Flying While Black: Border Control, DNA and the Case of the Lips

After tracing his maternal ancestry in 2005 through genealogical DNA testing, or personal genomics, and finding his ancestral links to the Mende and Temne peoples of Sierra Leone, actor Isaiah Washington attested to his “rebirth” saying he believes that “DNA will finally become the tool to bridge the gap between our brothers and sisters who have been lost.” Earlier this year, now “DNA-branded” [see note at end on this term] as Sierra Leonean, Washington was sworn in as a citizen of that country. Citizenship by way of mitochondrial DNA.

But what about the role of DNA for our brothers and sisters who have been stranded or detained abroad? Enter “the lips case”.

On May 21st 2009, Somali-born Canadian citizen Suaad Hagi Mohamud attempted to board a flight out of Nairobi to return home to Toronto, after a three-week visit to Kenya. Upon inspecting her passport, Dutch KLM airline authorities claimed that her lips looked different than that observed in her four-year-old passport photo, branded her an “imposter” and not the rightful holder of the passport that she presented. Mohamud was detained overnight in the airport. Two Canadian High Commission officials met with her the following morning, told her “you are not Suaad” and confiscated her passport. Mohamud was held in the airport for four days until she was released on a bond, tasked with proving her identity within a two-week time frame.

Canadian High Commission officials did not accept Suaad’s ID cards and she was charged with using a false passport, impersonating a Canadian and with being in Kenya illegally. Subsequently she was jailed by Kenyan authorities from June 3rd to June 11th, facing possible deportation to Somalia. While Mohamud was in limbo in Kenya, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon was quoted on July 24th as saying, “there is no tangible proof” that Mohamud is Canadian and that “all Canadians who hold passports generally have a picture that is identical in their passport to what they claim to be.”

It wasn’t until Mohamud requested DNA testing through a motion filed before the Canadian Federal Court by her attorney in Toronto, and then had that test conducted on August 10th 2009 that charges against her were dropped. Mohamud’s DNA was compared to that of her Canadian born son, confirming her identity with a probability of 99.99%. She was issued an emergency passport and she boarded a plane to Amsterdam to make her way home to Toronto arriving on August 15th. This DNA verification not only proved who she said she was, but, apparently, determined her citizenship status as well. This case raises the question of “who can be abandoned by the state and by what technological means? and “will this case be used to argue for even more surveillance by way of a genomic encoded passport?”

The Mohamud case reveals that although identification documents function as a key technology in the contemporary management of state sanctioned human mobility, the discretionary power exercised by the customs inspector, and increasingly by the airline official as proxy customs inspector, is a power that makes it plain that, as David Lyon puts it, “all technologies are human activities.” (Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance) Meaning, that these technologies of border control (passports, biometrics, airport pre-boarding passenger screening zones) are developed within, put to use and often replicate existing socio-spatial inequalities. (See this deadly example too)

For Mohamud, DNA testing was a technology of hope that allowed her to challenge her abandonment or “racial purging” by the state. The answer to whether Mohamud’s abandonment was racially charged is found in an interview with the CBC where Mohamud contested that

The Canadian High Commission wouldn’t be treating me the way they treat me. If I’m a white person, I wouldn’t be there in one day. I wouldn’t have missed the flight.

Mohamud has since filed a 2.6 million dollar lawsuit against the Canadian government.

Note: Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins uses the term “DNA-branded” in discussing the “freak” show that is ‘Whose Your Daddy?’ episodes of The Maury Povich Show and The Montel Williams Show, where potential fathers are subject to paternity testing and if DNA-branded as father they are subject to the requisite lecture on responsibility by the hosts.

Simone is now tweeting surveillance stories and links at @wewatchwatchers

African Countries Today: A Governance Index and Social Distance

Two weeks ago, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation released its 3rd index of governance ranking all African countries on four dimensions: safety and rule of law; human development; participation and human rights; and sustainable economic development. The index is funded and developed by a Sudanese-born British communications mogul. Mo Ibrahim has an interest in encouraging good governance in Africa and has also established the prize for achievement in African leadership. When I reviewed this year’s release, I was not so surprised at countries such as Sudan (47 out of 53 countries in Africa), the Democratic Republic of Congo (51) and Somalia (53).

In my review of the indicators used for the index, I wondered about the usefulness of the index as a proxy for tracking inter-communal violence generally. I searched for an indicator on social distance – the metaphorical and geographic indicator of ethnic relations and inter-communal violence. I also wondered about the impact of such an index. Do African leaders care about how their leadership is ranked on governance? Do they make policy decisions based on their ranking?

Sudan and DR Congo are two of the three largest countries in Africa; Somalia, of course, is experiencing the longest civil war in any country; that civil war has been raging for over two decades now – with no end in sight as African Union troops, with funding from the U.S. try to keep the peace and prevent the Islamist extremists from taking over the country. The Islamist extremists have taken responsibility for bombings in Uganda in July 2010 that killed 74 people, including an American. These extremists cannot allow any other world view as they lay to waste the future of the youth. There are reports of the same group sowing discontent among the immigrant Somali population in Nairobi, Kenya.

In DR Congo, over 5 million have died in the civil war; this has been a brutal war that is still raging in the heartland of Africa; where marauding soldiers rape and kill at will. The extra judicial killings in Sudan are estimated at over 300,000 in the Darfur region. In about 3 months, the Sudanese in the South will vote on whether to secede to form a separate country. The social distance between the groups there will take some time to bridge. (See here).

Killings in Darfur

Perhaps what we need is an index based on the per capita human suffering due to these brutal ethnic or religious conflicts; the index would be a predictive one based not on secondary data, but on surveys of sampled populations. The index would have a positive correlation with the indicator on social distance based on group identity. Perhaps we could use this model to explain the haunting case of Somalia – Somalia basically has one ethnic group, with several clans; it has one main religion, Islam. And yet, the country has not been governable for the past 20 years. It has managed to destroy the lives of generations its people.

Suffering in Somalia

Racist Framing of African Immigrants: Fox “News” Yet Again

Over at huffingtonpost, there is a good summary of former Republican Senator Al D’Amato’s (R-NY) strongly worded reaction to racist comments being made by a GOP strategist, Jack Burkman, on Fox’s heavily biased Business Network:

The blowup came during a discussion on Thursday’s edition of “Money Rocks” about whether or not to privatize the US Postal Service. …. Burkman launched the discussion by saying, “most of these guys working in the Post Office should be driving cabs, and I think we should stop importing labor from Nigeria and Ethiopia. That’s the skill level.”

D’Amato first just chided him for name calling, and another guest attorney Tamara Holder commented that

Making all these somewhat racist statements about Nigeria is a spinning of sorts…this has to do with government waste.

After Burkman defended his illiterate and racist commentary, again attacking Post Office workers, D’Amato, got angry:

You are a nasty racist …..that’s a bunch of bullshit and you should be ashamed of yourself and have your mouth washed out…Wait a minute…shut up. I listened to your racist bullshit.

One does not hear Fox’s often racist commentaries called out on Fox “news” network itself. Note too here the way in which some prominent white analysts also have a racist framing of immigrants from Africa. Not only is this framing defamatory and racist in singling out and stereotyping African immigrants over many other immigrants, but it also demonstrates ignorance about the recent African immigrant population. African immigrants today generally come in with relatively high levels of education and skills, often near or above the median levels of the native-born U.S. population. This image of unskilled Africans is yet again part of the white racist framing in this society – framing that is seldom systematically challenged in mainstream media.

Programming Alert: “Promised Land”

Fire up your DVR’s.  Tonight, PBS’s documentary series POV is airing “Promised Land” about the struggle over land in post-apartheid South Africa.  It should be quite interesting.  Here’s a brief synopsis:

Though apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, economic injustices between blacks and whites remain unresolved. As revealed in Yoruba Richen’s incisive Promised Land, the most potentially explosive issue is land. The film follows two black communities as they struggle to reclaim land from white owners, some of whom who have lived there for generations. Amid rising tensions and wavering government policies, the land issue remains South Africa’s “ticking time bomb,” with far-reaching consequences for all sides. Promised Land captures multiple perspectives of citizens struggling to create just solutions.

Enjoy! And, of course, feel free to drop a comment here if you get a chance to see it.

Prof. Henry Louis Gates Whitewashes Enslavement History

Colorlines has a good critique of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s recent oped piece (“Ending the Slavery Blame-Game”) in the New York Times by historian Barbara Ransby, Director of Gender and Women’s Studies Program at U. Illinois-Chicago. In his oped Gates makes a whitewashed argument about U.S. slavery and the slave trade being substantially the responsibility of both African elite leaders and North American whites, about this reality changing the black reparations debate, and about President Obama being uniquely able to deal with this reality. The part about the African elites is similar to arguments often made by conservative whites against reparations for black enslavement. Gates concludes his oped thus:

In President Obama, the child of an African and an American, we finally have a leader who is uniquely positioned to bridge the great reparations divide. He is uniquely placed to publicly attribute responsibility and culpability where they truly belong, to white people and black people, on both sides of the Atlantic, complicit alike in one of the greatest evils in the history of civilization. And reaching that understanding is a vital precursor to any just and lasting agreement on the divisive issue of slavery reparations.

Professor Ransby, however, strongly takes issue with this. She summarizes and critiques Gates:

Black and white people in the United States should now “get over” slavery because as we all know, this was not a racial thing but an economic thing. Since both Blacks and whites were culpable, the call for reparations is indeed meaningless and bereft of any moral weight. If we take Gates’ argument to its full conclusion, we might claim that it is not America or Europe, but the long suffering, impoverished, and debt-ridden nations of Africa, that should really pay reparations to Black Americans.

She then nail the central culprits:

Even though African monarchs did collaborate in the selling of Blacks bodies into slavery, what happened after that was the establishment of a heinous and brutal system that rested squarely on the dual pillars of White supremacy and ruthless capitalist greed. There was nothing African-inspired about it.

This is of course the main point, which Gates slights in his piece. The 246 years of African Americans’ North America enslavement was totally under white control, principally elite white control. The Atlantic slave trade supplying the Americas was set up and controlled entirely by Europeans. No African elites sailed boats to the Americas, nor did they profit from the 246 years of slavery-extracted labor within North America. Most from whom labor was stolen had never seen Africa, for they were born in North America. Reparations are due to African Americans mainly from this extorted and stolen labor within North America.

In addition, in my view, the place to start in making reparations to African Americans is with the nearly 100 years of Jim Crow segregation. The reason: there are a great many living African Americans who were directly harmed by the extensive, totalitarian type of Jim Crow oppression so central to the U.S. economy and polity for so many decades. In the South and some of the North.

Many of these African Americans can name who their oppressors were, and indeed give some idea of the costs, personal and monetary, that they suffered. They can name the exploitative white employers, brutal white police officers, whites in lynch mobs, and white rapists who were central to this extreme oppression. Gates does not mention reparations for Jim Crow, which is an odd and major oversight. After we calculate reasonable reparations for the damage done to many African Americans under Jim Crow, and their children and grandchildren, then we can move back to calculate the trillions in dollars and other reparations that are due to the descendants of those so extremely oppressed by the whites who ran the slavery system in North America.

Ransby minces no words at the end of her indictment of Professor Gates:

The lessons are about the self-serving role of certain Black elites, who in slavery times and now, will sell (or sell out) other Black bodies for their own gain and advancement. African royalty did it in the 1600s and 1700s. Comprador elites did it in colonial and postcolonial settings through the Global South. And certain public figures, in political, cultural and academic circles, do so today, with a kind of moral blindness and impunity that rivals the slave sellers of old. As we know, ideas have consequences.

Bring Me My Machine Gun! South Africa and the Consequences of Apartheid

This past week Eugene Terreblanche, an Afrikaner white supremacist, was murdered by two black farm workers in South Africa. It has become painfully clear that the Rainbow Nation has very far to go to become such. And my prediction is that the growing pains will track a slow and low gradient. Writing for the BBC, Peter Burdin, sounds a distressful note:

(South Africa) is officially the most unequal society on earth…South Africa is also among the most violent societies outside war zones with 18,000 murders a year…Race permeates all aspects of life here.

For about 46 years – from 1948 to 1994 (when Nelson Mandela was elected in the first multi-racial democratic elections) – the Nationalist Party and white South Africans managed to forge an uneasy, volatile but successful system of racial separation and oppression. They managed to create what the Confederate States in the United States of America could not achieve. Apartheid was indeed a strange thing; within the country, there were white provinces where passbooks were required of all non-whites and there were ‘independent’ Bantustans which were the domain of blacks. It was a wicked system that denied rights to the majority black population. We know the familiar story by now; the story of how Madiba nurtured the emergent so-called post apartheid rainbow nation. De Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Madiba, realized that apartheid was not sustainable; besides, international sanctions against South Africa had undermined the government’s viability.

While other African countries are convulsed by ethnic divisions, South Africa is caught in the throes of racism – something we know a lot about in the United States of America. We must understand the Afrikaner mind-set; since their Dutch forebears settled in South Africa, they’ve been fighting two conflicts: one against British imperialism (The Boer Wars) and another against the indigenous inhabitants. The Boer War in 1899 was brutal and notorious for the concentration camps set up by the British that killed several thousands of Afrikaner women and children (Brian Bunting, 1969 The Rise of The South African Reich). But independence was not the only thing the Afrikaners desired; they wanted to retain their perceived superiority over the indigenous inhabitants. Brian Bunting writes (p14):

The Boer republics constituted an anachronism to the 20th century. Their code of conduct (was) incompatible with the liberal philosophy of modern capitalism. In the (republic of) Transvaal constitution it was written that there could be no equality between Black and White in Church or State.

The British imperialists were complicit in not extending any kind of rights to non-whites after the second Boer War and they accommodated the color-bar with its pass-book restrictions ensuring that racial integration would not happen. This is what the Afrikaners wanted.

So in 2010, racial accommodation is still a societal problem in South Africa. Public opinion data from the Afrobarometer surveys in 1999 depict these racial tensions in South Africa. When asked how they identified themselves, more South Africans chose race. Race polarizes in South Africa much in the same way that ethnicity polarizes in other African societies.

Some Afrikaners think that Eugene Terreblanche’s murder was provoked by the African National Congress (ANC) youth leader, Julius Malema, who sang the anti-apartheid song “Shoot the Boer.” The ANC has reportedly ordered its members not to sing the song at rallies any longer because it stokes racial tensions. There is another song “Bring me my machine Gun” often heard at youth ANC youth rallies, which refers to the struggle to topple the apartheid regime; this was the song used by Jacob Zuma during his campaign for the Presidency. Unwilling to be dominated by the British during the emergent years of their republic, the Afrikaners are now troubled by the domination of the Africans (credit eric). Their fears are not unfounded; there are reports that approximately 3,000 Afrikaner farmers have been murdered since this new dispensation in South Africa. These cold cases make the Afrikaners anxious and unsure about their place in the Rainbow Nation.

When the accused black men were arraigned at the court in the town of Ventersdorp, there were reports of Eugene Terreblanche’s paramilitary group waving placards with Afrikaner nationalist symbols. The reporter notes:

Time has stood still here…there is a silent message that this is no place for blacks.

Racism in International Context: Nigerian “Scam Baiters”

As I’ve written about here before, the contours of racism in a global, networked society are changing. Old forms of overt racism now exist alongside emergent new forms of cyber racism.   One of those new forms of cyber racism is the phenomena of white Americans pursuing Nigerian email scammers, a practice known as “scam baiting.”  If you’re not familiar with this practice, there have been a couple of stories in the news recently that shed a some light on this new form of vigilantism.   Here’s a brief description from a recent piece at CNN/

These self-described Web vigilantes go after alleged e-mail scammers claiming to be Nigerian princes, U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Chinese businessmen. They say they need your help (i.e. your money) to access fake multi-million dollar accounts or palaces full of gold. Most people recognize these e-mails for what they are and delete them without replying, but enough victims actually fall for these scams to keep them coming. And then there are the scambaiters who answer the e-mails and feign genuine interest in sending money, as a ploy to send the scammers on a wild goose chase.  Mike Sodini, a firearms importer and owner of the Web site, says he started scambaiting in 2001, when he worked at an Internet real estate marketing firm that got inundated with scam e-mails. Sodini started writing back out of curiosity “to see how the operation would go” and he said it soon became a hit with his co-workers, who would gather around his computer to read his farcical dialogue. “I started it to make my friends laugh and see what was going on,” he says. “I didn’t have a motive of, ‘Let’s get these guys.”

Sodini and other “scam baiters” like “Rover,” a scam baiter since the 1990s who owns the scambaiting site, get alleged scammers to make fools of themselves by posing in photos and holding signs with offensive statements. He says he would get them to do this by claiming it was “for tax purposes,” which was a ruse, since he never intended to send them money. He says he’d also convince them to make numerous trips to airports and Western Unions, lured by the promise of money packages that never arrived.

These photos are called “trophies” in the parlance of the scam baiters, and in many ways are reminiscent of the photographs of lynchings that were once popular in the U.S.   The radio show This American Life did an episode about the men (yes, they’re all men) who do this. Perhaps not surprisingly, neither the CNN/ report nor the This American Life episode mention race as even a factor at play in, if not an underlying motive for, these transnational vigilantes.  Certainly none of the reporting that’s been done about this to date mentions any similarity with lynching photography.

My colleague at John Jay-CUNY, Dara N. Byrne, is doing some really interesting work on this phenomenon.  Combining the concept of “vigilante” with the digital era, she examines a range of what she calls “digilantism.”    Dara presented a paper called, “Digilante Culture: The Rhetorical Performance of Justice and Punishment on the Wild Wild Web,” at the eastern regional sociology meetings (ESS) in Boston on a panel I helped organize.  Here’s the abstract:

This paper focuses on the rhetorical performance of justice and punishment in digilante culture. Digilantism is the term I use to refer to the growing practice amongst some netizens, mostly based in the United States and the United Kingdom, who mete out extrajudicial punishment to cyber-criminals such as scammers, hackers, and pedophiles. Although digilantism is a growing internet subculture, short of legal research on cyber-crime, little attention has been paid to the rhetorical, cultural, and socio-historical dimension of this widely practiced do-it-yourself form of justice. The paucity of digital media research is particularly surprising given the explosion of popular and scholarly rhetoric on cyber-terrorism, digital surveillance, and internet security and safety. The purpose of my paper then is to address this gap by developing a typology of digilante justice. I focus on responses to real cyber-crimes on a range of sites, including Nigerian 419 and Russian romance scam-baiting sites, pedophile watchdog sites, and texasborderwatch discussion groups.

So, in trying to understand ‘racism in an international context’ as we’ve been doing here this week, one of the things to keep in mind is that the international context has changed with the digital era.  While in the early days of the digital era, there was much speculation by respected sociologists that nation-states would lose control because the Internet, along with globalization, would undermine sovereignty.   More recently, however, other scholars have argued that it is an illusion to think that we are living in a borderless world and that nation-states do still matter very much, despite trends of globalization and the Internet.   The rise of scam baiters and this particular expression of cross-border digilantism – with its echoes of lynching photography – point out one of the ways that old forms of overt racism are re-mixed with new forms of racism in our globally networked society.

Racism in International Context: Ethnicity, Ethnocentrism & Nationalism in Africa

There is an engaging story about a 17-year old monarch of the Tooro Kingdom in Uganda who has been King since he was a toddler. The story is particularly interesting because the reporter waded into issues of ethnicity and nationalism that have dogged African nation-states since independence.  A CNN reporter writes that:

“Many Africans, like the people in King Oyo’s realm, identify themselves as a member of a tribe or ethnic group first and as citizen of a nation second.” Tension between ethnic groups within the same country often has flared into violence around the continent. In Uganda, the central government outlawed kingdoms in 1967, but the president reinstated four of them in the ’90s on the condition that their leaders focus more on culture and less on national politics.”

This reporter was relying on conversations with a history professor at Makerere University in Uganda to inform the account; according to the professor:

“The monarchies are based on ethnicities, sparking concerns of a setback in national integration efforts… Ugandans identify themselves first with their tribes and kingdoms, then as citizens…This works in most African cultures because people have lost faith in the government, and tribes and kingdoms provide a nucleus around which an identity can be forged.”

I have written on the intersection between ethnicity and nationalism here before and I have relied on representative (probabilistic) surveys that gauge the national mood regarding identity in Africa. What we know from current data is that the issues of ethnicity and nationalism are more nuanced than reported in the CNN article. This paper is not a rebuttal of that article that appeared a few days ago; I want to render a contemporaneous account of what we now know about ethnicity and nationalism in Africa.

Our scholarship has long established that tribal associations or tribal unions based strictly on ethnicity posed a threat to emergent post-colonial nationalism; ethnic patronage did not have a place in the new nationalism and the newly independent countries fostered the progressive ideal of a community of diverse ethnic groups. But, our scholarship has also documented the social realities of ethnic patronage that have strained the progressive ideal; an authoritative study, among several others, is Crawford Young’s (1994) paper titled: Evolving Modes of Consciousness and Ideology: Nationalism and Ethnicity. Whether the ethnic tensions were stoked by former colonial powers or not, our taken-for-granted reality has been that ethnic allegiance continues to undermine communal development – take for instance what is happening in Jos, Nigeria, where the cycle of murders and revenge murders is unrelenting. Some analysts have argued that these tensions are also religious and socioeconomic in root, and that there’s an intersection between economic inequality and ethnic conflict.

As social scientists, it is difficult (sometimes near impossible) to conduct true experiments (with pre- and post- moments) to ascertain causality – for instance, we cannot conduct a true experiment to identify how ethnic identity singularly causes these violent tensions. At best, what we have are correlational models to identify the likelihood of outcomes based on certain conditions (credit eric). So we must not discount the fact that economic inequalities may have something to do with these conflicts as well. But even with these methodological limitations, we can say with some confidence that the one important correlate we have in all of these violent conflicts is that of ethnicity or tribal group; in Jos, it happens that the groups killing each other also largely practice two different faiths.

Recent events in Nigeria reinforce the taken-for-granted reality of the role of ethnocentrism in communal conflict. Among all the countries I examined using data from Afrobarometer surveys from round 1 (1999-2001) and round 2 (2004) more Nigerian respondents identified ethnically than respondents in other African countries (in round 2, about the same proportion of Batswana identified as such). (In Kenya and Zimbabwe most respondents did not identify first with their tribal or ethnic group). In round 4 (2008) of the Afrobarometer surveys, the majority of respondents (≥70%) in all surveyed countries including Nigeria (but except Malawi) relied on their nationality as an identity descriptor or identified equally with their nation and their ethnic group.

A review of the pattern of response in these surveys uncovers substantive issues related to data collection that have to be taken into account in interpreting the results: (1) In-person surveys are susceptible to social desirability bias. I wondered whether the tendency to choose national identity in rounds 1 and 2 in all the surveyed countries (except Nigeria) was due to respondents providing answers that they felt was the most favorable based on the public mood – after all, the nationalistic identity descriptor is the progressive ideal. If so, we should expect respondents in Nigeria to be susceptible to the social desirability bias as well. (2) The question: “I feel equally national and ethnic” was a new item in round 4, and so it is impossible to examine change from previous rounds. I wondered whether the introduction of this item has diluted the ethnic identity and ethnic attachment social reality. Without this item, I wondered whether more respondents would have chosen ethnicity as their primary identity. (3) Data on ethnic identity from round 4 may indeed indicate, auspiciously, a maturation of civil society in these countries. Over time, we may expect more citizens to embrace the nationalistic vision when compared to earlier periods as the nation-state becomes more stable. This is the hope – even as we witness conflicts, many of which arguably involve some elements of ethnocentrism in every region of the continent. We should expect subsequent rounds of these surveys to show more respondents reporting a national identity due to the maturation effect.

Nonetheless, the intersection of ethnicity and nationalism yields peculiar ground truths: consider that in Ghana, the newly elected national chairman of the opposition party paid homage to the King of the ethnic group to which he belongs. The national chairman used the occasion to urge the youth of his ethnic group to take up leadership roles. I wondered; why would the national chairman of a national political party address only the youth of his ethnic group? Shouldn’t he be addressing the youth of the country regardless of their tribal identity? By the way, this particular national chairman doesn’t even speak his native ethnic language! Also, consider President Zuma of South Africa who has just married his third wife as allowed by his Zulu traditions, even as he admitted recently fathering a child out of wedlock! What a contrast between President Mandela and the current South African president! But whether his traditions allow for multiple wives or not, what image does a democratically elected president project when he fathers a child out of wedlock even with a surfeit of spouses? Is this possible only in Africa?

To return to the case of Nigeria and the cycle of killings of Jos; we must take into account the sinuous power struggle unfolding in the country. The frail and un-well President has not been seen in public for 4 months or more; the acting President has dissolved the cabinet to purge it of loyalists to the President. And the security forces in the State of Jos seem powerless to stem the cycle of hate and killings. One African autocratic leader has the temerity to call for dividing Nigeria into a Moslem North and a Christian South. With a history of ethno-religious tensions and a civil war that claimed over one million lives, and ongoing violent unrests in the Niger Delta region of the country, the recent killings in Jos are just a manifestation of the uniqueness of the Nigerian situation.

~ Yoku Shaw-Taylor, PhD is a Research Scientist in Washington, DC.

A Key Anniversary in the Global Anti-Racist Struggle: The Sharpeville Massacre

March 21st marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre of at least 69 unarmed civilians in a now-famous South African township. Here is a Wikipedia summary of the events:

On 21 March, a group of between 5,000 and 7,000 people converged on the local police station in the township of Sharpeville, offering themselves up for arrest for not carrying their pass books.

This was part of a large-scale effort of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which was competing with the African National Congress in protesting these highly offensive, authoritarian, and racist pass laws:

By 10:00 am, a large crowd had gathered, and the atmosphere was peaceful and festive. Fewer than 20 police officers were present in the station at the start of the protest. Police and military used low-flying Sabre jet fighters to attempt to intimidate the crowd into dispersing. . . . The police set up Saracen armoured vehicles in a line facing the protesters and, at 1:15 pm, fired upon the crowd. Police reports claimed that members of the crowd threw stones at them (or at their cars) and that inexperienced police officers opened fire spontaneously. The police were armed with Stens and tear gas. Lieutenant Colonel Pienaar, the commanding officer of the police forces at Sharpeville, denied giving any order to fire and stated that he would not have done so. Nevertheless, his attitude towards the protest is revealed in his statement that “the native mentality does not allow them to gather for a peaceful demonstration. For them to gather means violence.” . . . The police continued firing even when the crowd had turned to run, and the majority of those killed and wounded were shot in the back. There was no evidence that anyone in the crowd was armed.

According to the official record, some 69 people were killed, with 180 suffering injuries—at least 68 of whom were women and children. The impact on anti-apartheid organization among Black and other South Africans was great:

The Sharpeville massacre led to the banning of the PAC and ANC and was one of the catalysts for a shift from passive resistance to armed resistance by these organisations. The foundation of Poqo, the military wing of the PAC, and Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, followed shortly afterwards.

Once South African apartheid fell, Sharpeville became the site where new President Nelson Mandela signed the new democratic Constitution of South Africa. This day is now commemorated as human rights day in South Africa, and is a day for all of us to remember in the global anti-racism struggles.

Campus Racism: The “Other” African American Students

Mustafa Jumale, a Somali American student at the University of Minnesota, has been blogging on experiences there and in South Africa. Here is what he just sent me about some of his own experiences and insights about the experiences of other African-origin students:

The experiences of Black South African and African American students at historically white universities and predominantly white universities are both problematic and unique. South Africa has had a black democratic government since the fall of the Apartheid government. However, incidents at the University of the Orange Free State University, in which a few “white” South African students asked university housing employees to participate in a game. The students asked the employees to eat food, which contained urine. Moreover, these [white] students video recorded the game and entered it in a competition that was facilitated by students that were employed by the university as resident assistants; furthermore, these students won the best documentary for their video. In the United States, ever year we hear about white students participating in parities with racial themes in Black History Month, like the recent incident at University of California-San Diego.

After the elections of former President Nelson Mandela and President Barack Obama, media outlets enabled a discourse, in which these countries were referred to as “post-racial.” As a Somali American at a predominately white university in the Midwest, I understand the struggles of being black and Muslim. My senior honors thesis is entitled “Post-Racial” Societies: A comparative study of South Africa and the United States. I argue that “post-raciality” is in and within itself problematic. I used ethnographic methods and qualitative approaches to examine the “Black” South African experience and “African American” experience at historically white universities and predominantly white universities in South Africa and the United States. Moreover, I opened the discourse to students at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the University of the Western Cape by using a blog and facebook to generate discussion and to collect narratives of the experiences of students.

Here is an excerpt from an article from the Mshale (local African community) newspaper cited on his blog on some Somali Americans’ experiences in Minnesota:

“‘Minnesota nice’ at this university is covert racism,” Jumale said . . . just outside the university’s West Bank campus. Jumale’s sentiments stem from observation and interviews he conducted of least a dozen students for a research paper he wrote about the experiences of “Somali College Students at a Predominantly White Institution.” In his research, Jumale heard from a Somali honor student who majored in English Literature but was told by a professor on the first day of class that the course was “too advanced.” Then there was another student who told him he received a D in a term paper because, according to the professor, “the words in your essay are not words you would be able to understand.” But no grievance was more common than alleged harassment by the university’s police. Jumale heard complaints about police officers randomly searching Somali students’ supposedly looking for stolen property. Others complained about being asked to provide IDs while white students walked by uninterrupted. … It wasn’t until last October, when a police officer detained three Somali students for robbery, that Jumale and his fellow students realized that these were no trivial issues. …. Shafii Osman, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in Biology, said he and two of his friends were walking from the university gym to a nearby MacDonald when an undercover police officer stopped them and asked for their IDs. . . . After looking at their IDs and searching their pockets, the officer allegedly said they “fit the description” of “East African males” who had just robbed Subway…. Osman said the officer ordered them into the car and took them to Subway.….. Despite the Subway employees’ failure to identify the men who had committed the crime a few minutes earlier, the officer allegedly asked Osman and his friends to pay for the sandwiches or risk criminal charges. They chose the latter. … With the help of an attorney, the three students were able to get their cases dismissed. But for one of Osman’s co-defendants, who did not want to be identified, the whole ordeal was so damaging that said he is still struggling to understand it. “It caused me a so much stress,” the friend said. “I was approaching exams with the possibility of being sent to jail.”

This is a common experience for native-born African American college students, as reported in research studies by social scientists on historically white campuses. And such academic and policing incidents are now becoming more commonplace for the “other African Americans” as they are sometimes called. They too are often viewed by many whites from the same white racial framing that has long negatively portrayed those African Americans whose ancestry goes back generations in the United States. BTW, Social scientists Yoku Shaw-Taylor and Steven Tuch have a very good edited book with chapters on various subgroups within this increasingly diverse group, titled The Other African Americans: Contemporary African and Caribbean Families in the United States.