Perhaps the biggest irony of the ever-growing chorus of Black conservative voices is that they claim that race doesn’t matter when their Blackness is the only reason they have prominence. It was bad enough in the post-George Floyd era to see so many books by Black celebrities who suddenly had something to say about racism. But at least they usually come with some interesting biographical stories of people who have earned their fame through being exceptional. All we can do is hope that This is Not America doesn’t mark a trend in conservative voices—who are only prominent because they are Black and peddle racist ideas—getting book contracts. Tomiwa Owolade basically has two arguments in the book and they both demonstrate he should never have been commissioned to write it.
Firstly, I am not sure when we started rewarding stating the obvious. No Britain is not America… but no one said it is. It’s frustrating that it took the death of Floyd thousands of miles away to spark a dialogue about racism in Britain, but that is not because we have been ignoring the problems. Millions of White people may have woken up to the realities of racism but we have been campaigning, organizing, and theorizing for decades. If you’re starting point for the conversation is 2020, then you should spend several years educating yourself before you offer a contribution.
Owolade argues we should reject the American-centric framework of how we understand race and racism. On the surface, this is an appealing idea to counter the dreaded US exceptionalism. But is lazy on several counts. For a start, Owolade seems entirely ignorant of the nature of how African America was produced. He claims African Americans are thoroughly American, distinct from Black people elsewhere. This minimizes the influence of the Afrikan in African American. But also overlooks that in terms of politics, it is impossible to understand African America without the Caribbean.
The most influential Black organization in the US (and the rest of the world) was the Universal Negro Improvement Association founded in Jamaica by Marcus and Amy Ashwood Garvey. Movements as diverse as the Nation of Islam and even the civil rights took inspiration and methods from the UNIA. It is no coincidence that the organization that coordinated the infamous bus boycott was called the Montgomery Improvement Association. Malcolm X’s mother was from Grenada and both his parents were in the UNIA. While Kwame Ture (who Owolade dead names as Stokely Carmichael), who coined “Black Power” was from Trinidad. Black Marxism (trigger warning the Black conservatives) was heavily influenced by figures like George Padmore (Trinidad) Otto Huiswoud (Suriname) and Claudia Jones (Trinidad). To imagine that Black radical thought is American is actually to fall into the trap of American exceptionalism. The truth is there is nothing “American” about these ideas, which is why they resonate with millions of Black people around the globe. When we engage with “American” authors we are not being duped, it is because the work connects directly to our experiences.
Although he claims Black Britain is a nation of immigration and African America is not, this is obviously false. For a start, Afrikans are not indigenous to America (those African Americans telling you otherwise are people you definitely should ignore). In fact, almost the entire population of the Americas is made up of immigrants (whether trafficked or voluntarily). Meanwhile, millions of Black people in the UK are descended from people who were only migrating from one part of the country (or empire) to the other. The only difference between my dad’s journey from Jamaica to Birmingham in 1960 and the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North earlier in the century; is that there was an ocean separating my father from the mother country. One of the reasons that the US literature resonates is because the treatment we got when we arrived was identical to those in northern US cities: housing segregation, police brutality, and institutional racism.
Considering the title, it’s a surprise that half the book is about so-called American ideas and theories. There is a whole chapter dedicated to a critique of Critical Race Theory and he has at least read a little of the literature, managing to cite Derrick Bell. But he laughably undermines himself by arguing that the problem with intersectionality is that it reduces everything to race. He also spends considerable time dismissing the work of Robin D’Angelo, Layla Saad, and Ibram X Kendi in the chapter even though none of them are critical race theorists. If you want a real critique of the self-help hustle the Psychosis of Whiteness is out in September.
At the same time as warning us to reject an American framework, he embraces his misreading of authors like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison because he thinks they support his integrationist worldview of the world. In fact, he uses his American framework to dismiss the work of most recent Black British authors, including Reni Eddo-Lodge, Bernadine Evaristo, Afua Hirsch, Akala, and yes, me. His rejection of radical ideas seems to be because they are not optimistic enough. Apparently, hoping that Britain will treat us equally is enough.
The second argument in his “book” is more dangerous. He claims that racism cannot be the most important factor in society if Afrikans are outperforming Caribbeans. He even offers the contrast of the failing “Tyler” struggling in school, presumably from a single-parent Caribbean family who is in trouble with the police; and “Taiwo” who is from a good Nigerian family, goes to a great university and gets an excellent job (I told you it is not a serious book). The successful name should give away that he has conflated Nigerians with Afrikans, as though there is one solitary experience from the immigrants from an entire continent. He ensures us that racism is not to blame but rather it is “family formation” and “culture” that explains this difference. Here is the racist lie that will sell the book. Of course, he supports this notion with an American theory of the “disparity fallacy,” which argues that just because racial inequalities exist, they are not explained by racism.
Racist commentators love to roll out the cultural argument but just like the old racial science, there is no evidence to support the claims. This is even more disingenuous from Owolade because he has a whole chapter on immigration but misses the point about Caribbean and Afrikan Black communities in Britain. If culture was the reason for the disparity then how do we explain that the literacy rate in Nigeria is 77%, whereas in the Caribbean it is over 90%? Or the fact that there are almost seven times the number of Nigerian children out of school (20 million) than there are people in Jamaica? Nigeria also has considerably more riches than the Caribbean so surely the nation should be able to educate its children. It would obviously be racist to argue that the reason for this disparity is that Nigerians are anti-school, lazy, and corrupt. But this is the logic of Owolade’s argument. The reality is that racism and colonialism on a global level impoverish Nigeria to the point the state cannot support its citizens (yes, you are still Black in Nigeria). The Nigerians with the resources to move to Britain are not your average Nigerian and often bring them educational and economic resources. It is idiotic to compare my father who came to Britain at age 13 with only a couple of years of schooling to live in a cramped terraced house with several families and his mother who was a nurse; to one of my best friends who came to the country after being privately educated in Nigeria and lived with parents including his father who was a doctor. Contrary to Owolade’s constant whining, no one who has ever thought about these issues seriously—has ever said it is all about race.
It is too easy, and seductive, to dub him Uncle Tomiwa, but it’s also inaccurate. Uncle Tom’s to have credibility, to be able to lead us down the wrong path. This is not a book meant for Black people. It exists solely to titillate racist White audiences. I actually feel a little sorry for Owolade. I have spent far too much time with Black conservatives to think he is putting on an act, he genuinely believes his delusions. The book is so spectacularly bad it should never have been published. It will no doubt be popular but he looks just as ridiculous as Lenny Henry when he performed on the Black and White Minstrel Show. Tap dancing for White people may give you a platform and pay the bills, but at some point, you realize that the color on your face is not boot polish and that your Black skin was never a mask.