The infamous Ku Klux Klan attracted Americans from all walks of life as long as they were white and Christian. Jurists like Hugo Black flirted with the Klan before they were appointed to the Supreme Court in 1937, barely a year before WWII broke out. Yet oddly enough, by 1986, one could buy a commemorative stamp honouring his work. At its peak in the ’20s, the Klan boasted 4 million members. In the Klan’s view, violence was justified and necessary in order to achieve the purity of the white race. Many of those higher up the order saw themselves as hardcore segregationists. It even helped evangelists like Bob Jones Sr. turn North Carolina into ‘Klansville’.
America’s identity hinged for years on a narrow definition of white and Christian, but their sense of core identity took a backseat for a while because their economic model needed Indians, Chinese and Hispanics – amongst others – to fit into their society. It seemed odd that a nation with a history of slavery, segregation – amongst other horrors – should lead the way for a multicultural world. However, colour and religion keep coming back to haunt them despite their desire to claim the secular high ground. It was no surprise that calls for reparation would grow, considering that despite the abolition of slavery, American segregation – which was a reality until the 1960s made discrimination and racism systemic. Only after WWII, Congress created the Indian Commission to pay compensation to any federally recognised tribe for land that has been seized by the United States. But what did it amount to? The commission coughed up $1.3 billion, the equivalent of $1,000 for each native American. That was in 1978 and by then apart from their lands, they were deprived of their livelihood, culture and way of life.
Reparations are never easy to digest for any dominant group within a society. When the horrors of WWII ended, Germany thought of themselves as the war’s worst victims. So their average population was angered to pay reparations to Jews and the allies. Barely 11 % agreed with the measure back then, and that figure has now gone up to 29 %. The modern-day German is not so sorry, after all.
India, for instance, or rather, the upper- castes of Indian society, did not unanimously back the government policies of reservation for the lower-castes. In 1965, Dalits or untouchables occupied 1.6% of the most senior positions in the civil service, but by 2011, that figure had risen to almost 12%. Today their quota share (12%) is almost their population share (16%), but neither the Dalits nor the Brahmins have made their peace.
Donald Trump’s victory saw the comeback of the Klan and white supremacy. It appears that when the Americans are not combating the bad guys, they are left dealing with their darkest fear or rather the fear of darkening. But it’s not just America. Naturally, Europe too has had to deal with its changing landscape.
Historically, the movement of populations has led to human permutations and combinations of all sorts. However, certain parts of our planet have gone through massive changes in a relatively short span of time. The so-called ‘ western world’s’ new landscape has put the superficial layers of appearance into the heart of identity debates. Ironically, populations are rallying behind the outermost layer, the most superficial one, and it appears to have become quintessential to core identity. And so, despite the fact that Europe’s black population is largely a product of mass immigration and not slavery, they have allied themselves to the American cause. It seemed like the natural order of things that most coloured populations would ally themselves to the cause because Europe too had its own sense of ‘white’ identity.
France’s Général de Gaulle is said to have made a statement that would linger on in the world of French politics. In military manner, he said, “It is very good that there are French people of all colours. It goes to show that France is open to all races and shares a strong sense of inclusiveness provided they remain a small minority. If not, France will cease to be France. For we are above all a white European population of Greco-Latin culture and Christian faith.” Although the definition of France was certainly fair and true in the ’60s, it fails to give the current French landscape any sense of closure or inclusiveness. Unfortunately, Charles de Gaulle lacked the foresight to realise that a free market would lead to the free movement of people mainly from the ex-French colonies. Ironically, France’s North African immigration policy was put into place by successive governments that flaunted their Gaullist identity. By 2015 random politicians including those who did not think much of Charles de Gaulle thought it was fanciful to quote his words on a white France. But one had barely to set foot in Paris to realise that the once tiny non-white minority had grown into an omnipresent reality and a majority in many places.
Across the Channel, Britain had similar demographics. A poll showed that white Britons identified themselves as a minority in 23 of the 33 boroughs of London. One might have hoped to celebrate the diversity if only it did not come with a twist. It appears that colour descends a lot deeper than the skin and can galvanise the masses and the classes alike into an avalanche that can cause some serious damage. No matter which part of the world one lives in, colour plays into the hands of politicians, populists and patriots. The superficial association makes one part of a club or sadly excludes one from it; no domain is free from colour politics. To add to the colour conundrum, the absence of a common narrative has led to fissures in the concept of core identity.
The American education system plays no role in integration or the creation of a common narrative, and Hollywood films are no longer enough to keep America’s identity intact. From its early history, Hollywood concerned itself with only White identity, then moved on to Black – first as trouble then as triumph, then came the turn of the ‘Reds’. They were dressed through the western films where the native Americas were portrayed as ‘uncultured brutes’, and finally, Bruce Lee came to define the wider Chinese community.
Beyond the shallow entertainment that has won the world, America is now waking up to the crepuscule of their ‘civilisation’. The world put faith in a nation where colour and community segregation came to be accepted as a respectable way of life under the deceptive guise of multiculturalism. Following their flawed policies and model has led us into ‘sunset segregation’, a term used by sociologists to highlight the fact that people may interact for work purposes during the day, but by nightfall, they head back to their respective communities and get on with their separate lives. It was only a matter of time that every community’s narrative would crack open the can of worms.
A few days ago, Trump made a speech at Mount Rushmore, and a CNN correspondent described Mount Rushmore as a monument with two slave owners – a reference to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington – and the land as ‘stolen’. It begs the questions; Why are Thomas Jefferson and George Washington being reduced to merely slave owners? And are we to believe that America is finally waking up to the reality of the consequences of stealing lands? More importantly, how did these narratives become mainstream and dominant?
The Black Lives Matter movement certainly have valid fears, but can replacing a statue of a slave owner in Bristol by a statue of women with a clenched fist – a symbol of black power and the Black Panthers – be the solution?
America has always been home to groups that claim exclusivity. If the Klan was for whites, the blacks pounced back with their militant organisation called the Black Panthers. Given America’s love for arms, a faction of the black community felt it was best to arm themselves against the cops who had a disturbing record of violence against the black community. People of mixed race were welcome to join them in their battle, unlike the white supremacy groups who were obsessed with the purity of their race, but they legitimised violence, unlike Martin Luther King Jr.
The Black Panthers proudly held their fists up, and their aim was to hit back with their sense of ‘black power’. Their leaders even claimed the real superior race was the black race. The Panthers may have stood up for the black people, but they were also misogynists as were most societies in the ’60s.
Societies keep redefining their values; as disturbing as it sounds slavery was perceived as normal by the entire human race for centuries. Historians like Salah Trabelsi, Ibrahima Thioub and Tidiane N’Diaye have done extensive research and documented the full extent of the crime and nature of the perpetrators. Ibrahima Thioub points out that slavery was rampant in Africa long before the colonisers came along. It was actually the elite Africans who controlled most of the slaves and the slave trade. For instance, Ghana and Mali had warlords who raided each other’s lands, and their women and children were nothing more than the spoils of wars. Long before the Anglo-Saxon sense of Eugenics was defined, the respected Arab philosopher of the fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun, equated black Africans to beasts and justified their sale as cattle. The Portuguese initiated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but soon everyone was in the lucrative business. Our refusal to address the full extent of it means that we will pit one colour against another; merely highlighting our superficial layer.
So when, Edward Colston’s statue was replaced by that of a Black Lives Matter Protester, Jen Reid, and her clenched fist, it made many of us ponder if black power would put an end to white supremacists? When asked about her view, Jen Reid said, ‘For me getting on the plinth, you know, I raised my fist, and I raised my fist to give power back to the people, back to slaves who died at the hands of Colston, I gave power to George Floyd, and for other black people who have faced injustices for being black, you know?’ But what about those who still fall victim to slavery? What about those women who fall victim to human sex-trafficking even today? And what about modern-day slavery in the Arab world?
Sure, the Panthers were standing up for black people in the American context, but in a globalised world where the majority of the black population in the United Kingdom are not descendants of slaves, shouldn’t their narrative include all oppressed people and not just black people. The Black Lives Matter Movement’s refusal to move on from the past means that white power and black power clash mindlessly. There seems to be an absence of a blueprint that will even out power and put systems in place to keep power in check.
In 2002, the French parliament unanimously passed a law recognising the slave trade as a crime against humanity. The law came to be known as La Loi Taubira. It rightfully recognises the slave trade as a crime against humanity, but regrettably excludes the Arabs, the Ottomans, and the Africans from their role in the slave trade. This has catastrophic consequences because it has made slavery a white man’s burden. While this may be true on Northern American soil, it is an oversimplification of the sub-Saharan African trade. Moreover, it is not in the interest of our multi-ethnic, multicultural society to have a selective narrative of this kind that does more harm than good. History books, which carry an incomplete narrative of the slave trade, deprive future generations of the truth
More importantly, shouldn’t our priority move from statues – surely we can agree it is a symbol of megalomania – to rights and education for the oppressed? In the end, the Black Lives movement fell victim to the systemic cyst they despise so much. They have soaked up media attention and have provided a platform for privileged artists to showcase their ‘art’, a statue that was removed and served no purpose but to grab a little more limelight. If the Black Lives Movement wants to bring about systemic changes, then it is time they came up with a blueprint to share power instead of toppling structures and creating their own narratives of black power.
Available on Wikipedia Hugo Black stamp.
Les esclavages en Méditerranée: Espaces et dynamiques économiques-Fabienne P. Guillén and Salah Trabelsi.
Le génocide voilé: Enquête historique- Tidiane N’Diaye.