By *Jomo Sanga Thomas
(“Plain Talk”, July 10, 2020)
“Self-reflection is welcome. But until we undo the structures that hold up anti-blackness across the world, injustice will persist.” — Momtaza Mehri
These are new and hopeful times. So much has happened in the two months since George Floyd was murdered. Just like the Me Too Movement forced people to move beyond their complicity and inaction, the Black Lives Matter Movement is having a similar effect. Who would have believed that at the beginning of the year, people would be discussing the origins of the police force and demanding that it be defunded? Who would have thought that millions of people in the United States and across the world would be protesting, demonstrating, toppling statues and monuments celebrating racists and conquistadores, as well as criticising governments and big corporations for their racist, white supremacist attitudes?
Most of us believe now, but none of this is enough to change the ingrained white supremacist culture that pervades our lives.
Top Hollywood stars have taken to the airways committing themselves to stand against hate. They take responsibility for their own previous silence on police brutality. World-class university such as Harvard and Princeton, as well as corporations like Lloyds of London and Google, have all engaged in an undignified scramble to address track records of anti-blackness.
Black Lives Matter is having a rupturing effect on our culture. Black Lives Matter is changing how we think about personal complicity. Yet, there is a long way to go. We are still trapped within a reductive framework: privilege.
Anti-racist reading lists, teach-ins and resources are popular. People are forced to interrogate the source of their privilege. However, the problem with “privilege-checking” is that it focuses our efforts away from the profound questions that Black Lives Matter raises, and on to simpler, individualistic solutions to racism.
The American scholar Peggy McIntosh defined white privilege as everything from the ability to freely criticise one’s government and its policies without being branded a cultural outsider, to being able to easily find bandages matching one’s own skin shade. While the understanding of white privilege is welcomed, such an understanding runs the risk of camouflaging systemic inequality and so reduce the problem to one of individual actors and their willingness to acknowledge their privilege.
Checking your privilege then becomes a kind of public self-shaming which focuses on the repentantly privileged, while neatly obscuring how intrinsic, endemic and pervasive anti-black racism is to the world. Why seriously challenge unequal resource distribution when all you need to do is renounce the privilege that gives you access to the very resources hoarded at the expense of others?
Once you denounce white privilege, there is little need to address an inconvenient truth, which is the immense economic order that spans the globe and has historically needed a black underclass, both domestically and overseas, to survive.
Cedric Robinson popularised the term “racial capitalism” with its roots in apartheid-era South Africa, as a way of understanding capitalism’s processes of exploiting who it racialises and racialising who it exploits. This is more clearly demonstrated through the genocide and dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands, the transatlantic slave trade, slavery and the colonial enterprise.
The exploitative capitalist system is closely connected to racism directed at black people and this lives on through neocolonialism, which compounds black suffering across Africa. We need only look at the subservient governments and rulers in much of the developing world, the serious ecological damage done by multinational corporations, the predatory practices of international lending agencies, and Euro-American military intervention.
We see these patterns in the assassination of anti-colonial African revolutionaries by ex-colonial powers and suppression of grassroots social movements that further entrenched economic dispossession. Today, we see staggering class divides within many African nations widen, as elites benefit from their lucrative alliances with this neo-colonial order.
Another problem with privilege theory is that it makes it harder to recognise the tensions and contradictions existing among the racialised. The protests in the US provided examples of black elected figures pacifying their desperate constituents, who instinctively know that the problem is much larger than the white officer choking the life out of a black man. For some, a lack of privilege has fatal consequences. For others, it offers platforms, speaking gigs and career opportunities.
Racism is much more than hostility towards those without privilege. It is a process that creates a frightening vulnerability to premature death depending on which racial group one belongs. Look at who is dying most from police violence or from the coronavirus. Look to see who lives in poverty, is unemployed and goes to the worst schools.
The ability to live each day without being caught in the punitive crosshairs of race and class is not a privilege.
It is power! The mainstreaming of anti-racist discourse is causing many people to question their own position in the world. This is a welcomed development, but we cannot and must not stop at self-reflection. Unlearning personal prejudices should coincide with undoing the structures, logics and economic arrangements that perpetuate global anti-blackness.
Being courageous enough to reimagine the world as we know it will only deepen our genuine solidarity with those who are currently struggling to survive it. Instead of timidly admitting to our various privileges, let’s ask ourselves what a world where all black life matters everywhere would look like – and accept nothing else.
A new and better world is possible and necessary. Now is the time for us to recommit to fight to ensure it comes into being. Our very lives depend on it.