By Dr Livingston Smith
George Floyd, a black American, was murdered by Minneapolis police on May 25. The independent autopsy says that Mr. Floyd died of "asphyxiation from sustained pressure" when his neck and back were compressed by Minneapolis police officers during his arrest. The pressure, applied for nearly nine minutes, cut off blood flow to his brain. It was one of the most brutal examples of the continued problem of racism in the United States. In response to this agonizing death, protests have erupted in over forty cities across the United States and several countries across the world.
Modern racism has its genesis in a conjunction of circumstances in global history which led to European imperialism. A devastating outcome of the Columbian enterprise was the genocide of native Indians in the 16th and 17th centuries, and, later, the enslavement of between 11- 12 million Africans who arrived in the Americas as part an expanding slave trade which developed to meet the European and North American demand for sugar. The Portuguese, English, Dutch and French acquired slaving bases in West Africa and engaged actively in the trade.
What began as essentially an economic activity, became the ‘social death of slaves’, to quote Professor Orlando Patterson, preeminent scholar of slavery and the black experience. Racist ideas were nurtured and developed to justify black subjugation. The core of these ideas was the belief that black persons, and non-white persons generally, were inferior in multiple ways. African speech, religion, mannerisms, and institutional forms were systematically denigrated as constituting marks of savagery and cultural inferiority. The colour of the African as well as characteristics of his mouth, nose and hair texture were held to be a lasting badge of his inferiority, says philosopher, Charles Mills in his book, The Racial Contract.
‘From that moment, when the British government in 1636, took the first step to legally classify all blacks in their colonies as non-human, chattel, property, and real estate and proceeded with their European partners to build and manage with it a global business model for 400 years, the greatest ‘financial juggernaut’ of world history, humanity was poisoned with the toxic pandemic of race hatred.
‘And from that date in 1783, when Chief Justice Mansfield of England, in the Zong Trial, boldly proclaimed that the blacks in the case before him are no different from so many horses, sheep, and goats, the poison had permeated every community in the western world.’ Extract from statement issued by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of The UWI, President of Universities Caribbean, and Chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, June 2.
Even with significant and meaningful change for the better, the globe is still tainted with the negative impacts of the historical enslavement of African people. In the American context, Huffington Reporter, Janell Ross, writing about the experience of Black Americans, summarizes the situation well, ‘They must constantly make a case for their citizenship, their humanity, their survival.’
The expulsion of racist ideas and behaviors from human societies has been difficult to achieve. In the American context, the persistence of racism is especially seen in how it cements itself in the various institutions as black Americans are ‘reduced to the colour of their skin and found wanting’ to quote Kenyan journalist Larry Madowa, who himself experienced racial prejudice in the US. Even though the Kerner Commission Report was written in response to the riots of the 1960’s when President Lyndon asked this committee to do an investigation, its findings as to the root causes of these unrest could be copied and pasted as the causes of the current crisis. The Commission found that the roots of the unrest were present in every American institution and in the choices of individuals- Books, the News Media, city, state and federal governments, schools, grocery stores and other retail operations- and that individual Americans routinely excluded black Americans from the best jobs and neighborhoods etcetera.
The statement issued by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, makes other salient points.
‘This Minneapolis fight was Marcus Garvey’s fight; it was Martin’s fight; it was Malcolm’s fight; it was Marley’s fight. It’s a Caribbean fight and it’s a global fight.
‘This is our cause. Every university that stands for freedom, justice, and the celebration of human dignity must stand up like a gorilla for justice for George. Minneapolis is just another place where our eyes have detected evil, beyond hate, that has erupted from the depth of hell.’ Extract from statement issued by Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of The UWI, President of Universities Caribbean, and Chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, June 2.
To achieve a global space where ‘the colour of a man’s skin is of now more significance, than the colour of his eyes’ will take the courage and concerted effort of all of us who believe in the inherent dignity of all of all of God’s children.
The world, in short time, must be able to answer in the affirmative to the question posed by Prof. Rex Nettleford in his address to the United Nations, March 26, 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
‘Can the world without anguish accept itself as part this, part that, part the other but totally human without one part of it trying to dominate the other? Prof. Rex Nettleford - Speech to the United Nations, March 26, 2007- on the 200th Anniversary of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Dr. Livingston Smith is a Professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands. He is also Director of the CXC Education Volunteer programme