Black British youth are protesting in various ways, mirroring the Black Lives Matter movement in the US
People hold up placards in support of the Black Lives Matter movement as they take part in the inaugural Million People March march from Notting Hill to Hyde Park in London on August 30, 2020. JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP
Black British youth, in the era of neoliberalism, face high rates of unemployment, increasing rates of incarceration and excessive police misconduct due to decades of structural inequality. In response, grassroots movements, led by millennials, are fighting back against these longstanding problems. They are also speaking out against anti-black racism, climate change and homophobia. Importantly, their activism is interlinked with the global oppression of the black community in the United States and across the African diaspora – Africans settled outside their native lands.
Civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King said that “riots are the language of the unheard”, a statement that couldn’t be more appropriate to describe the frustration of black British youths who have taken to the streets to confront their oppressors through acts of civil disobedience.
Rioters are often misrepresented as lawless criminals, but riots are an example of what happens when those who feel the weight of oppression, and lack the power to change the system, demand to be heard.
In the English towns of Brixton, Toxteth, Birmingham, Luton and Leeds, riots spread like wildfire in 1981, 1985 and 2011, and were not without cause. In 1981, they were precipitated by the bombings of black homes and other acts of violence by the National Front, a white supremacist terrorist organisation that committed these crimes without punishment. Riots were also in response to the metropolitan police force’s aggressive sus laws (from “suspected person”), stop and search tactics targeting black youth. The 1985 and 2011 riots were instigated after unarmed black citizens were shot and killed by police. In both cases, the deaths were defined as lawful killings and the officers were exonerated.
Rather than investigate the factors that instigated the violent demonstrations, media pathologised the demonstrators.
Each time, the riots resulted in days of civil unrest, thousands of pounds of property damage, and injuries to civilians and law enforcement officers.
Rather than investigate the factors that instigated the violent demonstrations, mainstream media and most politicians pathologised the demonstrators. Although the riots enabled aggrieved citizens to express their rage, they didn’t cause institutional shifts addressing the root causes of the rebellions.
Seeing the need for a new strategy, today’s generation often uses acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in ways just as bold and disruptive as rioting.
Conditions for black people in Britain are far from what they were in the 1980s. Today, black Britons have made great strides in politics, business, law and medicine. Journalist Afua Hirsch reports that, despite these gains, black people in Britain have the highest unemployment rate across all ethnic groups and that black workers with degrees earn less, on average, than their white counterparts. They’re also more likely to be stopped and searched by police.
Clearly, millennials find themselves fighting for the same reasons as the youth in the 1980s.
Black Lives Matter demonstrators protest outside the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic during the first 2020 presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. PHOTO MEGAN JELINGER/AFP
Today’s activists are armed with technological resources that make the job of organising easier. Viral activism enables groups to use social media to promote their agendas to an international audience, to organise mass demonstrations beyond borders, and to maintain control of their narratives. They can also build coalitions and broadcast their activities in real-time.
Another distinguishing feature of new grassroots movements is their advocacy against sexism and LBGTQ rights, which have often been sidelined in black civil rights movements with a known history of sexism and homophobia. Black Lives Matter UK (BLMUK) and the London Black Revolutionaries (LBR) have been two of the most impactful grassroots groups, getting media attention and making their concerns known beyond the UK.
LBR, founded in 2013, is a socialist organisation of blacks and Asians who describe themselves as “a self-determined working-class urban revolutionary organisation”. Their principles and offensives range from anti-racist, anti- sexist, anti-homophobic and anti-fascist campaigns and operations. They are a democratic-militant organisation that encourages self-leadership but strictly adheres to fighting oppression and exploitation in non-abstract forms. In addition to speaking out against excessive policing in black and minority communities, they have also advocated for the homeless and immigrant workers.
BLMUK, established in 2016, is an offshoot of an American organisation established three years earlier in response to the 2013 murder of Trayvon Martin, who was killed by a policeman, and the deaths of other black Americans killed by police. BLMUK organises around the same core issues as LBR.
Both groups engage in disruptive behaviours in public spaces, intended to bring awareness to what they perceive as human rights violations against marginalised groups.
LBR drew media attention after destroying hostile architecture designed to regulate public spaces and dissuade loitering, especially by the homeless.
In protest of what they see as discriminatory anti-homeless practices, and to spotlight the larger issue of unaffordable housing and the lack of housing schemes for displaced persons, LBR poured concrete over the spikes of Tesco’s window sills – the supermarket’s efforts to make these spaces uninhabitable for the homeless.
In July 2016, along with the Malcolm X Movement, they called out the Byron burger chain for working in tandem with immigration officials to arrest and detain immigrant workers, some of whom were undocumented. The raid resulted in the deportation of several restaurant employees. LBR and other groups demanded an apology from Byron, but the restaurant defended their actions and denied wrongdoing. In retaliation, LBR released live roaches and grasshoppers at two of the burger chain’s 56 locations, forcing their temporary closure.
In contrast, BLMUK, a multiracial coalition of activists, has taken a more traditional approach. In 2016, the group made headlines when they obstructed the tarmac at London’s Heathrow airport for several hours, creating major delays. The rally was two-fold: to draw attention to police brutality (reportedly after the death of Jimmy Mubenga, who died from suffocation while in police custody on a deportation flight to Angola), and to climate change. The group’s Instagram page explained: “The climate crisis is a racist crisis – 7/10 of the countries most affected by climate change are in sub-Saharan Africa.”
The focus on global struggles for African descendants is a key feature of the BLMUK and LBR movements.
The focus on global struggles for African descendants is a key feature of the BLMUK and LBR movement, and it’s why both groups have stood in solidarity against police brutality in the US and across the diaspora.
In a unified front with black Americans, BLMUK and LBR each organised rallies in protest of the police officer who was acquitted in shooting and killing unarmed Missouri teenager Mike Brown. In November 2014, LBR drew a crowd of almost 800 protesters against Brown’s death to demonstrate outside the American embassy. In 2014, LBR put together a die-in (a demonstration where people lie down as if dead) at the Westfield shopping center in London to protest the murder of African- American Eric Garner, a New York man choked to death by the police for selling cigarettes.
BLMUK and LBR’s alignment with the African-American cause has been questioned by Britons who don’t see the correlation between excessive policing in the US and the UK. BLMUK explained: “In the US, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Trayvon Martin and countless others have
lost their lives. Here, we have Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Christopher Alder, and many more. More than 1 500 people have died in the UK during or after police contact since 1990 and 147 of them were black, according to the charity Inquest… We were also protesting over the hundreds of other black people killed all over the world by police officers who often kill with impunity. For instance, in the UK, there has never been a successful prosecution of an officer for the death of a person under custody.”
In comparison to American grassroots organisations, LBR and BLMUK are disadvantaged. In America, organisations like Black Lives Matter are able to sustain media coverage; they have investment from the community, and are supported by prominent politicians. While they haven’t seen any real justice, they have been able to enact real change, such as requiring police officers to wear body cams to capture arrests and then resolve complaints against officers. It remains to be seen if LBR or BLMUK can be as impactful.
In her article Youth struggles: from the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter and beyond, anthropologist Alcinda Honwana argues: “Young people have been at the forefront of political change, however they have not yet been able to effect systemic change. While profound social transformation takes time, this generation is still wrestling with how to move beyond street protest and have a lasting impact on politics and governance.”
Only time will tell if LBR or BLMUK will see the fruits of their labour.
Lori Lightfoot, chair of the Chicago Police Board, addresses community leaders and members of the news media about the findings of the Police Accountability Task Force on April 13, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The task force found the Chicago Police Department was plagued by systematic racism and had lost the trust of the community. PHOTO AFP
Social distancing and mass quarantine have added to racial stereotyping and stigmatisation
Those who contend that a pandemic is a great equaliser, affecting both rich and poor of every race, would do well to delve deeper into the facts. In April this year, the mayor of Chicago in the USA, Lori Lightfoot, announced that although black people make up less than a third of the city’s population, they accounted for 72,2% of virus-related fatalities. In Louisiana, reports in the same month showed that 70% of coronavirus victims were black. These are just two examples showing that although social distancing and mass quarantine target entire populations, the outcomes reflect great inequality.
Although social distancing and mass quarantines target entire populations, the outcomes reflect great inequality.
The reasons for these and other societal disparities are studied by scholars in the emerging academic field of African diaspora – the study of Africans settled in places other than their ancestral homelands, and the communities that emerge from such migration.
There are, of course, other diasporas.
When humans of any race move from their ancestral locations, driven by instinct and the need to hunt for food, to find better shelter or other means of survival, this migration could lead to a diasporic community settled elsewhere. If people were always comfortable in their original homes and if migration was always a choice, there may not be any need for scholars to devote their time to the field of diaspora, whether African or other.
Migrations leading to diaspora also do not take place in a vacuum. Many external factors are responsible for people migrating from their ancestral homes, either individually or in groups, to other parts of the world. Enslavement, bad governance, corruption, man’s inhumanity to man and colonisation are just some of these factors.
Slave trade resulted in the forced migration of millions of Africans to America and Europe, leading to a high concentration of enslaved Africans in other colonies. The direct descendants of enslaved African people in the United States are referred to as old diaspora, and new diaspora are those who voluntarily migrated. New African diaspora had their own share of home- grown experiences that led to their voluntary migration. Chief among these are bad governance, corruption, unemployment, kidnapping, poverty, robberies and the need for a better future. Failure of leadership resulting in an insecure socio-political and economic environment compelled most of these migrants to leave the shores of Africa in search of greener pastures.
Members of a caravan of migrants from DR Congo, Ghana and Ivory Coast remain on the Pan-American highway after being stopped by agents of the Honduran National Police near Choluteca, as they were heading to Tegucigalpa to make a stop on their way to Mexico, in Honduras on June 2, 2020 amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. PHOTO ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP
And when they arrive, lack of comprehensive integration and discrimination are at the core of the challenges confronting diaspora worldwide.
The divide between black and white people in the US has been deepened by the measures adopted to contain the virus.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, both old and new African diaspora had been subjected to racial stereotyping, stigmatisation, prejudice and discrimination in the US, as shown by several studies. A study by Villanova
University in Pennsylvania in 2007 observed that America is notorious for stereotyping black people, especially males, as criminals. Another, published in the American Journal of Political Science in 1997, showed that black women are stereotyped as dominant and lazy, and that the belief exists that they want to live on welfare. Yet other studies have shown that black people are subject to discrimination and prejudice in the spheres of education, employment, housing and more.
With the outbreak of the pandemic, African diaspora have been facing increased challenges in America. The pandemic is certainly not responsible for the political, economic and geographic divide between white and black people in the US, but the divide was deepened by the measures adopted to contain the virus. Social distancing and mass quarantine added to the already-existing rights violations associated with racial stereotyping and stigmatisation, while the patterns of infection and death reflect long-existing social inequalities.
The pandemic has changed and continues to change everything in life, from political and economic aspects to social, cultural and family ties. People have become strangers, even in their own families. Friends are no longer welcomed by friends, families avoid relatives as though they are strangers and employees are no longer allowed in their workplaces. These challenges heighten discrimination and the fate of both the old and the new African diaspora, given their experiences prior to the pandemic.
And, as the numbers show, the impact on African-Americans is greater than on white people. There are many contributing factors one could fathom. Whereas white Americans live mainly in middle class neighbourhoods, many African-Americans live in slums and highly populated areas, as do other people of colour who are often poor and disadvantaged. This makes them more vulnerable to contracting and spreading the virus, as COVID-19 spreads faster through personal contact.
Given the fact that the negative outcomes of social distancing and mass quarantine weighs more heavily on African-Americans, and that the African diaspora in America have a history of being stereotyped and stigmatised, one can confidently say that the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the problems besetting them. And, even if an opportunity were to arise for them to go back to their ancestral homes, the measures adopted in the fight against the pandemic means they will likely be rejected by their own people.
US student James Meredith arrives at the University of Mississippi, on October 01, 1962 in Oxford, under the protection of federal forces, becoming the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi. Photo AFP
History shows that diaspora thinkers have had distinctive insight into the nature and operation of the geopolitics of place and race
As we begin to consider the global transformations bound to follow the upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic, parallels are being drawn to the influenza pandemic of 1918 and the global disorder that followed. The interwar and World War II years (1919-1945) were characterised by rising nationalism and xenophobia, the collapse of the global economy and the Great Depression, and the failure of international institutions.
These factors impacted Africa and its diaspora (African migrant communities living elsewhere in the world) in unique and profound ways. It was in this tumultuous time that an animated black Atlantic world of scholar-activists emerged, including W.E.B. DuBois, George Padmore and C.L.R. James. The black cosmopolitanism they forged helped spawn the decolonisation movements of the 1940s-50s. They also seized this period of flux to fundamentally rethink the nature of the geopolitical international order, and the role that race and imperialism played in perpetuating it.
Black scholars from across the diaspora, many of them concentrated on the campus of Howard University in Washington D.C. in the United States, broke away both from the mainstream American disciplinary approaches of the time and from the institutional limitations of black universities –instead engaging in a project of institution building, transformative scholarship and intellectual theories on race and empire in the US and around the world. The Howard School, as it became known, included notable figures such as Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, Rayford Logan, Eric Williams, E. Franklin Frazier and Merze Tate. Collectively, they offered novel theories, frameworks and methods to address the most pressing issues of their time.
Founded in 1867, the history of Howard University shows how American universities and American intellectual thought, over time, has mirrored racial attitudes in broader society – actively spreading racist views and supporting the racist notion that blacks are innately inferior.
But things changed when the university’s first black president was appointed in 1926 during what has been described as the golden age of black scholarship. Under Mordecai W. Johnson’s leadership, Howard successfully positioned itself to become the leading centre of black scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. The campus fostered a unique Afro-diasporan, cosmopolitan environment with rich ties to activists and nationalists in Africa and non-European territories such as India and China. It offered a glaring counter to the growing isolationism and nationalism dominating many American institutions at the time.
The Howard scholars established institutions and produced knowledge with a unique mission, vision and methods of research, and played a vital role in critiquing mainstream thinking on race and imperialism. They erected the scaffolding to promote the scientific study of African- American schooling and to analyse political, economic and social structures of race and racism globally.
The Founders Library – MSRC, located on the upper Quad on the Howard University Campus.
One such initiative was the Journal of Negro Education, founded in 1932 by Charles H. Thompson, which sought to cultivate black cosmopolitan thinking and encouraged black people to adopt a global approach to racial oppression. A key feature of the journal was the way contributors showed a commitment to the colonised and oppressed, and connected the differing fortunes of the people of the colonising metropoles with those at the periphery. For example, contributors diverged sharply with the mainstream political thinking on fascism, engaging instead with the racialised politics of fascism – to them, anti-fascism was related to anti-colonialism and the struggles against racial oppression in the US. These and other analyses are included in a 1943 special edition of the journal, The American Negro and World War I and World War
- It included a piece by Merze Tate titled The war aims of World War I and World War II and their relation to the darker peoples of the world, in which she offers a direct and passionate rebuke of her white contemporaries’ writing on global peace. Tate argued that the dangers to world peace lie in the European powers perpetuating the “imperialist mentality” of “master and subject peoples”, concluding with a warning: “The way the United States behaves toward its coloured citizens and the way Great Britain behaves toward India and Africa represent the criteria by which Anglo-American war aims must be judged.”
The Howard School’s institution-building is also demonstrated by the annual conferences of the Social Sciences Division, which began in 1935. The first, titled Programmes and Philosophies of Minority Groups, was intended to be a springboard for a scholarly research programme on minority problems and programmes, positioning Howard as the premier academic institution in the study of minorities and set a high bar for subsequent conferences. The framework they had in mind for such a research programme was decidedly world oriented. W.E.B. DuBois’s paper Militant Tactics as Illustrated by Negro Experience was read in tandem with Rabbi Weinstein’s paper Militant Tactics as Illustrated by Jewish Experience. Alain Locke’s paper The Negro Paradox was read with Rabbi Eisenstein’s paper The Jewish Problem and Dr Taraknath Das‘s The Position of the Oriental in the Present-Day World. Ralph Bunche’s Colonial Status: Mandates and Indirect Rule was accompanied by E. Franklin Frazier’s Bi-Racialism in the United States.
Throughout history, diaspora thinkers have had distinctive, indeed special, insight into the nature and operation of the geopolitics of place and race. Confronted with a momentous moment in global politics and history, the Howard School forced a collective recognition of racism and imperialism and their consequences to globalisation – insisting that matters of race not be pushed to the periphery of consciousness. Their work constitutes part of what Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe has referred to as an “African archive”, and serves as an example of the transformative thinking required in times of global uncertainty and change.
The articles in this special issue are derived from a virtual activity lasting just over five months between May and October 2020. Dubbed the Old and New African Diaspora: Before and After COVID-19, the series of activities kicked off with a half-day virtual conference on May 21, 2020.
The virtual presentations were a partnership of the African Centre for the Study of the US at Wits University and the African Studies Center and the Alliance for African Partnerships, both based at the Michigan State University. The initiative also received support from the African Centre for Migration Studies at Wits and the African Renaissance and Diaspora Network, a New York-based think tank.
The virtual activities were initially planned as a physical conference, as part of a longer-term initiative aimed at stimulating discussions around the research, teaching and engagement on African diaspora. The fact that challenges triggered by the suddenness of COVID-19 did not dampen interest in the conference goes to demonstrate the significance, commitment, and attachment to the subject. In fact, as fate would have it, Mr George Floyd, an African American man, was killed on May 25, only three days after the launch of the virtual initiative. With hindsight, George Floyd’s death and the spiral of protests that followed was not a simple coincidence but part of the wider African American experience in the US, linked to the African diasporic encounters around the world.
The articles in this volume are divided into four thematic areas: diaspora and the COVID-19 pandemic, migration-related issues, discipline-specific contributions frameworks, and diaspora in specific regions of world.
In the first batch of articles, Krista Johnson and Nicholas Asogwa provide linkages with the pandemic. Drawing on the events unfolding after the 1918 influenza pandemic, Krista implicitly suggests that the post COVID-19 period will see to a rebound in scholarship radically different from racialised mainstream Western scholarship. Anchoring the article on African diaspora at Howard University, she provides evidence of the theoretical thrusts that animated the “the black cosmopolitanism” that inspired decolonisation movements. Readers will get an introduction the African American scholars and their minority counterparts and the enduring legacy of the works they produced.
Asogwa approaches the question of race from a statistical starting point, showing that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the pandemic before seeking answers as to why that is the case. The article is helpful in providing some basic definitions of new and old African diaspora as a foundation to discussing their plights before and during COVID-19.
Tapiwa Mucheri and Munyaradzi A Dzimbo’s article approaches the question of migration from an economic angle. One of their key arguments is that diasporic communities should be involved in policy formulation and implementation by home (and destination) countries rather than being merely seen as sources of resources such as money transfers, trade, investment, and skills and knowledge transfer. They offer specific pandemic-related suggestions by way of conclusion.
Wilmot Allen begins his article by noting the highly publicised “Year of Return”, an initiative of the Ghanaian government in 2019. While the initiative may have had successes, he believes more benefits can be gained between African Americans and Africans. He offers a three-pronged method that includes “direct, influencer and enabler partnerships”. Readers looking for pragmatic steps that can be leveraged across sectors will find the article a good primer.
Shifting to what may be referred to intra-African migrations – part of the “new diaspora” – Emmanuel Chima discusses the plight that many African refugees find themselves in at Dzaleka, a notorious former prison in Malawi. The refugees, argues Chima, face double trouble in that they are targeted by both government agents and ordinary Malawians.
Elena Clarke’s article focuses on African migrations to Europe via the treacherous routes through the Sahara, war-torn countries such as Libya and the Mediterranean Sea. As Clarke states, even “after arriving in Europe, some migrants have been left homeless for long periods of time, while others have been exploited”. Significantly, she notes that some scholars have suggested that the migration phenomenon be “renamed the European racial crisis”, in line with critical race theory (CRT). She then discusses this from the point of view of the uneven circumstances faced by West African diaspora in Rome.
While all the articles in the volume have a disciplinary and/or theoretical anchor, a set of articles can be characterised as more explicit in these respects. One example is Paul Schauert’s article which deals with the history of art and culture, drawing on musical performances in New York, Chicago, and Detroit in the US. Using the make-believe-world of “Afrotopia”, Schauert narrates a scintillating ethnographic tale filled with performative recreations bringing together historical and contemporary African American diaspora. Schauert rightly labels the multiple fusion and blend a revolution, but more importantly provides snippets on the musicians and the details of their interesting encounters, some of which happened during the civil rights movement era of the 1960s!
In another discipline-inclined article, Bob Wekesa discusses the link between digital diplomacy and digital diaspora, concluding that African countries have not utilised the opportunity that digital platforms offer to do digital diaspora diplomacy. Peggy A. Honoré follows the stories of Dr Michael Okoronkwo, a medical graduate from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Centre (LSUHSC) School of Medicine in New Orleans, and Stephen Igwe, entering third year at the same university. The article tracks the development of these two medics with Nigerian links to show how university training in the US can contribute towards the increased medical personnel in Africa.
The final set of articles relates to African diaspora and non-African diaspora. Benji Shulman kicks off this section with a discussion of the Africa-Jewish diaspora ties in the 1950s and 1960s. Seeking to correct gaps in scholarship, he argues that: “For nearly half a century, African and Jewish diasporic intellectuals and activists, based mostly in Europe and America, paved the way for state-based co-operation after independence – and set the agenda for future engagement”. Shulman then provides a detailed account of diplomatic, academic, and political links between Africa and Israel covering different epochs.
The point of departure for István Tarrósy’s article is that “African communities living in Central and Eastern Europe are often neglected in studies of global African diaspora”. Moreover, he argues, African migration in these regions is increasing not just due to migrations but also due to an increase in diplomatic and economic frameworks.
Tracey L. Walters turns the spotlight on black activism in Britain, pointing out a resurgence in these respects linked to the global African resistance to racialism – Black Lives Matter (BLM). This is an important perspective because African diaspora struggles in Western European nations, of which the UK is a major part, are often lost as the focus is directed to the US. An interesting distinguisher is that Walters writes about grassroots movements led by millennials using online and offline tactics in the UK. The conclusion drawn by Walters, however, is that the protests have not translated into systematic and systemic changes to address root causes. Importantly, Walters discusses some of the difficulties faced by movements in the UK compared to their American counterparts.
The volume concludes with the review of African Americans and Africa: A New History authored by George Washington University’s Nemata Amelia Ibitayo Blyden. This is one of the most sweeping accounts of how African Americans view Africans, one that came out in 2019 coinciding with the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia, US.
We are grateful to Africa in Fact for this publication platform.