By Leo Abina – A concerned World Citizen – for the Saker Blog
Going back as far as I can remember, the story of what my dad’s 1930s primary school teacher would say at the start of every school day has been ingrained in my family’s narrative for half a century. “Whites build locomotives. Negroes can’t produce a needle. Whites are civilized. Negroes are savages.” As he would recount this story, my dad would always add, with a mischievous chuckle, “my few other African classmates in that class would be outraged by this statement; but not me. For me, d’Assumption’s ‘greeting to the class’ became a source of motivation to excel, especially in mathematics and science, just to prove him wrong.” Over the years, teacher d’Assumption’s statement would never fail to ignite passionate debates, emotions, and reactions among family members; me included.
During my childhood, in the 60s and 70s, I lived the life of a privileged West-African boy from a well-to-do family, growing up in multi-racial social networks, attending private schools in Africa and Europe, oblivious to the vicissitudes of both subtle and raw racism. During these early years, teacher d’Assumption’s statement felt like a distant, no longer relevant, piece of nasty colonial history that I did not fully understand but felt needed to just be forgotten.
As a youngster coming of age and completing tertiary education in the 80s and 90s, I lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union, the uninhibited advent of market-driven globalization, and the shift towards finance, rather than ‘goods and services’ -dominated economies. My thoughts about teacher d’Assumption’s statement during those years were that “aspiring to build African locomotives out of pride was wasteful and misguided development strategy.” What would be smarter, I argued, was “investing African capital to own shares in railway manufacturing companies, so as to better facilitate the deployment of railway infrastructure in Africa; while at the same time, striving to build competence in railway technology.’
Then came the beginning of my expat years. My first forays into the ‘real world’ of business, outside the manicured lawns and precious wood paneled walls of US Ivy League campuses. Those years brought my first encounters with the realities of ‘subtle,’ though at times not so ‘subtle,’ corporate double standards. I had up to then bought into the neo-liberal ethos about free and fair markets; only to discover that in reality, most markets, even within the western sphere of influence, were neither free nor fair. Corporate battles within the western world are testimony that strategic technologies are protected; Boeing vs Airbus, Apple vs Microsoft, Siemens vs GE, are but a few legendary examples of this reality. These examples helped me realize that my earlier thoughts about how Africans should use capital in order to play the economic game to their advantage might have been overly naive – state interventions do play a major role in today’s so called ‘free markets’, and the bigger the state, the stronger the interventions. Even in the apparently ‘leveled playing field’ of our modern world, teacher d’Assumption’s worldview seemed as entrenched and relevant as it ever was.
As I look back through the eyes and battle scars of a 50-something, I get an uneasy sense that humanity has remained stuck on this all-important racism issue. On one side of the issue, white folks are conditioned to inherently hold a sense of superiority, backed by centuries of modern western world dominance. While on the other side of the issue, brown folks, no matter where they live in the world, their place in society, or their achievements, feel a sense of injustice, inadequacy, and alienation, in a historical period dominated by the modern western construct; a construct in which they can at best live as ‘acceptable strangers,’ or at worst as victims or rebels.
Taking a closer look at these perspectives on racism might provide a better premise to bring the two main conflicting parties – the white, western European dominant side, and the non-white (brown) global-south side, nearer each other.
Let us begin with the white perspective. Looking at the advent of modern western civilization over the past 300 years, as well as today’s global power dynamics, one can easily understand why a 21st-Century white person might have an innate sense of superiority. Why in our times, even an unaccomplished, hopeless, inept white person of European descent would still feel superior to an accomplished, gifted, and successful brown person.
In a nutshell, this frame of mind stems from the observation that for the past few centuries, the modern western civilization managed to subjugate much of the rest of our world. Through naval supremacy and superior weaponry resulting in tremendous military might, small European nations with tiny territories and lesser populations were able to project power globally and overwhelm much larger, usually brown, peoples. These past conquests still resonate in the psyche of many modern Europeans, and in the view of many, bear witness to the greater ingenuity of the white race. Once the lands of the brown people were subdued and a colonial order was established to channel vast amounts of natural resources from the colonies to the colonial capitals, in the eyes of many Europeans, this exploitative world order was, and is to this day, justified.
For in their narrative, it is Europeans, in the first place, who knew and understood the value of these natural resources. Whereas the brown natives, who might have been sitting on these natural resources for centuries, a. did not have an industrial base to know the value of what was under their feet b. did not have the technology and means to access and exploit these natural resources, and c. did not have the capacity and strength to protect them. Therefore, it is only natural that those who have the knowledge, technology, and power to access natural resources should also have the nature-given right to exploit them.
Then comes the moral aspect, especially as it relates to one of the most gruesome episodes in the long racism saga: the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In public and in the name of political correctness, most white people who only have a passing acquaintance with slavery do feel a sense of guilt about it. However, upon greater scrutiny through which they come to understand the historical context of slavery, and in view of recent south-to-north emigration dynamics, in private, many other white people do not share that sense of guilt.
The rationale here is twofold. First, there is the very controversial observation that during the slave trade, Africa was not occupied; therefore and by-enlarge, it was mostly African chieftains who sold other Africans into slavery. If brown people were ready to sell their own kind into slavery while Europeans needed labor to build ‘the new world in the Americas,’ why should only one of the two parties lose the moral high ground? Second, decades after slavery and colonization, we live in a time of massive south-north migration where millions of brown people are ready to leave their own independent countries and risk their lives across deserts and seas in search of a better life in the white man’s ‘land of milk and honey.’ Isn’t that further testimony of the white man’s more aspirational, and therefore superior, way of life?
This old, profound inter-racial legacy explains why an unaccomplished white person would still feel superior to a gifted brown person. The white indigent person sees brown people parading in fancy clothes, fancy cars, fancy homes, and thinks, “this high life these brown people aspire to and are so fond of, was brought about by us.”
Let us now turn to the brown perspective. The brown person’s experience in today’s modern western civilization is an experience filled with contradictions. On one hand there is an attraction to the outward semblance of freedom, equality and fraternity professed by the West. On the other hand there is a rejection of the inward reality of coercion, double standards, and racism perpetrated by that very same West. In this context, the brown person’s best option often consists in navigating these contradictions as deftly and quietly as possible, with no overt defiance to the established order. I once attended an event where the condition of black Brazilians came up in the discussion; a white Brazilian businessman who was present casually responded; “we do not have a racial problem in Brazil because in Brazil, brown people know their place!”
Besides the cruelty, hurtful meaning, and Brazilian frame of reference of this remark, it basically captured the essence of brown peoples’ lives everywhere in the modern world. No matter where they live, what their personal circumstances are, whether they are conscious of it or not, racism is an integral part of brown peoples’ day-to-day reality. Of course, in the modern era the crude state-sanctioned form of racism that prevailed up to the 1960s has rescinded, but nonetheless racism is still alive and well in today’s world context, albeit in different forms according to different environments.
The western-dominated world order dates back to at least three centuries. Its latest, modern iteration was established at the end of World War II by the victorious powers. On the economic front, western dominance happened de facto through the establishment of the Bretton Woods institutions in 1944 – the World Bank and the IMF. On the political front, the United Nations was founded with the noble mandate to prevent future wars, and a 5-nations Security Council made up of the most powerful nations was formed to protect this mandate, as well as approve or veto United Nations resolutions. In reality, this system and the highly biased, misrepresentative nature of its governing body, the Security Council, has been used outwardly for the benefit of the ‘international community,’ but inwardly for the interests of a tiny, West-led, part of the world. On the cultural front, dominance pretty much occurred by default through the ubiquitous reach of western media, western movies, and western broadcasting power.
In a second phase spanning through the 70s, 80s and 90s, the post-war world order was further reshaped with the formation of a new, dollar-based monetary system (no longer backed by gold), a massive shift in geo-politics with the fall of the USSR, a series of international trade agreements, and the advent of satellite-based communications and information technologies. Last but not least, the West’s military dominance was further strengthened by the eastern expansion of NATO, and the broad deployment of military bases around the world – nearly a thousand for the US alone, with a $900b yearly military budget that is larger than all European countries’ military budgets put together, and 10x Russia’s.
In recent years this unipolar, US-dominated world order is being challenged by a re-emerging modern Russia, and by regional powers such as China, India and Brazil. Nonetheless, western power remains formidable and remains overwhelmingly white. As a result of this reality, for most brown people around the world the real question has not so much been about whether the modern western ethos harbors racism or not. It has been about the extent to which racism affects them directly and experientially, and the extent to which racism limits their opportunity to strive.
Some people in the West find it difficult to conceive of this, but the reality is that even brown people who live in their own countries, under their own government, are affected by racism. Such assertions, as is now the case for any dissenting assertions even backed by forensic evidence, are often dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories.’ Nonetheless, in order to understand how this is possible, it is important to understand that in today’s world order, years after colonization, most brown countries in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, are still not free. Sure, these countries are recognized as independent administrative entities, with their own flags, national anthems, and emblems, but in reality, western powers still exercise a tremendous amount of hegemonic political, economic, and cultural power on them.
Recent history around the world has shown that brown leaders who try to defy the status quo and defend the interest of their own people at the expense of western hegemony, do not last long. In order to survive in their positions, most brown leaders have to make political and economic choices that are not favorable to their nation. Although most of the time, leaders in brown countries are quite happy to become stooges of the West, pledge allegiance to their western overlords, and enjoy the monetary benefits that come with that allegiance – often at the expense of their own nation, just like the African chieftains who used to sell fellow Africans into slavery.
In such subservient brown countries, discord often grows between the state and the citizens, repression intensifies, and the leaders find themselves increasingly isolated and paranoid of their own people. The leaders then start trusting and favoring only people from their closest circle, as well as foreigners, more than all other locals. Soon in this process, all significant opportunities in business, in government, and especially the security and intelligence branches of government, become the preserve of a small, predatory clique with foreign and carefully selected local elements. Of course, the various aspects of this scenario play out differently from brown country to brown country, but the general outcome is usually the same; frustration, limited opportunities, and second-class citizenship for the local brown people, in their own country.
For brown people living in the West, the situation is also not ideal, albeit for different reasons. The list of day-to-day racism related life challenges brown people face in western countries is just too long to enumerate here. The worst such challenges such as police brutality, discrimination in the workplace, and the ghettoization of brown communities have been rampant in the West, and have once again become prominent through the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the same vein as the civil rights movement of the 1960s, these recent developments have the merit of exposing the pain and hardships brown people in the West have been experiencing for decades. Huge protests are erupting to demand the downing of statues depicting historical ‘white racist’ figures, to demand that people kneel as a sign of outrage to the George Floyd killing, to demand reparations for the ill treatment brown peoples have endured in the past. Brown peoples’ tempers and frustrations are once again reaching boiling point in front of western oppression and injustice. However, to many well-intended observers, the types of demands brown people in the West are making to correct the situation and hopefully crush the scourge of racism seem superficial, ineffective, and perhaps even naive.
In order to defeat something as entrenched and deep as racism, a different premise might be needed. Perhaps each side of the racism issue, the western, white dominant side, and the global south, brown subjugated side, needs to re-examine its own frame of reference?
Today, as in teacher d’Assumption’s time in the 1930s, modern western civilization remains dominant and continues to exercise disproportionate power on the world; with each of the leading western countries exercising strong influence on specific ‘brown’ regions – the US in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and parts of the Middle East, the UK in Africa, Asia, and other parts of the Middle East, France mainly in its former African territories. That power is still derived from the West’s advances in technology, applied in various, more sophisticated fields of control; be it in surveillance and intelligence (via military satellites and cyber-tracking technology), subversive regime change methods (via color revolutions, co-opted local protests, or mainstream media ‘manufactured consent’ and leader-demonization campaigns), or good old, albeit more targeted, military operations (via drones, bombing campaigns, inter-ballistic missiles, or special ops interventions). On the economic front, the enactment of sanctions on brown countries that do not ‘toe the line’ has been a widely-used tool in recent years; with a flip side to this approach being the granting of western currency-denominated loans, with monies ‘created-out-of-thin-air’ and lent by western Treasury Ministries (or DFIs) to brown countries to ensure debt-driven ‘loyalty.’ On the political side, in a context of outward democracy since the 1980s, the use of data analytics and social media has been used to foster favorable, or at least non western-interest-threatening, electoral outcomes.
In light of all this, a modern-day teacher d’Assumption would say, “whites send satellites into space, blacks can’t make a bicycle. Whites are civilized. Blacks are savages.” The ‘satellites’ versus ‘bicycle’ part of that statement may be partly true, but it also infers important presumptions and omissions that should be brought to light and honored. As for the ‘civilized’ versus ‘savages’ part, it is a plain fallacy that should be exposed as such.
The presumption many westerners have about their technological superiority is that it came about exclusively from the brilliance and higher intellectual order of the white race. In reality, technological advancements truly surfaced in the 1500s in the European West, a period many would consider quite late in the historical process.
Ancient Greece, from which the modern western European civilization is thought to have emerged, learned extensively from ancient Egypt. Ancient Greece scholars in the fields of mathematics, philosophy, and medicine, learned from the ancient Egyptians. In other words, the way today’s scientists and technologists travel to Europe and the US to gain knowledge, is the same way ancient Greeks would travel to Egypt to gain knowledge. The great ’embarrassment’ western tradition has tried to keep under wraps for centuries, has tried to ‘deflate’ through Hollywood misrepresentation, has fought in bad faith in the academic arena, is that the ancient Egyptians were black, and were the real ancestors of modern day Africans, from across the continent and in the diaspora. Today’s core Egyptian population comes from a mix between different successions of historically newcomers to Egypt; notably Turks and Arabs. In the ancient world, black people from Egypt, who became ‘browner’ during the later Pharaonic dynasties after centuries of conquests and ‘métissage/mixing’ with lighter conquered people (we’re seeing the reverse today), dominated the world. This question should be finally settled and taught. Not out of pride to claim some ancient glory, but for humanity to learn and reflect on the lessons of the past, without falsifying the past.
‘Western’ mathematics and in particular algebra, without which modern technology would not have come about, were initiated by the Persians and later developed by the Arabs. To understand the importance of just this contribution, one should just try and write, never mind calculate, 10,354 x 726 in Roman numbers! This fact although it is more widely known and better accepted than the ‘ancient Egypt was black’ cover up, has also been largely ignored and set aside by the modern West. Once again, perpetuating the idea that white western ingenuity solely deserves the credit for the technical advances humanity now enjoys in the modern world, is a criminal cover-up that impairs progress in the racism discussion.
In any case, and perhaps from a more philosophical perspective, scientific and technological advancement should not be boasted over for as long as it hasn’t resolved the ultimate human aspiration, which is the avoidance of death. In our modern times, the dominant West should reflect upon the true extent of its power. As a spiritual leader once declared in the course of an argument with a western materialist, during which the latter was marveling at the supremacy of rationale epistemology, technology and science, “if you’re so smart, don’t die!” It might thus be helpful for today’s dominant group who prides itself for the preeminence of its technology, and thus for the preeminence of its power, to reflect on the reality that despite these advances, despite a particular group living in better material conditions than others, the finality of all humans on this earth has remained the same. It is also perhaps the reason why the ancient Egyptians were so obsessed with immortality; the ultimate frontier of their power. To this day, that frontier has not been reached.
When it comes to the notion that having greater mastery of technology makes a particular group more ‘civilized’ than another, despite the many lessons we have from History on this assertion, most of today’s dominant West appears to not have taken heed. Just looking at recent history, one could reflect on how in the first few months of WW2, the Wehrmacht conquered Europe through its ‘blitzkrieg/lightning war’ and superior military technology. Did those accomplishments make the Third Reich more ‘civilized’ than the rest of Europe? Why then carry this contention that dominance over brown people all over the world by means of higher technology, and thus power, makes one more ‘civilized?’ On the moral and civilizational spectrum, justice administered with crude weaponry will forever remain higher than injustice committed with ballistic missiles and drones.
After all, power, then and now, whatever its source and whatever its form, when it is exercised unjustly for the sake of a few, rather than justly for the sake of many, has a name: it is called tyranny.
On the brown side of the discussion, the re-framing might begin with a sharper sense of reality.
Despite proclamations to the contrary and an urge to lecture the world about freedom, democracy, equality for all, modern western civilization does not practice what it preaches. It likes to act as the victim when it is the aggressor. It co-opts a mainstream press compromised by special corporate and ideological interests. It supports brutal regimes that do its bidding and decries legitimate other regimes that defy the current order. It establishes states through genocide of indigenous populations, tolerates discrimination against second-class minority groups, talks about liberty but expects everyone to conform to western cultural norms. Yet, many brown people the world over, perhaps as a coping mechanism, pretend not to see the huge gap between the outward western assertions on freedom, liberty, and justice, and the inward reality of western power.
Once brown people realize that the modern western world order does function on the basis of quasi- imperial power dynamics with a dominant group and a subjugated group, they might also realize that progress will not happen on the racism question for as long as the technological gap between the parties does not subside. The reason for that comes from the other reality that the opposite of racism is mutual respect. If the West sees itself better than others because of its technological advances and the power that derives from it, while others seem incapable of matching western technology but aspire to the same living standards that this technology provides, there can be no mutual respect. The process of acquiring one’s own technology is essential not just to earn respect, but also to earn one’s real freedom. It is also an endeavor that is hard, complicated, onerous, and at times extremely dangerous. Brown people, just like other non-western Europeans have done, should consider this reality in their re-framing of the racism issue.
Between 1941 and 1945, the Allies, despite adhering to different political ideologies, worked together in order to defeat Nazism and had to catch up with German military technology as a matter of survival; it was an extremely arduous process. In the post-war era, being prevented from political and military autonomy, a humiliated and damaged Japan decided to catch up with western consumer technologies; it was also an extremely arduous process. Today, China is following and perhaps surpassing Japan’s footsteps on not just consumer, but on all commercial technologies. While post-Soviet/post-1990s Russia is doing the same on the military front. None of these countries were given a free pass to ‘catch up’! Nor did they waste time adding insult to injury by turning to others in plea for help and apologies. Brown people then, must learn those lessons and take heed.
A journalist once asked an African father-of-independence leader “what was,” in his view “the worst thing that can happen to a human being?” The old man paused for a short while, and then replied, “losing one’s dignity!”
Being poor and over-powered is not a degrading state to be in and of itself; most peoples at some point in their history have experienced that. However, looking for sympathy and apologies for one’s misfortune, expecting others to relinquish power and provide for one, being unwilling to make sacrifices in order to uplift oneself, is degrading and makes one the laughing stock of the world. In order to regain some respect that will help close the gap in the racism discussion, brown people and leaders in brown countries must make all necessary efforts to ‘catch up’ and regain some dignity. Brown people who pretend not to care for the benefits of modern life tend not to be very genuine and thus not deserving of respect. Brown people who are not prepared to make the efforts and sacrifices needed to ‘catch up,’ but are so keen to flock in and emulate institutions built by others instead of building their own, are also not deserving of respect. Then brown people who do manage to regain some level of power, and who in turn, for the sake of correcting past injustices, themselves become unjust, perpetrate the downward cycle of racism.
Perhaps, through this reframing of the racism issue, primary schoolteachers the world over will one day begin the day with a different statement?
“Satellites, locomotives and bicycles are the result of human ingenuity over the ages. They make our daily lives better and they can be a source of great power. However, these technological and material achievements, however great they maybe, should not make us arrogant or make us think ourselves better than those who have not reached them. They should become a means to bring justice and peace to the entire world.”
- Note: my father’s primary school teacher at the Lycée Faidherbe in 1930s St Louis, Senegal. ↑