Does the Black Community Have a Problem?

Possibly because it’s Black History Month (US/Canada), I’m seeing a burst of Facebook discussions among my black friends on that old favourite: why do black communities underperform others? Various economic, education and health metrics still demonstrate large gaps between black and other populations, and inevitably people wonder why. The old white supremacist explanation – that black people are simply biologically inferior – has gradually faded from grace in recent decades, although this idea is often still hinted at.

Discussion among black people tends to swing between blaming others (it’s caused by racism/colonialism/the aftermath of slavery/etc.) and blaming themselves (why don’t black people invest in each other like Indians and Jews seem to do?) Meanwhile, many white liberals tend to blame racism and colonialism while simultaneously showing an almost colonial lack of faith in black societies to sort out problems for themselves.

It appears to me though that the truth is better, and the outlook more optimistic than any of these viewpoints might consider. I admit that I long supported the “white guilt” viewpoint. The Caribbean Londoners I grew up with undoubtedly suffered greatly from racism and police brutality. They also lagged far behind white people in educational achievement and economic success. There was an obvious correlation between race and disadvantage; many people (me included) therefore assumed that one was the cause of the other. But of course, assuming causation from correlation is the oldest mistake in the book.

It was my own black friends who helped set me straight on this, pointing out that they had escaped council estates, made careers and raised stable families, despite experiencing persistent racism. From their micro-perspective, the difference was clear: those whose families valued literacy and education succeeded. Those who came from families that placed little value on education did not.

The disparities between different racial groups should cast doubt on the idea that racism causes communities to fail. In the 1930s, Jews faced immense prejudice. They were also mostly economic migrants, and lacked capital. And yet many – including both of my grandfathers – opened businesses and moved out of the East End ghetto into the suburbs.

The Caribbean immigrants who began arriving in the late-1940s did not follow the same pattern of success as the Jews. But the East African Asians who fled Uganda in the 1970s did. The Pakistanis who came later did not do so well. But the West Africans who came in the 1980s and 1990s did better.

What kind of “racism” is so selective? When Indian and Chinese children do better in school than whites, but Pakistanis and Bengalis do worse, how can anti-Asian racism be blamed? And now, West Africans (mostly from Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone) outperform white children but children originating in the Caribbean do not. How can this be explained by anti-black racism? In short, it can’t.

I attended the “blackest” school in the UK, where around 75% of the kids were first or second generation immigrants from the Caribbean. While some of the Caribbean migrants had come from educated, middle class homes, the majority didn’t. Many of my school friends left school with scant literacy and no qualifications. Many of their parents too were semi-literate, having come from rural island communities to take up work as bus conductors. Today, I still have friends in their 40s and 50s who have limited literacy.

This generation of black Londoners faced savage racism in the 1970s and 1980s, especially from the police; they also were excluded, by their lack of qualifications, from universities and well paid jobs. It was easy to combine the two things in folklore: to say that Babylon (the Rastafarian word for the white power structure) would never offer opportunities to black people. This was easy to believe. I believed this. To add to the confusion, black British people compared their position to that of black Americans and South Africans. This was deeply inaccurate; Britain never had racial segregation laws or traditions to overturn. The racism may have been superficially similar, but the political reality was incomparable.

But when, starting in the 1990s, many West African immigrants breezed into universities and professional jobs, it became clear that this racial model of British society was wrong. I had to question my own beliefs, forged among the afro-centric viewpoints I absorbed in my teens. When a Nigerian friend graduated as an accountant and invited me to her awards ceremony, I saw a new British reality. Expecting to see a line-up dominated by Jews and Indians, I instead saw Chinese, Nigerian and Ghanaian graduates collecting their certificates.

So does the black British community have a problem? The question is meaningless. There is no coherent black community. Grouping people together based on their skin colour is nonsensical, and indicates a racist world view. The key deciding factor in a person’s economic success in the UK is their level of literacy and education. It turns out that working class black people originating from the Caribbean have far more in common, economically, with white British people than they do with those of West African origin. The same applies to those immigrants from rural Pakistan versus those from urban India.

This doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem with racism – this is still alive and well, and the rise of UKIP reveals a strong xenophobic streak in British society. For black parents wondering how to give their children the greatest chance of success, the answer is the same as for any other parent: teach them to read and write young, to behave at school, and to develop a thirst for lifelong learning. And most of all, tell them that the colour of their skin is no excuse for failure.

Black Jesus

African Jesus
Jesus wasn’t European. He wasn’t African either.

I’ve blogged previously on some of the moronic theories surrounding Afrocentric thinking; this image, liberated from Facebook, illustrates one of my favourites.

Like many nonsensical ideas, this is based on a grain of truth: some European artists did paint Jesus as white, and often blond with blue eyes. There are two main reasons for this, the first being simple ignorance; the second being that the Vatican, on a relentless mission to persecute Jews, tried to hide the awkward fact that their Messiah (if he had indeed existed) was a Middle Eastern Jew.

From the Afrocentric perspective, the inaccurate depiction of Jesus as a northern European could only mean one thing: yet another white conspiracy to steal the true history of the black man.

The top two pictures seem to based on a moronic misreading of Revelation 1:14-15:

14 The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.

So the designers of this image have decided that “hair white like wool” means Jesus sported an afro (they’ve obviously never seen a lamb) and “feet like bronze glowing in a furnace” means he had dark skin (they’ve obviously never seen molten bronze either).

This leaves the map, which is deliberately misleading. The continent of Africa is shown, with an inset showing the Middle East (which isn’t in Africa, although it is adjacent to Egypt).

This is about as nonsensical as conspiracy theories come, and incredibly easy to pick apart. So why do people believe it? This theory results from the collision of two strong and conflicting memes. The African diaspora has experienced incredibly brutal treatment from white society, but also received Christianity from whites. The impulse to separate the two is natural. Perhaps it would be more intellectually honest to reject Christianity altogether; many have of course done so. Some have adopted Islam (though this comes with the problem that it, like Christianity, originates outside Africa). Others have tried to adopt African animist beliefs, but this is fraught with difficulty. Animist belief varies widely from place to place in Africa, and has only been documented in recent centuries. Of course, adoption of Atheism may resolve much of this conflict, but is a step too far for Afrocentrics raised in strongly Christian homes.

Unfortunately, the teaching of myth as history is strong in the Afrocentric tradition, and it perpetuates rather than resolves the problems faced by the black diaspora in Europe and America. Teaching black children to adopt evidence-free dogma, rather than scientific reasoning, relegates them to the educational second ranks in Western society. Teaching a child to question, to look for evidence, and to keep an open mind, is essential to success in a modern, rational society.

The saddest thing of all is that, rather than celebrate the true strengths of African civilisation, which are unique, the Afrocentrics try to impose Western measures of success on Africa, and end up looking foolish in the process. The painting of Jesus (essentially a Roman invention) as a black man is a great example of this.

Rewriting African History

Map of Africa
The Ignored Continent

It’s Black History Month in the US (Britain’s being in October) – a time set aside for furthering the understanding of African and diaspora history among the black population and, hopefully among non-blacks too. The history of the African diaspora being such a bizarre and brutal one, Black History Month was created to create strength and stability in a rootless, subjugated population. It’s a time to learn about the heroes of the diaspora, those whose actions created hope in people whose position was apparently hopeless. From Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of Haiti’s successful slave rebellion against the French, through the Jamaican Marcus Garvey who fostered the idea of a black return to Africa, to the civil rights heroes Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and beyond, diaspora history is the story of people overcoming enormous odds.

The era running roughly from the 1950s to the 1970s was a time of global black advancement, with African and black Caribbean states throwing off colonial rule while black Americans took huge steps forward. This movement created its own stories, which were used to raise black pride as a necessary part of putting right gross injustices. These Afrocentric ideas included much mythology, and many mistaken views of history, but played an essential political role nonetheless.

Prior to the rise of Afrocentric thinking, sub-Saharan African history had almost entirely been been written by non-blacks. With the exception of Ethiopia, literacy is a relatively new import to the region, first arriving in northern parts with the Arab Empire around a thousand years ago, and becoming more widespread as Europeans arrived in the past 500 years. The first written documentary of black Africa was done largely by white people viewing very strange and different cultures, and could never have been an accurate or balanced portrayal of African culture.

But Afrocentrism didn’t change that; it was a wishful view of Africa written largely by people who had never set foot on the continent. Its goal wasn’t accuracy, but to provide a counter-balance to white views of Africa and black people. The American descendants of slaves, existing as a minority in one of the world’s most brutally racist societies, understandably saw the world in a racial way; American politics have always been racial, and so the history of slavery and the slave trade was therefore rewritten in the same way, to suit black American sentiment: white people kidnapped Africans from their homeland and transported them to the Americas.

The slave trade however, was triangular: manufactured goods were taken to Africa; slaves were taken to the Americas; cotton and sugar were brought back to Europe. People became rich at all three points; the English cities of Bristol and Liverpool were build on slave trade money; equally, an African elite became wealthy by selling Africans. Many of today’s wealthy Africans descend from this same elite.

It’s estimated that when Europeans first arrived in West Africa, between one-third to two-thirds of the population were slaves. Even earlier, Arabic explorers who ventured south of the Sahara documented rich individuals owning hundreds of slaves. The first European involvement in the African slave trade was by the Portuguese, who bought slaves on the Slave Coast (Nigeria/Benin) and sold them to the Asante of the Gold Coast (Ghana) in exchange for gold.

When the British outlawed the slave trade, they didn’t just hurt European traders – even more, they damaged the West African economy, which was in large part based on slave exports. With demand diminished, prices fell and slave ownership rocketed within Africa. The 10 million or so slaves that were exported across the Atlantic represented a small percentage of the total number of Africans in slavery. The Afrocentric view either ignores this majority, or creates new myths: Afrocentric thinkers will often claim that slavery in Africa was a more civilised matter than what took place in the Americas; eye-witness reports of slaves being sacrificed, their blood spread in the fields, to appease gods, suggest otherwise. Afrocentric viewpoints write the majority of slaves out of history; to suit the political needs of black America, the stories of countless millions of Africans have been ignored.

Afrocentrism attacks other people’s stories too. Afrocentric thinkers find it convenient to claim that ancient Egypt, Africa’s first great civilisation, was a black one. This ignores the inconvenient reality that today’s Egyptians (and north Africans in general) aren’t black; to which the Afrocentric response is that the original Egyptians were somehow wiped out and replaced by Arabs, Turks or Greeks. As to when this enormous genocide supposedly took place, I’ve yet to hear a straight answer. It may seem harmless to allow people to maintain this mythology; yet it is an essentially racist one, denying the right of anyone who isn’t black to be an African. The black race is just one of several racial groups indigenous to Africa; Afrocentrics would write the others out of history, and deny modern Egyptians, Libyans, Tunisians their African identity.

The myths become more ludicrous. Some even stake a claim for black ownership of Israel/Palestine… as if the Palestinians didn’t already have enough problems. Some still talk about a black Jesus. The racist cult, the Nation of Islam states that white people are the invention of an ancient black scientist.

Afrocentric moronic myths date back decades, and have been debunked many times, yet every black history month sees them resurrected. Black History Month was supposed to be about black history. Africa isn’t served by the repetition of made-up tales; neither are black children benefited by being taught stories in place of history. Black Americans still have a mountain to climb to find equality in their own country, but angry, racist groups like the NoI or the New Black Panthers seem to serve little useful role any more. But things are changing: an economically resurgent Africa is finding its own voice, as African universities produce graduates in ever greater numbers. The diaspora itself is increasingly dominated by African migrants – Nigerians for example are among the most successful immigrant groups, both in the US and in Britain. Africa can now speak for itself, and as America’s global cultural impact is fading, so is black America’s.

In the US, despite the election of Obama, black people are still the victims of institutionalised racism. Since the civil rights movement made all races equal in law, new methods of “legal lynching” have been invented; the corrupt War on Drugs has been used to target black people, and the black prison population has rocketed in the past 20 years. A million black people are currently in US prisons. It’s understandable that Afrocentric myths find a fertile breeding ground in the US, but they do nothing to help understand Africa or its history. Afrocentric thinking has served its purpose – it’s time to consign it to the trash can of black history.