Thursday, August 21, 2014

Are the lives of young black men less valuable? (Part 1)

Outstanding African writer Chimamanda Adichie presents a sobering critique of race relations in America through her latest novel Americanah. Adichie’s protagonist in the novel, Ifemelu is a Nigerian born young woman who migrates to further her education and chase the American dream. For the first time in her life, Ifemelu is shocked to learn that the colour of her skin matters.

Unlike Nigeria where she is accustomed to blacks in positions of power, the stark reality of American life leads Ifemelu to do some real soul searching. The simple things she takes for granted back home such as employment opportunities, getting decent service at a restaurant or walking the street without the possibility of unlawful arrest are now threatened in America by her skin colour. 

While I was engrossed in the final chapter of Adichie’s award winning novel, another African American teen was fatally shot by a police officer in the USA. Eyewitness reports suggest that the young man, Mike Brown, was unarmed during the confrontation with law enforcement officials, but this did not prevent him from receiving six shots about his body.

The plight of the young black male in American society, like an endangered species facing extinction, was again thrown into the spotlight. The issue of racism so carefully sidestepped by leading American public figures particularly those of African origin, rose from its slumber to grip the country and to mock premature proclamations of a post-racial society. Mike Browns’ death follows on the heels of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and the countless stories of the unlawful incarceration of young black men which hardly make mainstream media.

Days of protests followed the death of Brown with African Americans berating that tenets of freedom, justice, equality and democracy only applied to one race in that country. As if to prove the protesters correct as to the locus of power in the country, police units with equipment reported to be more advanced than US led ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, squared off against Ferguson residents to control and combat their calls for justice.  

One online blogger and experienced protester stated that the unfolding events in Missouri reminded him of his days in the Black Panther movement, where its fight for racial equality was systematically undermined by American law enforcement entities. Ironically while protesters battled tear gas and rubber bullets, the Klu Klux Klan an organisation which has historically terrorised and murdered several black Americans, publicly offered its protection to non-black businesses in Fergusson. It also threw its financial support behind the officer who shot the unarmed teen. 

The question to be asked in the wake of this latest shooting centres on the value of young black males across America and indeed the world. Are the lives of young black men less valuable than other races and if so why?  Racism (and classism) as Adichie notes in Americanah are about maintaining power and control. Often times it is an elite few who create the laws, control the wealth and dictate the state of affairs. Ferguson’s population of around 21,000 is estimated to be two-thirds black but its political leadership, education system, public administration and law enforcement are predominantly non-black.

In a true democracy equal representation and participation would have been encouraged. Where there is a threat to the system of unequal power that threat is kept in check by whatever means necessary. In the earlier years of the civil rights and Pan-African movements articulate young black men (and women) such as Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael, Marcus Garvey, Huey Newton and Martin Luther King were targeted as they threatened to dismantle the system. These men have given way to younger generations facing less overt struggles of racism but still situations of disenfranchisement, poverty and police brutality. However it is now easier to eliminate such threats.

Through the images popularised by negative elements in rap and hip hop music which have glorified young black men as gun toting thugs and gangsters, it is now easy for the system to justify the elimination of those who are potential threats to laws and practices fuelled by racial inequality. The implications of the gangster image in a system prone to police excesses is a reality which young American black men must grapple with. In addition they must also raise their consciousness and determine how to successfully challenge the unequal status quo in a non-violent means.