Election 2012: America’s Tipping Point?

Fox News team looking sad
Why the long faces?

America has two broad histories: what happened, and what Americans think happened. America’s brutal history is hard to square with its talk of liberty and equality, but the schizophrenic nation somehow manages to blend reality with fiction almost seamlessly. The fairy tales start from the nation’s very beginning. The Enlightenment in Europe was proposing radical new ideas: that science and reason should triumph over religion and superstition; that tolerance and fairness should triumph over persecution. Americans are sold a story in which the early settlers were chased out of a barbaric Europe that refused to tolerate their religious beliefs; in reality, the Enlightenment was challenging the most intolerant religious factions. Those Christian zealots who fled to America weren’t running from intolerance, but fleeing because their right to be intolerant was under threat.

These origins created a contradictory, fractured nation: a constitution based on the Enlightenment, but a population that was strongly opposed to Enlightenment values. As a result, America has always been an outlier when measured against other continents. More religious, more violent, less tolerant than other countries of similar levels of wealth; clinging on to slavery long after the Atlantic slave trade had been outlawed by the British; creating racial segregation laws unlike anything seen in post-medieval Europe (with the exception of Nazi-era antisemitic laws).

For most of its history, the US white majority has been strongly racist and deeply religious. The civil-rights era laid the groundwork for true equality in some future time, but it frightened and enraged the white majority. The Republican Party, once the party of abolition, embraced its infamous Southern Strategy to mop up the white racist vote that had once belonged to the Democrats.

For decades, this strategy worked. From 1972 until 2008, there were six Republican presidential terms and only three Democratic ones. But predictable changes were happening. America’s social values were inevitably becoming more progressive, for several reasons: in post-civil rights America, young people of different races were – slowly at first – beginning to mix with each other; immigrants from around the world were bringing new ideas; the population was urbanising; and, thanks to the Internet, Americans were becoming exposed to a global market of ideas from which most had been previously excluded. Republicans were dominant, but their dominance was reliant on a shrinking base.

The tipping point arrived quietly at some point in the past decade. With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, it seemed America had passed a point of no return. The symbol of a black President gave an unmistakable message of change. The Republicans needed to accept and embrace the changes in society, and many attempted to. But they were tangled in their own past. A huge segment of Republican support was right-wing, racist and religious. With some help from Fox News and cash from corporate backers, the so-called Tea Party movement emerged; an enraged backlash against inevitable change. They successfully seized the Republican agenda, removing moderates from office and shifting the party to the extreme right. Their calls to “take back our country” failed to mask the unmistakable screams of a lynch mob.

The Republicans became perfect moron-watching material. Every week would produce a new story so outrageous, I would have to check multiple sources before tweeting or blogging about it; attacks on women’s reproductive rights, rejections of mainstream science, attempts to include religious orthodoxy in mainstream education, witch-hunts against Muslims.

The life of a Republican presidential candidate was made impossible – how to present yourself as far-right to the angry, white, religious Republican base while simultaneously as centrist to the wider electorate?

I believe Obama’s 2012 victory is more significant even than his 2008 win. This time, he was an incumbent with a varying record in office. This time, the novelty factor of a black candidate was no longer in play. The US economy is not in great shape. He has faced relentless campaigns trying to prove that he was born outside the US or labelling him a Muslim. Yet he won. The screams of rage from the right this time are louder than before. Because this time, his victory can’t be blamed on some kind of black sympathy vote, or on John McCain’s suitability as a candidate. The 2012 victory demonstrates the existence – for the first time ever – of a narrow progressive (or at least centrist) majority in America.

Obama’s win wasn’t the only sign of this. Two states voted to legalise recreational use of marijuana, and four voted in favour of gay marriage. The screams of rage are in mourning, not just for an election defeat, but for an America where white, Christian, racist males dominated. This was best summed up by the right-wing Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly on election night when he glumly stated: “the white establishment is now in the minority“.

The Republicans need to embrace the new reality, but that’s easier said than done. A constituency of white, Christian racists still exists, and it numbers in the tens of millions. In a multi-party democracy, the Tea Party could form its own political party, but in America’s enforced duopoly, they have nowhere else to go, and so the chance that the Republicans can move towards the centre is remote.

Unfortunately, the Republican swing to the right has taken the most important issues off the US agenda. Climate change, inequality and the corporate threat to democracy were barely mentioned in the election campaign. Big oil and corporate power were the winners.

One thing is certain – the US religious right is still huge, is angrier than ever, and still controls the House of Representatives. Now cornered, expect its last stand to be spectacular.

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.