Walking the Tightrope of Race: Social and Emotional Effects of Being the First

Thinking not only of the reaction to President Obama’s recent debate performances, but also of the manner in which he has been graded and depicted by political pundits, so called newscasters, and the general public on idiot blogs over the past four years, reminds me of a conversation my mother and I had when I was in the seventh grade. It occurred after I was publicly humiliated at school once my name and others were called, announcing our honor roll placement for the semester over the school PA system. I told her of my feelings associated with the backhanded compliments from unsupportive white peers and ridicule from a segment of my own racial group. I felt isolated and alone.

This especially held true because I was one of just two Blacks announced. This alone carried many issues and concerns. Nevertheless, my mother simply said, “Sometimes being a person of color is like walking a tight rope above folks waiting to see the blood spew from your fall.” She told me that on one side, non-Blacks will think you are still beneath them and cannot wait for your fall. On the other side were some of my own who hate that I was in a position they are not. For those reasons, they will at times subconsciously wish for your demise. This introduced me to the idea of division among Black America–a subject discussed at great lengths within Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America, by Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson. Today, we can witness an increasing division among Blacks due to socioeconomic status.

Regardless, to me, the jeering and division seems to become louder and wider as one begins to occupy spaces that have traditionally been denied due to skin tone. When one is seen as a rarity, “the oddity,” the air of subjugation, fear, and at times hatred becomes thicker and forces the lungs to work harder in order to endure. Many times the pressure is so unbearable, that psychological stressors can occur and affect the emotional and physical statuses of individuals. It can create strife within the formation of an identity.

I have witnessed how the president has been depicted. I have seen in print and within the context of news stories within the 24-hour news cycle that have painted him as “too Black.” On the other hand, was it that he has forgotten Blacks and their plight? People who I admire, such as Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, have been seen trailing this particular bandwagon. I have seen others note that the president is not aggressive enough and not acting like a “stereotypical scary black man.” During the second presidential debate, I received an automatic shock to my brain every time someone coined his approach to his political appointment as, “angry.” Whites have often deemed him as an illegal alien, monkey, Hitler, and other derogatory figures.

In the end, I feel we as a nation have for four years viciously watched in excitement a political tragedy. The essence of racism, as seen during Jackie Robinson’s rise, is still prevalent as the president continues to move along the racial tightrope. The effects on race are truly boundless. The Kool-Aid has been drunk by not only by those seen as oppressors, but also by those seen as oppressed. In fact, the thought that race within this presidential election is absent, is credulous at best.

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 and Homophobic Attacks on Members of Congress: What Next?

The racist and homophobic, and sometimes violent, explosion by the almost all white teabaggers seems to have accelerated, according to this McClatchy newspapers story:

Demonstrators outside the U.S. Capitol, angry over the proposed health care bill, shouted “nigger” Saturday at U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia congressman and civil rights icon who was nearly beaten to death during an Alabama march in the 1960s…. Lewis said he was leaving the Cannon office building to walk to the Capitol to vote when protesters shouted “Kill the bill, kill the bill,” Lewis said. … A colleague who was accompanying Lewis said people in the crowd responded by saying “Kill the bill, then the N-word.” . . . “It was a chorus,” Cleaver said. “In a way, I feel sorry for those people who are doing this nasty stuff – they’re being whipped up. I decided I wouldn’t be angry with any of them.” Cleaver’s office said later in a statement that he’d also been spat upon and that Capitol Police had arrested his assailant.

Gay members are also being attacked:

Protesters also used a slur as they confronted Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., an openly gay member of Congress. … Frank said the crowd consisted of a couple of hundred of people and that they referred to him as ‘homo.’ A writer for The Huffington Post said the protesters called Frank a “faggot.”

The fact that so much of this racist, homophobic, and/or violent rhetoric and action has easily take place in and around the Capitol building suggests how pro-conservative so much of the leadership of this country has become. Where is the speaking out against this extremist activity by conservatives of integrity? Will we see assaults on members of congress soon from these extremist groups?

Indeed, it is also striking how seldom the whiteness of these extremist movements is seriously analyzed in the mainstream media. Whites usually seem to be let off the hook when they are operating out of extreme versions of the white racial frame and/or the extreme anti-government frame. I feel sure that if they were black Americans or other Americans of color, that reality would be centered in a good many stories. What do you think?

Ethnocentrism and Communal Conflict in Africa


If ethnocentrism or so-called tribalism plays a catalyst role in community conflicts in sub Saharan Africa (Creative Commons License photo credit: Hitchster ), then more people in countries experiencing violent inter-communal conflict should express their ethnic identity as foremost and express stronger ties to their ethnic group. A look at Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe would tell us if this is so.

Violent inter-communal conflicts in so-called ‘trouble spots’ in Africa (Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, DR Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe) are evidence of the chasms in these countries that have been described variously as weak, failing or collapsed. State weakness or failure and eventual collapse is also catalyzed by the proliferation of small arms, which are readily available because they are inexpensive, portable, easy to conceal and use, and the persistence of ethnocentrism – a phenomenon rather unlike racism in its economic and political outcomes of inequities, in that, allegiance to ethnic or cultural (tribal) group, patronage based on ethnicity (or race), family and kinship ties, and networks of ethnic interest trump other networks in society. I use the popular narrow definition of ‘ethnic’: primarily signifying cultural characteristics or traits. Extreme ethnocentrism manifests as ethnic hostility. And we know too about the role of religious intolerance in contributing to these violent inter-communal conflicts. One scholar thinks that “civil wars…usually stem from or have roots in ethnic, religious, linguistic or other inter-communal enmity; the “fear of the other that drives so much of ethnic conflict stimulates and fuels hostilities between regimes.” There is some empirical evidence that cultural differences, compared to economic (class) or political (political party) differences, contribute significantly to inter-communal violent conflicts in sub Saharan Africa.

The intensity of ethnocentrism in inter-communal conflict is indeed frightening one: it transforms long-time neighbors into mortal enemies overnight based on their ethnic affiliations. Long-time neighbors become marauding killers, and ethnic (or religious) differences become reasons for denying humanity to others, and all prior social relations and interactions cease to matter.
In sub Saharan Africa, the persistence of ethnocentrism – also known as a certain tribalism –in governance and politics has been one of the challenges of the post-independence period as efforts have been focused, sometimes unsuccessfully, on building nations and nationalisms that relied less on ethnicity and ethnic patronage; this post-independence period therefore has become a project tracking the challenges of nationalism and the bane of ethnic allegiances. Also, the level of inexpensive unregulated small arms and light weapons circulating freely on the black market since the end of the Cold War have led some observers to argue that in ‘poorer’ states where security is weak and governments are unstable, stockpiles of arms only worsen community clashes by extending the duration of violence.

If ethnocentrism, or so-called ‘tribalism’ plays a catalyst role in community conflicts, it must be predicated on a certain level of social distance between social groups; that is, the extent to which members of one ethnic group would accept a member of another ethnic group metaphorically and geographically. But precise measures of social distance among ethnic groups in African countries are not available. At best, we can use as proxy measures the (1) strength of ethnic identification, defined as: “the specific group you feel you belong to first and foremost besides nationality” or (2) the strength of ethnic attachment, defined as “the identity group to which you feel much stronger ties to other than people of your nationality”. Representative sampled data from the Afrobarometer surveys in 1999 to 2001 (round 1) and 2004 (round 2) allow us to examine the extent to which ethnocentrism is prevalent in a few of the sub Saharan African countries experiencing violent inter-communal conflict. The samples ensure that all ethnic groups as well as rural and urban dwellers are represented in the data. Of the so-called trouble spots in Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe were included in these surveys; so these three countries are the only test cases we can examine.

In our test cases (countries), we should expect (significantly) more respondents in the representative samples to choose their ethnic group as the one they belong to foremost and to say that they feel much stronger ties to their ethnic group members. This will be especially so in places where there have been cycles or recurrence of ethnic conflict so that the way people feel currently about their ethnicity (the strength of ethnic identity) could be strongly influenced by past ethnic violence. We could then suggest that the countries experiencing violent inter-communal conflict are more ethnocentric (tribalistic) or have not overcome ethnocentrism when compared to other African countries shown in the table.

Table 1: Which specific identity group do you feel you belong to first and foremost (1999-2001)

Country Percent choosing ethnic group
Nigeria 47.4%
Namibia 43.0
Malawi 39.1
Mali 38.5
Zimbabwe 36.0
South Africa 21.6

Country Percent choosing group other than ethnic
Tanzania 76.4%
Uganda 62.0
Lesotho 32.8
Zambia 32.9
Botswana 32.9

Note that in table 1, approximately 1 out of 2 Nigerians (47.4%), followed by Namibians (43%) chose tribe or ethnicity. Approximately 1 out of 3 (36%) Zimbabweans chose ethnicity. The proportion for Nigeria is significantly higher when compared to all the other countries except Namibia. The proportions of Zimbabweans choosing ethnic group are higher when compared to Lesotho, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia; in these countries, more people did not say they belonged foremost to their ethnic group. Kenya was not included in this round of data collection, but is included in round 2 (2004).

Table 2: Feel much stronger ties to ethnic group than other nationals in country (1999-2001)
Country Feel stronger ties to
ethnic group

Nigeria 91.6%
South Africa 78.3
Namibia 75.7
Zimbabwe 69.8
Malawi 67.9

Respondents in a subset of countries (including our test countries) were asked about the strength of ties to their ethnic group in table 2. Here again, Nigerians emerge with higher percentages. Compare the rates of Nigerians to South Africans, Namibians and Malawians.

More countries were added to the surveys in 2004 (round 2), including Kenya. The results to the question “Which specific identity group do you feel you belong to first and foremost?” are shown in table 3.

Table 3: Which specific identity group do you feel you belong to first and foremost (2004)
Country Percent choosing ethnic group
Nigeria 49.3%
Ghana 39.4
Mali 36.0
Senegal 33.8
Mozambique 28.9
Namibia 20.9
Kenya 19.4
Zimbabwe 10.9
Country Percent choosing group other than ethnic
Uganda 55.2%
Tanzania 52.5
Zambia 39.1
South Africa 31.0
Cape Verde 30.1

Note that in this second round of data collection, half of Nigerians again say they feel they belong foremost to their ethnic group. But the numbers of Kenyans and Zimbabweans saying they belong foremost to their ethnic group are lower than in countries like Ghana, Mali, Senegal, Mozambique and Namibia. Indeed, the survey shows that more Kenyans say they belong foremost to their occupational group (credit dyer). In Zimbabwe, there has been a reduction in the number of Zimbabweans choosing ethnic group in 2004 compared to data from 1999-2001; it is not clear why this is so. Indeed, in this round, more Zimbabweans chose their religious group as foremost. The question: “Do you feel much stronger ties to ethnic group than other nationals in country?” was not asked in 2004.


So, we can say that of our three test cases, Nigerians seem to confirm our argument. But there is a caveat: these results do not account for the widely reported inter-communal violent conflicts in which religious affiliation has been fingered as a contributory factor. Shouldn’t the surveys reveal a certain level of religion-centrism based on well documented conflicts between Christians and Moslems in the North of Nigeria? Even so, clearly, the number of Nigerians choosing ethnicity as their foremost group is remarkable when compared to other countries in the tables; the data describe Nigeria’s historical struggle for ethnic harmony.

Results for Zimbabweans are mixed – in 1999-2001, one in three Zimbabweans felt they belonged foremost to their ethnic group, and most Zimbabweans felt stronger ties to their ethnic group. But in 2004, fewer Zimbabweans felt they belonged foremost to their ethnic group. What can we make of these results from Zimbabwe? We know of the intransigence of the Mugabe regime and the reported brutality of his party machine dating back several years. But, has the political climate suppressed feelings of ethnic identification and attachment; could this be an unintended effect of political repression and economic depression? Why is it that there are more people choosing religious identity versus ethnicity between the two survey periods? Could it be that feelings of ethnic identity and attachment are mutable so that they are affected (suppressed or heightened) by prevailing social, political and economic conditions in the country?
For Kenya, the results do not support our argument; the data from 2004 tell us that 2 out of 10 Kenyans consider their ethnic identity as foremost. But, unlike Nigeria and Zimbabwe, Kenya has not had internecine ethnic conflicts in the past. The results lead me to conclude that in Kenya, class warfare has perhaps more to do with the violent inter-communal conflict than mere ethnicity. This is because more Kenyans chose occupational group; and we know that one’s occupation determines earnings and therefore socio-economic rank. If strong identification and attachment to ethnic group plays a role in violent conflict in Kenya, it must interact with occupational or stark economic dissatisfaction or differences.

These results have one caveat; the data are 6-10 years old and do not tell us about current ethnic feelings. And if feelings about ethnic identity and attachment are mutable, as suggested, then these data may only reflect ethnic feelings of 6-10 years ago. Should we then expect data from 2008 and 2009 (when collected) to show spikes in ethnic feelings especially in Kenya due to the ethnic violence in the wake of the 2008 elections? But what can we expect from Zimbabwe? Are there other unidentified factors accounting for these cultural cleavages?”
Continue reading…

From Benin, West Africa: There is water in the Jar!

[Yanick responds from Africa to a post by Yoku on ethnic conflict in Africa.]

Benin is a model of pluralism in Africa. Supporting this idea are recent interviews I conducted in various parts of Benin. The data show the Beninese having no problem with interethnic marriage. This marriage is a welcome “brassage,” because adding a “different flavor” to the existing mix. The pierced jar, a national symbol of unity is no longer pierced. It is holding water. Its holes are filled by citizen participation.>Why is Benin so far from the African ethnic conflict normative? Or, is this normative another construction of African reality? (photo: mercywatch).

On tribalism and racism. These “isms” originate from different sources: one cultural, the other perceived-biological. Chances of deconstructing the cultural seem greater than influencing perceptions of the biological. Though in many ways (not every way) their outcomes appear similar, I dare say tribal (or ethnic) ethnocentrism is different from that which leads to racism. Along the same line, I see a difference between stereotypes of Africans originating from African neighbors and stereotypes of Africans in the West. Yes, in America the same stereotypes might be “racist and crass,” but because directed at a racial outgroup. While in Ghana (staying with the same example) the stereotypes also target an outgroup, it is an ethnic outgroup which, outside of that country, is transformed into a national ingroup.

The Beninese I interviewed express deep discontent at the treatment of “Africans” in France, this without ethnic distinctions. The attack comes from outside of the African continent, so differences with the attacker appear greater. Fon, Yoruba, Dendi, Bariba, Mina, or other, Africans unite with their African brothers and sisters. Internationalization of the problem sheds light on the relative meanings of stereotypes, ingroups and outgroups. (Photo: Djéhami, Queen of Allada)

Finally, it is time to minimize focus on the role of colonizers in ethnic conflict and maximize research on the contributions of ethnic groups in their own problems. While it is important to recognize the intersections of history and biography and be guided by memory, the more responsibility placed on the colonizer for contemporary problems, the more gains for this colonizer in terms of power and superiority. Using Benin as model of democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, how can Africans in Africa and the Diaspora contribute to a peaceful resolution of ethnic conflicts wherever they exist, seems to me a much more positive and respectful approach which assumes Africans capable of mistakes, of thinking, and of conducting their own affairs.

~ Yanick St. Jean
Fulbright Fellow
Benin, Africa

Xenophobia and Immigrants: South Africa Today

Friday, May 23, 2008 marks the 12th day of xenophobic attacks in the greater Johannesburg area in South Africa. As it stands, over 40 people are dead, hundreds, if not thousands, are injured, over 15,000 have been (photo credit) displaced from their homes, and at least 400 have been arrested (see the Mail and Guardian and The Sowetan newspapers for more). The victims are primarily Zimbabweans, Mozambicans and Malawians, although many of the assaults have involved native South Africans as well. Much of the targeting has been based on rumors about the citizenship of victims; the use of random identifiers such as accents or skin shade are frequently, and inaccurately employed (see here). To an outsider such as myself, it is unfathomable to see such obscene black-on-black violence in a country that has prided itself on a relatively peaceful government transition. South Africa to me represents hope. These attacks, however, have been in the making for years. Although the Apartheid government placed black Africans on the lowest rung of the populace and subjected them to tremendous violence and hardships, it also sent a very clear message that South African blacks were better than those from other countries. When the government transitioned, despite changes in immigration laws, police and immigration officials’ misconduct reified the prior government’s xenophobic sentiment . As the years have gone on, the press has also become a significant contributor to xenophobia. Past research suggests that media reports can have significant impact on subsequent activities as we are seeing here. A series of studies by the Southern African Migration Project reveals that the majority of newspaper articles which mention immigrants do so in a flagrantly negative way. Foreign nationals are frequently referred to, among other things, as “aliens”, “job-stealers”, and “criminals.” These public displays of xenophobia have served to reinforce anti-immigrant sentiments among those whose lives have seen little improvement over the years.

Although it is unclear at this point who specifically instigated these attacks in terms of organization and leadership, the source of strain, coupled with the type of outside support from police and news agencies referred to above, has led to a distinct profile of perpetrator: young males living in the poorest of poor situations within impoverished towns. There are several sociological theories and empirical studies that explain why this particular demographic is responsible such as competition theory and relative deprivation, but the level of organization involved here has led many, including myself, to suspect a third-party sponsor. These attacks are organized; the perpetrators are armed (frequently with guns), have distinct, although often incorrect targets and the spatial diffusion of this is unlike what we generally see in a riot. That is, outbreaks of violence and destruction are occurring in physically discrete areas, yet most of what we have seen in academic analyses suggest that the spread of this sort of collective action is generally contiguous.

At this point, the national government’s response has come far too late. Mbeki has finally ordered military reinforcement for the police who quite clearly, have little control over the situation. (photo: sea turtle) I only hope that these attacks are stamped out soon. As many here have pointed out, those responsible have turned their backs on the countries that hosted and aided South African exiles who furthered the anti-apartheid movement. What is left for social scientists such as myself to do, is unfurl the long-term and immediate stimuli of this violence. Although strain theories can help explain the long-term impetus, it cannot account for the timing or location of the attacks.

~ Maya Beasley, PhD
University of Connecticut