The fire this time

Jun 06 2020


IN a sense, the Minneapolis cop’s knee that pressed down on George Floyd’s neck is symbolic of the white American knee that has pinned down millions of blacks for centuries.

The identity of the oppressor does not matter: Derek Chauvin could have been any of the cops who have been killing blacks with impunity for years. According to one estimate published in The Observer recently, around 1,000 unarmed African Americans are killed every year.

Often, this unprovoked violence against the black community has triggered demonstrations and demands for change. After the obligatory display of ‘shock and horror’ by politicians, things go back to normal. Guilty cops are seldom charged, leave alone convicted.

Way back in 1962, James Baldwin, one of the finest American writers of his generation, wrote an essay titled The Fire Next Time that has been recently reprinted in the New Yorker. Baldwin concludes his long piece on the condition of blacks with this Biblical quote:

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.”

So are the widespread protests that have shaken America and shocked the world a portent of the fire to come? There is a streak of guilt gnawing away at the conscience of white America. Having decimated the substantial population of Native Americans in order to grab their land, white colonists then proceeded to import African slaves by the hundreds of thousands.

A streak of guilt is gnawing away at the conscience of white America.

These unfortunate people, torn from their land, culture and families were then forced to labour at farms, homes and roads, and subjected to vile punishments. In fact, they built a large part of the American economy at the time. And although they were emancipated after the bloody American civil war, they are not yet free of oppression and a sense of inferiority imposed by a dominant white culture. White supremacists, supported by Donald Trump, rule the roost in the south where, to this day, lynchings are common.

Such is the fear of white cops that black parents beg their sons not to talk back if they are stopped and searched, something that is commonplace. They are painfully aware of the consequences of being seen as ‘a sassy nigger’ by a cop.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a gifted journalist and author, has written a deeply moving book Between the World and Me in the shape of a letter to his adolescent son. Coates reminds him of the deep scars left by slavery:

“Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains — whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains… You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice.”

Malcolm X, probably the most charismatic black voice of the 20th century, was only five when his father was ‘accidentally’ run over by a tram. There is much conjecture that he was killed elsewhere, and his body was then placed on the tram line. His crime? He was an outspoken critic of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist organisation that terrorised blacks in southern states in the last century.

Most young blacks have washed their hands off peaceful protest. They see that Martin Luther King Jr’s philosophy, taken from Gandhi, has not won them equality, and things have hardly changed since King’s assassination in 1968. They now veer more towards Malcolm X’s model of armed struggle.

To their credit, many whites have demonstrated along with blacks across America, as well as in many major cities in other parts of the world. But they mostly have decent homes and jobs to go back to when the marches end, luxuries their black co-marchers lack.

Racial prejudice is an ugly and widespread phenomenon, and few societies are free of it. But while America does not have a monopoly on racism, the state condones open violence against blacks in a way few other countries would.

We can extend the metaphor of a white cop’s knee on a black man’s neck to the stranglehold the white races have maintained on non-white people around the world. Entire continents and their people have been colonised and raped.

In other forms, this pillage continues to this day. And it’s not just about resources; it’s also about political control. By supporting non-democratic, reactionary governments around the world, America has destabilised vast regions, causing the instability that is the underlying cause of much of the forced migrations we see today.

And when a rising power challenges American hegemony, as China is doing today, it is pushed back to its place through sanctions and propaganda. Many white liberals I have met have expressed their horror at the prospect of Chinese domination in some developing countries. I remind them that at least the Chinese have come with loans and grants, and not guns and bayonets.

Published in Dawn, June 6th, 2020