By Angelo Izama (Uganda)
As America grieved the passing of George Floyd, Public Health England, the body of health professionals and scientists that advices the British government published a report on who was dying from the coronavirus. It concluded starkly that former subjects of the British Empire especially descended from Africa and Asia were leading the death toll. “ Death rates from COVID-19 were highest amongst people of Black and Asian ethnic groups” the report said adding that this was a departure from what had been happening previously. In some cases, the likelihood of death by Britain’s colored citizens was twice that of its “White British ethnicity” the report added. Much of this death had little to do with color but rather income.
In short wealth was health. The essential workers that formed the frontline of Britain’s COVID19, the nurses, drivers and janitors were a colored defense around its White privileged citizens. The report reminded me of another take on “Why COVID19 was killing Black People” a podcast featuring Arline Geronimus hosted by Kai Wright appropriately named the “United States of Anxiety”. Geronimus is the Public Health academic who came up with the term “weathering” to explain why black people in America suffer negative health outcomes because of the constant unmitigated stress related directed to systemic discrimination and race-related hazards such as the image of Floyd, unarmed choking to death.
This is to say that it seems understandable now why Floyd, killed in the year of the coronavirus, transformed from victim to martyr as institutionalized racist violence, which in ordinary times might have passed as the common fate of black men, became emblematic of the burden of socio-economic injustice.
“ And still I see no changes; can’t a brother get a little peace? It’s a war on the streets and a war in the Middle East. Instead of a war on poverty they’ve got a war on drugs so the police can bother me” Tupac Shakur.–Tupac Shakur
Racism is inequality.
It is not a competition between people’s but rather a competition for resources and opportunities. As seen from the British report the structure of inequality that is repugnant today and embodied in the George Floyd protests was built on slavery and the exploitation of other races.
But inequality is a condition that is also colorblind. Black people continue to suffer not because the world is filled with racists. Colored people outnumber white people after all. The indignities associated with the “knee on the neck” of the underprivileged are unleashed sometimes more viciously by people of the same color.
As a “witness” to the race and inequality crisis in America, it is disturbing to see how race color blinds many Africans to the true social burden of race as inequality. It is disturbing to observe just how many African countries, aided by external advisors from the Northern Hemisphere, are working hard to perfect the Victorian model of socio-economic development based on the crude engineering of classes, the stripping of land and natural resources, dirty industrialization, immoral investor capital and so forth.
I had the urge to read Charles Dicken’s Hard Times which I learned in secondary school in Uganda, not as literature, as it was taught to us but rather as history in repetition. Kampala, the Ugandan capital, may as well be Coketown.
On most days the city is as polluted as Beijing or Mumbai. On its overcrowded streets the greatest value is placed on money as a desperate underclass of cheap labor is presided over by shameless corruption of the establishment elite who in Dickensian fashion socialize the costs of each and every crisis and privatize the benefits. As Floyd lay breathless many Ugandans too were short of breath – but at the near daily news of corruption, the kind that has come to define the country’s coronavirus response. Without money or social capital most citizens are likely to lead shorter miserable lives in the cities while the countryside is the scene of a civil war over land, forests and rivers.
Our version of Victorian progress also fetishes “ peace and security” as well as “order” and gives carte blanche to the ruling establishment to write the rules of economic progress if not in “racist” terms at least, in the terms of its cousin – ethnic chauvinism. No report shall be produced on the ethnography of the frontline health workers, security personnel, drivers and so forth that have seen an uptick of COVID19 infections for they would reveal their own poorly held secrets about the emerging social order.
The Middle-Income national project – articulated with Victorian gusto stands as testimony about how the race question has not moved beyond color to the root of the problem – a systemic defense of inequality. Colonial Britain and its well-oiled system of extraction helped expand slavery. In fact, the last race crisis in Uganda was the expulsion of Indians by Idi Amin in 1972, a decade after the civil rights movement gained foothold in America and as race riots threatened the peace. These Indian clerical and commercial class were trafficked out of their continent initially as cheap and indentured labor for the British Imperial East Africa Company, the local branch of the imperial behemoth.
Ironically – official racism in India was crafted by General Lord Charles Cornwalis who accepted the defeat of the British in America on behalf of the Crown – thus presiding over the independence of the United States. Later posted to India he oversaw the whitening of the colonial administration and official class discrimination. Cornwalis so-called reforms excluded “ the children of British men who had Indian wives from employment in the company ( British East India Company) and later purged Anglo-Indians entirely from key branches of “civil, military and marine” of BEIC except as “pipers, drummers, bandsmen and farriers”. With time the discrimination of Anglo-Indians “reduced them to community of “minor clerks, postmen and train drivers” ( the essential workers of the time).
These formed the emerging commercial and clerical Indian class found their place atop the Africans in Uganda that exploded as racist tension under Idi Amin.
White racism is the system that violently defends privilege as a white monopoly against other colors. It also succeeds by presenting the race question as a competition between people and not resources and opportunities. The latter would expose, especially in America, how unfair the economic system is across color lines, across genders and so forth.
So, racism is the political ally of the wealthy and the social philosophy of unaccountable capitalism. Many Africans offended by the George Floyd affair recall the pain of racist violence and exploitation that came with the experience of colonialization. Black America, and the experience of recent migrants continue that tragedy.
In his 1964 speech “ The ballot or bullet” ( given two years after Uganda attained its “independence” from Britain) Malcom X, outlined three dimensions of the race question in America.
Firstly, he argued that while black people should turn increasingly to their own solutions in America, they should learn from their African brothers/sisters and other non-White people to see that White Supremacy as a system can only be replaced not changed. “Revolutions are bloody” he said referencing amongst others America’s own bloody rebellion against the yoke of British Imperialism.
Later he would revise this to say that a “bloodless” revolution was possible in the United States if the black man was paid his full dues and not treated as a 20th century slave in a country were his labor was exploited that had visited him with violent indignities mostly for the color of his skin. He also argued that the political value of black votes was important to both leading parties, the democrats and republicans. However, beyond that the White Establishment, in both parties, had no further interest.
In other words, elections, such as the one that will be held in November, in which Donald Trump, seen now by many as a racist White president, may lose ( or win) but either result, as in the past may not lead to a resolution of the race question.
The third point that Malcolm X made was with regard to the humanity of the race issue. While arguing correctly that racial justice is about human rights – something that is resonating right now with the George Floyd protests, he envisioned justice for black people as something only possible through impartial institutions.
The killing of unarmed black men ( and other types of violence) by armed angry white men and their institutional accomplices is an assault on humanity itself as seen from the reaction not just across color lines but around the world.
“You don’t take your case to the criminal- you take your criminal to court” said Malcolm X. Some voices now argue that this moment now with George Floyds reluctant martyrdom is the one that will change racial attitudes, appealing to our common humanity and helping usher the bloodless revolution that Malcolm demanded.
We are the new court of collective anguish and action that can turn the tide.
There is obviously a reason that centuries of racism has persisted. It is a resilient system. The 8 minutes 46 seconds that led to Floyd’s last breath will not change it. It is resilient so, because racism is incidental to and not the cause of this violence. If black people had not been trafficked from Africa to work in the early plantation economies today some other minority would be under the boot of Derek Chauvin. The real violence is the entrenched inequality in America ( and elsewhere) in which ironically less angry whites are overrepresented. The one percent, versus the next 25 percent versus the rest is at the heart of the problem.
This is possibly why the two-party system, as Malcolm argued, cannot fix racism by votes. The choice on the ballot is of angry white men.
This rigged system (others may call it broken) has people angry of all races. If we transfer our empathy to the white militia roaming around enacting racial violence and longing for the freedom to lynch blacks again – we can clearly see that the system has failed them too. Which is why they are angry.
Ethnic militias defending the Big Man’s tribe, many paid with ineffectual government programs and lip service are ironically an everyday sight in many African countries. So is the sickening whataboutism that supports the multiple bogeymen that corrupt Big Men like Donald Trump set up – so that the real business of this privileged corner of white privilege, and its black equivalents, that sits atop this massive inequality, namely wanton corruption, can go unimpeded.
Angry (and poorer) white men who are ensconced in far-right ideas and groups do have a right to be angry. They have been lied to. The system that they see as representing them, one in which economic, political and social categories are color coded does not stand to scrutiny. Corrupt politicians just paint a target on the backs of any minority as well as foreign enemies, real and invented to complete the trick.
The burning and looting in some US cities too tragically will benefit the same system.
It serves as a guilty cleanse. This type of periodic violence has one other use – it allows for establishment politicians (on both sides) to step in to announce band-aid programs, the type of happy tokenism that buys more runway for the system to continue. These programs are not designed to work but to establish a limit of what can be shared from the table of privilege. Many are responsible for the ring of policies that keep minorities in their place.
If the Africa of the recent past is to be invoked – the tools against entrenched and unfair systems are never violence. Egypt, Tunisia and recently Sudan all fell not because the oppressors in those countries were unable to use violence to suppress protest. They did so because the economy collapsed around the corrupt system.
To see changes, it is the economy that needs reform.