Ethnicity and Violence in Africa: An Update

At last count, the clashes that erupted on January 17 2010 in Jos (capital of Plateau State in Nigeria), had claimed the lives of about 360 people and displaced over 20,000 families as told by officials. This incident of cultural conflict in Nigeria represents the latest in the chronic antagonism between Muslims and Christians. In these parts, there is great overlap between ‘ethnicity’ signifying cultural characteristics or traits and religious identification so that one’s religion may be a descriptor of one’s ethnicity. The recent spate of killings in Jos has occurred between Christians, who are largely non-Hausa, and Muslims who are predominantly of the Hausa ethnic group.

I recall several weeks ago as these ethno-religious killings were going in Jos that I took my aged wagon to a local franchise auto shop for a routine check-up. The mechanic working on my car must’ve detected an accent when I spoke, so he asked me: “Where are you from,” and in my attempt to deflect this line of questioning, I retorted: ‘Baltimore!” He said, “Really, where are you from? You’re from Africa? Where?” To which I answered: “Does it make a difference?” “Yes, it does, to me,” he shot back. He was insistent and he kept at it: “So, where are you from?” Finally, I gave in and told him where I was born.  But, the mechanic was not done – he wanted to know which ethnic group, which tribe, I belonged to. I was becoming impatient with this conversation about my birthplace and ethnicity. I asked him: “What do you care, which tribe I belong to?” I was being direct so he could drop the topic, but he won’t let it drop; “It matters, he said.” I was incredulous, so I asked him: “How does it matter?” His best come back was: “I just want to know!” So, I finally yielded and told him which ethnic group I belonged to – I figured that if this gentleman was going to work on my car, I didn’t want to antagonize him. He then told me where he was born (I had figured as much) and then he proclaimed his ethnicity, although I hadn’t asked him and really didn’t care to know.

As I left the shop, I realized I wasn’t completely surprised by this exchange. In our presentation of self as black immigrants, we rely on cultural and other descriptors to signify who we are. For most African immigrants, calling up one’s tribe or ethnicity is a way of overcoming the master status based on phenotype. We want to be more than just ‘black.’ The exchange I had at the auto shop brought into focus the continuing relevance of ethnic identity and its role in inter-communal conflict in Africa. But the bearing of ethnic identity is not the same for the immigrant black and the indigene in Africa.

As I reviewed the latest data on ethnic identification in Africa from the AfroBarometer Round 4 Surveys, my focus, as I’ve noted in previous posts here, was on the extent to which ethnic identity becomes the basis for inter-communal conflict.  In my earlier posts, I have presented data tracking ethnocentrism and conflict in Africa.  In this post, I provide updates on the prevalence of ethnic identity from recent survey data collected by AfroBarometer in 2008.

Round 4 of the AfroBarometer Surveys were conducted in 18 countries in 2008, drawing a sample of 26,414 respondents with proportionate representation to capture the distribution of ethnic diversity in each of these countries. I culled published summary data on five core items that track the intensity of ethnic identification: these data are based on responses to the following questions: (1) I feel only ‘ethnic’ (respondent’s ethnic group). (2) I feel more ‘ethnic’ than ‘national’ (respondent’s nationality). (3) I feel equally ‘national’ and ‘ethnic’. (4) I feel more ‘national’ than ‘ethnic’. (5) I feel only ‘national.’  The root question for this set of items is: “What is your tribe or ethnic group?’

I collapsed these data by combing question items 1 and 2 to depict “strong ethnic identification” and combined items 4 and 5 to depict “strong national identification.” I then sorted the data in descending order based on the percentage of respondents (in each country) that responded to the combined item: “strong national identification”.

These survey data tell us about the prevalence of ethnic identification and national identity in these African countries. My contention was that more respondents would choose ethnic identity. My other contention was that data for Nigeria, with its sporadic incidents of ethno-religious conflicts, would show a high prevalence of strong ethnic identification. The data are presented below:


So, what do these data tell? In Tanzania (78%), Madagascar (67%) and Senegal (56%), more respondents relied on their nationality as a descriptor than in any other surveyed countries. The prevalence of ethnic identification (and ethnic attachment) in these countries is low. On the other hand, Malawi is the only country with more than half of its respondents identifying primarily with their ethnic group. When we compare the proportions for the item “I feel equally ‘national’ and ‘ethnic’,” more Liberians (65%) followed by Ghanaians (57%) and Ugandans (53%) report feeling equally ethnic and nationalistic. Slightly less than half of surveyed Nigerians (45%) report this sentiment (credit eric). Overall, more respondents in most countries chose “strong national identification” or “equally ethnic and national.”

My contention that more Nigerians would choose ethnic identification also did not bear out – and this is propitious. Nigerians are comparatively no different from most of the other Africans surveyed in terms of their feelings about ethnic identity. So, it is puzzling how community misunderstandings devolve into such violent acts of killings and maiming in Nigeria (or more precisely, some parts of Nigeria). Some reports have argued that the recent troubles in Jos were perpetuated by thugs and fuelled by social disadvantage. If this is indeed the case, where were the officers of peace who are responsible for diffusing tensions and maintaining order? The killings went unabated for several hours before the military was called in to restore order. Perhaps the trajectory of these violent incidents reveals a certain level of state weakness in its inability to quell mob behavior?

These data are encouraging and may exhort us to think that ethnocentrism is on the wane in Africa. But we cannot forget what extreme ethnic identification and attachment has wrought in the past decade: brutal killings in Rwanda, ethnic war that convulsed Ethiopians and Eritrea, civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, ethnic violence that threatened to divide Cote d’Ivoire, ethnic war that has ravaged Sudanese in the South, sporadic ethnic killings that occur in Northern Ghana between Kokomba and Nanumba ethnic groups, ethno-religious violence in Nigeria, violent separatist movement in Southern region of Casamance in Senegal, the wars in the Congo Democratic Republic and Angola.

In Angola, two officials of the Togolese national soccer team were killed and the reserve goalie was seriously wounded in the Cabinda region during the Conference of African Football (CAF) tournament that just ended in January 2010. The bus in which the Togolese were riding was shot at by Cabinda separatists. The cause for the violent separatist movement in Cabinda is a certain ethno-cultural distinctiveness.

Importing White Racism into China?

At the Washington Post’s Foreign Service desk, Keith Richburg has written an important piece on antiblack and anti-African views and actions in China–which have a similarity to racist views and actions in the U.S. and other parts of the West. How much of this Chinese antiblack racism is indigenous, and how much has been imported from the U.S. and the rest of the West?

Richburg begins with the story of Lou Jing, a young mixed-race (Chinese/African American) woman who won a talent competition in a U.S.-imitating, television “idol” show called, stereotypically and ironically enough, “Go! Oriental Angel.” The response by some Chinese posting on the Internet was stereotyped and hostile:

Angry Internet posters called her a “black chimpanzee” and worse. One called for all blacks in China to be deported. . . . “It’s sad,” Lou said. . . . “If I had a face that was half-Chinese and half-white, I wouldn’t have gotten that criticism.”

Richburg notes many Africans have come to China as trade between China and African countries has grown dramatically. Many have gone to Westernized southern cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai (China’s largest city), engaged in businesses, and sometimes married Chinese partners (usually men marrying women):

In the process, they are making tiny pockets of urban China more racially diverse — and forcing the Chinese to deal with issues of racial discrimination. In the southern city of Guangzhou, where residents refer to one downtown neighborhood as Chocolate City, local newspapers have been filled in recent months with stories detailing discrimination and alleging police harassment against the African community.

The article quotes Africans who have seen beatings by the police, as well as protests by African communities against discrimination and police harassment. One Chinese influential talk show host, Hung Huang, blamed the racial hostility and discrimination on economic growth and added that

“The Chinese worshiped the West, and for Chinese people, ‘the West’ is white people.” . . . her generation was “taught world history in a way that black people were oppressed, they were slaves, and we haven’t seen any sign of success since.”

The article does not probe into how/why these views of the West, whites, and white culture as superior are taught to the Chinese, but instead accents a traditional prejudice for light skin that goes back deeply into the Chinese past:

Darker skin meant you worked the fields; lighter skin put you among the elite. The country is rapidly industrializing and urbanizing, but that historical prejudice remains. High-end skin-whitening products are a $100 million-a-year business in China, according to industry statistics.

Clearly, this is an important point. The ancient Chinese preference for lighter skin fits well with current antiblack stereotyping and other racist framing, much of which is likely borrowed from the Western media, Western officials in China (now for centuries, including earlier missionaries), and other influential Western inputs into Chinese thinking about Africans and African Americans. But a weakness in the U.S. media’s analysis of the Lou Jing incident, and similar racist events, is its failure to track the impact of the U.S. (and other Western) media on Chinese thinking and action. In the second edition of my Racist America book (due out in January), I summarize a couple of research studies of Chinese respondents thus:

A study [by Hsiao-Chuan Hsia] of fifteen rural Taiwanese [Chinese] found that the respondents sometimes realized that U.S. media engaged in racist stereotyping, yet most still held negative views of black Americans. They generally thought black Americans were self-destructive, dirty, lazy, unintelligent, criminal, violent, or ugly. Negative images were usually gleaned from U.S. television shows, movies, and music videos the respondents had seen in Taiwan. . . . . [and] a survey of 345 mainland Chinese high school students [reported by Alexis Tan, Lingling Zhang, Yungying Zhang, and Francis Dalisay] found that, the greater their use of U.S. print media, television, and movies, the more negative were their stereotypes of African Americans, such as stereotypes of black violence and hedonism.

Significantly, the Chinese wife of one African businessperson notes in the article that in Guangzhou the Cantonese term for black people translates into “black ghosts.” I wonder where they got that idea. That Chinese phrase sounds remarkably like the old white-racist term for black Americans, “spooks,” doesn’t it?

ObamaChinaIt will also be interesting to watch the reaction of the Chinese, especially below the level of officially controlled etiquette, to President Obama’s current visit there. Please add comments on this visit as you see evidence on this matter.

Racism in the USA – and in the other USA: Views of Professor Jonathan Jansen

Over at Inside Higher Education, Ben Eisen has an interesting interviewwith Professor Jonathan D. Jansen, a South African who after the end of apartheid became the first black dean of education at South Africa’s very racially conservative University of Pretoria.

In his interview with Eisen, Professor Jansen talks about living between two racial cultures and compares the USA to the USA:

Universities in South Africa and the USA were formed in very similar circumstances where racial formation played crucial roles in knowledge production as well as in patterns of racial socialization and racial segregation. The book produced by Spelman’s president, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? … resonates with the South African experience; and I believe Knowledge in the Blood reflects some of the same tensions and struggles in the USA. The big difference, of course, is that blacks hold power in the Republic of South Africa while blacks remain a minority in the USA, and this has implications for the transformation of these patterns of racial division.

The product description of Jansen’s new book, Knowledge in the Blood, is very interesting and suggests other direct parallels between whites, including white youth, in both countries:

This book tells the story of white South African students—how they remember and enact an Apartheid past they were never part of. How is it that young Afrikaners, born at the time of Mandela’s release from prison, hold firm views about a past they never lived, rigid ideas about black people, and fatalistic thoughts about the future? … Jansen offers an intimate look at the effects of social and political change after Apartheid as white students first experience learning and living alongside black students. He reveals the novel role pedagogical interventions played in confronting the past, as well as critical theory’s limits in dealing with conflict in a world where formerly clear-cut notions of victims and perpetrators are blurred.

So, many white youth “hold firm views about a past they never lived, rigid ideas about black people.” Sounds like the other USA?

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…

AMERICAN CRUCIBLE: The Tack of Clarence Munford

(Note: I asked Professor Clarence Munford – in my view the leading contemporary scholar of African civilizations, the African diaspora, and the globalization of racism over the last half millenium — to summarize a few of his recent arguments about the Western worldview, capitalism, and racial oppression. He has a book just out that develops these important and provocative ideas. See here.)

American Crucible examines the indissoluble bond in the history of the Western Hemissphere between racism and capitalism. The author presents Civilizational Historicism as a conceptual lens. The theory is a black secular world view applying the study of history and the social sciences as tools to achieve black liberation and equal empowerment and parity among humankind. American Crucible’s epistemology, philosophy and political economy are rooted in the black Diaspora experience.

Historical knowledge is never non-partisan. Intended to illuminate the present and influence the future, Munford’s narrative of the past is designed to reveal the power statuses of those who write history and those who benefit from it. American Crucible challenges white supremacy in its global guise, and provides theoretical underpinning for a neo-abolitionist coalition of antiracist whites and progressive peoples of color.

As the jumping-off point American Crucible surveys the original black civilization as constituted in the first six dynasties of Khafre & Khufu
Creative Commons License (photo credit: hackerfriendly)   pharaonic Egypt. Diluted, the seeds of this civilization were sown westward and southward in the African continent, eventually weathering the storm of the Middle Passage to impart cultural urges and philosophical concepts still current in the Americas. European slaving began its West African career in 1441. This volume traces the more than five hundred years of contentious engagement between black resistance and the white supremacist dominance of Western civilization. For political economy clarification, the institution of slavery during Western antiquity is contrasted theoretically and functionally with the black chattel enslavement of Africans that gave birth to the Western Hemisphere’s uniquely racist capitalist mode of production. From the mid-fifteenth century to the late nineteenth century African civilization was shattered. Through the holocaust of enslavement, along with its later twin, colonization in the African continent, the system of white supremacy adopted terrorism as its bottom-line arm of control.

American Crucible provides a detailed account of the phenomenon of antiblack racism in Western civilization. The historical artifact “race” – a social invention – has been used as a sledgehammer by white supremacists to justify their criminal behavior for centuries. Antiblack racism and “race” are genetic features in Western Hemispheric societies. The history of the United States is unintelligible apart from black chattel enslavement, peonage, segregation and institutional racism. The book’s final chapters weigh imperial globalization’s (IMF, World Bank, transnational and multinational corporations, etc.) shattering neocolonialist effects on today’s increasingly retribalized Africa.

(What do you think? Please add comments.)

Is White Racism Skin Deep?

Blue nevus (3 of 4)
Creative Commons License photo credit: euthman

NPR just did an interesting story on research on melanin and skin color shifts over relatively short evolutionary time, just a few thousand years. Those of us with darker skins may well have had ancestors just 2500 or so years ago who were much lighter in skin color, and those of us with lighter skin may have had much darker recent ancestors. The new research suggests that human evolution does not need thousands of years to change something as superficial as skin color. Given that reality, it is amazing and sad that we humans make so much of our thinking and social organization hinge on something as superficial as melanin variation and dark/light skin color.

Here is an interesting map (NPR, George Chaplin) of where darker-skinned people now live on the planet. Notice how skin color generally follows the levels of ultraviolet radiation (sun intensity) on the planet.

The NPR story quotes Anthropology Professor Nina Jablonski at Penn State, who argues that your current skin color

is very probably not the color your ancient ancestors had — even if you think your family has been the same color for a long, long time. … Skin has changed color in human lineages much faster than scientists had previously supposed, even without intermarriage, Jablonski says. …By creating genetic “clocks,” scientists can make fairly careful guesses about when particular groups became the color they are today. And with the help of paleontologists and anthropologists, scientists can go further: They can wind the clock back and see what colors these populations were going back tens of thousands of years, says Jablonski. She says that for many families on the planet, if we look back only 100 or 200 generations (that’s as few as 2,500 years), “almost all of us were in a different place and we had a different color.” … “People living now in southern parts of India [and Sri Lanka] are extremely darkly pigmented,” Jablonski says. But their great, great ancestors lived much farther north, and when they migrated south, their pigmentation redarkened.

Of course, we are all Africans if we go back about 100,000 years, and thus we all come from people who were once likely quite dark-skinned, given that we originated Africa
Creative Commons License photo credit: Hitchster

in equatorial Africa where the levels of ultraviolet light were, and are quite high. Melanin is a type of skin molecule that makes

skin lighter or darker. Kind of like a Venetian blind, it can let UV light in or keep it out. . .. .Humans have had it for a long, long time and what Jablonski and others have learned is that when early humans migrated from the equator, their melanin levels changed.

And skin color can change much faster than earlier estimates suggested:

“Our original estimates were that [skin color changes] occurred perhaps at a more stately pace,” Jablonski says. But now they’re finding that a population can be one color (light or dark) and 100 generations later — with no intermarriage — be a very different color. Figuring 25 years per generation (which is generous, since early humans walked naked through the world — clothes slow down the rate), that’s an astonishingly short interval.

One thing that the NPR story does not deal with is that there is some significant variation in the map, with some far-north peoples having darker skin color than those somewhat to their south. One reason for this, a science blogger suggests, is that of nutrition and agricultural development:

The deleterious consequences of switching many non-agricultural populations to the starch rich diet are well known (obesity, diabetes, etc.). Selection happens, and it seems likely that a genetic revolution was ushered in by the radically altered nutritional universe of the farmer. … Frank W. Sweet published an essay in 2002 which offered that the feasibility of a farming lifestyle at very high latitudes in Europe due to peculiar climatological conditions served to drive Europeans to develop light skins over the last 10,000 years. In short, Sweet argues that the diets of pre-farming peoples were richer in meats and fish which provided sufficient Vitamin D so that skin color was likely light brown as opposed to pink. But with the spread of agriculture Vitamin D disappeared from the diets of northern European peoples and so only by reducing their melanin levels could they produce sufficient amounts of this nutrient to keep at bay the deleterious consequences of deficiencies. This explains why the Sami, who [live far north on the planet] never adopted agriculture, remained darker.

So, sociological factors loom large as well, in this case shifts in agriculture and food eaten. There are other environmental and genetic diversity factors as well, such as timing in evolution and genetic diversity in the initial population. And one must be careful about arguing from biological research on melanin to broader sociological issues.

Still, it never ceases to amaze me that melanin variation is such a powerful factor in the social construction of “race” among human beings, so much so that young people like Mr. Grant are now deceased because of melanin variation’s perception in some white person’s mind. How irrational is that?
Continue reading…

Resisting Systemic Racism: From Two Immigrants

From our quotidian experiences as contemporary nonwhite immigrants and our gaze as sociologists, we recognize a certain ‘structuration’ of resistance, or ‘recurrent practices’ deployed at different times and in different places to challenge racist frames or systemic racism in our daily interactive spaces. We figured this to be so because we have engaged in such practices ourselves as contemporary immigrants. We wonder about the ways in which new immigrants of color perform race, and the alternate frames of reference used in race narratives. We pose several questions about these practices.

This essay represents our way of having a broad conversation about the contexts of our racial lives in the United States. As members of contemporary minority groups who have settled in this great land of immigrants, we would like this conversation to be about expressive control or a structure of resistance to racial thinking, if you will.

It is also a conversation about how we stage ourselves when it is difficult to transcend the context of race in America. Continue reading…

Global Impacts of White Racism: Americo-Liberians

I have been reading a very interesting book by Benjamin Dennis and Anita Dennis called Slaves to Racism: An Unbroken Chain from America to Liberia. Professor Dennis was born in Africa, raised in Berlin as a diplomat’s son, and came to the U.S. in 1950, where he marched with Dr. King and was in a debate with Malcolm X. He got a Ph.D. in sociology/anthropology, then taught at several universities, including University of Michigan (Flint) and Michigan State. Anita Dennis, his wife, also has a degree in sociology and anthropology. They have recently summarized Benjamin Dennis’s research and eyewitness account of how white racist framing and action have spread globally, even among those who are not white, thus: (photo: jizagirre)

During the 1800s, the American Colonization Society enticed free Negroes to go to Africa. Slaves were freed on the condition they leave. These two groups that became the “Americo-Liberians” who ruled Liberia, carried with them the evils of racism and the limitations of slavery.

Racism inevitably reproduces itself in the minds of the oppressed in order to rise. In the “Imitation of Supremacy,” as victim becomes victimizer, the Americo-Liberians saw the natives the way whites saw them. Now that the Americo-Liberians were rulers, they mimicked white rule. They justified their exploitation of the natives on the basis of cultural inferiority just as whites used racism to justify slavery. In America, race trumped all other considerations. In Liberia, culture trumped race as the classification of inferiority.

In the “Imitation of Superiority,” [some? many?] Americo-Liberians mimicked and retained the culture of the antebellum South because they derived their cultural superiority from it. The vast majority of the Americo-Liberians were freed slaves, including slaves freed on the high seas. Because of the limitations of slavery, they were image rather than reality. What they evolved was a pseudo culture, a poor replication of what they didn’t really understand. As slaves they had had only a “taste” of Western culture.

Ironically, they replicated what they despised – oppression and discrimination based upon “inferiority.” Natives were disparaged and ridiculed as “country people.” The Americo-Liberians set up all the Jim Crow laws of the South in Liberia. There was social segregation in Monrovia, the capital city. Among other things, natives could not enter through the front door. They could not vote. They could not speak unless spoken to. There were sexual restrictions. No native man could marry or have a sexual relationship with an Americo-Liberian woman. Even when natives became educated, they were restricted from government positions. Only a token few were allowed to participate.

This research and eyewitness account of how U.S. racism affected, and infected, the minds of people of African descent is striking. Even as the racially oppressed, some number of them carried the structures and orientations of aspects of white racial oppression back to Africa. The idea of the white racial frame that we have used on this site, and I have developed in several books, clearly needs to be developed even more aggressively with regard to the international context and impact.

According to Dennis, these (it is unclear whether he means some or many?) Americo-Liberians carried this white racial framing–with its negative view of Africa and other non-Western peoples, and especially its view of white cultural superiority and white supremacy, back to the country of their ancestors. In several important ways, they became substitute or proxy whites in their actions and orientations. The global circulating impact of white racist framing–and of the thinking, ideology, and action that grows out of it—remains one of the world’s most fundamental structural problems.

President-elect’s Poet: Elizabeth Alexander

At Slate’s online site, Meghan O’Rourke, has a brief article reminding us that President-elect Obama has picked a prize-winning, provocative African American poet, Elizabeth Alexander, to read at his inauguration ceremony. He is one of few presidents ever to invite a poet for such a task.

O’Rourke notes that Yale Professor Alexander has four books,

the last, American Sublime, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A professor of African-American studies at Yale (from which she also matriculated), Alexander writes poems that are metaphorically and linguistically dense, layered, and subtle. Her work speaks about black experience. . . .But she can’t be said to privilege identity politics over aesthetics; her poems work more at being complex than didactic. In this sense, she’s an analogue to Obama, who doesn’t privilege identity politics over his strategy of inclusiveness.

Among other important works, Alexander has written a powerful poem about the extreme oppression visited on the enslaved African woman, Saartjie Baartman (1789-1815), whom virulently racist European whites termed the “The Venus Hottentot.” She was a Khoikhoi woman enticed by promises of splitting her earnings by the brother of her Dutch slaveowner in Africa if she would go to Europe to be physically exhibited to whites. Put on as a sideshow exhibit in Britain and France, she was forced to exhibit naked. After she died of illness in Europe in 1815, her remains– skeleton, genitals, and brain–were displayed by and for European “scientists” like an animal’s remains in a prominent Paris museum–even until the mid-1970s! Yet another aspect of the “Western civilization” some of our leading pundits like to brag about.

In her poem Alexander attacks this extreme exploitation and its associated scientific racism more eloquently that we can ever put into prose. I recommend the portion of her poem posted on her website here. Her GrayWolf press collection, The Venus Hottentot is described here.

Some Notable Dates in Decolonization: Kenya

There are some interesting dates to note today, given that our first black president has a Kenyan father:

December 12, 1963 – The African colony of Kenya gains its independence from the colonial power, United Kingdom.

December 12, 1964 – Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta becomes the first President of the Republic of Kenya.

Is it odd that the mass media has shown so little interest in the Kenyan background of our president-elect? Is Africa still the “dark continent” (the old racist, colonialist term), for the mainstream media? Will this change with our new president coming into office?

And, by the way, Barack Obama will be officially elected as president only as of next Monday when our highly undemocratic institution, the electoral college, which was bestowed on us mostly by white slaveholders in 1787, meets to vote.