Racism in International Context: International Coalition of Cities against Racism

One of the things I intend to do with this international series is focus on possible solutions, or at least attempts, at combating racism around the globe.   More and more, I think that municipal policies are one part of the answer for addressing racism and intolerance.    An interesting example of using municipal policies to combat racism and intolerance comes from UNESCO, the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization within the UN (founded in 1945).

The International Coalition of Cities Against Racism is an UNESCO initiative launched in March 2004 to establish a network of cities interested in sharing experiences in order to improve their policies to fight racism, discrimination, xenophobia and exclusion.  The goal of the initiative is to involve interested cities in a common struggle against racism  through an international coalition. One of the things I like about this approach is that it recognizes a global struggle while it simultaneously acknowledges the priorities of each region of the world by establishing regional coalitions.  These regional coalitions are being established in Africa, Arab Region, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North America, with their respective program of action.

Within each region, the people involved will identify a “Lead City” which will develop a “ten point plan” of action.  The ten point plan includes ten commitments to racial justice in areas that city authorities typically control such as education, housing, employment and cultural activities.  There’s a list of participating cities and regions here.

While there are no cities from the U.S. officially participating in the UNESCO initiative (not surprising given the reluctance of the U.S. to participate in global efforts to curb intolerance), there is one U.S. city named in a discussion paper series (No.3), available here [pdf].   On pages 36-40, the report details the efforts in the city of Boston to combat racism.   Although Boston has “a reputation in the United States for being rather unwelcoming to persons of colour, and the metropolitan region of Boston comes in third among the most “white” metropolitan regions in the United States,” (p.37), it is taking action through the Office of Civil Rights to change this reputation and the reality behind it.  Perhaps Boston could be the “Lead City” as the U.S. joins the UNESCO initiative to fight racism, discrimination, xenophobia and exclusion.

Of course, this approach has some problems – most notably the fact that, at best, it will be a patchwork solution that only addresses problems in some cities.  Other municipalities may not follow the “lead” of neighboring cities.  Rural and suburban areas are left out.   Still, I’m somewhat encouraged by such an approach. In part, I’m encouraged by drawin on the lessons of the LGBT movement which has effectively used activism at the municipal level to win protection from discrimination and some civil rights.  Then, the movement has used those victories as leverage to fight for extensions of those same rights at the state and federal levels.     The other advantage of starting at the city level in developing policies to combat racism and discrimination is that there is an affinity between urban areas and tolerance, people often mention “greater acceptance of diversity” as one of the main reasons for moving to large urban areas.   Perhaps it’s time for cities in the U.S. to join the international community in combating racism.

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.

Racism in International Context: Series

This week we’re broadening our focus beyond the U.S. to discuss racism within an international context in honor of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which just passed.  Joe recently wrote about the Sharpeville massacre, a key anniversary in the international anti-racist struggle and the event which prompted the creation of an International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which began in 1965, five years after the Sharpeville massacre.  The introduction of an International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1965 signalled a global commitment to end racial discrimination that has yet to be fulfilled.

In this week’s series, we’ll explore some of the ongoing problems and possible solutions to racism in an international context.

Saving Face? Colorism, Colonialism, and Sammy Sosa

Recent pictures of baseball player Sammy Sosa show a really dramatic change in his appearance:


(Photo credit: Zalubowski/AP, Djansezian/Getty via NYDailyNews)

Sosa, a retired baseball player born in the Dominican Republic, has openly acknowledged using skin-lightening creams that account for this drastic difference in his appearance (he plans to market a skin-lightening cream). His decision to do so—and the effects of this use—highlight in a rather dramatic fashion one of the more insidious influences of white colonialism and racial hierarchies in the global arena.

Scholars have long documented that in the U.S., particularly among black Americans, a color hierarchy is one of the vestiges of institutionalized racial inequality and a slave system that rewarded white slave owners for raping black women slaves. Under the slave system, children followed the status of the mother. Thus, white slave owners could actually increase their profits by fathering children with slave women, a process which often came about through forcible rape. In some cases (but not all), the children of these unions were favored by white men.  On rare occasions, they even went so far as to free these children or treat them in a completely humane fashion. Ultimately, this established a system where lighter-skinned blacks sometimes received more favorable treatment than their darker-skinned counterparts. (It is important to put this in context, however. Favorable treatment within a slave system would still have been dehumanizing, cruel, and brutal.)

As the U.S. has remained a society profoundly shaped by racial inequality, the vestiges of colorism have remained largely intact. Interestingly, however, researchers often discuss this in the context of colorism’s impact on women. A small but significant number of research studies indicate pretty uniformly that lighter skinned black women are more educated and have higher prospects on the marriage market than their darker-skinned sisters. More generally, lighter skinned women are often considered more attractive than darker skinned women, a bias that has been noted as early as St. Clair Drake and Horace Roscoe Cayton’s 1945 study of black urban areas in Black Metropolis, and as recently as Margaret Hunter’s 2005 book Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone. In other words, lighter skinned black women receive measurable advantages that are unavailable to darker skinned women, due to the heightened emphasis on physical attractiveness for women and the ongoing nature of racism in society.

Sammy Sosa’s transformation highlights two important things. First, that this issue of colorism is not limited to women. His newly lightened face, green eyes, and straighter hair indicate pretty clearly that men are not exempt from the societal messages that lighter is better. Most of the research suggests that men are influenced by these messages vis-à-vis their preference for lighter skinned women, and in fact suggests that darker skinned men are sort of “in vogue,” because darker skin on men is viewed as a symbol of masculinity, virility, and sexiness (although this also connotes racialized, gendered stereotypes of black masculinity). Sosa’s new skin, hair, and eyes bring to light—no pun intended—that men are subjected to, and internalize, the messages of colorism in a myriad of ways, and that they should not be overlooked simply because they don’t trade in beauty currency in the same ways as women.

Secondly, Sosa’s case highlights the international influence of white supremacy (as Joe noted recently about China) and the history of colonization. Sosa is from the Dominican Republic, but is reproducing an ideal of whiteness that is probably present in virtually any country with a history of colonization where race became a central issue. In other words, these issues of colorism—where lighter skinned people of color receive more opportunities, social rewards, and resources than darker skinned people—are at least anecdotally present in Cuba, Mexico, Brazil (as Ed noted here recently), India, South Africa, and numerous other countries where there has been a history of racial conquest and colonialism. Throughout the world, this is one of the consequences of colonialism—centuries later, those who are lighter (even if it is as a result of a history of forcible rape and institutionalized oppression) benefit from living in a global society that mostly devalues darker skin.

In this context, I think Sammy Sosa’s new appearance takes on important sociological significance, as a reminder of how intersections of race and gender impact men of color, the ongoing impact of colonialism, and perhaps most importantly, the all encompassing influence of white racial framing. After all, it is within this broader context of whiteness as a signifier of virtue, goodness, and beauty, that the desire to lighten one’s skin takes on meaning and significance.  Sammy Sosa’s new “look” isn’t just a change in appearance, but one that draws attention to the broader social structure where light (and by extension, white) is right.

Michael Jackson and Barack Obama: Connections

Rarely does anyone enter the world and leave behind such a deep social imprint on the collective psyche as did Michael Jackson. Through his

Heart of roses at Michael Jackson Memorial

exceptionally gifted talents, Jackson broadened minds across the globe. He expressed creativity through the performing arts, where he also carried on the civil rights legacy of those many African Americans, musicians and others, who paved the way for him(Creative Commons License photo credit: talkradionews). He emerged out of, and was a product of, the civil rights movement and reinforced some of its most important themes, which gives his music more power. Throughout his career he challenged white racism, deeply embedded racist and gendered stereotypes, and social inequality. By doing so, he helped to shift the course of U.S. racial history. Because of Michael Jackson and others like him, today we have Barack Obama as our U.S. President.

Prior to Jackson’s entrance into the music scene, it was largely segregated by genre, social scenes, and groupings. During the disco backlash at the turn of the 80’s, Jackson’s innovative Off the Wall remained strong, though it wouldn’t be until the release of Thriller that he would become an overnight sensation. The racist and gendered socio-psychological barriers of U.S. society were shaken, and social (popular culture) changes were set in motion nearly overnight.

Jackson’s rise to stardom came when radio waves had recently switched over from AM to FM, and the few radio stations were not equipped to make way for the range of innovative sounds generated by this new pop artist. Jackson’s music was not reserved for a single genre, sound, or audience. Over the next decades, Jackson’s music went beyond radio and television, and entertainment facilities. It was played at weddings and other milestone events. Even as instrumental music, his tunes were in restaurants and other public spaces. He was listened to by young and old as he cut through generational boundaries; by black and white, and many others; by non-professional and professional; by national and international.

Considering racism, patriarchy, and masculinity, he managed to transcend both race and gender in ways that no other artist has done. Messages channeled through his work spoke to all people. With a combination of work done previously by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many civil right activists and of advanced technology, together with his being a gifted entertainer, Jackson was able to touch people worldwide and promoted changes associated with bringing forth social equality globally.

To a significant degree, the inclusive message and approach President Obama used for his presidential campaigning was in line with the orientation of Michael Jackson and of Dr. King. Like Jackson and King, President Obama was speaking to all people, calling for social change, and encouraging all people to step forward, honor the liberty and justice creed, and do what they could to make this world better. The difference between these three very important figures is that they were working from different societal angles: Jackson was channeling his message as a musical artist through popular culture; Dr. King as a minister working within the realm of Jim Crow segregation and on front lines with activists; and President Obama working within the political sphere competing for the presidency that might allow him to incorporate significant changes through his governmental position.

One crucial difference between the three, however, is that Jackson and King addressed racism much more directly and suffered many negative consequences as a result–such as damage to their psychological and physical wellbeing, and perhaps in the final years for Jackson’s own self and identity, and a premature life for both. While this society has taken a tremendous step forward in voting in the first president who looks like much of the global population, it is still much too racist in framing and practice for President Obama to address numerous major racial issues firsthand as was done by Jackson and King. Nonetheless, President Obama’s more subtle antiracist messages are now being communicated quietly through his actions and decision making.

Many of the new faces that participated in this last Presidential election and voted for Barack Obama were exposed to the influence of Michael Jackson in some way or another during their lifetimes. Had there never have been Michael Jackson in the decades prior, what would have been the possibility that President Obama could have come forth and won the presidency? Without Jackson’s profound antiracist influence on popular culture and society? Had there been no Michael Jackson and people like him, one could presume that the racism would have remained the way it was prior to 1960 where, despite its strides toward desegregation, society, including music, would have remained largely segregated. It would be a great overstatement to suggest Michael Jackson alone brought civil rights changes, but it is fair to suggest that his influence and positive messages touched people of different generations, as well as members of all racial and ethnic groups, and impacted the collective psyche of people so as to help in getting a black Presidential candidate elected.

Whether people are conscious of it or not, more people participate in popular culture than politics. President Obama, like Jackson and King, had a way of appealing to, and including, people of all backgrounds. If there were no Michael Jackson and those civil rights activists prior to him, no antiracist inclinations among the general population would have been well established—particularly among the younger nonblack voting participants in this last presidential election. Likely, the racist fear tactics generated by the media and contending parties would have quickly crashed Senator Obama’s campaign. Most certainly, without the prior exposure and conditioning of Michael Jackson’s music at the collective level that cut across different generations, Obama’s vision of “hope” and “change” undoubtedly would have been less contagious. Without Jackson there would be even more psychological segregation between peoples than we have. It’s a combination of groups that voted for President Obama that allowed him to succeed. He won the African American, Latino, Asian American, and Native American groups by large margins–and even a bare majority of the youngest white people, many of the latter also influenced by Michael Jackson.

As Jackson changed over the years, and became the center of controversies yet to fully unravel, there is no question his fans became saddened, confused, and concerned of what was becoming of their liberating icon. His sister, Janet Jackson, along with her gifted musical talents helped bring balance to her brother’s trials and difficulties associated with fame. The strength she has shown over the years allowed his/their fans to preserve their respect for important contributions both Jacksons made to popular culture.

We have Michael Jackson to thank for much. Music, protest music and spirituals, were the heart and soul of the civil rights movement, and Jackson’s music continued that long tradition. We all have to thank him for his never ending commitment to social equality. We have to value the courage he showed in directly challenging racist and gendered structures, especially in the music and recording industries, and in using his talents in positive ways that helped bring forth significant societal, even global, changes in popular culture and beyond. And Michael Jackson needs to be credited for the contributions he made to popular culture and society over decades that served to help make Barack Obama President of the United States. Thanks MJ, RIP.

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.)