The global coronavirus pandemic has triggered worldwide panic as the numbers of victims explode and economies implode, as physical movement and social interactions wither in lockdowns, as apocalyptic projections of its destructive reach soar, and as unprepared or underprepared national governments and international agencies desperately scramble for solutions.
The pandemic has exposed the daunting deficiencies of public health systems in many countries. It threatens cataclysmic economic wreckage as entire industries, global supply chains, and stock markets collapse under its frightfully unpredictable trajectory. Its social, emotional, and mental toll are as punishing as they are paralysing for multitudes of people increasingly isolated in their homes as the public life of work spaces, travel, entertainment, sports, religious congregations, and other gatherings grind to a halt.
Also being torn asunder are cynical ideological certainties and the political fortunes of national leaders as demands grow for strong and competent governments. The populist revolt against science and experts has received its comeuppance as the deadly costs of pandering to mass ignorance mount. At the same time, the pandemic has shattered the strutting assurance of masters of the universe as they either catch the virus or as it constrains their jet-setting lives and erodes their bulging equity portfolios.
Furthermore, the coronavirus throws into sharp relief the interlocked embrace of globalisation and nationalism, as the pandemic leaps across the world showing no respect for national boundaries, and countries seek to contain it by fortifying national borders. It underscores the limits of both neo-liberal globalisation that has reigned supreme since the 1980s, and populist nationalisms that have bestrode the world since the 2000s, which emerged partly out of the deepening social and economic inequalities spawned by the former.
These are some of the issues I would like to reflect on in this essay, the political economy of the coronavirus pandemic. As historians and social scientists know all too well, any major crisis is always multifaceted in its causes, courses, and consequences. Disease epidemics are no different. In short, understanding the epidemiological dimensions and dynamics of the coronavirus pandemic is as important as analysing its economic, social, and political impact. Moments of crisis always have their fear-mongers and skeptics. The role of progressive public intellectuals is to provide sober analysis.
In the Shadows of 1918-1920
The coronavirus pandemic is the latest and potentially one of the most lethal global pandemics in a long time. One of the world’s deadliest pandemics was the Great Plague of 1346-1351 which ravaged larges parts of Eurasia and Africa. It killed between 75 to 200 million people, and wiped out 30 per cent to 60 per cent of the European population. The plague was caused by fleas carried by rats, underscoring humanity’s vulnerability to the lethal power of small and micro-organisms, notwithstanding the conceit of its mastery over nature. The current pandemic shows that this remains true despite all the technological advances humanity has made since then.
Over a century ago, as World War I came to an end, an influenza epidemic, triggered by a virus transmitted from animals to humans, ravaged the globe. One-third of the world’s population was infected, and it left 50 million people dead. It was the worst pandemic of the 20th century. It was bigger and more lethal than the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late 20th century. But for a world then traumatised by the horrors of war it seemed to have left a limited impact on global consciousness.
Some health experts fear Covid-19, as the new strain of coronavirus has been named, might rival the influenza epidemic of 1918. But there are those who caution that history is sometimes not kind to moral panics, that similar hysteria was expressed following the outbreaks in the 2000s and 2010s of bouts of bird flu and swine flu, of SARS, MERS and Ebola, each of which was initially projected to kill millions of people. Of course, nobody really knows whether or not the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will rival that of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, but the echoes are unsettling: its mortality rate seems comparable, as is its explosive spread.
The devastating power Covid-19 is wracking and humbling every country, economy, society, and social class, although the pervasive structural and social inscriptions of differentiation still cast their formidable and discriminatory capacities for prevention and survival. In its socioeconomic and political impact alone, Covid-19 has already made history. One lesson from the influenza pandemic that applies to the current coronavirus pandemic is that countries, cities and communities that took early preventive measures fared much better than those that did not.
Since Covid-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, in late December 2019, international and national health organisations and ministries have issued prevention guidelines for individuals and institutions. Most of the recommended measures reflect guidelines issued by the World Health Organization.
But the pandemic is not just about physical health. It is also about mental health. Writing in The Atlantic magazine of March 17, 2020, on how to stay sane during the pandemic one psychotherapist notes, “You can let anxiety consume you, or you can feel the fear and also find joy in ordinary life, even now”. She concludes, “I recommend that all of us pay as much attention to protecting our emotional health as we do to guarding our physical health. A virus can invade our bodies, but we get to decide whether we let it invade our minds”.
A Kenyan psychology professor advises her readers in the Sunday Nation of March 23, 2020, to cultivate a positive mindset. “Take only credible sources of information . . . Don’t consume too much data, it can be overwhelming. You may be in isolation but very noisy within yourself. Learn to relax and to convert your energy into other activities in order to nurture your own mental health . . . Such as gardening, learning a language, doing an online course, painting or read that book. Do the house chores, trim the flowers, paint, do repairs, clean the dust in those corners we always ignore . . . Exercise . . . Talk to someone if you feel terrified, empty, hopeless, and worthless. These are creeping signs of depression. This too will pass: Believe me that there will be an end to this”.
Scramble for Containment
Many governments were caught unprepared or underprepared by the coronavirus pandemic. Some even initially dismissed the threat. This was particularly the case among populist rightwing governments, such as the administrations of President Trump of the United States, Prime Minister Johnson of the United Kingdom, and President Bolsonaro of Brazil. As populists, they had risen to power on a dangerous brew of nationalist and nativist fantasies of reviving national greatness and purity, xenophobia against foreigners, and manufactured hatred for elites and experts.
To rightwing ideologues the coronavirus was a foreign pathogen, a “Chinese virus” according to President Trump and his Republican followers in the United States, that posed no threat to the nation quarantined in its splendid isolation of renewed greatness. Its purported threat was fake news propagated by partisan Democrats, or disgruntled left-wing labour and liberal parties in the case of the United Kingdom and Brazil that had recently been vanquished at the polls.
Such was the obduracy of President Trump that not only did he and his team ignore frantic media reports about the pandemic leaping across the world, but also ominous, classified warnings issued by the U.S. intelligence agencies throughout January and February. Instead, he kept assuring Americans in his deranged twitterstorms that there was little to worry about, that “I think it’s going to work out fine,” that “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA”.
Trump’s denialism was echoed by many leaders around the world including in Africa. This delayed taking much-needed preemptive action that would have limited the spread and potential impact of the coronavirus firestorm. In fact, as early as 2012 a report by the Rand Corporation warned that only pandemics were “capable of destroying America’s way of life”. The Obama administration proceeded to establish the National Security Council directorate for global health and security and bio-defense, which the Trump administration closed in 2018. On the whole, global pandemics have generally not been taken seriously by security establishments in many countries preoccupied with conventional wars, terrorism, and the machismo of military hardware.
In the meantime, China, the original epicenter of the pandemic took draconian measures that locked down Wuhan and neighbouring regions, a measure that was initially dismissed by many politicians and pundits in “western democracies” as a frightful and an unacceptable example of Chinese authoritarianism. As the pandemic ravished Italy, which became the coronavirus epicenter in Europe and a major exporter of the disease to several African countries, regional and national lockdowns were embraced as a strategy of containment.
Asian democracies such as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore adopted less coercive and more transparent measures. Already endowed with good public health systems capable of handling major epidemics—which capability was enhanced by the virus epidemics of the 2000s and 2010s—they developed effective and vigilant monitoring systems encompassing early intervention, meticulous contact tracking, mandatory quarantines, social distancing, and border controls.
Various forms of lockdown, some more draconian than others, were soon adopted in many countries and cities around the world. They encompassed the closure of offices, schools and universities, and entertainment and sports venues, as well as banning of international flights and even domestic travel. Large-scale disinfection drives were also increasingly undertaken. The Economist of March 21, 2020 notes in its lead story that China and South Korea have effectively used “technology to administer quarantines and social distancing. China is using apps to certify who is clear of the disease and who is not. Both it and South Korea are using big data and social media to trace infections, alert people of hotspots and round contacts”.
Belatedly, as the pandemic flared in their countries, the skeptics began singing a different tune, although a dwindling minority complained of overreaction. Befitting the grandiosity of populist politicians, they suddenly fancied themselves as great generals in the most ferocious war in a generation. Some commentators found the metaphor of war obscene for its self-aggrandisement for clueless leaders anxious to burnish their tattered reputations and accrue more gravitas and power. For the bombastic, narcissistic, and pathological liar that he is, President Trump sought to change the narrative that he had foreseen the pandemic notwithstanding his earlier dismissals of its seriousness.
His British counterpart, Prime Minister Johnson vainly tried Churchillian impersonation which was met with widespread derision in the media. Each time either of them spoke trying to reassure the public, the more it became clear they were out of their depth, that they did not have the intellectual and political capacity to calm the situation. It was a verdict delivered with painful cruelty by the stock markets that they adore—they fell sharply each time the two gave a press conference and announced half-baked containment measures.
Initially, many of Africa’s inept governments remained blasé about the pandemic even allowing flights to and from China, Italy and other countries with heavy infection rates. Cynical citizens with little trust in their corrupt governments to manage a serious crisis sought comfort in myths peddled on social media about Africa’s immunity because of its sunny weather, the curative potential of some concoctions from disinfectants to pepper soup, the preventive potential of shaving beards, or the protective power of faith and prayer.
But as concerns and outrage from civil society mounted, and opportunities for foreign aid rose, some governments went into rhetorical overdrive that engendered more panic than reassurance. It has increasingly become evident that Africa needs unflinching commitment and massive resources to stem the rising tide of coronavirus infections. According to one commentator in The Sunday Nation of March 22, “It is estimated that the continent would need up to $10.6 billion in unanticipated increases in health spending to curtail the virus from spreading”. He advises the continent to urgently implement the African Continental Free Trade Area, and work with global partners.
Cynical citizens with little trust in their corrupt governments to manage a serious crisis sought comfort in myths peddled on social media
In Kenya, some defiant politicians refused to self-quarantine after coming from coronavirus-stricken countries, churches resisted closing their doors, and traders defied orders to close markets. This forced the government to issue draconian containing measures on March 22, 2020 stipulating that all those who violated quarantine measures would be forcefully quarantined at their own expense, all gatherings at churches, mosques were suspended, weddings were no longer allowed, and funerals would be restricted to 15 family members.
The infodemic of false and misleading information, as the WHO calls it, was of course not confined to Africa. It spread like wildfire around the world. So did coronavirus fraudsters peddling fake information and products to desperate and unwary recipients. In Britain, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau was forced to issue urgent scam warnings against emails and text messages purporting to be from reputable research and health organisations.
The coronavirus pandemic showed up the fecklessness of some political leaders and the incompetence of many governments. The neo-liberal crusade against “big government” that had triumphed since the turn of the 1980s, suddenly looked threadbare. And so did the populist zealotry against experts and expertise. The valorisation of the politics of gut feelings masquerading as gifted insight and knowledge, suddenly vanished into puffs of ignoble ignorance that endangered the lives of millions of people. People found more solace in the calm pronouncements of professional experts including doctors, epidemiologists, researchers and health officials than loquacious politicians.
Populist leaders like President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson and many others of their ilk had taken vicarious pleasure in denigrating experts and expert knowledge, and decimating national research infrastructures and institutions. Suddenly, at their press conferences they were flanked by trusted medical and scientific professionals and civil servants as they sought to bask in the latter’s reassuring glow. But that could not restore public health infrastructures overnight, severely damaged as they were by indefensible austerity measures and the pro-rich transfers of wealth adopted by their governments.
When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, many countries were unprepared for it. There were severe shortages of testing kits and health care facilities. Many also lacked universal entitlement to healthcare, social safety nets including basic employment rights and unemployment insurance that could mitigate some of the worst effects of the pandemic’s economic impact. All this ensured that the pandemic would unleash mutually reinforcing health and economic crises.
The signs of economic meltdown escalated around the world. Stock markets experienced a volatility that run out of superlatives. In the United States, from early February to March 20, 2020 the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by about 10,000 points or 35%, while the S&P fell by 32%. In Britain, the FTSE fell by 49% from its peak in earlier in the year, the German GDAXI by 36%, the Hong Kong HSI by 22%, and the Japanese Nikkei by 32%. Trillions of dollars were wiped out. In the United States, the gains made under President Trump vanished and fell to the levels left by his nemesis President Obama, depriving the market-obsessed president of one of his favourite talking points and justifications for re-election.
There are hardly any parallels to a pandemic leading to markets crumbling the way they have following the coronavirus outbreak. They did not do so during the 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, although they fluctuated thereafter. Closer to our times, during the flu pandemic of 1957-1958 the Dow fell about 25per cent, while the SARS and MERS scares of the early 21st century had relatively limited economic impact. Some economic historians warn, however, that the stock market isn’t always a good indicator or predictor of the severity of a pandemic.
The sharp plunge in stock markets reflected a severe economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus pandemic as one industry after another went into a tailspin. The travel, hospitality and leisure industries encompassing airlines, hotels, restaurants, bars, sports, conventions, exhibitions, tourism, and retail were the first to feel the headwinds of the economic slump as people escaped or were coerced into the isolation of their homes. For example, hotel revenues in the United States plummeted by 75 per cent on average, worse than during the Great Recession and the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks combined.
In the United States, the gains made under President Trump vanished and fell to the levels left by his nemesis President Obama
Other industries soon followed suit as supply chains were scuppered, profits and share prices fell, and offices closed and staff were told to work from home. Manufacturing, construction, and banking have not been spared. Big technology manufacturing has also been affected by factory shutdowns and postponing the launch of new products. Neither was the oil industry safe. With global demand falling, and the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia escalating, oil prices fell dramatically to $20.3, a fall of 67 per cent since the beginning of 2020. Some predicted the prospect of $5 oil per barrel.
The oil price war threatened to decimate smaller or poorer oil producers from the Gulf states to Nigeria. It also threatened the shale oil industry in the United States because of its high production costs, thereby depriving the country of its newly acquired status as the largest oil producer in the world, to the chagrin of Russia and OPEC. Many of the US shale oil companies face bankruptcy as their production costs are fourteen times higher than Saudi Arabia’s production costs, and they need prices of more than $40 per barrel to cover their direct costs.
Falling oil prices combined with growing concerns about climate change, dented the prospects of several oil exploration and production companies, such as the British company Tullow, which has ambitious projects in Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana. This threatened these countries’ aspirations to join the club of major oil-producing nations. In early March, 2020, one of Tullow’s major investors, Blackrock, the world’s biggest hedge fund with $7 trillion, made it clear it was losing interest in fossil fuel investment.
Such are the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic that 51 per cent of economists polled by the London School of Economics believe “the world faces a major recession, even if COVID-19 kills no more people than seasonal flu. Only 5% said they did not think it would.” According to a survey reported by the World Economic Forum, “The public sees coronavirus as a greater threat to the economy than to their health, new research suggests. Economic rescue measures announced by governments do not appear to be calming concern . . . The majority of people in most countries polled expect to feel a personal financial impact from the coronavirus pandemic, according to the results. Respondents in Vietnam, China, India and Italy show the greatest concern”.
51 per cent of economists polled by the London School of Economics believe the world faces a major recession
Many economies spiraled into recession. The major international financial institutions and development agencies have revised world, regional, and national economic growth prospects for 2020 downwards, sometimes sharply so. Estimates by Frost & Sullivan, a consultancy firm, show that world GDP which grew by 3.5% in 2018 and 2.9% in 2019, will slide to 1.7% if the coronavirus pandemic becomes prolonged and severe, and it might take up to a year or more for the world economy to recover. The OECD predicts that “Global growth could drop to 1.5 per cent in 2020, half the rate projected before the virus outbreak. Recovery much more gradual through 2021”.
The OECD Economic Outlook, Interim Report March 2020 notes,
Growth was weak but stabilising until the coronavirus Covid-19 hit. Restrictions on movement of people, goods and services, and containment measures such as factory closures have cut manufacturing and domestic demand sharply in China. The impact on the rest of the world through business travel and tourism, supply chains, commodities and lower confidence is growing.
It forecasts “Severe, short-lived downturn in China, where GDP growth falls below 5% in 2020 after 6.1% in 2019, but recovering to 6.4% in 2021. In Japan, Korea, Australia, growth also hit hard then gradual recovery. Impact less severe in other economies but still hit by drop in confidence and supply chain disruption”.
Compared to a year earlier, the once buoyant Chinese economy shrank by between 10 and 20 per cent in January and February 2020. The Economist states,
In the first two months of 2020 all major indicators were deeply negative: industrial production fell by 13.5% year-on-year, retail sales by 20.5% and fixed-asset investment by 24.5% . . . The last time China reported an economic contraction was more than four decades ago, at the end of the Cultural Revolution.
In the United States, the recovery and boom from the Great Recession that started in 2009 came to a screeching halt. Some grim predictions project that as businesses shut down and more than 80 million Americans stay penned at home unemployment, which had dropped to a historic low of 3.5 per cent, might skyrocket to 20 per cent. This spells disaster as consumer spending drives 70 per cent of the economy, and 39 per cent of Americans cannot handle an unexpected $400 expense.
This economic bloodletting removes the second boastful pillar of President Trump’s re-election strategy, the robust health of the US economy
Various estimates indicate that in the next three months the economy will shrink by anywhere between 14 and to 30 per cent, ushering in one of America’s fastest and deepest recessions in history. This economic bloodletting removes the second boastful pillar of President Trump’s re-election strategy, the robust health of the US economy.
UNCTAD has added its gloomy assessment for the world economy and emerging economies. Launching its report in early March, the Director of the Division on Globalisation and Development Strategies at UNCTAD noted that,
One ‘Doomsday scenario’ in which the world economy grew at only 0.5 per cent, would involve ‘a $2 trillion hit’ to gross domestic product . . . There’s a degree of anxiety now that’s well beyond the health scares which are very serious and concerning . . . To counter these fears, ‘Governments need to spend at this point in time to prevent the kind of meltdown that could be even more damaging than the one that is likely to take place over the course of the year’, Mr. Kozul-Wright insisted.
Turning to Europe and the Eurozone, Mr. Kozul-Wright noted that its economy had already been performing ‘extremely badly towards the end of 2019’ . . . It was ‘almost certain to go into recession over the coming months; and the German economy is particularly fragile, but the Italian economy and other parts of the European periphery are also facing very serious stresses right now as a consequence of trends over (the last few) days’.
The UNCTAD announcement continues,
So-called Least Developed Countries, whose economies are driven by the sale of raw materials, will not be spared either. ‘Heavily-indebted developing countries, particularly commodity exporters, face a particular threat’, thanks to weaker export returns linked to a stronger US dollar, Mr. Kozul-Wright maintained. ‘The likelihood of a stronger dollar as investors seek safe-havens for their money, and the almost certain rise in commodity prices as the global economy slows down, means that commodity exporters are particularly vulnerable’.
Africa will not be spared. According to Fitch Solutions, a consultancy firm,
We have revised down our Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) growth forecast to 1.9% in 2020, from 2.1% previously, reflecting macroeconomic risks arising from moderating oil prices and the global spread of Covid-19. While the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in SSA remains low thus far, African markets remain vulnerable to deteriorating risk sentiment, tightening financial conditions and slowing growth in key trade partners. The sharp decline in global oil prices resulting from the failure of OPEC+ to reach agreement on additional production cutbacks will undermine growth and export earnings in the continent’s main oil producers, notably Nigeria, Angola and South Sudan.
In Kenya, there were widespread fears that the coronavirus pandemic would bring the national airline carrier and other companies in the lucrative tourism industry to their knees. Similarly affected will be the critical agricultural and horticultural export industry. Aggravating the sharp economic downturns, some commentators lamented, is widespread corruption. Domestically, the ubiquitous matatu transport industry is groaning under new regulations limiting the number of passengers.
The economy was already fragile prior to the coronavirus crisis. In the words of one commentator in the Sunday Standard of March 23, 2020,
Companies were laying off, malls were already empty even before the outbreak and shops and kiosks and mama mbogas were recording the lowest sales in years. Matters are not helped by the fact that our e-commerce (purchase and delivery) does not account for much due to poor infrastructure and low trust levels.
Another commentator in the same paper on March 17, 2020 wrote, “It’s a matter of time before bleeding economy goes into coma”. He outlined the depressing litany: increased cost of living, gutting of Kenya’s export market, discouragement of the use of hard cash, producers grappling with limited supply, a bleeding stock market, irrational investor fears, and moratorium on foreign travel.
As the crisis intensified, international financial institutions and development agencies loosened the spigots of financial support. On March 12, 2020 the IMF announced,
In the event of a severe downturn triggered by the coronavirus, we estimate the Fund could provide up to US$50 billion in emergency financing to fund emerging and developing countries’ initial response. Low-income countries could benefit from about US$10 billion of this amount, largely on concessional terms. Beyond the immediate emergency, members can also request a new loan—drawing on the IMF’s war chest of around US$1 trillion in quota and borrowed resources—and current borrowers can top up their ongoing lending arrangements.
For its part, the World Bank announced on March 17 that,
The World Bank and IFC’s Boards of Directors approved today an increased $14 billion package of fast-track financing to assist companies and countries in their efforts to prevent, detect and respond to the rapid spread of COVID-19. The package will strengthen national systems for public health preparedness, including for disease containment, diagnosis, and treatment, and support the private sector.
On March 19, the European Central Bank announced,
As a result, the ECB’s Governing Council announced on Wednesday a new Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme with an envelope of €750 billion until the end of the year, in addition to the €120 billion we decided on 12 March. Together this amounts to 7.3% of euro area GDP. The programme is temporary and designed to address the unprecedented situation our monetary union is facing. It is available to all jurisdictions and will remain in place until we assess that the coronavirus crisis phase is over.
Altogether, The Economist states,
A crude estimate for America, Germany, Britain, France and Italy, including spending pledges, tax cuts, central bank cash injections and loan guarantees, amounts to $7.4trn, or 23% of GDP . . . A huge array of policies is on offer, from holidays on mortgage payments to bail-outs of Paris cafés. Meanwhile, orthodox stimulus tools may not work well. Interest rates in the rich world are near zero, depriving central bank of their main lever . . . What to do? An economic plan needs to target two groups: households and companies.
Some of the regional development banks also announced major infusions of funds to contain the pandemic. On March 18, “The Asian Development Bank (ADB) today announced a $6.5 billion initial package to address the immediate needs of its developing member countries (DMCs) as they respond to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic”.
On the same day, the African Development Bank announced “bold measures to curb coronavirus”, but this largely consisted of “health and safety measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus in countries where it has a presence, including its headquarters in Abidjan. The measures include telecommuting, video conferencing in lieu of physical meetings, the suspension of visits to Bank buildings, and the cancellation of all travel, meetings, and conferences, until further notice”. No actual financial support was stipulated in the announcement.
Trading Ideological Places
As the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic escalated, demands for government support intensified from employers, employees and trade unions. The pandemic is wreaking particular havoc among poor workers who can hardly manage in “normal” times. As noted above, across Kenya jobs were already being lost before the coronavirus epidemic. Those in the informal economy are exceptionally vulnerable because of the extensive lockdown the government announced on March 22, 2020.
Those earning a precarious living in the gig economy face special hurdles in making themselves heard and receiving support. With the lockdown of cities, couriers become even more essential to deliver food and other supplies, but they lack employment rights, so that many cannot afford self-isolation if they become sick. Customer service workers at airports and in supermarkets have sometimes been at the receiving end of pandemonium and the anxieties of irate customers.
The pandemic is wreaking particular havoc among poor workers who can hardly manage in “normal” times
The pandemic has helped bring political perspective to national and international preoccupations that suddenly look petty in hindsight. For example, as one author puts it in a story in The Atlantic of March 11, 2020, “It’s not hard to feel like the coronavirus has exposed the utter smallness of Brexit . . . Ultimately, Brexit is not a matter of life and death literally or economically. The coronavirus, meanwhile, is killing people and perhaps many businesses”.
The same could be said of many trivial political squabbles in other countries. In the United States, one observer notes in The Atlantic of March 19, 2020,
In the absence of meaningful national leadership, Americans across the country are making their own decisions for our collective well-being. You’re seeing it in small stores deciding on their own to close; you’re seeing it in restaurants evolving without government decree to offer curbside pickup or offer delivery for the first time; you’re seeing it in the offices that closed long before official guidance arrived.
The author concludes poignantly, “The most isolating thing most of us have ever done is, ironically, almost surely the most collective experience we’ve ever had in our lifetimes”. And I can attest that I have seen this spirit of cooperation and collaboration on my own campus, among faculty, staff, and students. But the pandemic also raises questions about how effectively democracy can be upheld under the coronavirus lockdowns. Might desperate despots in some countries try to use the crisis to postpone elections?
Also upended by the coronavirus pandemic are traditional ideological polarities. Right-wing governments are competing with left-wing governments or opposition liberal legislatures as in the United States to craft “big government” mitigation packages. Many are borrowing monetary and fiscal measures from the Great Recession playbook, some of which they resisted when they were in opposition or not yet in office.
In terms of monetary policy, several central banks have cut interest rates. On March 15, 2020, the US Federal Reserve cut the rate to near zero in a coordinated move with the central banks of Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The Fed also announced measures to shore up financial markets including a package of $700 billion for asset purchase and a credit facility for commercial banks. Three days later, as noted above, the European Central Bank launched a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme. These measures failed to assure the markets which continued to plummet.
The pandemic has helped bring political perspective to national and international preoccupations that suddenly look petty in hindsight
As for fiscal policy, several governments announced radical spending measures. On 20 March, the UK announced that the government would pay up to 80 per cent of the wages of employees across the country sent home as businesses shut their doors as part of the drastic coronavirus containment strategy. This followed the example of the Danish government that had earlier pledged to cover 75 per cent of employees’ salaries for firms that agreed not to cut staff.
In the United States, Congress began working on a $1 trillion economic relief programme, later raised to $1.8 trillion. The negotiations between the two parties over the proposed stimulus bill proved bitterly contentious. For President Trump and Republicans it was a bitter pill to swallow, given their antipathy to “big government”. It marked the fall of another ideological pillar of Trumpism and Republicanism. For some, the demise of these pillars marks the end of the Trump presidency, which has been exposed for its deadly incompetence, autocratic political culture, and aversion to truth and transparency. We will of course only know for sure in November 2020.
Might desperate despots in some countries try to use the crisis to postpone elections?
In Kenya employers, workers, unions and analysts have implored the government to undertake drastic measures to boost the economy by providing bailouts, tax incentives and rebates, and social safety nets, as well as increasing government spending. Demands have been made to banks to extend credit to the private sector and to the Central Bank to lower or even freeze interest rates for six months. The Sunday Nation of March 22 reported pay cuts were looming for workers as firms struggled to keep afloat, and that the government had scrambled a war chest of Sh140 billion to shore up the economy and avert a recession.
Home isolation is recommended by epidemiologists as a critical means of what they call flattening the curve of the pandemic. Its economic impact is well understood, less so its psychological and emotional impact. While imperative, social isolation might exacerbate the growing loneliness epidemic as some call it, especially in the developed countries.
According to an article in The Atlantic magazine of March 10, 2020, the loneliness epidemic is becoming a serious health care crisis.
Research has shown that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A lack of social relationships is an enormous risk factor for death, increasing the likelihood of mortality by 26 percent. A major study found that, when compared with people with weak social ties, people who enjoyed meaningful relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over time.
The problem of loneliness is often thought to be prevalent among older people, but in countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, “The problem is especially acute among young adults ages 18 to 22”. Research shows that the feeling of loneliness is not a reflection of physical isolation, but of the meaning and depth of one’s social engagements. Among the Millennial and Gen Z generations loneliness is exacerbated by social media.
Several studies have pointed out that social media may be reinforcing social disconnection, which is at the root of loneliness. This is because while social media has facilitated instant communication and made people more densely connected than ever, it offers a poor substitute for the intimate communication and dense and meaningful interactions humans crave and get from real friends and family. It fosters shallow and superficial connections, surrogate and even fake friendships, and narcissistic and exhibitionist sociability.
Loneliness should of course not be confused with solitude. Loneliness can also not be attributed solely to external conditions as it is often rooted in one’s psychological state. But the density and quality of social interactions matters. The current loneliness epidemic reflects the irony of a vicious cycle, a nexus of triple impulses: in cultures and sensibilities of self-absorption and self-invention, some people invite or choose loneliness either as a marker of self-sufficiency or social success, while the Internet makes it possible for people to be lonely, and lonely people tend to be more attracted to the Internet.
Among the Millennial and Gen Z generations loneliness is exacerbated by social media
But technology can also help mitigate social distancing. To quote one author writing in The Atlantic on March 14, 2020, “As more people employers and schools encourage people to stay home, people across the country find themselves video-chatting more than they usually might: going to meetings on Zoom, catching up with clients on Skype, FaceTime with therapists, even hosting virtual bar mitzvahs”. Jointly playing video games, watching streaming entertainment, or having virtual dinner parties also opens bonding opportunities.
Besides the growth and consumption of modern media and its disruptive and isolating technologies, loneliness is being reinforced by structural forces including the spread of the nuclear family, an invention that even in the United States has a short history as a social formation. This is evident in sociological studies and demonstrated in the lead story in the March 2020 edition of The Atlantic.
The article shows that for much of American history people lived in extended clans and families, whose great strength was their resilience and their role as a socialising force. The decline of multigenerational families dates to the development of an industrial economy and reached its apogee after World War II between 1950 and 1975, when it all began falling apart, again due to broader structural forces.
One doesn’t have to agree with the author’s analysis of what led to the profound changes in family structure. Certainly, women did not benefit from the older extended family structures, which were resolutely patriarchal. But it is a fact that currently, more people live alone in the United States—and in many other countries including those in the developing world—than ever before. The author stresses, “The period when the nuclear family flourished was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired to obscure its essential fragility”.
He continues, “For many people, the era of the nuclear family has been a catastrophe. All forms of inequality are cruel, but family inequality may be the cruelest. It damages the heart”. He urges society “to figure out better ways to live together”. The question is: what will be the impact of the social distancing demanded by the coronavirus pandemic on the loneliness epidemic and the prospects of developing new and more fulfilling ways of living together?
Coronavirus Hegemonic Rivalries
At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, China bore the brunt of being both the victims and the victimised. The rest of the world feared the contagion’s spread from China and before long the disease did spread to other Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Iran. This triggered anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in Europe, North America, and even Africa.
For many Africans, it was a source of perverse relief that the coronavirus had not originated on the continent. Many wondered how Africa and Africans would have been portrayed and treated given the long history, in the western and global imaginaries, of pathologising African cultures, societies, and bodies as diseased embodiments of sub-humanity.
Disease breeds xenophobia, the irrational fear of the “other”. Commenting on the influenza pandemic in The Wall Street Journal, one scholar reminds us, “As the flu spread in 1918, many communities found scapegoats. Chileans blamed the poor, Senegalese blamed Brazilians, Brazilians blamed the Germans, Iranians blamed the British, and so on”. One key lesson is that to combat pandemics global cooperation is essential. Unfortunately, that lesson seems to be ignored by some governments in the current pandemic, although like in other pandemics, good Samaritans also abound.
For many Africans, it was a source perverse relief that the coronavirus had not originated on the continent
As China, South Korea, and Japan gradually contained the spread of the disease, and Italy and other European countries turned into its epicenter, and as the contagion began surging in the United States, the tables turned. While the Asian democracies largely managed to contain the coronavirus through less coercive and more transparent ways, it is China that took centre-stage in the global narrative. As would be expected in a world of intense hegemonic rivalries between the United States and China, the coronavirus pandemic has become weaponised in the two countries’ superpower rivalry.
On March 19, 2020, China marked a milestone since the outbreak of the coronavirus when it was announced that there were no new domestic cases; the 34 new cases identified that day were all brought in by people coming from abroad. An article in the New York Times of March 19, 2020, reports,
Across Asia, travellers from Europe and the United States are being barred or forced into quarantine. Gyms, private clinics and restaurants in Hong Kong warn them to stay away. Even Chinese parents who proudly sent their children to study in New York or London are now mailing them masks and sanitizer or rushing them home on flights that can cost $25,000.
The Asian democracies largely managed to contain the coronavirus through less coercive and more transparent ways
Even before this turning point, as coronavirus cases in China declined, the country began projecting itself as a heroic model of containment. It anxiously sought to furbish its once battered image by exporting medical equipment, experts, and other forms of humanitarian assistance. Such is the new-found conceit of China that, to Trump’s racist casting of the “China virus” some misguided Chinese nationalists falsely charge that the coronavirus started with American troops, and scornfully disparage the United States for its apparently slow and chaotic containment efforts.
Another article in The New York Times of March 18, 2020, captures China’s strategy for recasting its global image.
From Japan to Iraq, Spain to Peru, it has provided or pledged humanitarian assistance in the form of donations or medical expertise — an aid blitz that is giving China the chance to reposition itself not as the authoritarian incubator of a pandemic but as a responsible global leader at a moment of worldwide crisis. In doing so, it has stepped into a role that the West once dominated in times of natural disaster or public health emergency, and that President Trump has increasingly ceded in his ‘America First’ retreat from international engagement.
The story continues,
Now, the global failures in confronting the pandemic from Europe to the United States have given the Chinese leadership a platform to prove its model works — and potentially gain some lasting geopolitical currency. As it has done in the past, the Chinese state is using its extensive tools and deep pockets to build partnerships around the world, relying on trade, investments and, in this case, an advantageous position as the world’s largest maker of medicines and protective masks . . . On Wednesday, China said it would provide two million surgical masks, 200,000 advanced masks and 50,000 testing kits to Europe . . . One of China’s leading entrepreneurs, Jack Ma, offered to donate 500,000 tests and one million masks to the United States, where hospitals are facing shortages.
Some analysts argue that the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the decoupling of the United States from China that began with President Trump’s trade war launched in 2018. American hawks see the pandemic as bolstering their argument that China’s dominance of certain global supply chains including some medical supplies and pharmaceutical ingredients poses a systemic risk to the American economy. Many others believe Trump’s “America First” not only damaged the country’s standing and its preparedness to deal with the pandemic, but also to create the international solidarity required for its containment and control.
In the words of one author in The Atlantic of March 15, 2020,
Like Japan in the mid-1800s, the United States now faces a crisis that disproves everything the country believes about itself . . . The United States, long accustomed to thinking of itself as the best, most efficient, and most technologically advanced society in the world, is about to be proved an unclothed emperor. When human life is in peril, we are not as good as Singapore, as South Korea, as Germany.
Some commentators even go further, contending that the pandemic is facilitating the process of de-globalisation more generally as countries not only lock themselves in national enclosures to protect themselves, but seek to become more economically self-sufficient. It is important to note that throughout history, there have been waves and retreats of globalisation. The globalisation of the late 19th century, which was characterised by massive migrations, growth of international trade, and expansion of global production chains with the emergence of modern multinational and transnational corporations, retreated in the inferno of World War I and the Great Depression.
The globalisation of the late 20th century, engendered by the emergence of new information and communication technologies and value chains, the rise of emerging economies as serious players in the world system, among other factors, had already started fraying by the time of the Great Recession. The latter pried open not only the deep inequalities that neo-liberal globalisation had engendered, but also gave vent to a crescendo of nationalist and populist backlashes.
Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is also throwing into sharp relief the bankruptcy of populist nationalism. It underscores global interconnectedness, that pathogens do not respect our imaginary communities of nation-states, that the ties that bind humanity are thicker than the threads of separation.
Universities Go Online
The coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted many industries and sectors, including education, following the closure of schools, colleges and universities. However, fear of crowding and lockdowns has also boosted online industries ranging from e-commerce and food delivery to online entertainment and gaming, to cloud solutions for business continuity, to e-health and e-learning.
The coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the growth of e-work or telecommuting, and other online-mediated business practices. Before the pandemic the gig economy was already a growing part of many economies, so were e-health and e-learning.
According to the British Guardian newspaper of March 6, 2020, General practitioners (GPs) have been “told to switch to digital consultations to combat Covid-19”. The story elaborates,
In a significant policy change, NHS bosses want England’s 7,000 GP surgeries to start conducting as many remote consultations as soon as possible, replacing patient visits with phone, video, online or text contact. They want to reduce the risk of someone infected with Covid-19 turning up at a surgery and free GPs to deal with the extra workload created by the virus . . . The approach could affect many of the 340m appointments a year with GPs and other practice staff, only 1% of which are currently carried out by video, such as Skype.
Another story in the same paper also notes that supermarkets in Britain have been “asked to boost deliveries for coronavirus self-isolation”.
The educational sector has been one of the most affected by the coronavirus pandemic as the closure of schools and universities has often been adopted by many governments as the first line of defense. It could be argued that higher education institutions have even taken the lead in managing the pandemic in three major ways: shifting instruction online, conducting research on the coronavirus and its multiple impacts, and advising public policy.
Ever since the crisis broke out, I’ve been following the multiple threats it poses to various sectors especially higher education, avidly devouring the academic media including The Chronicle of a higher Education, Inside Higher Education, University Business, Times Higher Education, and University World News, just to mention a few.
Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic is also throwing into sharp relief the bankruptcy of populist nationalism
These papers and magazines alerted me early, as a university administrator, to the need to develop early coronavirus planning in my own institution. A sample of the issues discussed in the numerous articles can be found in the following articles in The Chronicle of a higher Education (see textbox below).
Clearly, if these fifty articles from one higher education magazine are any guide, the higher education sector has been giving a lot of thought to the opportunities and challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic. Some prognosticate that higher education will fundamentally change. An article in the The New York Times of March 18, 2020 hopes that “One positive outcome from the current crisis would be for academic elites to forgo their presumption that online learning is a second-rate or third-rate substitute for in-person delivery”. There will be some impact, but of course, only time will tell the scale of that impact.
Certainly, at my university we’ve learned invaluable lessons from the sudden switch to learning online using various platforms including Blackboard, our learning management system, Zoom, BlueJeans, Skype, not to mention email and social media such as WhatsApp. This experience is likely to be incorporated into the instructional pedagogies of our faculty.
But history also tells us that old systems often reassert themselves after a crisis, at the same time as they incorporate some changes brought by responses to the crisis. As the author of the article on “7 Takeaways” (see textbox below) puts it, “Many forces exerted pressure on the traditional four-year, bricks-and-mortar, face-to-face campus experience before the coronavirus, and they’ll still be there when the virus is conquered or goes dormant”.
It is likely that at many universities previously averse to online teaching and learning, online instructional tools and platforms will be incorporated more widely, creating a mosaic of face-to-face learning, blended learning, and online learning.
Whither the Future
Moments of profound crisis such as the one engendered by the coronavirus pandemic attract soothsayers and futurists. The American magazine, Politico, invited some three dozen thinkers to prognosticate on the long-term impact of the pandemic. They all offer intriguing reflections. For community life, some suggest the personal will become dangerous, a new kind of patriotism will emerge, polarisation will decline, faith in serious experts will return, there will be less individualism, changes in religious worship will occur, as well as the rise of new forms of reform.
The coronavirus pandemic is likely to leave a lasting impact on the growth of e-work or telecommuting, and other online-mediated business practices
As for technology, they suggest regulatory barriers to online tools will fall, healthier digital lifestyles will emerge, there will be a boon for virtual reality, the rise of telemedicine, provision of stronger medical care, government will become Big Pharma, and science will reign again. With reference to government, they predict Congress will finally go digital, big government will make a comeback, government service will regain its cachet, there will be a new civic federalism, revived trust in institutions, the rules we live by won’t all apply, and they urge us to expect a political uprising.
In terms of elections, they foresee electronic voting going mainstream, Election Day will become Election Month, and voting by mail will become the norm. For the global economy, they forecast that more restraints will be placed on mass consumption, stronger domestic supply chains will grow, and the inequality gap will widen. As for lifestyle, there will be a hunger for diversion, less communal dining, a revival of parks, a change in our understanding of “change”, and the tyranny of habit no more.
In truth, no one really knows for sure.
- American Colleges Seek to Develop Coronavirus Response, Abroad and at Home, January 28, 2020. Focuses on limiting travel to China and preparing campus health facilities.
- Coronavirus Is Prompting Alarm on American Campuses. Anti-Asian Discrimination Could Do More Harm. February 5, 2020. Focuses curbing anti-Asian xenophobia and racism on campuses.
- How Much Could the Coronavirus Hurt Chinese Enrollments? February 20, 2020. Focuses on the possible impact of the coronavirus on Chinese enrollments the largest source of international students in American universities.
- Colleges Brace for More-Widespread Outbreak of Coronavirus, February 26, 2020. Focuses on universities assembling campuswide emergency-response committees, preparing communications plans, cautioning students to use preventive health measures, and even preparing for possible college closures.
- Colleges Pull Back From Italy and South Korea as Coronavirus Spreads. February 26, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- An Admissions Bet Goes Bust: For colleges that gambled on international enrollment, now what? March 1, 2020. Focuses on the dire financial implications of the collapse in the international student market because of the coronavirus crisis.
- The Coronavirus Is Upending Higher Ed. Here Are the Latest Developments. March 3, 2020. Focuses on universities increasingly moving classes online, asking students to leave campus, lobbying for stimulus package from government, imposing travel restrictions, and worrying about future enrollments.
- CDC Warns Colleges to ‘Consider’ Canceling Study-Abroad Trips. March 5, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- Enrollment Headaches From Coronavirus Are Many. They Won’t Be Relieved Soon. March 5, 2020. Focuses on the financial implications of declining prospects for the recruitment of international students.
- The Face of Face-Touching Research Says, ‘It’s Quite Frightening’. March 5, 2020. Highlights research on the difficulties for people not to touch their faces, one of the preventive guidelines against the coronavirus.
- U. of Washington Cancels In-Person Classes, Becoming First Major U.S. Institution to Do So Amid Coronavirus Fears. March 6, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- How Do You Quarantine for Coronavirus on a College Campus? March 6, 2020. Provides guidelines on who should be quarantined, what kind of housing should be provided for quarantined students, the supplies they need, and what to when students fall ill.
- As Coronavirus Spreads, the Decision to Move Classes Online Is the First Step. What Comes Next? March 6, 2020. Provides advice on making the transition to online classes.
- With Coronavirus Keeping Them in U.S., International Students Face Uncertainty. So Do Their Colleges. March 6, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to help with the travel, visa, financial and emotional needs of international students.
- Going Online in a Hurry: What to Do and Where to Start. March 9, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to prepare for course online assignments, assessment, examinations, course materials, instruction, and communication with students quickly.
- Will Coronavirus Cancel Your Conference? March 9, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- What ‘Middle’ Administrators Can Do to Help in the Coronavirus Crisis. March 10, 2020. Provides advice to middle managers in universities on how to community with their people, be more responsive and available than usual, convene their own crisis response teams, and keeping relevant campus authorities informed of major problems in your unit.
- Communicating With Parents Can Be Tricky — Especially When It Comes to Coronavirus. March 10, 2020. Provides advice on how to provide updates to parents some of who might oppose the closure of campus.
- Are Colleges Prepared to Move All of Their Classes Online? March 10, 2020. Notes that this is a huge experiment as many institutions, faculty members, and even students have little experience in online learning and provides some guidelines.
- Why Coronavirus Looks Like a ‘Black Swan’ Moment for Higher Ed. March 10, 2020. Offers reflections on the likely impact of the move to online teaching in terms of prompt universities to stop distinguishing between online and classroom programs.
- Teaching Remotely While Quarantined in China. A neophyte learns how to teach online. March, 11, 2020. A fascinating personal story by a faculty member of his experience with remote teaching while living under strict social isolation, which has gone better than he expected.
- When Coronavirus Closes Colleges, Some Students Lose Hot Meals, Health Care, and a Place to Sleep. March 11, 2020. On the various social hardships campus closures bring to some vulnerable students.
- How to Make Your Online Pivot Less Brutal. March 12, 2020. Offers advice that it’s OK to not know what you’re doing and seek help, keeping it as simple and accessible as you can, expect challenges and adjust.
- Preparing for Emergency Online Teaching. March 12, 2020. Provides resources guides for teaching online.
- Academe’s Coronavirus Shock Doctrine. March 12, 2020. Discusses the added pressures facing faculty because of the sudden conversion to online teaching.
- Shock, Fear, and Fatalism: As Coronavirus Prompts Colleges to Close, Students Grapple With Uncertainty. March 12, 2020. Reports how college students are reacting to campus closures with shock, uncertainty, sadness, and, in some cases, devil-may-care fatalism.
- As the Coronavirus Scrambles Colleges’ Finances, Leaders Hope for the Best and Plan for the Worst. March 12, 2020. Reflects on the likely disruptions on university finances from reduced enrollments and donations.
- What About the Health of Staff Members? March 13, 2020. Discusses how best to ensure staff continue to be healthy.
- As Coronavirus Drives Students From Campuses, What Happens to the Workers Who Feed Them? March 13, 2020. Discusses the challenges of maintaining non-essential staff on payroll during prolonged campus closure.
- 2020: The Year That Shredded the Admissions Calendar. March 15, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- How to Lead in a Crisis. March 16. Insightful advice from the former President of Tulane University during Hurricane Katrina.
- Colleges Emptied Dorms Amid Coronavirus Fears. What Can They Do About Off-Campus Housing? March 16, 2020. Reports on how some institutions have taken a more aggressive approach to limiting the spread of the virus in off-campus housing.
- How to Quickly (and Safely) Move a Lab Course Online. March 17, 2020. The author discusses his positive experiences to move a lab course quickly online and still meet his learning objectives through lab kits, virtual labs and simulations.
- University Labs Head to the Front Lines of Coronavirus Containment. March 17, 2020. Discusses how university medical centers have taken the lead in coronavirus research and due to the national shortage of testing kits used tests of their own design to begin screening patients.
- Hounded Out of U.S., Scientist Invents Fast Coronavirus Test in China. March 18, 2020. An intriguing story of how the US’s crackdown on scholars with ties to China has triggered a reverse brain drain of Chinese-American scholars to China inadvertently promoting China’s ambitious drive to attract top talent under its Thousand Talent program. It features a scholar and his team that are leading the race to develop coronavirus treatment.
- Coronavirus Crisis Underscores the Traits of a Resilient College. March 18, 2020. Discusses the qualities of resilient institutions including effective communication, management of cash flow, and investment in electronic infrastructure.
- Coronavirus Creates Challenges for Students Returning From Abroad. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- As Coronavirus Spreads, Universities Stall Their Research to Keep Human Subjects Safe. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- The Covid-19 Crisis Is Widening the Gap Between Secure and Insecure Instructors. March 18, 2020. Self-explanatory.
- Here’s Why More Colleges Are Extending Deposit Deadlines — and Why Some Aren’t. March 18, 2020. Discusses how some universities are changing their admission processes.
- How to Help Students Keep Learning Through a Disruption. March 18, 2020. Provides guidelines on how to keep students engaged in learning and support instructors throughout the crisis.
- As Classrooms Go Virtual, What About Campus-Leadership Searches? March 19, 2020. Discusses how senior university leadership searches are being affected and ways to handle the situation by reconsidering the steps, migrating to technology, and staying in touch with candidates.
- If Coronavirus Patients Overwhelm Hospitals, These Colleges Are Offering Their Dorms. March 19, 2020. Discusses how some universities are offering to donate their empty dorms for use by local hospitals.
- As Professors Scramble to Adjust to the Coronavirus Crisis, the Tenure Clock Still Ticks. March 19, 2020. Discusses how at many universities junior faculty remain under pressure to meet the tenure timelines despite the various institutional disruptions.
- ‘The Worst-Case Scenario’: What Financial Disclosures Tell Us About Coronavirus’s Strain on Colleges So Far. March 19, 2020. Reports the financial straights facing many universities and that Moody’s Investors Service issued a bleak forecast this week for American higher education.
- As the Coronavirus Forces Faculty Online, It’s ‘Like Drinking Out of a Firehose’. March 20, 2020. Recorded video interviews with four selected instructors by The Chronicle to collect their thoughts on how they are managing the sudden change.
- A Coronavirus Stimulus Plan Is Coming. How Will Higher Education Figure In? March 20, 2020. The article wonders how universities will fare under the massive stimulus package under negotiation in the US Congress. It notes “Nearly a dozen higher-education associations have also asked lawmakers for about $50 billion in federal assistance to help colleges and students stay afloat” and an additional $13 billion for research labs.
- Covid-19 Has Forced Higher Ed to Pivot to Online Learning. Here Are 7 Takeaways So Far. March 20, 2020. The takeaways include the fact that “What most colleges are doing right now is not online education,” “Many of the tools were already at hand,” “The pivot can be surprisingly cheap,” “This is your wake-up call,” The pandemic could change education delivery forever…”, “… but it probably won’t”
- ‘Nobody Signed Up for This’: One Professor’s Guidelines for an Interrupted Semester. March 20, 2020. An interesting account on how one faculty changed his syllabus and communicated with his students.
- The Coronavirus Has Pushed Courses Online. Professors Are Trying Hard to Keep Up. March 20, 2020. Makes many of the same observations noted above.
From Angola to America. Ana’s Journey From Nothing to Nowhere
Ana’s journey from nothing to nowhere
On 18 April, for fear of creating hotbeds of COVID 19 contagion, a Mexico City judge ordered the release of migrants from sixty-five overcrowded immigration centres in the country. By the end of that month, with both the northern and southern border lines under lockdown, the Mexican National Migration Institute (INM) estimated that over twenty thousand migrants were now stranded around border lines; under the lockdown, even appointments to identify refugees are suspended. Among those now either living in makeshift camps or left to their own devices in the country are an estimated four thousand Africans.
It was not yet like that, when Ana* arrived at in Mexico’s southern border town of Tapachula, in May 2019, but it was already bad enough.
A face from another universe
When I meet her in June that year her swollen face and dishevelled hair have long ceased to match the Ana from her WhatsApp profile photo. The smooth face, wavy hair extensions, outlined eyebrows, lipstick and big sunglasses; the golden necklace with a round green and white gemstone, all seem to have belonged to another time, another universe.
Ana, a 28-year-old Business Management graduate speaks three languages — Portuguese, English and French — but she could not find a job in her home country Angola. ‘I got tired of searching without finding anything’, she tells me. ‘I asked for a visa at the United States Embassy in Luanda, but they never responded. Some Angolan friends who live in America told me about this trip and I decided to take a risk. I went with my husband (who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and French-speaking, PC) and daughter, Amélia*’. She and her family now spend their days in the sweltering heat around Tapachula’s Siglo XXI Migratory Station, the largest migrant centre in Latin America.
Tapachula is the almost-final wall to scale for migrants travelling to the United States. The official estimate of the number of travellers waiting here is one thousand, but there are probably close to four thousand here in this city, surrounded by humid jungle.
Ana has travelled around twenty seven thousand kilometres from Maquela do Zombo, Angola, to get here in search of a better life: a trip that involves crossing wild seas in rickety boats and weeks of walking through narco-gang territory in dense humid forest. Having risked rape, detentions and mistreatment along many parts of the way as well, it is still the forest that haunts most. Ana recalls ‘the days sliding in mud, the nights with poisonous insects, the fear of gangsters and snakes’, as well as ‘coming across graves of others’ on the way. ‘When I even mention the forest to Amélia (now eight years old, PC) she panics and starts crying’.
‘Angola is no longer for anyone, that’s why I left’, says another migrant from Angola, who met up with Ana and her family along the way. João*, from Uíge, is 27 years old, with constantly darting, distant eyes in his small, frowning face. Like Ana, he lived in Luanda, with his wife and two children. ‘I worked at a store. They fired me overnight. I did odd jobs for a while but we could not live on that. I needed to support my family’.
Poverty without prospects
João and Ana are just two out of hundreds of Angolans who left Angola after 2014, when the oil price fell. Like Venezuela, Angola’s corrupt regime had relied on its abundant oil resources to keep the economy somewhat afloat. An ordinary Angolan could not get clean water or healthcare, but with oil money floating around most citizens could still grab a dollar here or there. However, when the oil wealth ended, while the elites had their billions safely stored off shore; many others faced a future in a broken country with no jobs and no hope.
Ana set out for the US with her Congolese husband and then seven-year-old Amélia, because that route, even if way longer, seemed more doable than trying to go via north Africa and the Mediterranean, where so many have been reported drowned. ‘We travelled to Namibia and took a plane to Quito, with a stopover in Amsterdam. That alone was six thousand dollars. And it was only the beginning’.
Brazil’s São Paulo is one of the first south American towns for many African migrants on their way to the US. Here, Angolans, like other Portuguese-speaking Africans, have a small advantage over others: thanks to a shared colonial history and Portuguese language, an Angolan passport can get you into Brazil legally.
Throughout our interviews, Ana keeps insisting that she is a legal migrant.
Raincoats and a flashlight
Once arrived in São Paulo you take a plane to Rio Branco, in Brazil’s extreme northwest, after which you cross through Peru. Quito, in Ecuador, is the hub. ‘We quickly found out how to move onward from other Africans, whom we met at a big square on the outskirts of the capital. We moved fast because every day you spend more money on food and a place to stay’, says Ana. Based on the advice they received they took an overnight bus from Quito to Colombia’s northern coastal cities of Turbo and Necoclí.
On web images the port of Turbo looks peaceful, with its mangroves, blue-and-white speedboats and fried fish market stalls. Daily, dozens of Africans pass here with camping backpacks on their backs, supporting the bustling street traders here with migrant dollars. Besides food, you buy a ‘travellers kit’ here: a plastic cover to protect cell phones and passports, plus a bigger one for around the back pack will set you back US$ 15. For US$ 20 more you obtain a special package that prepares you for the jungle: waterproof rubber boots, a flashlight and a plastic raincoat.
The trafficking of migrants through here is worth one million us$ Per week
Perhaps the plastic, the boots and flashlight should have forewarned Ana and the others of what lay ahead. Firstly, like the Mediterranean, Turbo’s Gulf of Urabá in this part of the ‘Colombian Caribbean’ is starting to become a watery grave for unlucky travellers: just a year and a half ago twenty-three travellers drowned on the coast of Sapzurro, a few kilometres from the Panama border. Secondly, the jungle you reach after the water, besides being just as wet, is even more dangerous. But leaving from the idyllic-looking beach town of Necoclí, fifty kilometres north of Turbo, ‘where customs controls are less’ and Ana’s family paid US$ 50 per person for the boat trip to Capurganá on Colombia’s border with Panama , they had no idea what awaited on the other side. ‘These were legal boats’, says Ana. ‘The local people use them too’.
According to Colombia’s state migration agency, almost eight thousand migrants left from Turbo and Necoclí in the first four months of 2019 alone.
The forest of hell
The Darién forest, known to tourists as the Darién National Park, is referred to simply as ‘the forest’ by the migrants; alternatively also as ‘the nightmare’, or ‘hell’, as Ana calls it. Measuring 750,000 hectares in total, the jungle that clogs the border between Panama and Colombia is so impenetrable that the Pan-American Highway stops dead at its doorstep. ‘The path is completely closed by trees and plants’, João says.
It is only sixty-five kilometers to get through, but you have to place your fate in the hands of the traffickers, nicknamed coyotes, who know the way. In Colombia´s coastal Capurganá, where they are based, the crossing of migrants through Darién is worth about one million dollars a week. Working as a ‘coyote’ is so lucrative that, according to Father Aurelio Moncada, a local parish priest in Capurganá whom I interviewed telephonically, ‘young people and children stop going to school to enter the migration business’.
Ana and family, lucky to have had a mostly smooth boat ride, hoped to cross the forest in one or two days. ‘But it turned out to be many days of climbing up and sliding down hills under heavy rains, with your feet dragging through the mud, carrying your bags and food. And there are mosquitos. We heard stories of people who drowned here after the rains caused the river to rise. They had been sleeping on the banks and the water just took them away’. ‘Sometimes groups have to leave behind those who do not have the strength to endure’, adds João.
Other travellers mention noticing the clothes, food, bottles and toys left on the jungle’s zigzag tracks by migrants who either had to ditch their belongings, lost them, or simply perished, and the narcos of the Colombian Gulf who force you to carry drugs for them or else; other bandits simply rob you. Jacqueline*, a traveller from the DRC who made it to Tapachula, recounts how ‘bandits appeared out of nowhere’ when her group was resting to drink water. ‘They brought very large weapons. They put their fingers in the anuses of men and in the vaginas of women to see if we were hiding money. They threatened to kill us’.
A zinc hangar
Exiting the jungle in March 2019, Ana’s family was given ‘a little rice and beans’, in the village of Bajo Chiquito. They then took a twenty-five dollar canoe to travel four hours down the Chucunaque River to the only migrant station that Panama’s migration agency Senafront operates in the region: the so-called Temporary Humanitarian Assistance Station (ETAH) at La Peñita.
ETAH’s own photographs show the station as a zinc hangar, surrounded by metal fences and soiled blue portable toilets. Equipped to deal with a hundred migrants at a time, the place usually overcrowds with over a thousand, many of whom spill over into the village and sleep under trees. Its ‘humanitarian assistance’ consists mainly of registering and vaccinating the migrants against tetanus, measles and rubella, while Senafront takes fingerprints ‘to track possible criminals sought by Interpol’. ‘There were lots of kids with diarrhoea there, and sick people, but no medicines. There was only dirty water to drink’, says Ana. ‘Still, it was better than the jungle’.
After weeks, Senafront transferred Ana’s family, João and others, on a bus to the Planes de Guacala migrant hostel — a converted old hydroelectric installation — more than eight hundred kilometres to the north. ‘At that moment, the worst was over’, says Ana. Travellers commonly praise Costa Rica, as a place of kindness and officials who actively help them. ‘It was undoubtedly where they treated us the best, people are very kind and we never lacked food, support or medication’, João confirms.
The migrants quickly received passes to move on to Nicaragua, where, it was said, one could pay at the border to get further north to Honduras. In March 2019, Ana, her husband and daughter paid an official US$ 150 each in order to be shown to a low wall of about a meter and a half next to the border post. ‘It was very easy to jump’. Nicaraguan police officers were already waiting for their share of the bribe money on the other side. Boarding the mini buses to Honduras from there was another US$ 30.
The trip of 330 km, between Peñas Blancas and Guasaule, on the northwest border with Honduras, was also a smooth one, Ana and João say.
The heavy hands of Trump
It is in Honduras that one starts to feel the heavy hands of Trump. In early 2019, the US president threatened to cut over US$ six hundred million in economic aid to the ‘northern triangle’ countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras if these did not block the caravans of people walking on sore feet towards the United States. The result was much tightened immigration policies, both against own citizens who want to leave — Honduras, like El Salvador and Mexico, is tormented by poverty and violent gang rule (1) — and migrants from elsewhere. ‘Some go missing. Many are deported back, sometimes maimed and disabled (2)’, says Karla Rivas, the regional coordinator of the Mexico-based Jesuit Migrants Service in Central America, in a telephonic interview. ‘It is a very harsh reality of poverty and misery’.
Ana’s family and João passed through here a few months before the restrictions came into effect. They entered Honduras through a ‘blind spot’ on the border at Choluteca, then ‘walked through a small bush for an hour or two, then took a bus to (the capital) Tegucigalpa, where we obtained a pass to Guatemala’, says João.
It would become much more difficult for those who came later. In the last six months of 2019, Honduras’ Police Force for Migration Control stepped up surveillance of nineteen blind spots on the Nicaraguan border, Choluteca among them, arresting thousands. Early in 2020 the Honduran Migration Institute would boast that ‘illegal migration’ in the southern region had ‘decreased by sixty-two percent’ compared to the same period in 2019. The described success, however, only means that migrants now wander the border, waiting for a moment of distraction from la migra to continue the journey north. ‘We have a couple of thousand deported back to Honduras every now and then’, says Karla Rivas, ‘but also still hundreds leaving every day’.
Honduras meets Guatemala (and other neighbour El Salvador) in Esquipulas, home of the Black Christ: a wooden and very black statue of Jesus that is worshipped here by those displaced by war, the homeless and otherwise downtrodden. Joao and Ana’s family managed to get through here just in time in late March 2019: taking a bus, moving quickly, not visiting the Christ, spending US$ 30 on a single ticket per person. Ten months later, in January 2020, the country’s police, in a display of force never seen before, stopped a caravan of hundreds of Hondurans here.
Those in the know say that this was mere window dressing to please Trump; that Guatemala’s police is not really that capable; and that, like in Choluteca, arrested and released, or even deported, migrants soon get back here. But the new harsh rules require legal proof of residence in Guatemala for anyone wishing to buy a bus ticket. Migrants now fork out over US$ 100 for a spot in a coyote minibus or private vehicle to the country’s border with Mexico.
The migrants now cross at more dangerous points
Tecún Umán, the main crossing point on the Suchiate borderline river between Guatemala and Mexico, has also become quiet since the new security measures. ‘The migrants now pass through more dangerous points, in the north, that are more isolated and controlled by organised crime’, Mario Montes, coordinator of the NGO Casa Migrantes in Tecún Umán tells me telephonically. ‘Or they cross the river a little further south, where it is wider and deeper’.
Ana, her family and João crossed the river at Tecún Umán in May last year, still just before the clampdown, on wooden and rubber rafts. ‘They rocked a lot. We paid just over a dollar per person’, says Ana. On the Mexican side they found minibuses to Tapachula and forty minutes later they were here, where I would meet them two weeks later: tired, thin, and frustrated, but hoping to regularise their status at the Siglo XXI Migration Centre.
Then, on 30 May 2019, Donald Trump threatened to raise taxes on Mexican imports and within days from Ana’s family and João’s arrival twenty thousand National Guard soldiers marched in to create an anti-migrant buffer. A little more than a month later the Mexican National Institute of Migration (INM) abolished the procedure to obtain a pass to leave Mexico on the northern side, towards the US. The only way out now — it was still before ‘corona’ — was south, where you came from. But Ana and her family had spent over ten thousand dollars by then; they were not going back. “We started to contact our relatives in the US and Canada to send more money.” Canada, rather than the US, is where they hope finally to make a new life for themselves.
Memories of broken glass
Out of a total of over thirty thousand migrants in Tapachula, an estimated four thousand are Africans. Most hail from the Democratic Republic of Congo (a quarter) and Cameroon (almost half).
In early October 2019, the bodies of three Cameroonians were found floating off Puerto Arista beach, two hundred and forty kilometers northwest of Tapachula. They had each paid fifteen hundred dollars to coyotes to bypass Mexican National Coast Guard controls, but shipwrecked. Eight survivors (seven men and one woman) were detained, then given papers to stay in Mexico for a year; they have since disappeared without leaving any contact behind. There had been eighteen passengers in total on the boat, but no trace of the other seven passengers has been found to date.
‘they can come from mars, but we will send them back’, said the commissioner of migration
You can’t go back to Cameroon, the West African country where a large majority of citizens starve under the kleptocrat regime of octogenarian autocrat Paul Biya and where the military violently oppresses dissent. In a mosquito-infested waiting room at the Tapachula Health Center, Favour*, who coughs incessantly, shows photos from her phone: houses with broken glass, burned buildings (‘this was the hospital’), shrapnel, soldiers, bloody bodies and corpses. This is the home town, Buea, in Cameroon’s south west, that she left behind four months ago, she says. ‘The military burned my parents’ and grandparents’ house with them inside. Then they arrived at my pedicure salon and forced me to see how my sisters were raped. Then it was my turn. I was four months pregnant’. She starts to cry. ‘That day they also took my 17-year-old son, I have known nothing about him since’.
Of all those stuck in Tapachula, many of the men do odd jobs on farms and in construction; for women, the main way to get money is sex work. Local trade benefits from the foreigners’ purchases of cell phones, food and clothes, with whatever dollars they have left. Tapachulans also gain from commissions they charge for helping the migrants receive money transfers from relatives.
Even so, the local right wing press has long campaigned against the foreigners, accusing them of bringing diseases, as well as of littering and violence. And Mexico’s government doesn’t want them either. In October last year, the INM’s National Commissioner, Francisco Garduño, thundered that ‘They can even come from Mars, but we will all send them to India, to Cameroon, to Africa!’
The commissioner’s simultaneous referring to African migrants as ‘black humans’, got him accused of racism. He later apologised, but met a storm of criticism again in April 2020, when a protest by migrants against abusive and unhealthy conditions in a detention centre at Tenosique resulted in a riot and a fire, and a Guatemalan migrant died of suffocation. Over a dozen of human rights organisations in Mexico then signed a petition demanding Garduño’s removal. The petition has so far been ignored by the authorities, however, and Garduño remains in office.
During the period when I met Ana’s family and João in June 2019, they were still continuing to try to get papers allowing them to leave in the northern direction. But ‘they (the authorities) don’t even talk to us’, Ana told me at one of the occasions I saw her. She was sitting on the ground then, next to a group of women queueing in front of the centre under a hellish sun. A few Africans, Cubans and Haitians wandered around and under some trees, a group of six or seven Indian men listened to frantic Bollywood-style music. The arrival of some buses disrupted the boredom and we watched as they entered the Migratory Station grounds empty, and left full. ‘Central Americans being deported’, said João.
Dreaming of Tijuana
On another occasion we met two Cameroonians who were suddenly very happy: they wandered around waving bus tickets and papers, and explained that they had managed to obtain a departure pass to Tijuana, border town with the United States. They were about to take the ‘Estrellas del Sur’ bus that was to leave at 2 30 PM to embark on the three day trip. ‘We have family in the US and we are going to apply for asylum’, one said with a big smile. In the background a radio played ‘Hoja en Blanco’, a hit from the 90s. ‘And fly, fly / In other directions / Go and dream, dream / That the world is yours’, the song went, in Spanish. The Cameroonians probably didn’t know Spanish, but the text fitted like a glove.
They had been gone before we could talk of the dangers that would await up north. The United Nations estimate that in 2019 alone close to five hundred people died on the Mexican border with the USA. Over a hundred of these drowned while trying to cross the Río Bravo or Río Grande; the rest lost their lives under the scorching sun of the desert. And those are only the recorded deaths. An estimated seventy thousand people have simply disappeared while crossing Mexican border territory: remaining under the radar at best, kidnapped or killed by organised crime at worst. In 2010, in the so-called Massacre of San Fernando, in Tamaulipas, Los Zetas, a syndicate regarded as one of the most dangerous of the country’s drug cartels, massacred seventy-two migrants who refused to join their ranks.
Those who survive the crossing but are caught by the US Border Patrol, are placed in detention centers. These have recently attracted much publicity for their appalling conditions, separations of children from their families, and children held in mesh cages. A wave of solidarity from empathetic Americans after the media reports has since resulted in many coming forward ‘who take in complete families of migrants, even without knowing them, just to help’, says Sara Sorto, a welfare worker at the Espacio Migrante in the border town of Tijuana, in a telephonic interview. The luckiest of migrants now benefit of such arrangements, allowed by American law, and wait ‘in controlled freedom’ until the day of their deportation hearing.
The national guard focuses especially on those with black skin
Meanwhile, thousands who are afraid of the desert, the narcos and US border control, wait in improvised camps at the various border towns in Mexico to apply for asylum. Others ‘live in cheap hotels or apartments which they almost never leave for fear of being arrested’, says Sara Sorto, adding that the National Guard in Tijuana focuses especially on ‘those with black skin’. ‘The military and migra agents go out at night in the centre or the beach area and arrest those who cannot prove they are legally in the country, -which at the moment goes for practically all migrants’. However, ‘without any strategy for what to do next’, they are often released a few days later, presumably after once more paying bribes.
The last time I saw Ana, she said that that night the family would sleep in a pension in the center of Tapachula since they had a bit of money sent by relatives. ‘When it runs out, we’ll sleep on the street’, she told me as we said goodnight. A mutual acquaintance would tell me later that she and her family finally did succeed in reaching Ciudad Acuña, on the border with Texas. He did not know if they managed to get into the US.
But I imagine her and her husband crossing the Rio Grande, with Amélia in their arms, on their way to Canada.
Update: Migrants in the pandemic
According to Mexico’s National Migration institute only just over a hundred migrants remained in its custody after the ‘COVID 19’ closure of the country’s immigration centres last April. Over three thousand people had been deported to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Under the rules of the lockdown, gatherings in public places like parks and squares are now forbidden in Tapachula. Hotels and restaurants are closed. Migrant rights NGOs say that, while those who still have money are still able to rent rooms, others sleep on the town’s deserted outskirts. They also say that many experience hunger. The few shelters that still exist are dangerously overcrowded.
The Suchiate border river has been fenced off completely and is guarded by soldiers with face masks. An estimated seventy people reside on the river banks on the Guatemalan side, waiting to be let in to that country again. All along the border, further up north, shelters run by NGOs have closed ‘to prevent contagion’; migrants now roam the border lines and sleep in makeshift camps. According to the NGOs around three thousand people have converged in the largest such camp, in Matamoros.
Even for those who have decided to go back south — presuming that Guatemala will let them back in — the trip won’t be easy. There have been attacks on migrants recently from locals who fear virus contagion: according to the UNHCR, a Returned Migrant Service Centre in Honduras has had to close ‘due to protests by the local population against the entry of these people into the country for fear of becoming infected’. Similar stories come from Mexico. ‘We have been asking the government for data on measures to protect migrants, both from the pandemic and from hostility’, says Irineo Mujica, director of the NGO Pueblos Sin Fronteras. ‘The authorities do not even answer us’.
- Mayhem caused by criminal groups such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 have turned Honduras and El Salvador, into two of the most violent countries in the world. Forced recruitment of young people by these gangs is one of the main reasons for them to flee the country.
- Many get injured on the trip; stow-away transport on La Bestia, the freight train that traverses Mexico, in particular, has led to hundreds of cases of mutilation when people fell off the roof or had limbs crushed between cars.
This report was published earlier this year in Angola’s Novo Journal.
The American Uprising of 2020: Black Lives Matter Gains Traction
The public execution of George Floyd sparked demonstrations across every state and in hundreds of cities and towns in the United States, quickly turning into the nation’s largest and most widespread protest movement against systemic racism since the 1960s.
History occasionally accelerates with unexpected speed as its slow, subterranean motions suddenly erupt into surges of change, sparked by an event whose ordinariness suddenly acquires an extraordinary potency out of a unique confluence of forces. The triggers of course vary, but there is a particular poignancy that comes with the incendiary intimacy of individual murders. Such killings strike a powerful emotional and cognitive chord in the human imagination in a way that mass murders may not, as their sheer scale congeals into mind-numbing abstractions.
The public execution of George Floyd, with its casual performance of suffocating and snuffing life out of the black body became a frightful spectral presence in the minds of tens of millions of people in the United States and around the world. It captured with terrifying clarity the utter depravity and degradation of a black life that validated the humanistic and historic demands of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The spontaneous demonstrations that erupted across every state and in hundreds of cities and towns in the United States — including some with small black populations and even among those infamous for harbouring white supremacy movements and militias — quickly turned into the nation’s largest and most widespread protest movement against systemic racism since the 1960s, and some claim in American history. It brought both the country and the shambolic Trump presidency to an inflection point.
The uprising over Floyd’s murder derived its fiery multiracial and multigenerational rage from the coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately devastated the lives and livelihoods of black and poor people. It tapped into the surplus time and energies of people seeking release from the isolating suffocations of anti-COVID-19 lockdowns. It also benefitted from the inept and provocative responses of racist politicians and police forces. Further, it was catalysed by the persistent struggles of longstanding activists and social movements.
Assassinations as Historical Inflections
Assassinations have served to trigger major events throughout history. Think of the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo. This event helped ignite World War I by prying open long-simmering nationalist and imperialist rivalries in Europe. The conflicts were engendered by, and coalesced around, rival alliances that catapulted the world into an unprecedented conflagration.
Think of the brutal lynching of 14 year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi on 28 August 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The photographs of his mutilated body served to galvanise the American civil rights movement by inflaming age-old grievances and agitation against systemic racism and white supremacy, and the country’s North-South divide, overlaid by the global reverberations of Cold War superpower rivalries and decolonisation struggles in Africa and Asia.
Think of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor, on 17 December 2010, in protest against state repression and economic distress for young people. It provoked the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring against the autocratic and corrupt ruling coalitions in North Africa, other parts of Africa, Asia and South America, adding fuel to the democratic wave unleashed by the end of the Cold War. Elsewhere in North America and Europe the Arab Spring inspired the Occupy movement.
However, the Arab Spring soon turned into the Arab Winter, pushed back by counter-revolutions comprising resurgent Islamism, the reinstatement of military rule in Egypt, descent into autocracy in Turkey, and ferocious civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. As for the victories of the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960s, they remained limited and provoked a racist backlash. The Republican Party embarked on the “Southern Strategy” of courting white racists, and systemic racism and white supremacy were propped up with new structural and ideological scaffolding. For its part, World War I led to the consolidation of colonialism in Africa and Asia, reaped the whirlwinds of fascism and Stalinism in Europe, and unleashed the spectre of economic devastation that culminated in the Great Depression.
In short, revolutionary moments generate complex and contradictory futures in which progress is often checkmated by reversals, underscoring the fact that history is a dialectical process. The racist backlash against Obama that led to Trump’s election seems to have succeeded in creating an anti-racist backlash.
The Floyd moment in which the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining traction in the US and around the world will not be an exception. Progress will be made in chipping away at some of the practices, symbols, and performances of anti-black racism, but the fundamental structures of white supremacy are likely to survive and mutate.
In the Shadows of 1968
The American uprising of 2020 shares some parallels and connections to the uprising of 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King. The script of 1968 remains — notwithstanding some progress — in so far as the protests sprang from the deep well of institutionalised racism, economic inequality, social despair, political disenfranchisement, and the dehumanising terrors of police brutality and constant denigration of blackness in the national imaginary.
The road to 2020 was paved with the legacies of 1968. As Peniel Joseph, a renowned African American historian writes in The Washington Post, “The flames that engulfed large portions of America during the 1960s helped to extinguish the promise of the Great Society by turning the War on Poverty into a dehumanizing war against poor black communities. America has, in the ensuing five decades, deployed state of the art technology to criminalize, surveil, arrest, incarcerate, segregate and punish black communities. Floyd’s death represents the culmination of these political and policy decisions to choose punishment over empathy, to fund prisons over education and housing and to promote fear of black bodies over racial justice”.
In short, revolutionary moments generate complex and contradictory futures in which progress is often checkmated by reversals, underscoring the fact that history is a dialectical process. The racist backlash against Obama that led to Trump’s election seems to have succeeded in creating an anti-racist backlash.
The America of King’s dream of racial equality and social justice not only remained deferred, but was actively sabotaged by the courts, politicians, and business. The landmark legislative achievements of the civil rights movements, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 wilted as the prison industrial complex, deepening socioeconomic inequalities, and social despair among the poor, both black and white, exploded.
Since 1968, there have been periodic eruptions of protests, most memorably the 1992 Los Angeles uprising following the acquittal of four police officers charged with the widely publicised beating of Rodney King, and the 2014 uprising that began after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a police officer. After each uprising, police, judicial and other reforms were announced, but they largely gathered dust as the protests faded into memory until the next eruption elsewhere.
Only history will tell if the 2020 uprising is different, a transformative watershed in the long history of protests against systemic racism and police brutality. Some are doubtful, others more hopeful. A sample of the divergent opinions can be found among two dozen experts convened by Politico magazine.
Those who doubt that the Floyd protests represent an inflection point worry about the challenges of sustaining the momentum of protest, dynamic grassroots organising and cohesive leadership and unity around a clear set of goals, as well as the powers of state suppression and repression in the reactionary name of “law and order”. Further, hyper-partisanship is more glaring today than ever, facilitated by political polarisation and media fragmentation that make reconciliation difficult.
Those who are more hopeful about the positive impact of the uprising point to the nationwide scale of the protests, the ubiquity of video images of police brutality, and the fact that the protests are occurring in the face of a pandemic and mass unemployment that have disproportionately ravaged people of colour. Moreover, the presence of an outrageously racist, divisive and authoritarian-minded president has increasingly alienated moderate whites.
Many believe the expansive geography of the protests portends its historical significance. In the 1960s, “most protests were held in major cities and on college campuses — and most Americans saw them on the television news”. The 2020 uprising is different. “National media focuses on the big demonstrations and protest policing in major cities, but they have not picked up on a different phenomenon that may have major long-term consequences for politics. Protests over racism and #BlackLivesMatter are spreading across the country — including in small towns with deeply conservative politics. Altogether, according to some counts, the Floyd protests occurred in 1,280 places.
The Floyd moment in which the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining traction in the US and around the world will not be an exception. Progress will be made in chipping away at some of the practices, symbols, and performances of anti-black racism, but the fundamental structures of white supremacy are likely to survive and mutate.
If current polls are to be believed to be harbingers of the future possibilities for transformation, according to The New York Times, “support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm. By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began”.
The paper continues, “A Monmouth University poll found that 76 percent of Americans consider racism and discrimination a ‘big problem,’ up 26 points from 2015. The poll found that 57 percent of voters thought the anger behind the demonstrations was fully justified, while a further 21 percent called it somewhat justified. Polls show that a majority of Americans believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans, and that there’s a lot of discrimination against black Americans in society. Back in 2013, when Black Lives Matter began, a majority of voters disagreed with all of these statements”.
In short, the 2020 uprising seems to represent progress over 1968 in the scale of its multiracial composition and breadth of demands for racial justice. It suggests white America and other Americans of colour are coming to understand the depth and scope of unrelenting black pain under institutional racism and white supremacy. In the words of Alex Thompson in Politico, “The killing of George Floyd has prompted a reckoning with racism not only for Joe Biden, but for a wide swath of white America,” which he argues could reshape the 2020 elections.
However, given the history of the United States, doubts remain whether this moment represents a defining turning point. The road towards racial equality and justice will continue to be bumpy because what is at stake is the entire system of racial capitalism that reproduces white supremacy, not just its manifestations evident in heinous practices such as police brutality.
What is certain is that the terrain of American race relations is shifting. Floyd’s death has spearheaded the country’s largest and broadest anti-racist movement and made Black Lives Matter an acceptable slogan and not the dreaded and derided radical idea it once was. Behind the movement’s new-found traction lie six long years of tireless work by its activists.
On the Trails of Slavery
The modern world was created by the triangular slave trade between Africa, Europe, and the Americas. These continents have been linked ever since by the historical geographies and political economies of exploitation and struggle. The US uprising inspired worldwide protests. This reflected the ubiquity of both America as a superpower with an outsize presence in the global imagination and almost universal anti-black racism born out of the Atlantic slave trade that created the modern world.
The protests tapped into growing recognition in many western countries that racism is a problem. According to The Economist, “The share of Americans who see racial discrimination in their country as a big problem has risen from 51% in January 2015 to 76% now. A YouGov poll last week found that 52% of Britons think British society is fairly or very racist, a big rise from similar polls in the past. In 2018, 77% of the French thought France needed to fight racism, up from 59% in 2002. Pew Research found last year that in most countries healthy majorities welcome racial diversity”.
The unprecedented scale of the protests in the US provoked confrontations between the obdurate and callous Trump administration and city mayors and state governors around the country. It produced iconic moments and images. Most graphically, in an act of political pornography and vandalism, there was the picture of Trump awkwardly holding a bible in front of a church after the National Guard had forcibly cleared peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Square using teargas and rubber bullets. The mayor of Washington responded by painting and ceremonially naming two blocks of the street to the White House Black Lives Matter Plaza. The newly extended perimeter from the White House was turned into an exuberant makeshift exhibition of resistance art, posters, and graffiti.
The America of King’s dream of racial equality and social justice not only remained deferred, but was actively sabotaged by the courts, politicians, and business
Trump’s overreaction triggered a powerful backlash. Widely condemned for accompanying the president to his ill-fated photo-op, the Defense Secretary and Chief of Staff apologised. Several former military leaders expressed disgust and alarm. John Allen, former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, warned: “The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment”.
Other retired military leaders sought to depoliticise their beloved Pentagon from the clutches of the aspiring draft-dodging autocrat. They included John Mattis, who served as Trump’s own Defense Secretary, and Colin Powell, a former Chief of Staff and Secretary of State, who accused Trump of unprecedented divisiveness. The Pentagon promised to review the conduct of the National Guard against the protests. Former presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama expressed their misgivings, and some Republican politicians nervously tried to distance themselves from a president who increasingly looked like a deranged dictator in the mold of the despots he clearly admires and envies.
Before long, anti-racist struggles and protests spread to countries with their own troubled histories of anti-black racism, from Canada to Brazil in the Americas, the former colonial powers of Europe, and the outposts of European settler colonialism in Australasia. Electrifying images were beamed on television stations and social media around the world. A sample can be seen in The Atlantic “Images from a Worldwide Protest Movement”.
In each country and city where the Floyd protests took place, parallels were drawn with local histories of anti-black racism, social injustice, exclusion and marginalisation. The demonstrations and marches were organized by local groups of the Black Lives Matter movement, political and civil society activists, and local groups that had long fought against all forms of exclusion and discrimination. The protests often took place in front of US embassies, national parliaments, public squares, as well as in front of detested statues and monuments to slavery, imperialism and colonialism, and along major thoroughfares.
American diplomats found it galling for the US to be the target of human rights protests around the world as the specious cocoon of democratic exceptionalism spectacularly burst. The New York Times observed, “Diplomats Struggle to Defend Democracy Abroad Amid Crises at Home . . . In private conversations and social media posts… [they] expressed outrage after the killing of George Floyd and President Trump’s push to send the military to quell demonstrations. Diplomats say that the violence has undercut their criticisms of foreign autocrats and called into question the moral authority the United States tries to project as it promotes democracy and demands civil liberties and freedoms across the world”.
The Americas harbour the largest population of the African diaspora mostly descended from enslaved Africans. While there have been some national differences in the constructions of racial identities, since the 16th century the black experience across the region has been uniformly exploitative and oppressive, characterised by slavery, institutionalised racism, exclusion, and police brutality.
Canada — which likes to see itself as the gentler face of North America — is no exception. The country has an ugly history of anti-black racism and genocidal brutality against the indigenous people. Not surprisingly, the uprising in the US resonated in all the country’s provinces and major cities from Halifax, Sydney and Yarmouth in Nova Scotia, where the black loyalists from the American War of Independence settled, to Fredericton, Moncton and Sackville in New Brunswick, St. John’s in Newfoundland, and several cities in Quebec including Montreal, Quebec City and Sherbrooke. Huge protests also took place across Ontario in such cities as Barrie, Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Toronto, and Windsor, and in the western provinces of Alberta (Calgary, Edmonton, and Lethridge), British Columbia (Vancouver and Victoria and other cities), Manitoba (Winnipeg), and Saskatchewan (Saskatoon and Regina).
However, given the history of the United States, doubts remain whether this moment represents a defining turning point. The road towards racial equality and justice will continue to be bumpy because what is at stake is the entire system of racial capitalism that reproduces white supremacy, not just its manifestations evident in heinous practices such as police brutality.
Unknown to many people is the fact that Mexico has an African diaspora population and that racism is deeply entrenched despite the myths of mestizaje, or racial mixing. White Mexicans have dominated the country and marginalised the indigenous people and African descendants for centuries. Protests and vigils occurred in Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Xalapa. They spread to South America from Argentina (Buenos Aires) that whitened itself in the 19th century through a campaign of black extermination, to Brazil (Curitiba, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo), the country with the largest African diaspora in the world and a horrible history of systemic racism despite the cruel myth of racial democracy, as well as Ecuador (Quito), and Colombia (Bogotá), another country with a massive African diaspora presence.
In the Caribbean, most of the islands have majority African descended populations. Historically, the region’s intellectual-activists played a crucial role in the development of Pan-Africanism. Migration from the region in the 19th and 20th centuries to South and North America and Europe has given its inhabitants intricate global connections so that developments in these regions reverberate with political immediacy. Protests took place in Bermuda, in Kingston, Jamaica, and in Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago.
The protests particularly resonated in Europe with its colonial histories, and failures to integrate recent waves of migrants and refugees from its imperial outposts in Africa and Asia. The black British journalist and academic, Gary Younge, brilliantly dissects the resonance of the American uprising. “Europe’s identification with black America, particularly during times of crisis, resistance and trauma, has a long and complex history. It is fuelled in no small part by traditions of internationalism and anti-racism on the European left, where the likes of Paul Robesson, Richard Wright and Audre Lorde would find an ideological – and, at times, literal – home”.
However, he continues, “this tradition of political identification with black America also leaves significant space for the European continent’s inferiority complex, as it seeks to shroud its relative military and economic weakness in relation to America with a moral confidence that conveniently ignores both its colonial past and its own racist present. From the vantage point of a continent that both resents and covets American power, and is in no position to do anything about it, African Americans represent to many Europeans a redemptive force: the living proof that the US is not all it claims to be, and that it could be so much greater than it is”.
Britain and France, the former colonial superpowers, became the epicenters of large protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and in pursuit of local anti-racism and social justice struggles. Predictably, right-wing politicians and the punditocracy dismissed the solidarity protests claiming, as British black historian, David Olusoga, noted, “The US situation is unique in both its depth and ferocity, they say, so that no parallels can be drawn with the situation in Britain. The smoke-and-mirrors aspect of this argument is that it attempts to focus attention solely on police violence, rather than the racism that inspired it”, which is prevalent in Britain and across Europe.
Olusoga notes that this argument has an old history going back to 1807 “with the abolition of the slave trade and picked up steam three decades later with the end of British slavery, twin events that marked the beginning of 200 years of moral posturing and historical amnesia”. In Britain, demonstrations broke out from May 28 and for the next two weeks roiled all the major cities including London, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Brighton, Belfast, Oxford, Cardiff, Newcastle, Sheffield, Hastings, Glasgow, Coventry, Nottingham, Carlisle, Middlesbrough, and Wolverhampton. Some believed this marked a turning point in the UK as, in the words of The Guardian, “demands for racial justice now have a new and unstoppable urgency”.
France suffers from a pernicious tradition of colonial denial and amnesia, clothed in facetious fidelity to universal values, which it rationalised at the height of empire with the myth of assimilation. But the country has its own history of police brutality and killings of black people. It was rocked by unrest in Paris, Bordeaux, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse during which protesters invoked George Floyd and their own black martyrs to French racism.
The cities of other former colonial powers were not spared. In Belgium there were widespread protests in Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Hasselt, Leuven, Liège, and Ostend. Germany was another centre that saw demonstrations by thousands of people in more than two dozen cities including Berlin, Bonn, Cologne, Dresden, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hannover, Leipzig, Munich, Nuremberg, and Stuttgart. Italy was engulfed by protests in two dozen cities including Bologna, Florence, Genoa, Milan, Naples, Palermo, Rome, Turin, and Verona. In Portugal, the last imperial power to be booted out of Africa, thousands of people marched in Lisbon and Porto. Spain, whose African colonial empire was the smallest, a dozen cities witnessed protests including Barcelona and Madrid.
Protests spread to other European countries that had been involved in establishing slave trading forts or colonial settlements across the western seaboard of the African continent. In Denmark, whose slave forts dot the coastline of modern Ghana, hundreds and thousands of people gathered and marched in Aalborg, Aarhus, Copenhagen and Odense. In the Netherlands, the country that gave South Africa its Afrikaner architects of apartheid, solidarity vigils and protests took place from June 1 for the next fortnight in several cities including Amsterdam, Breda, Eindhoven, Leeuwarden, Maastricht, Rotterdam, Utrecht, The Hague, and Tilburg. In Norway, a country that was unified with Denmark during the era of the slave trade, protesters marched in Bergen, Kristiansan, Oslo, and Tromsø.
Such has been the global reach of the uprising against racism and police brutality that other European countries were caught in the turbulence. In Vienna, Austria, more than 50,000 people marched on June 4. Large protests also took place in Sweden in the cities of Gothenburg, Malmö, and Stockholm, while in Switzerland they occurred in Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, and Zürich. Smaller protest marches also took place in Sofia in Bulgaria, Zagreb in Croatia, Nicosia in Cyprus, Prague in the Czech Republic, Helsinki in Finland, Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece, Budapest in Hungary, Reykjavík in Iceland, Cord, Dublin and Limerick in Ireland, Pristina in Kosovo, Vilnius in Lithuania, Luxembourg, Valletta in Malta, Podgorica in Montenegro, Kraków, Poznań and Warsaw in Poland, Bucharest in Romania, Belgrade in Serbia, and Bratislava in Slovakia.
Asia became another theater of Floyd protests although not on the scale of the Atlantic world except for Australia, a settler colony with a notorious history of systemic racism and police brutality against the indigenous people, and Asian and African immigrants. The protests in Brisbane and Sydney attracted tens of thousands of people, and sizable numbers took part in other Australian cities from Canberra, the capital, to Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth.
Hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of people protested in Japan (Tokyo and Osaka), Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea (Seoul), India (Kolkata), Pakistan (Karachi), Sri Lanka (Colombo), the Philippines (Quezon City), Thailand (Bangkok), Kazakhstan (Almaty and other cities), Armenia (Yerevan), Georgia (Tbilisi), Iran (Tehran), Israel (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa) — led by Israelis of African origin who face racism and disproportionate police arrests — Lebanon (Beirut), and Palestine (Bethlehem).
The protests in the United States and around the world focused on a broadly similar range of targets. First, law enforcement agencies that uphold the system of racial capitalism that marginalises and disempowers black people. Second, the symbols of white supremacy embodied in the public commemorations that honour the perpetrators of enslavement, colonisation, and plunder. Third, private institutions, organisations, and corporations that tolerate and reproduce racial inequalities.
Ironically, it was in Africa where protests over Floyd’s death were relatively muted. To be sure, there were some demonstrations often involving dozens or hundreds of people in several countries such as Ghana (Accra), Kenya (Nairobi), Liberia (Monrovia), Nigeria (Abuja), Senegal (Dakar), South Africa (Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria), Tunisia (Tunis), and Uganda (Kampala). More extensive and powerful expressions of solidarity were vented in petitions by activists, intellectuals, and artists (I participated in one called “We Cannot Remain Silent”), and especially on social media, according to Nana Osei-Opare writing in the Washington Post. This intriguing phenomenon reflects three complex factors.
First, in spite of Pan-Africanist rhetoric among African leaders and intellectuals, it reflects an enduring disconnect between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. It is borne out of limited engagements that ordinarily would emanate through the educational system and other forms of positive mutual exposure. Instead, there is an overexposure to negative stereotypes in the media that often traffic Eurocentric constructs and tropes on both sides of the other’s “civilisational” lack. More deeply, the unknowing of the diaspora, the willful ignorance of its tribulations, elides Africa’s complicity in the very creation of the Atlantic diasporas through the slave trade.
Second, is the ambivalent postcolonial mindset rooted in the colonial denial of African humanity and historicity. It is a miscognition that simultaneously breeds resentment of the empire and craving of its prowess. This generates a strange desire to be embraced and absorbed into the empire’s imagined superiority and advancement enveloped in the whiteness that the colonised strives for but, like Sisyphus, is destined never to attain, thereby inducing a state of perpetual self-doubt and self-denial. This fosters both envy of the diaspora ensconced in the heart of empire and blindness to its plight, a slippery disposition that engenders a deficit of sympathy and often slides into blaming the victim.
Third, there is what I would call the shortage of surplus political capital for solidarity, the dispositions to accommodate transnational diaspora struggles. Surplus capital can be externalised for better or ill as evident in the impetus for new imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Save for their elites, many African communities in their protean daily lives, now made infinitely worse by the coronavirus pandemic, are fettered by debilitating economic, political, and social conditions and perpetual struggles against often autocratic regimes or illiberal democracies whose law enforcement agencies have retained the deformities of colonial state violence and repression.
Reclaiming Public Memory
The monuments that have become the focus of public protests, accompanied by demands for more accurate, holistic and inclusive historical representations, are part of the struggles for liberating highly sanitised and racialised public spaces and memories. The protesters seek to insert African-descended peoples and their invaluable contributions in the national and regional histories of Euroamerica.
The removal and desecration of racist monuments offer a powerful rebuke against the brazen glorification of imperial and colonial conquests, exploitation, and oppression. These acts of iconographic liberation strike at the willful production of ignorance and limited understanding about the unsavory histories that made Euroamerica through the educational system, popular histories, and films and television. They have been targeted for decades as offensive symbols and reminders of slavery and racial oppression.
The conversations forced by the assault on racist monuments provoke much-needed historical reckoning and accounting for the persistent racial inequalities, injustices, and hierarchies bequeathed by enslavement, colonialism, and empire. They help dismember contemporary constructions of belonging and citizenship, of who constitutes and can enjoy the rights of the social and political community of the nation-state in Europe and the settler societies of the Americas and Australasia.
In the US, the removal of the statues and symbols of the renegade losers of the civil war who fought to retain slavery has intensified and reached the hallowed halls of Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged the removal of 11 statues representing Confederate leaders and soldiers, noting that the “statues pay homage to hate, not heritage”. The Pentagon announced its willingness to rename military bases associated with Confederate figures, a move that was endorsed by the Republican-controlled Senate despite Trump’s expressed opposition.
The scale of the task is huge as there are about 1,800 Confederate symbols across the US (776 of which are monuments), and only 141 (61 of them monuments) have been removed, and seven are pending removal. For their part, “the Navy and Marine Corps announced that they will ban the display of the Confederate flag at their facilities and events. Church symbols have not been exempt. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention “called for the retirement of a gavel that carries the name of a 19th-century Southern Baptist leader who was a slaveholder and led the convention in support of the Confederacy”. He proceeded to say “‘black lives matter’ six times in his presidential address”.
In Britain, protesters toppled the statues of slave traders including Edward Colston in Bristol, and Robert Milligan in London. City councils under the Labour Party led by the capital, London, announced their intention to set up commissions to review sculptures, buildings and street names associated with slavers, while Conservative councils came under increased pressure to do the same. Activists hoped the toppling of the public memorialisations of the symbols of slavery and colonialism would force the country to confront the sordid historical injustices that had shaped it.
Several institutions including hospitals and universities also began the process or conversations to remove historical figures associated with the slave trade. Calls intensified for the disposal of the notorious imperialist Cecil Rhodes, a campaign that began in 2016 on the heels of the RhodesMustFall campaign at the University of Cape Town, and racist icons of the British establishment such as Winston Churchill and Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouts movement. But Catherine Bennet cynically that, “As statues of slave traders are torn down, their heirs sit untouched in the Lords”.
In Belgium the statue of King Leopold II of Belgium, the architect of one of the worst genocides of the 20th century that decimated 10 million people in the Congo, was removed in Antwerp. In Spain debate was rekindled for the removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona — which some councilors had voted for in 2016 — for its glorification of the conquest of the Americas and for its replacement by a memorial of those who resisted imperialism and the oppression and segregation of the indigenous people and enslaved Africans and their descendants.
The removal of the statues of slave traders and imperialists in Europe is a homage to the unfinished project of decolonisation that began after World War II. The struggle over historical memory, constructions, and emblems is about the legacies of the past that disfigure the present and threaten to burden the future if reckoning and resolution continue to be postponed. The refusal to deal with the past and its stifling shadows on contemporary society is infantile and an ingrained part of the repertoire of anti-black racism in the Americas, Europe, and elsewhere. Removing statues is of course a symbolic act, but symbols matter. As Eusebius McKaiser reminds us, “We know from South Africa that toppling statues is no silver bullet – but it’s a start”.
Thus, at stake in the political and discursive struggles over the statues is collective public denial or willingness to reckon honestly with the complicated and messy histories and persistent legacies of slavery and empire, to dismantle false national mythologies and self-righteous delusions that breed shameless hypocrisies and perpetuate human rights abuses. Many of the contested statues were created decades or even centuries after the individuals or events their creators sought to glorify (in the US the Confederate monuments were created as part of the revisionist romanticisation of the “Lost Cause”). This underscores the fact that they were built to augment the arsenal of selective political constructs in the ignominious service of white supremacy.
The struggles to reclaim public spaces and historical memory from the accretion of generations of racist practices and ideologies is leading powerful institutions and individuals to embrace performative anti-racist activism that does not cost them much but serves to burnish their brands. The growing traction of the Black Lives Matter movement in public opinion has raised the opportunity costs of casual anti-black racism as a majority of Americans have increasingly come to believe that racism is a problem in the US.
This moment has ironically been facilitated by Trump’s presidency, which is characterised by unabashed racism, dizzying incompetence, authoritarian impulses, and perpetual chaos. Trump has succeeded in accelerating the erosion of the conservatism he was elected to protect from the country’s changing demographics and liberal drift. Thus, the Trump administration, which emerged out of a racist backlash against the Obama presidency, has helped both to reinforce and upend systemic racism and white supremacy.
Trump simultaneously brought racism out of the post-civil rights closet and made racism increasingly embarrassing to the so-called middle America of moderate whites and unacceptable to younger white Americans more exposed to multiracial experiences and expectations, not least because of the symbolic possibilities of the Obama presidency notwithstanding all its limitations. The national uprising has been remarkably multiracial, far more than the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. It has been dominated by young people, as revolutionary moments tend to be.
Trump’s victory often obscures the fact that the shifts in racial attitudes began earlier. One observer contends that “For all the attention paid to the politics of the far right in the Trump era, the biggest shift in American politics is happening somewhere else entirely”, namely, in the move to the left of white liberals on questions of race, racism and other priorities of the Democratic coalition such as immigration reform. He calls it the “Great Awokening” that began with the 2014 protests in Ferguson. “Opinion leaders often miss the scale and recency of these changes because progressive elites have espoused racial liberalism for a long time”.
A poll published on 9 June 2020 found that “nearly two-thirds of Americans, including 57% of whites, are ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about systemic racism”. It is this shift in public opinion that makes performative support for anti-racism more imperative for more constituencies and actors in the public and private sphere, from corporations to the media, sports and academe. The New York Times puts it pithily, “From Cosmetics to NASCAR, Calls for Racial Justice Are Spreading. What started as a renewed push for police reform has now touched seemingly every aspect of American life”.
Racist behaviours and statements that would previously have been ignored increasingly threatened the careers and social standing of their perpetrators as the opprobrium for anti-black racism rose. It became a season of apologies from media personalities, sports figures, university professors, publishers, and film directors, for the offensive statements they had made in the past or following Floyd’s horrific killing.
The public imagination was especially captured by the apologies and the affirmations that Black Lives Matter by sports figures. The NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated, “We the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people”. He went on to stress, “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest”. Confronted by criticism that he did not mention Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who popularised kneeling during the national anthem as a form of protest against police brutality, he later did so and appealed for Kaepernick’s reinstatement. NASCAR, especially popular among Southern whites, announced the banning at its events of Confederate flags — a despised symbol among African Americans — which it had discouraged since 2015 to no avail.
Apologies and protests spread to the rarefied white-dominated world of fashion as the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, apologised for publishing hurtful or intolerant stories and not hiring enough people of colour. The editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer resigned “after an article with the headline ‘Buildings Matter, Too,’ on the effects of civil unrest on the city’s buildings, led to a walkout by dozens of staff members”.
For their part, “more than 300 leading stage artists signed a letter decrying racial inequality in the world of ‘White American theater’”. Some musicians converted to the new anti-racist tune: “Lady Antebellum, the Grammy-winning country music trio behind one of the highest-selling country songs of all time, is dropping the “antebellum” from its name”, wrote The Washington Post. The cinematic arts also saw the light. Television shows, such as Cops, and films, such as Gone with the Wind, that glorify police violence and elide the brutalities of slavery, were terminated or removed from streaming. However, critics maintained that censoring old films and TV shows was not enough; what mattered was employing more people of colour in the industry.
Restiveness among technology companies also became evident. The announcement by IBM and Amazon that they were withdrawing their face recognition technology from use by police forces in racial profiling and mass surveillance was widely hailed in some quarters. In the meantime, “More than 200 Microsoft employees have signed a letter calling on the company to stop supplying software to law enforcement agencies; to support efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department; and to join a call for the mayor of Seattle, Jenny Durkan, to resign. The signers are a tiny fraction of Microsoft’s more than 140,000 employees. But the letter is another sign of increasing activism by employees at major technology companies on a range of political issues, which executives have been forced to address — if only to explain why they would not comply with workers’ requests”.
Performative anti-racist solidarity was also expressed in other countries, although to a more limited extent. In Britain, the tea-obsessed nation paid attention when “Top U.K. Tea Brands Urge #Solidaritea With Anti-Racism Protests”, to quote a headline from a story in The New York Times. The story noted that a series of tea companies doubled down following right-wing complaints about businesses’ support for Black Lives Matter.
Clearly, as silence on race increasingly ceased to be an option, American companies and institutions fell over each other to proclaim their support for Black Lives Matter. Anti-racism suddenly became a badge of honour for companies eager to burnish their brands under America’s emerging new normal. Corporate America proudly wore its newly acquired conscience on its malleable sleeves.
The bandwagon expanded by the day and encompassed every sector as noted in the following partial list. Automobile industry: BMW, General Motors, Lexus, Mercedes Benz, and Porsche. Banking and finance: American Express, Barclays Bank, Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, MasterCard, Wells Fargo. Delivery services: FedEx, and DHL. Film and Television: The Academy, Cartoon Network, DIRECTV, Disney, ESPN, HBO, Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, Fox, Hulu, IMAX, Netflix, Showtime, STARZ, Star Wars, Warner Bros, and YouTube. Gaming: Astro Gaming, GameSpot, Nintendo, PlayStation, Pokémon, XBox, Sony, Nintendo, EA, Ubisoft, Take-Two, Square Enix, Riot Games, Rockster Games, Bethesda, and Capcom.
Health and Insurance: MetLife, New York Life, UnitedHealth Group. Food and Beverages: Ben & Jerry’s, Burger King, Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Doritos, Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Gatorade, Popeyes Chicken, McDonald’s, Pop Tarts, Red Lobster, Subway, Starbucks Taco Bell, and Wendy’s. Music and performance: Atlantic Records, Billboard, Capitol Records, Virgin Records, Warner Records, and Metropolitan Opera. Oil and gas: BP. Pharmaceuticals and pharmacies: Bauer, CVS, Merck, and Pfizer. Publishing: Condé Nast.
Retail and grocery stores: American Apparel, Adidas, Armani, Burberry, Foot Locker, Gap, H&M, Home Depot, Huckberry, IKEA, Lacoste, Levi’s, Nike, Nordstrom, Reebok, Proctor & Gamble, PUMA, Target, Vans, Versace, Zara, Lowe’s, Sephora, and Tesco. Sports: NASCAR, and NFL. Technology and e-commerce: Apple, Cisco, Dell, Dropbox, eBay, Facebook, Google, HP, Inivision, IBM, Intel, Lenovo, LinkedIn, McAfee, Microsoft, Mozilla, Qualcomm, Reddit, Snapchat, Salesforce, Shopify, Spotify, TikTok, Tinder, Tumblr, Twitter, and Zoom. Telecommunications: AT&T, Verizon, TMobile. Transport: Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Lyft, and Uber.
The flood of corporate anti-racist statements was often accompanied by donations to venerable civil rights organisations such as the NAACP, Urban League, and National Action Network, and other groups fighting racial inequality. They also made vague promises to promote diversity and inclusion in their own companies without spelling out meaningful enforcement mechanisms. The donations tended to be largely token, but some were sizable. For example, SoftBank allocated of $100 million to invest in minority entrepreneurs, while “PayPal, Apple and YouTube collectively pledged $730 million to racial justice and equity efforts”. Estée Lauder, the cosmetics giant, raised its donation from $1 million to $5 million when its initial offer was derided by employees who compared it unfavorably to Mr. Lauder’s far more generous donations to Trump.
Many corporate executives saw the anti-racism cause as part of their corporate social responsibility, which for some amounted to political corporate social responsibility. In 2019, 181 US corporations signed a revised statement on the purpose of a corporation, issued by Business Roundtable. The corporate executives committed to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders by “Delivering value to our customers”, “Investing in our employees”, “Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers”, “Supporting the communities in which we work”, and “Generating long-term value for shareholders”.
While welcoming pledges by corporations to engage in anti-discrimination efforts and programmes to support black businesses and communities, many black corporate leaders and civil rights activists remained skeptical as noted in a long article in The New York Times, entitled “Corporate America Has Failed Black America”. They emphasised the need to tie executive pay to diversity metrics, which a few companies such as Microsoft, Intel and Johnson & Johnson had embraced.
By and large, critics of corporate America were not impressed by its performative anti-racism. They bemoaned the glaring gap between its fluffy anti-racist rhetoric and the reality of entrenched racist practices in most American companies. Some of the advice given to companies by their cheerleaders exacted little cost. One corporate sympathiser urged them to expand their relationships with historically black colleges and universities, advertise more openly, create diverse interview panels at all levels, provide extensive sensitive training for all employees, and set the tone for inclusion at the top.
The Economist contended, “Good intentions of bosses aside, untangling the problem of race and corporate America requires addressing four questions. First, what is the evidence that blacks are disadvantaged in the workplace? Second, how much is business to blame rather than society as a whole? Third, do any such disadvantages impact how businesses perform? And finally, what if anything can business do to improve matters?”
Its answer to all four questions underscored the prevalence of systemic racism and black under-representation throughout American business. It concludes, “Experts recommend creating a diversity strategy specifically for black employees, implementing clear and consistent standards for promotion and securing a firm commitment from the top to overcome bias among middle managers . . . That points to the importance of metrics and measurement”.
The rhetorical anti-racist bandwagon grew with breathtaking speed that confounded many people. Unhinged white conservatives bemoaned the trend, redoubled their virulent attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement and denounced the protesters as rioters and even domestic terrorists. Anguished white liberals shed their silence and commiserated with each other about racism and inundated their black colleagues with outpourings of sympathy, support and queries, which some blacks welcomed and others disdained. The latter resented the added burden of cleansing white consciences.
For their part, African Americans seized this rare opportunity to be heard by the wider society, unleashing an avalanche of tales of painful and often harrowing experiences with racism in their daily lives which they often hide from their white colleagues. New social media tags were created, such as #BlackInTheIvory that has been deluged by stories of the marginalisation, isolation, devaluation, frustration, and hostility experienced by black academics. Sales of books on race and racism, many by black authors, skyrocketed. The uprising also inspired thousands of people in the US and around the world to create powerful art. From “street murals near the White House to editorial comics created near where Floyd died, artists are delivering political messages through often stark imagery”.
The battles over racism and the protests raged on social media, the public square of the digital age. They engulfed platforms often not in the public eye. For example, as reported by The New York Times, “Upper East Side Mom Group Implodes Over Accusations of Racism and Censorship. A large Facebook parenting group temporarily shut down after silencing black members. Now new groups for parents are forming that are explicitly anti-racist.”
Trouble in the Ivory Tower
Colleges and universities were embroiled in the sprawling national crisis, although closures of campuses in response to the coronavirus pandemic saved them from protests on their own campuses and in university towns. Linda Ellis warns in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 12, 2020) that, “For Colleges, Protests Over Racism May Put Everything On the Line”. She predicts the reckoning will come once colleges and universities reopen and as students return to campuses, already energised by the national uprising triggered by Floyd’s horrific killing.
Many universities issued statements expressing sympathy, pain, even support for Black Lives Matter. Predictably, the statements vary in length, depth and breadth. Many were formulaic and fluffy, written by communication departments afraid of antagonising powerful donors, state lawmakers, and alumni. They invoke the role of the university as a positive force in society, forgetting the fact that American universities and education in general have been integral to the production and reproduction of the structures and ideologies of systemic racism.
As numerous studies have shown, building on Craig Steven Wilder’s groundbreaking Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, many of the renowned Ivy League universities were founded by or with resources from slave owners and slave traders. Over the generations, the ideologies and practices of anti-black racism have been concocted, refined and sanctified in the academy. Black history, contributions, concerns, interests and experiences are routinely excluded and devalorised in the American academy.
The constant assaults and surveillance of racism in the white academy is for black students and faculty are draining and exhausting. Some succumb to the stresses of racial battle fatigue and become less productive and alienated from a vocation they had chosen with such passion and expectation. They become retired on the job in that they check out and go through the motions of their jobs. Others persist and become adept at concealing the pain, humiliation, and hostility they often face. However, professional progress offers no immunity. In fact, the higher one rises, the more one is surveilled in the fishbowl of systemic racism that permeates American academic cultures and institutions.
African American students and academics are grossly underrepresented in the prestigious universities, programmes, and fellowships, while black-centred knowledges are often filtered out from the holy grail of academic publications, journals, grants, and conferences. There are of course differences according to discipline and field. The situation in the sciences is particularly egregious.
On June 10 2020, almost 6,000 scientists and academicians participated in a one-day strike. The event was organised under various hashtags, including #Strike4BlackLives, #ShutDownStem and #ShutDownAcademia, by scientists who complained about pervasive racism in science. Besides classes, several leading scientific journals, such as Nature, Science, Physical Review Letters and arXiv, cancelled activities that day.
Protests spread to some academic journals and their editors. For example, after writing a tone-deaf tweet criticising the Black Lives Matter movement as “flat earthers”, an array of economists that included the former chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, and Paul Krugman, a Nobel prize winner, called for the resignation of Harald Uhlig, the editor of Political Economy Review. In the US economics as a field is white male-dominated, which has led to the devaluation of research and publications by women and blacks and on gender and race.
I can relate to the challenges faced by African Americans in the academy. As a college dean and an academic vice president at predominantly white universities in California and Connecticut, respectively, I was subject to doubt and disrespect that none of my colleagues in similar positions experienced. As is all too common, I was the first black person to occupy those positions. Earlier in my career when I served as director of one of the largest centers for African Studies at a Research 1 university in the Midwest, I witnessed the exclusion of Africans and African Americans in the study of their own ancestral continent, Africa.
It became too much for me and, fortunately, I was able to flee to Kenya. I often commiserate with my friends and colleagues that I left behind, some of who have risen to higher positions as deans, provosts, and presidents. They continue to walk the fine line of racial discrimination and exclusion in the American academy. In the aftermath of the uprising many of them have courageously stepped up to denounce systemic racism and call for honest dialogue and real change on their own campuses and share their pernicious experiences with racism as black men and women.
Taming Law Enforcement
A key demand of the protesters has been the urgent need to address systemic police brutality, racial bias, misconduct, and unaccountability. The evidence of racism in the criminal justice system is overwhelming as an exhaustive list of studies in The Washington Post shows. As if to prove the Black Lives Matter movement right, the police reacted to the demonstrators with excessive force and brutality that resulted in 11 deaths and nearly 10,000 arrests within a fortnight. This galvanised the protest movement even further. The public and elected leaders could no longer ignore police behaving as an invading army and the armour of police untouchability began to crack.
To be sure, there were occasional scenes of police officers kneeling in solidarity withthe protesters. Some African American police chiefs — who are always caught between their racial identity and police fraternity — shared their agonies, dilemmas, challenges, and frustrations in trying to change their departments from within and reconcile their personal and professional, private and public lives.
Police Departments across the country came under pressure to review their policies and practices as public agitation for comprehensive police reform mounted. City councils, state assemblies, and Congress were forced to begin enacting long-standing demands and legislation banning grievous repressive practices and promoting police reform. For some, more radical measures were needed, and they adopted the slogan “Defund the Police”. The Center for Community Change Action framed the much-needed restructuring in terms of redistribution for reconstruction, taking funds from law enforcement to improve health care, education, and other social services and opportunities in communities of colour.
In the House of Representatives, Democrats unveiled the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 whose provisions included requiring police to use body and dashboard cameras, restricting the transfer of military equipment to police, prohibiting chokeholds and unannounced raids through the issuance of no-knock warrants, enhancing police accountability by restricting the application of the qualified immunity doctrine that makes it difficult to prosecute law enforcement personnel, establishing a federal registry of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary actions, granting power to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to issue subpoenas to police departments with a pattern and practice of bias or misconduct, and requiring state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding to adopt anti-discrimination policies and training programmes.
Republicans were caught flat-footed. The New York Times noted that, “Having long fashioned themselves as the party of law and order, Republicans have been startled by the speed and extent to which public opinion has shifted under their feet in recent days after the killings of unarmed black Americans by the police and the protests that have followed. The abrupt turn has placed them on the defensive”. They charged the only black Republican Senator, Tim Scott, to draft their own bill on police reform.
On 17 June 2020, Republicans “unveiled a policing reform bill that would discourage, but not ban, tactics such as chokeholds and no-knock warrants, offering a competing approach to legislation being advanced by House Democrats that includes more directives from Washington. The Republican proposal, which Senate leaders said would be considered on the floor next week, veers away from mandating certain policing practices, as the Democratic plan does . . . Prospects for reaching common ground in the coming weeks remain unclear”. The stage was set for a legislative brawl between the two parties, whose outcome was unpredictable.
Under mounting pressure, President Trump had issued an executive order the previous day. He offered tepid “support for curtailing police abuses while reiterating a hard line on law and order”, reported The Wall Street Journal. The order “has three main components: establishing an independent credentialing process to spur departments to adopt the most modern use-of-force practices; creation of a database to track abusive officers that can be shared among different departments; and placing social service workers to accompany officers on nonviolent response calls to deal with issues such as drug addiction and homelessness. Chokeholds would be banned under the recommended standards, Mr. Trump said, unless an officer’s life is at risk”.
Within two weeks of the national uprising following Floyd’s death, several states and cities had enacted legislation to reform the police services along some of the lines of the Democratic bill in Congress. The New York state assembly passed a bill allowing felony charges to be brought against police using chokehold or similar restraint, and for the release of disciplinary records of individual police officers, firefighters or corrections officers without their written consent. The governor ordered all police departments to develop and obtain approvals for reform plans by April 1 2021 in order to remain eligible for state funding, while the mayor of New York City announced plans to shift some funds from the police department’s $6 billion budget to other services.
Los Angeles cut funding by US$150 million from its police department. In Seattle, the mayor promised to invest US$100 million in the Seattle Black Commission for community-driven programmes for black youths and adults. The Minneapolis City Council voted overwhelmingly to abolish the police department. In Louisville, Kentucky, the City Council unanimously passed “Breonna’s Law” that banned the use of “no-knock” warrants, named after Breonna Taylor who was killed in her own home. In Washington DC the City Council also banned the use of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse protesters.
Some critics maintain focusing on the police is not enough. In the words of Charles Blow, “But, these bills, if they pass as conceived, would basically punish the system’s soldiers without altering the system itself. These bills would make the officers the fall guy for their bad behaviour while doing little to condemn or even address the savagery and voraciousness of the system that required their service. This country has established a system of supreme inequity, with racial inequity being a primary form, and used the police to protect the wealth that the system generated for some and to control the outrages and outbursts of those opposed to it and oppressed by it. We need more than performative symbols of solidarity. We need more than narrow, chaste legislation”.
The slogan “Defund the Police” turned into a battle cry for the supporters and opponents of comprehensive police reform. For its proponents this is a demand for a fundamental reimagining and restructuring of American law enforcement from its roots in the systemic racism and white supremacy of slave patrols that evolved into the gendarmes of Jim Crow and subsequent crackdowns on black protests and the highly racialised “War on Drugs.”
The critics argue that the nearly US$100 billion spent on law enforcement could be used, to quote Paige Fernandez, the Policing Policy Advisor of the American Liberties Union, writing in Cosmopolitan, to fund “more helpful services like job training, counseling, and violence-prevention programs . . . Funneling so many resources into law enforcement instead of education, affordable housing, and accessible health care has caused significant harm to communities”.
The author reminds her readers that, “Much of the work police do is merely engage in the daily harassment of Black communities for minor crimes or crimes of poverty that shouldn’t be criminalized in the first place. Consider this: Out of the 10.3 million arrests made per year, only 5 percent are for the most serious offenses, including murder, rape, and aggravated assault. These are the ones that truly threaten public safety . . . That means that police spend the most resources going after minor incidents that actually don’t threaten everyday life but do lead to mass criminalisation and incarceration”.
The brutality of police forces escalated with their militarisation, a process that accelerated, writes Simon Tisdall in The Guardian, in response to “the 9/11 attacks, when George W Bush plunged the country into a state of perpetual war. Paradoxically, his ‘global war on terror’ intensified international and domestic insecurity. It sparked a huge, parallel expansion in the powers and reach of the homeland security apparatus. As Pentagon spending grew to a whopping $738bn this year, total police and prison budgets have also soared, reaching $194bn in 2017. About 18,000 law enforcement agencies employ 800,000 officers nationwide. Many are armed to the teeth”. In short, the crisis of policing in the US flows from the devil’s brew of entrenched racism, excessive militarism, xenophobic nationalism, and imperial decline.
Transforming Racial Capitalism
Many leaders and opinion makers in political, business, media, and academic circles promote legislative and policy solutions as antidotes to systemic racism. However, anti-black racism has persisted despite the enactment of a myriad of laws and policies since the 1960s. White supremacy and its pathological disdain for black people, black bodies, and black humanity emanates from deep cultural and cognitive spaces that lie beyond the reach of well-crafted legislation and policy pronouncements.
In short, the struggle to eradicate systemic racism and white supremacy has to transcend police reform and electoral politics. After all, racial bias, violence, and inequality have persisted under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, including Obama’s own, and under black leaders in state assemblies and black mayors in cities. Thus, for young African Americans who have grown up in cities and in a country with thousands of elected black officials compared to the 1960s, the promises of electoral politics do not carry the same transformative appeal.
As in Africa following decolonisation, achieving political representation, a worthy goal in itself, is inadequate for the herculean task of fundamentally changing the structures of economic and political power and systemic racism in the United States. The younger generations demand, and are seeking to build, a new black and national politics of accountability and transformation.
The complicity of Democratic presidents, senators, and congressmen and congresswomen in the construction of the prison-industrial complex since the 1980s is all too well known. President Clinton’s crime and welfare reform legislation fueled mass black incarceration and impoverishment. For his part, President Obama failed to meet the radical expectations placed on his administration in terms of reforming the criminal justice system, reducing economic inequalities, and curtailing the corporate power that engendered the Great Recession. Whereas Clinton passed draconian immigration law, Obama’s deportation of undocumented immigrants reached record levels.
Fundamental change requires a much broader and bolder vision and an expansive and inclusive politics. It has to transcend the paralysing dogmas of neo-liberalism and encompass transforming the multiple structural pillars and cultural dynamics of racial capitalism, as well as building new multiracial and class coalitions and alliances. There is no shortage of blueprints for a different future from America’s radical thinkers and activists committed to building a future envisaged in Martin Luther King’s dream of a “beloved community” based on the pillars of economic and social justice free from poverty, discrimination, and violence.
Danielle Allen suggests creating a new national compact that encompasses some of the following elements: expanding the House of Representatives, adopting ranked-choice voting, instituting universal voting and instant voter registration for all eligible Americans, establishing an expectation of national service by all Americans, limiting Supreme Court justices to 18-year terms, building civic media to counteract the challenges introduced by social media, finding honest ways to tell the nation’s story, and increasing “resources and resolve for community leadership, civic education and an American culture of shared commitment to constitutional democracy and one another”.
In the magazine, Harvard Gazette, a group of six of the university’s faculty members discuss “how best to convert the energy of this moment into meaningful and lasting change”. Some explicitly support or echo the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. More specifically, they variously propose a serious reckoning of the foundational exclusions of African Americans and Native Americans; the pursuit of economic democracy; the need for a new Voting Rights act and a a Third Reconstruction involving “a fundamental reconsideration of our Constitution, systems, institutions, and practices to uphold human rights and ensure equal opportunity for all”. Centring black women in the struggle for collective liberation is imperative, and for the university itself “to move beyond the rhetoric of ‘diversity and inclusion’ and become anti-racist”.
Michele Alexander, the author of the influential book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, admonishes the nation in The New York Times. “America, This is Your Chance. We must get it right this time or risk losing our democracy forever”. She implores the country’s diverse citizens, “We must face our racial history and our racial present”, “We must reimagine justice” beyond tinkering with token or unsustainable fixes, “We must fight for economic justice” by transforming the economic system, and embracing one based on economic justice.
For some, economic justice also entails reparations, an issue that is gaining some traction. The reparations movement has a long history, but it has remained on the fringes of American intellectual and political discourse. An influential essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the African American writer who some regard as a successor to the great James Baldwin, “The Case for Reparations” published in The Atlantic in June 2014, brought the issue to the mainstream media. He argues powerfully, “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole”.
The data on what America owes African Americans is damning. In her book, The Color of Money, Mehrsa Baradaran offers a bleak assessment of the racial wealth gap and the limits of community self-help. She shows that in 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the black community owned 0.5 per cent of the country’s wealth. More than 150 years later this rose to a paltry 1 per cent! In a recent interview, she argues, America has repeatedly violated its promises of equal protection, equality and equality to African Americans. To quote her, “I teach contract law”, she states, “When you break a contract, you pay damages. We’ve broken the contract with Black America . . . We embedded racism into policy. And how do you get that out. How do you fix that? I think reparations is the only answer . . . And I think a process of reparations should involve truth and reconciliation. We have the funds. We saw this with the coronavirus. Over a weekend, the Fed infused trillions of dollars into the repo markets and into the economy. We don’t have limits of resources. We have limits of empathy and imagination”.
The need for white involvement in the anti-racist movement is well understood. No less critical is building strong multiracial alliances among America’s racial minorities, who collectively will in a couple of decades become the country’s majority. Each minority group has its own complex history and positioning in the country’s racial hierarchy and political economy. Particularly divisive has been the model minority myth applied to Asians, which some Asian Americans have embraced and internalised. It was constructed, and serves, to distance them from African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
Differentiation and distanciation from African Americans is the ritual of passage to Americanisation by every migrant group in the United States. Successive waves of Europeans from Irish, Italian, Slavic, and Jewish backgrounds were initially not considered white, but were eventually absorbed into whiteness, a process that often entailed socialisation into American racism. Asians, whose migration to the United States increased following changes in migration law due to the civil rights movement, have reveled in being called a model minority. Even immigrant Latin Americans and Africans seek dubious solace in their foreignness, in not being African American until they are brutalised by systemic racism and white supremacy. The 2020 uprising has brought a lot of soul searching for every racial group in the United States in terms of where they stand in the country’s enduring racial quagmire.
The national uprising has emboldened Asian American activists to call for solidarity with African Americans in struggles against systemic racism and white supremacy. Marina Fang notes, “George Floyd’s death has galvanized some Asian Americans to try to start conversations with their families about anti-Black racism” and build solidarity with Black communities. “Anti-Black racism in Asian communities is tied to the ‘model minority’ myth, which white political leaders, particularly in response to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, wielded in order to drive a wedge between Asian Americans and other people of color”.
Writing in The Washington Post, Prabal Gurung echoes the same sentiments, “It’s time for Asian Americans to shed the ‘model minority’ myth and stand for George Floyd”. He stresses, “Beyond simple divestment and rejection of our own trope, we must also actively combat anti-blackness — especially within the Asian community . . . To break from this cycle, we must begin by asking: Who benefits when minority groups fight each other or are apathetic to one another’s struggles? . . . It is time for us to stand in solidarity with black communities whose sacrifices led to the civil rights and privileges we benefit from”.
The Washington Post reported during the protests, “Many Asian Americans say they feel a need to show solidarity with black protesters . . . Asians have their own history of American discrimination from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the slurs and boycotts Asian American restaurant and business owners have faced during the coronavirus pandemic”. One Asian American protestor “said his generation is well aware that the success Asians have achieved in the United States is owed directly to black protesters in the 1950s and 1960s and is built “on the backs of those black leaders of the civil rights movement”.
The uprising has also forced many whites to accept that silence is complicity and to confess their ignorance about the depths of American racism. David Axelrod, the chief strategist for President Obama’s campaigns and senior advisor in the Obama White House, puts it poignantly in The Washington Post, “I thought I understood issues of race. I was wrong”. He goes on to state, “Despite my work, I was too often oblivious — or at least inattentive — to the everyday mistreatment of people of color, including friends and colleagues, in ways large and small. Although I was reporting on the issues of police brutality and unequal justice as a journalist, I didn’t experience it. My kids didn’t experience it. And I never really engaged my black friends and colleagues about their own experiences. I never asked, so far as I can remember, about their own interactions with police or their fears for their children”.
It is worth quoting Axelrod’s conclusion: “A lot of white Americans thought they understood. But the underlying legacy of racism still remains. The laws that were passed were hard-won and important, but they didn’t eliminate deeply ingrained biases and layers of discriminatory practices and policies that mock the ideal of equality. The election of a black president was a watershed event in our history that struck at the heart of the racist creed. But it didn’t end racism. In fact, it provoked a backlash that empowered a racist demagogue and new policies meant to further embed structural barriers to full citizenship for black Americans”.
This is an example of what the philosopher, Charles W. Mills, my former colleague at the University of Illinois at Chicago calls, “white ignorance”. He defines it as a historically constructed group-based cognitive tendency and moral disposition of non-knowing, of motivated irrationality. It is a perversely deforming outlook causally linked to white normativity and white privilege, in which white perception and categorisation, social memory and social amnesia are privileged, and non-white experiences and racial group interests are derogated.
White ignorance, Mills insists, is not confined to whites and is global in so far as the modern world was created by European imperialism and colonialism. It is a foundational miscognition that permeates perceptions, conceptions and theorisations in descriptive, popular and scholarly discourses. In his book, States of Denial, Stanley Cohen calls it “denial”, the willful act of not wanting to know, wearing blinders, turning a blind eye, blocking out, and of evading and avoiding unpleasant realities and horrific atrocities by the perpetrators and by bystanders of repression.
An often ignored site for the anti-racist struggle is the role of organised labour. In the US trade unions have declined precipitously. In the last four decades union membership fell by half from 20.1 per cent of workers in 1983 (17.7 million) to 10.3 per cent in 2019 (14.6 million). This helped reduce the capacity of the working class to organise against capital in the first instance, and to build multiracial coalitions and mobilise against the economic, political, and social system of racial capitalism. Deprived or divorced from collective class organisation and struggle, working people have been demobilised by capital and the political class. To be sure, in the United States the configurations of capital, labour, and politics have always been fractionalised, not least by the sheer scale of the demographics and ideologies of race.
As I noted in my earlier studies on labour movements after World War II, American trade unions at home and abroad were notoriously racist. However, the assault against organised labour accelerated in the post-civil rights era, as race was weaponised to camouflage the devaluation of labour under neo-liberalism. The “Southern Strategy” started peeling away white workers from the Democratic coalition. The rise of the “Reagan Democrats” culminated in the capture of demoralised and deradicalised white workers by Trump’s unabashedly racist insurgency.
In short, the anti-racist movement must find a way of mobilising the white working class, of aligning class, race, and gender for progressive change. More immediately, the labour movement, as Dave Jamieson notes, “faces a reckoning over police unions”. He notes that “police unions make a small slice of the AFL-CIO, but progressive members are increasingly uncomfortable associating with them”. Angered by police brutality, some labour leaders have called for cutting ties with police unions, increasing their transparency and accountability, and curtailing their funding and political power over both the Republican and Democratic parties.
The importance of transracial solidarity for working people is essential because the struggle is not just against racism, or just against capitalism, living in splendid isolation from each other, but against both in their articulation as racial capitalism. Race, class, gender and other social inscriptions are not competitive but complimentary categories of social and political identity and practice. They constitute interlocking structural, political, and representational processes that under racial capitalism reflect and reproduce deformed institutions and pathological social relations. The African American scholar and public intellectual, Kimberlé Crenshaw, calls this intersectionality, which offers more nuanced and complex analyses of systemic racism and white supremacy than the binaries of race and class and the isolated categories of race, class, and gender.
The concept of racial capitalism captures the interlocking nature of the capitalist system, patriarchy, and white supremacy. As Michael Dawson succinctly argues, each of these three systems of domination have “their own internal logics, which include sources of resistance”.” This means that “victories against one system of domination have the potential, too often unrealized, to undermine the other”. In its development racial capitalism undergoes historical shifts as the regimes of articulation of its constituent parts change. The question that arises with the 2020 national uprising is the extent to which it has pried open the contradictions between the three systems of domination.
The concept of racial capitalism captures the interlocking nature of the capitalist system, patriarchy, and white supremacy. As Michael Dawson succinctly argues, each of these three systems of domination have “their own internal logics, which include sources of resistance
The modern world system was created in the transatlantic world, including in the United States, by racial capitalism through the genocide of the native peoples, enslavement of Africans, and settler colonialism. Racism and patriarchy were integral to the extraction of value by white capitalists from both black and white workers, whose class solidarity was always undercut by white supremacy. Since the onset of neo-liberalism following the end of the long post-war boom in the 1970s, the wages of whiteness have precipitously declined as evident in stagnant incomes, a shrinking middle class, and rising inequalities. The prolonged capitalistic crises of accumulation and legitimacy, exacerbated by the Great Recession, produced the mobilisation of disaffected white working and middle classes by the insurgencies of rightwing populism embodied by Trump in 2016 and by the forces for social justice represented by the 2020 national uprising.
Thus, what is at stake goes beyond the reform of America’s law enforcement agencies and performative anti-racism. It is about the transformation of racial capitalism. Given the enormous stakes involved, and the depth and breadth of the economic, political, social and racial structures of domination, the struggle will be long and hard indeed. But the 2020 uprising has opened new doors of possibility.
The Return of the Repressed: Religion in the Fictions of Leila Aboulela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
Leila Aboulela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, although from two different faith traditions, use fiction as a conduit to re-affirm these faith traditions, one Muslim, and the other Christian.
There seems to be a resurgence of the kind of genre in the contemporary world where religion, initially thought to be on the wane, is actually reasserting itself in various ways. One of the most conspicuous voices, for example, in contemporary America, is Marilynne Robinson, whose works are followed with keen interest. We however are sceptical that such themes can sustain writers in the long run, and will label them as genre writers. This seems to us as the return of the repressed, in the classical Freudian sense, in the sense that themes that were becoming increasingly repressed in secular societies are finding their way back into the public consciousness through the works of gifted contemporary novelists.
Literature is often a mirror of the period in which a work of art has been created. It is for this reason that we often frame literary texts within the time period that the texts are created. It is this assumption that we neatly categorise within the historical period that they were created. It is for this reason that we describe fictions as say, Victorian, Industrial Revolution, Edwardian, Modernist, and so on. This is particularly true of English literature. Other literary traditions have different ways of categorising literary productions. For example, postcolonial literatures are often categorised on the basis of the trauma of colonialism: pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial. Literatures of the Islamic Middle East have added categories such as post-Ottoman, pre-revolution, revolutionary, apart from the classical jahiliyya and post-jahiliyya periods.
An implicit but unspoken assumption in all these categorisations is that at a deep level, these literatures are underpinned by a certain spirituality, be this Christian, Islamic or Hindu. Behind this assumption is the given that the earliest forms of literary production were saturated with the mystery surrounding creation, institution building and the mores of society. These mysteries gave rise to the earliest forms of literature and mythology. Humans created stories to explain to themselves the incomprehensible and these stories at a certain point became the basis of religious beliefs and philosophical speculation. Without these stories, there would neither have been religious belief, philosophy nor science. The unstructured reality began to take shape only when mythology was created. The gods and goddesses that we created ourselves and then began to worship, were a step towards self-realisation. The earliest gods and goddesses had the same flaws as us human beings, they were assailed by the same weaknesses that we found in ourselves, and they became a sure mirror of the human person, with all his/her frailties. Later, the heroes, during the heroic age, again reflected our own wishful thinking.
With the rise of critical philosophy and the scientific method, there was no attempt to abandon the mythic in human history. It was assumed that, although now we started to think in more abstract terms, not everyone was capable of benefitting from this new worldview. It was taken as a given that, in human societies, there will be those among us who will be unable to make the mental leap from the concrete to the abstract, and for this reason, it was necessary to defend mythology as part of human heritage, a part that has its significance in transmitting ethic and moral values from one generation to the next. As such, discussions of such human values as virtue, justice, friendship, could only be transmitted through the silly stories of mythology. This is well articulated by Luc Brisson in How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical interpretation and Classical Mythology. This was ol’ time religion.
The Bible, the Qur’an and the Vedas brought new kinds of stories, whose underpinning was the construction of new moral orders. The new texts brought in their wake the new religions of Islam and Christianity, but Hinduism, Shintoism and Traditional African and Amerindian religions are still remnants of the primeval spiritual order. There has always been what the British Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks has called the Persistence of Faith throughout human history, to the present.
In the Western intellectual tradition, the Renaissance is hailed as a New Era, but in fact, it was no more than an attempt to reclaim through the back door the pagan spirituality deriving from Classical and Late Antiquity. The intellectuals of the period, be they artists, creative writers or philosophers, were weary of the stranglehold of Christianity on all aspects of society, and sought to liberate themselves from this straight-jacket. Other, non-Western, societies did the same by creating a discourse counter to that of the religious. That is how the Arabian Nights were born, from ancient India all the way to what is today the Middle East. This was something like a literary carnival, where imagination was allowed to run wild outside the orbit of religion. These were all attempts at circumventing the official discourse dominated by men of religion and sanctioned by the rulers. Contemporary World Literature is incomprehensible without this mythological, spiritual background, because whether we speak of Greek/Roman mythology, African, Hindu or Japanese or Amerindian mythologies, the Holy Scriptures of Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, these are part of the collective unconscious, and form an important part of the inter-textuality necessary to self-referentiality.
Creative writers have for centuries situated themselves within particular spiritual traditions while creating works of art. This is taken for granted in the West. The medieval period in the West is considered collective because all European societies, without a single exception, went through the long experience of Christianity, from the tenth century all the way to the early twentieth century, with intermission for the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Although writers are situated within particularistic traditions, some, because of their intellectual versatility, have dipped into traditions that are not primarily their own, and claimed them for themselves by taking allusions from those external traditions. For example, Dante borrowed from the story of the Ascension of Prophet Muhammad to Heaven as recounted in the Hadith of the Prophet to construct his Divine Comedy. Or, to take a more contemporary figure, in his novel Spider’s House, Paul Bowles uses the story of the Prophet Muhammad’s anecdote about his being protected from his enemies by hiding in a cave on his way into exile in Medina. Spiders form a protective wall with their web which stops his enemies from pursuing him further. Or Salman Rushdie’s constant allusions to Hindu mythology in Midnight’s Children.
This cross-cultural enrichment does not necessarily mean that writers do not situate themselves solidly within their religious traditions. Indeed they do.
The two writers that we have chosen, Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese novelist currently based in Aberdeen, Scotland, and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, are examples of novelists who still stick to religion as their default mode of literary exposition. Both use fiction to advance their sectarian viewpoints without being offensive to secularists or the non-religious in general.
Leila Aboulela’s spirited spiritual damage control
Leila Aboulela, throughout most of her fictions, novels and short stories, has tried to defend Islam as a spiritual religion, and not a political religion. That she should hold such a position is evident from her own background as a Sudanese. Mystical Islam, with its headquarters at Omdurman, is very much part of the Sudanese landscape. In fact, modern Sudan is dated at the point the Sudanese resisted British colonial encroachment under Lord Gordon Kitchener in the nineteenth century. Led by Muhammad al-Mahdi, Restorer of the Faith, the Sudanese rallied under his mystical brotherhood to push the British out, resulting in the death of Gordon. This millenarianism galvanized the Sudanese into a national consciousness embedded in Islam. Like much of West Africa, society in the Sudan is organised partly around belonging to a brotherhood. The brotherhoods double as communities of self-help and also as spiritual sanctuaries complete with an organisational structure. The main activities of these Sufi brotherhoods are centred on remembering Allah and his ubiquitous presence in the thoughts and actions of individuals.
It is important to stress that Sufi religiosity is based on individual accountability that is ultimately anchored in internal purification as prioritised before the practice of ritual. It tends to de-emphasise the legalistic aspects of the faith, unlike for the Salafis, for example, who give importance to the minutiae of ritual practice. This legalistic emphasis on the part of the Salafis pits them against the purely spiritual emphasis of the mystics.
Leila Aboulela, in her fictions, is at pains to point out that what is done in the name of Islam has nothing to do with Islam, and that those who are prone to violence only do so after they have politicised Islam by demanding, for example, the establishment of an Islamic state, the Khilafah, or Islamic Caliphate. Sufi immersion in God-consciousness is considered a form of escapism from the challenging political and economic realities of the Islamic world. On their part, the Sufis accuse the Salafis of sanctimonious ostentatiousness and consider themselves to be the real upholders of the prophetic message of peace and love, without at the same time holding to the highest standards set by the Prophet himself.
On reading Aboulela’s fiction, one is left with the impression that she tries to compress the whole Islamic ethos and practice within her short fiction, where readers will not only enjoy the storyline, but at the same time gradually learn what the “real” Islam or Islamic practice is. In reading her fiction, we are taken through all the essential, but simple Islamic practices and beliefs without seeming to be coerced. The message is that Islam is such a practical and simple faith that it cannot be distorted or abused without exposing those who want to put the religion to their own nefarious uses. For example, Dr Nizar Fareed, a Salafi character in The Translator, is portrayed as well-intentioned but indoctrinated by rigid Salafi interpretations of the scripture and the practice of the Prophet. He emerges as inflexible, opinionated and self-righteous. He appears as some kind of cardboard character, uncritical and gullible, although kind and intelligent.
Leila Aboulela encapsulates the whole gamut of Islamic practice and belief in that short novel, The Translator. For example, she describes the cornerstone of Islamic belief as the absolute surrender to Allah in all one’s actions, and believing that He is the one who proposes and disposes of the believers’ every action. They are helpless before His immense omnipotence. Although we may plan our actions, we must never lose sight of the fact that everything is preordained, and we should not be overly disappointed when things do not go our way. God consciousness entails our planning for the future, but not being deluded into believing that things will always go the way we have planned. This is the classical tawheed position, where, tawakkul, or total surrender to the will of God is the pure faith. Tawheed and tawakkul are the twin pillars on the road to sainthood. The fragility of human life makes it necessary for humans to acknowledge the presence of a force mightier than any human society can command. In fact, Sammar, the main protagonist in The Translator, is sustained in her grief by her total surrender to the will of Allah. Her strong faith sees her through unimaginable grief after the loss of her young doctor-husband in a tragic road accident in Aberdeen, Scotland, far from home, where she finds succour and help from absolute strangers whom she only knows through shared faith and belief in Islam. They take over the funeral arrangements, the washing of the body and its transportation to Khartoum for burial, without having known the deceased or the widow. They answer the call of Islam to help one another in a time of need, the true implementation of Islamic teachings. In a poignant scene, Aboulela, using Sammar as her mouthpiece, describes this communal involvement during the arrangements immediately after the death of her husband:
A whole week passed before she got him under the African soil. It had taken that long to arrange everything through the embassy in London: the quarantine, the flight. People helped her, took over. Strangers, women whom she kept calling by the wrong names, filled the flat, cooked for her and each other, watched the ever–wondering child so she could cry. They prayed, recited the Qur’an, spent the night on the couch and on the floor. They did not leave her alone, abandoned. She went between them dazed, thanking them, humbled by the awareness that they were stronger than her, more giving than her, though she thought of herself as more educated, better dressed.
Islamic teachings are inserted in a subtle way at appropriate places to create the desired effect. The Hadith of the Prophet are summarised and included as explanatory tropes to affirm Islamic teachings. For example, all the major issues at the core of Islam like tawheed, qadar, or predestination, prayers, charity, the apportionment of inheritance to both male and female inheritors, the etiquette of grieving for widows, are highlighted. These issues are introduced seamlessly without appearing as sermonising. As an illustration, Sammar tries to convince Rae, her new-found love, to recite the declaration of the intention to embrace Islam. She notes the simplicity of the creed itself by getting Yasmin, Sammar’s friend, to say that the creed has sometimes been abused or taken lightly, as some kind of fig leaf to mask relationships between a Muslim and a non-Muslim:
‘I have seen the kind of Scottish men who marry Muslim girls.’ Yasmin went on, ‘The typical scenario: he is with an oil company sent to Malaysia or Singapore; she is this cute little thing in a mini-skirt who’s out with him every night. Come marriage time, it’s by the way I’m Muslim and my parents will not let you marry me until you convert. And how do I convert my darling, I love you, I can’t live without you? Oh, it’s just a few words you have to say. Just say the Shahadah, it’s just a few words. I bear witness there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messanger of Allah. End of story. They get married, and she might as the years go by pray and fast or she might not, but it has nothing to do with him. Everything in his life is just the same as it was before.’
On Tawakkul and destiny, Aboulela is also discreet in her explanation:
Her fate was etched out by a law that gave her a British passport, a point in time when the demand for people to translate Arabic into English was bigger than the supply. ‘No,’ she reminded herself, ‘that is not the real truth. My fate is etched out by Allah Almighty, if and who I will marry, what I eat, the work I find, my health, the day I will die are as He alone wants them to be.’ To think otherwise was to slip down, to feel the world narrowing, dreary and tight.
Further on in the novel, Sammar ascribes her steadfastness and hope to spiritual underpinnings. Her spirituality acts as a shield that protects her from hopelessness and resignation: “She had been protected from all the extremes. Pills, break-down, attempts at suicide. A barrier was put between her and things like that, the balance that Rae [her love] admired”.
Leila Aboulela compares the real rational position of Islam, based on transcendence and the rationalism of the empiricist and positivists of the eighteenth/nineteenth centuries. In the words of Rae, who hovers between positivism and doubt,
‘In this society,‘ he said, ‘in this secular society, the speculation is that God is out playing golf. With exceptions and apart from those who are self-convinced atheists, the speculation is that God has put up this elaborate solar system and left it to run itself. It does not need Him to maintain it or sustain it in any way. Mankind is self-sufficient . . . ’
The rational and plausible Islamic belief system is validated by the, until then, non-Muslim Rae. Having read Islamic religious and other literature, he is gradually won over by this rationality. But he validates Islamic tenets through a third party, Rae’s uncle who “went native” or in Tudor parlance, “turned Turk”. He quotes from Uncle David’s epistolary confession:
David never of course said that Islam was “better” than Christianity. He didn’t use that word. Instead he said things like it was a step on, in the way that Christianity followed Judaism. He said that the Prophet Muhammad was the last in a line of prophets that stretched from Adam, to Abraham through Moses and Jesus. They were all Muslims, Jesus was a Muslim, in a sense that he surrendered to God. This did not go down very well in the letter nor in the essay.
Leila Aboulela takes the opportunity in her fiction to also explain how the Sacred Hadith, or what are better known as Hadith Qudsi, the second most important source of authority after the Qur’an, came about, while dictating to Rae, who gave her the assignment:
She sat on the floor of the landing and read out, over the phone, the notes she had made from the book. ‘A definition given by the scholar al-Jurjani, “A Sacred Hadith is, as to its meaning, from Allah Almighty; as to the wording, it is from the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him. It is that which Allah almighty has communicated to His Prophet through revelation or in dream and he, peace be upon him, has communicated it in his own words. Thus the Qur’an is superior to it because, besides being revealed, it is Allah’s wording.” In a definition given by a later scholar al-Qari, “ . . . Unlike the Holy Qur’an, Sacred Hadith are not acceptable for recitation in one’s prayers, they are not forbidden to be touched or read by one who is in a state of ritual impurity . . . and they are not characterized by the attribute of immutability”.
This is heavy stuff for the uninitiated, and requires extra work to understand this background, even for an average educated Muslim, let alone one who is completely unfamiliar with the Islamic intellectual tradition. This is the kind of intertextuality that is not easily accessible for western readers who mostly read texts from the Western intellectual tradition, and whose allusions are generally familiar. Postcolonial writers now demand that Western readers also exert themselves in order to benefit fully from their reading, just as non-Western readers have to immerse themselves in the Western intellectual tradition to fully enjoy literature emanating from the West. In a recent collection of essays, Can Non-Europeans Think? the Columbia University Iranian American scholar Hamid Dabashi decried the provincialism of Western intellectuals. He argues that rarely do Western intellectuals bother to educate themselves about the intellectual traditions of the “others”, although they will not shy away from making uninformed pronouncements about those societies that they know little about. He gave the example of Slavoj Zizek, who knows a lot about Marxism and the Western Intellectual tradition, but next to nothing about the Eastern ones. In his view, there is a lot of navel-gazing among them, unable to appreciate other traditions unless they are themselves area specialists churning out papers for policy think tanks, and regurgitating the same orientalist pieties.
Leila Aboulela assumes herself a conscientious and responsible Muslim, whose obligation it is to portray what she believes is the real image of Islam, untainted by its association with the Islamic lunatic fringe hell-bent on wreaking global terror, without any sectarian differentiation. It is through literature that she feels she can best serve her faith. She is conscious of the fact that as a liberal Muslim, she is under constant pressure, like all liberal Muslims to condemn acts of violence perpetrated in their name by their co-religionists. In a column in the British Guardian entitled Why Must Britain’s Young Muslims Live With Unjust Suspicion? she described the double jeopardy of these liberals:
The causes and solutions can be hotly debated but it makes little difference to the daily life of Muslims. Until this climate [of fear and suspicion] eases, the day-to-day anxiety, the feeling of being tainted, of being tested, will still be the same. Ironically, it is the liberal integrated Muslims who bear the brunt. On them lies the responsibility of explaining and apologising. If you live in the kind of ghetto where you never read newspapers, never make friends with non-Muslims, never participate in sports, you can feel safe and oblivious. Start to engage and you will immediately realise just how careful you need to be. Young British Muslims are being watched. This is not paranoia. This is just how things are after 9/11 and 7/7.
From the above it is clear that Leila Aboulela took it as her mission to explicate the tenets of Islam to a wider public as a contribution to mutual understanding between Muslims and people of other faiths and other worldviews. A hard sell this, the defence of Islamic values under the present climate of fear and suspicion. One may also wonder how much mileage she can extract from mining this theme, even under these trying circumstances.
Unlike in the fiction of other writers of Islamic faith, where Islam merely forms the background, as in Nuruddin Farah’s later fictions The Closed Sesame and Crossbones, and Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Leila Aboulela is deliberate in foregrounding Islamic belief system and practice. It is as if she was an author with an agenda, which she turns out to be in this particular fiction. In this regard, her creative work has more affinity with that of Marilynne Robinson who puts her creative energies to wearing her religion on her sleeve, as does Aboulela in The Translator.
The Christian fiction of Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, who died in December 2015, is a Kenyan novelist of British descent and a lay Protestant missionary. She came to Kenya in 1954 to work for the Church Missionary Society, fell in love with the country and in 1960 married Dr. Daniel Oludhe Macgoye, a local doctor from the Luo tribe, one of the largest ethnic groups in the country, with whom she had four children. Over the years, she took all the necessary steps to become fully integrated into Kenyan society, and especially completely within the Luo culture; she learned the language to complete spoken and written fluency and accepted almost all aspects of Luo tradition, except those she deemed inimical to Christian values and virtues.
Macgoye is a well-informed and conscientious novelist, having graduated with a degree in English literature from the Royal Holloway College, University of London, and later earned a Masters from Birkbeck College, University of London. Her grasp of Kenyan political history, and the social changes that she has witnessed personally throughout her extended stay in Kenya, put her in the same intellectual league as the most famous Kenyan novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In fact, Macgoye’s fiction covers the same terrain as that of Ngugi because they seem to have lived almost the same experiences of colonialism and post-colonialism, and their works are a mirror of contemporary history through their neo-realism.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye arrived in the country when she was barely in her mid-twenties, and lived the next sixty years mostly in Kenya, with a short interlude in Tanzania as the bookshop manager at the University of Dar es Salaam. During her long residence in Kenya, she witnessed almost all the major political events that shaped the nation: the Mau Mau insurgency, independence, the struggle to create a unified nation out of a welter of ethnicities, tribes, religions and political ideologies. As acute observers of the Kenyan political scene, both Ngugi and Macgoye write proletarian fictions populated by perplexed and dislocated rural masses and the lumpen proletariat who have washed up in the urban areas because of colonialism and post-independence mass migration.
Macgoye’s fiction is populated mostly by female characters, strong women who struggle against all odds. They are mostly uneducated but pick up street smarts as they go through life’s trajectory. Female characters like Paulina and Amina are portrayed as strong characters, Amina with her strong entrepreneurial spirit, and Paulina gradually asserting her individuality in the face of constricting tradition.
Perhaps the main theme in Macgoye’s best known fiction, Coming to Birth, is the interrogation of anachronistic obsolescent cultural traditions. In fact, it appears that in the case of this particular novel, many aspects of Luo culture are held up to be antithetical to all that Christianity stands for. The novel critiques such time-honoured cultural practices as polygamy, levirate marriages, lavish and extravagant wake and funeral practices and the cultural sanctioning of domestic violence in the form of wife beating.
Although the Luo as an ethnic group is considered overwhelmingly Christian, this Christianity is more a veneer than actual substance. The Luo are portrayed as stuck in the cultural past more than many other ethnic and cultural groups. The Luo are held up and judged by the highest Christian practices and standards, and are ultimately found wanting. But in the tribal world of the Luo, cultural practices were considered more humane than the dictates or demands of Christianity. We see, for example, Paulina, the main protagonist in the novel, going through miscarriages, the harassment of being a childless woman in a society that believes in the strength of numbers, the grief of losing a child obtained outside the matrimonial bed, and the state of limbo that the husband keeps her in because, in Luo culture, once a woman is married, she is married for ever as her husband has a permanent claim on her, however cold the relationship throughout their lives. The husband is never sanctioned for shunning her, physically molesting her and completely neglecting her. Christian values are merely paid lip service. In fact, there is general apathy, if not outright cynicism, towards Christianity among the majority. Martin’s alienation from Christian practice is held up as the general religious malaise afflicting the new generations of post-independence Africans. The narrator notes of Martin that:
He did not regularly go to church any more, though he might go if there was a special speaker or if he felt particularly at odds with Paulina’s having sometimes to work on a Sunday. The climate had changed from the days when you used to say, ’I am a Christian but I am not yet saved.’ To praise the Lord no longer helped you to get a job, and though the top people attended places of worship in surprising numbers they were eager for a quick getaway. It was another way in which light was going out. People talked about religion on buses, in queues, in cafes you heard them talking, but often as though it was something dull, outside themselves.
The celebratory ambience in Luo mourning practices is brought into sharp relief by Macgoye. By letting a comment slip off the mouth of a Kikuyu, a people who are noted for their industriousness in wealth accumulation, the macabre Luo enthusiasm for partying on such occasions is described with a pithy comment from a shopkeeper. In the words of the narrator:
Kano had kept the old hedged homesteads more exactly than the other locations, and also a bigger share of the old plumed headdresses: teams of male dancers bedecked with feathers and bells and intricate chalk patterns were often to be seen going off to the funerals and other public occasions like the Kisumu Festival. Okeyo used to get excited, chattering and pointing till she restrained him, so that the kikuyu shopkeeper remarked somberly, ‘He is a real Luo: more keen on a funeral than anything else’.
Okeyo was the child that Paulina had begotten outside her marriage with Simeon, a clansman of Martin’s, and who was fatefully killed by a stray bullet during the funeral procession of the legendary Kenyan politician, assassinated in broad day light, in one of Nairobi’s busiest streets, on a July day in 1969.
As a counterfoil to Christianity and Christians, Islam and Muslims are portrayed in a less than flattering light through the characters of Amina and Fauzia; as either whores or parents pimping for their own children for survival and livelihood. Both Amina and Fauzia are held responsible for the loosening ties between the rural import, Paulina and her urbanised Martin. Both Amina and Fauzia come out, not only as femmes fatales, but also as some kind of mercenaries out to fleece Martin and lure him to the temptation of sin in the form of nice food, nice dresses and perfumes. Pauline was later to see with her own eyes what Nikos Kazantzakis described these nubile nymphs as: “This labyrinth of hesitation, this poison that tastes like honey…”. Pauline wanted to find out for herself what life for Martin was like in Amina’s grip:
Amina proved unexpectedly expert with powder and feeding bottle and soon afterwards approached the pastor about baptism for the child but bowed to the rule that since there was no Christian parent, Joyce must make her own profession when she could read and write. The baby made a good pretext for Pauline to come and see Amina from time to time. Little by little she built up a picture of a world quite remote from her own, a world of gay wrappers and jingling bracelets and perfumes and spicy dishes, where slim men with bony features came and went, for what purpose one was not quite aware, and of town houses where these urbane traditions from the coast somehow collected themselves despite the bare crumbling walls and the outlandish cold . . .
Swahili culture is taken as a synecdoche for Islam and all that it stands for, what are perceived as its negative influences among the relatively recent native converts to Christianity. Fauzia was later to be warned of the possibility that he, Martin, might take another wife, but of a different kind:
And so he told her that when he took a second wife she must be a Christian who would leave her hair unplaited and her ears without ornament, who would dig in the fields and plaster walls and leave her children fat and naked. But she only laughed and said she must enjoy herself a while longer.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye seems to believe her duty is not to be even-handed when she has to confront the reality that Islam is a major religion and a rival to Christianity in Kenya. In this regard, she takes the opportunity to show what she considers the superiority of Christianity over Islam. She uses her fiction to re-affirm her own faith and its tenuous hold on the relatively new converts on the African continent. Her last work of fiction, Rebmann, is a celebration of the efforts of pioneer missionaries like Rebmann and Krapf, who ventured into Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century to win the flock for Jesus Christ in what was then unexplored terrain in the heart of Africa, or the Conradian Heart of Darkness, as Africa was perceived then. Macgoye was later to come to Kenya under the auspices of the same organisation that sponsored the German missionary, the Church Missionary Society.
Looking at name use in her Coming to Birth, there is a lingering feeling that Macgoye’s ancestors, probably Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe who migrated to England from continental Europe to escape pogroms there, might have converted to the Anglican Christian rite upon their settlement. Female characters are given common scriptural names pointing to Old Testament antecedents, names like Paulina, Rebecca, and Rachel, names popular with people of Jewish background. Again, one of her more obscure fictions set in Kenya is A Farm Called Kishinev, described as “a fairly comprehensive picture of Kenyan Jewish experience”.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s working class background and sympathies enable her to empathise with the plight of the African poor and downtrodden. Her descriptions of the African “great unwashed” is accurate in that it is described as a life of ceaseless want and deprivation. Nairobi is notorious for its “parking boys”, an expression that is a euphemism for abandoned and homeless kids, who are often orphaned and use their street-smarts to survive in a highly competitive and unforgiving environment. Their situation is so dire that they have to live off dustbins, and sometimes resort to using human waste as a weapon to extort money from passers-by threatening to smear them with it if they do not respond generously. The tough struggle for survival is described with pathos, in the words of one such street urchin:
So my dad said we couldn’t go on to school for a while because he need all his money to get another woman to look after us. And when he was there she was alright to us, but she started going queer when she got her own baby: then she hated the sight of us and used to beat us for every little thing. And then last year she started saying that she didn’t get married to come and live in a back-of beyond village with a load of kids, and not any rice or hair oil or nice soap like her friends had for their babies, and only seeing her man one day or two in the month, and then she started to drink. And then she didn’t cook everyday, and never early in the morning, and started saying it was our fault that my dad didn’t pay her attention. He only wanted his first wife’s children and all that. In the end my little brother got so hurt he ran off to his granny: she doesn’t have much, but she likes him and tells him stories. But my sister had to stay to look after the baby, so my dad said. But me, she said I didn’t do anything around the place but eat, and so one day when she beat me worse than usual I ran to my friend’s big brother who is a conductor on a country bus, and he talked with his dad and put some ointment on the bad places and gave me a ride on the bus free. That was about two months ago.
‘He didn’t know anything,’ put in Muhammad Ali. ‘Lucky for him I found him wondering about. I showed him the temples, where they give you free food if there is celebration going on. And how to find the eating places, where good food sometimes gets thrown out when they close, and how- well, all sorts of things I showed him. He just didn’t know how to stay alive’.
Macgoye captures the spirit of anxiety and desperation among those living on the edge.
Both Leila Aboulaela and Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye have used the art of fiction to push their religious agenda, using fiction to both affirm and defend their belief systems in a world that had increasingly come to see religion as dragging us to the medieval bloodletting that so characterised that period. But of late, there has been an upsurge in writers who have unashamedly proclaimed their fidelity to the time-honoured beliefs of their societies and the era in which they are living. This is also an era when we see the rise of militant atheism too, that is challenging the religious discourse and looking for a much wider space than they have ever been accorded. The problem with this kind of genre, where fiction is put at the service of religious sectarianism, is that it soon becomes tiresome in its self-righteousness and tiresome for the secular-minded; these are often people who are also set in their ways of thinking, determined to draw a line between the religious and public space.
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