Recently, we got the news in Germany that the most famous German investigative journalist dyed his hair dark and painted himself black in order to experience what it means to be black in Germany. The reaction of the Black German community was simple: they found his treatment of the issue very distasteful and simplistic.According to an article in Der Spiegel, the main problem was that in the entire movie, there was no discussion with black people about their own experience of everyday racism. This was a point that infuriates many Black Germans; their point is that he should have at least – if not instead – spoken to black people about their experience and let them speak for themselves. A spokesperson of the Initiative of Black People in Germany told Der Spiegel, ‘As is so often the case, someone is speaking for rather than with us.’
This issue came up in a discussion I had a couple of days ago with a black American here in Philadelphia. He too told me about everyday racism in America.
While I was in New York a few days ago, I observed many black people around Grand Central Station and Times Square, people who looked like they were in really bad shape. A Nigerian who lives in Philadelphia (you have to understand that there is a difference between an African and a Black American) told me that a walk downtown in any major American city would show the disproportionate number of black people who are homeless, relative to other ethnic categories. Many walk up to passers-by to beg for money.
Different studies have shown that there is an overwhelming proportional majority of black people in American prisons. Apart from the fact that racial tension that is most often bottled up explodes once in a while, there are issues of institutional racism. As an example, Charles M. Blows, a New York Times op-ed columnist, points, in a recent column, to the fact that the current financial crisis has dealt an especially harsher blow on blacks in comparison with other ethnic demographies. He cites a research report on the subprime mortgage problem: ‘blacks were the most likely to get higher-priced subprime loans, leading to higher foreclosure rates.’
This is in the face of America’s first black presidency. Indeed, Mr. Blows observes that there seems to be a backlash of sorts. As he points out, there are more and more evidence of overt racism in the country, evidenced by the increase in hate crimes. Google searches also seem to bear this out. The internet search company has even issued an advert that is partly an apology and partly an explanation of the technology that makes certain images of certain persons appear higher on the search list.
The easy thing to do is to blame Black Americans for their plight. Some Black Americans describe this as ‘tough love’ – the attitude and belief that it is the fault of black people for not lifting themselves out of poverty. The argument of Black Americans who are against ‘tough love’ is that one needs to consider the rigged structure that produces such outcomes. In other words, institutional racism is very often responsible for the preponderance of blacks in American prisons, for instance.
I do not live in the US – I am only here on a short visit – and I cannot begin to pretend that I have more than an anthropologist’s first impressions. I do however find it disheartening not only that the world’s richest country has a lot of homeless people, but that most of the homeless belong in one category.
This whole experience reminds me of an episode at a programme on Cultural Diplomacy that I attended in Berlin. After a talk by the ambassador of Lesotho to Germany, a Black American who was in the audience stood up to ask a question about what African countries think of the racial inequality and discrimination in the United States of America. He specifically asked whether African countries are thinking of possible ways of assisting other black people around the world.
My response to him would be that racial inequality is not limited to the borders of particular countries. It stretches across the globe, and has often resulted in Africa being imagined as the Other of the European/American/White Self. Besides, how could African countries even begin to think of doing anything about racial inequality within the borders of countries they hope will give them one form of assistance or the other?