If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist, then the main achievement of White supremacy is deluding us into thinking we are making racial progress. We are promised that the world is on the right track: after all, slavery was abolished, independence granted to the colonies, the Nazis were defeated, and we now have organizations such as the United Nations safeguarding our human rights. There has been so much change that we have gone from the slave quarters to the White House, and the emerging global powers are now in the East. If anything, the dominant narrative has now become the decline of the West, of the unfortunate White people being left behind by the scale of change. We even had Reggie Yates fronting a documentary about the awful plight of the White poor in South Africa.
If you turned off your senses and believed the hype, you could be forgiven for believing that Enoch Powell was right in his infamous Rivers of Blood speech. Declaring that the “Black man will have the whip hand over the White man.” White voters around the globe have certainly been voting for racist populists as if their lives depend on it. But this feverish nightmare that the West is losing its grip and the darkies are taking over is just that, a bad dream with no basis in reality. Whilst racial oppression can look different, the logic of empire still underpins the world.
South Africa is a perfect case, the nation that is supposed to stand as the shining example of democracy and economic progress on the continent. Apartheid fell, the racists were beaten, and Black economic development was supposedly inspired. But a quarter of a century after the end of Apartheid, conditions for the average South African may actually be worse. For all the sensationalism around White poverty in the country, less than 1 percent of the formerly master race is poor, whilst half of Black South Africans live below the poverty line. Abject poverty has other consequences, and the failure of the state to provide has made the nation the most violent in the world, with over 20,000 murders a year. Rather than being a beacon of democratic progress, the nation is one of the most corrupt on the continent, so bad it launched an inquiry into “state capture” in 2018.
The problem of the nation is the same for the entire continent in that it is in a state of capture. Africa is trapped in a colonial relationship where the West, and increasingly formerly underdeveloped countries, like China, drain the economic resources, ensuring that the richest continent by mineral wealth is actually the poorest. If you want one statistic to tell you that anti-Black racism is still a basic logic of the present day, then consider that by 2050, 90 percent of all those living in extreme poverty will be in so-called “sub-Saharan” Africa.
The Black Lives Matter summer should have been a reminder that we have not made as much progress as we imagine in the West. A growing Black middle class does not change the reality that we are more likely to live in poverty, be victims of police abuse, be evicted, murdered, or even die from Covid-19. It was refreshing to see thousands of young people out on the streets in protest but also drew attention to the relative lack of mobilization against racial injustice before Black Lives Matter. There is a rich tradition of Black activism in Britain and worldwide. Black power reshaped the political agenda, and the uprisings of the sixties to the eighties had a profound impact. It is not that those politics disappeared, but if we are honest, they went underground whilst we largely focused on trying to reform the system. I am one of the beneficiaries of that work, occupying a position and a salary that would previously have been unheard of.
The sad irony is that the movement’s success for radical change has opened up enough space to be convinced that we can find freedom in a racist system. A hundred years ago, the Universal Negro Improvement Association built a global organization with millions of members across dozens of countries. This was with no social media, internet, or even widespread telephone use. It should be easier to build such an organization with the technology we have today, but it is almost unimaginable. The difference is that in the days of Garvey, no one needed convincing that this system was against us.
I wrote Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century to insist that revolution is possible and provide a blueprint. But it was obvious that many of us still need to be convinced that revolution is necessary (and not just the collection of “Black” people lined up by the right-wing press to insist that racism is a thing of the past). That is the aim of The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World, to diagnose the problem. It is meant to be an uncomfortable read, as any honest book about racism should be. But it is not a pessimistic book. We can build a new world once we lose our attachments to the old.
The New Age of Empire: how Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World is out now. For info on orders and events, visit https://linktr.ee/KehindeAndrews.