated of the assassination of one of two southerners holding a ministerial position.

Newspapers in other parts of the world ran headlines at the time that read: “Sudan Negroes Herded in Camp for Safety” (New York Herald Tribune), “Arab-Negro Riots Kill 14 in Sudan” (Daily American), and “Sudan Race Riot—10 Die, 250 Hurt” (Evening Standard). Memorialized as “Black Sunday,” the demonstrations drew international media attention, but they did not inspire the Organization for African Unity, which had passed resolutions condemning racism in the US, South Africa, and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) earlier in the same year, or any other international body, to unequivocally condemn racial discrimination in Sudan.

In New York City to attend his first General Assembly in December of 1964, Sudan’s then-foreign minister, Mohamed Mahgoub, was en route when the riots broke out in Khartoum. Upon landing (and not having heard the news), a group of reporters asked him what he made of the racial strife back home. He responded with a telling quip: “We have no Harlem in Sudan, and no segregation of any kind.”

With this reference to the Harlem riots of 1964, Mahgoub sought to protect Sudan from acquiring the sullied reputation for racism of the US and apartheid South Africa. But, in the coming decades, Khartoum would come to have a Soweto—a refugee camp named after the black township in South Africa where a student uprising challenged a racist government in 1976. The Sudanese people racialized as black during the 1990s chose this appellation as an act of resistance.

In 1964, the world could only understand, and therefore fight, racism in places like Harlem and Soweto. Regrettably, it did not have the framework to understand it in places like Khartoum. As a result, the Sudanese people did not receive the international support they needed to address anti-black racism within the country. Several civil wars later, we clearly see that unaddressed anti-black racism has real ramifications.

Alongside the emergent transnational solidarity that George Floyd’s killing has ignited, there must be a corollary project of understanding blackness across borders. We must engage with the world’s complex struggles with racism—beyond the legible color lines that clearly delineate America’s outsiders and insiders. It is time to acknowledge anti-black racism in the Indian system of caste, in Zanzibar, Mauritania, Lebanon, Australia and many other places.

A truly global effort to end anti-black racism will have to simultaneously address it in dominant countries like the US, as well as in far-flung countries, on the margins of the global gaze. It will have to invite a more fulsome examination of racism, and in so doing, champion the liberation of all black people, everywhere.

Further Reading