By Andrew M. Mwenda
Lessons for Africa from the daily killings of young black teenagers in America at the hands of racist police officers
The ink had not yet dried on the grand jury decision that exonerated police officer Darren Wilson for the cold-bloodied murder of 18-year old Micheal Brown in Ferguson, Missouri when another trigger-happy police officer, Timothy Loehmann, shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland Ohio. The little boy was playing with a toy gun in a children’s park. And it took the officer only two seconds upon arrival on the scene to shoot and kill him. In both cases, and in many such cases on a daily basis in America, black male teenagers are killed by white police officers for no reason except the colour of their skin. And in almost all the cases, these white police officers get away with it in this supposedly democratic country.
The subjugation of black people is a deeply entrenched aspect of U.S. social and political life – first in form of slavery, then apartheid under Jim Crow laws, and now the criminalisation of blackness. If there is anything like democracy in America, its institutions stand in promotion and defense of this injustice. The “democratic” process – with its free media, consistently promotes the narrative that a criminal is a black male. So effective has been the mass media propagation of the image of a black person as a criminal in the U.S. that most Americans subconsciously equate crime to blackness. This has led many otherwise well meaning white Americans to tolerate the gross injustices promoted against blacks by law enforcement institutions.
For example, study after study in America shows that whites use drugs more than blacks. Yet when, in 1995, a study was done in America asking people to close their eyes and imagine and describe a drug user, 95% of the respondents pictured a black drug user. These results were greatly at odds with reality because blacks constitute only 15% of drug users in America. Whites constitute the majority of drug users yet almost no one pictured a white person when asked to imagine what a drug user looks like.
This criminalisation of blackness has been greatly aided by America’s so called democratic institutions – the mass media and the electoral process. The standard news script in America is so thoroughly racialised that audiences imagine a black perpetrator even when and where there is none. In one study (quoted in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow), 60% of viewers who saw a crime story with no image of a perpetrator falsely recalled seeing one and 70% of those viewers believed the perpetrator to be a black male. Today politicians stoke fear among the electorate by using these stereotypes to promote “tougher law enforcement” – which is actually a code word for jailing more black people.
Although whites use and trade in drugs more than blacks, the majority of people arrested and sent to jail for drug offenses are black. Study after study shows that even where a black and a white person are arrested for the same drug offense, courts give blacks longer prison sentences than whites. While people in the U.S. talk of an American dream, most blacks in that country have lived only an American nightmare. But the system is smart. It has a habit of picking out some few lucky blacks that have succeeded against all odds as examples that it is colourblind.
Thus, the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008, or the success of people like Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice or Will Smith etc. is presented as evidence of progress. In a way it is – but that is a small part of an otherwise sad story.
This “progress” disguises the worst forms of injustice that continue to be meted out against American blacks. The success of people like Obama and Powell provides a smokescreen that allows the killings of young black males like Trayvon Martin, Brown and Rice to continue – they are used as examples to deny the existence of institutionalised racial discrimination.
How does America criminalise an entire part of its population and yet retain this image as successful democracy in the minds of many people, especially the African intellectual elite? One way it hides its crimes at home and abroad is America’s consistent presentation of its self-image as a democracy. By constantly positioning itself as the defender of freedom, liberty, and human rights around the globe – and doing so with a pious expression – America has successfully hoodwinked people to believe in the fairness of its institutions. This campaign for human rights abroad is actually a strategy to mask the gross racial and economic injustices at home.
Having been born after independence and growing up in a country where the injustices around me were by fellow Ugandans (or Africans), I did not appreciate the depth of the meaning of the struggle against colonial rule. Living in American and reading about its racial relations helped open my mind’s eyes to the importance of our sovereignty. There are one million and one injustices meted out against many individual Ugandans by our police. But our police do not go killing people every day for being who they are.
We African elites have ideal illusions about America (and the Western world) – as being free, fair, and democratic. These illusions make us see our own systems as unfair and unjust. This is because consumption of Western media and academic works have created a subconscious self-hatred in us – so we see everything African as bad, backward, or evil and everything Western as noble, fair, and just. We have become too quick to see our weakness and so blind to our strength. Equally we are so anxious to see the good in other societies, especially western, and so blind to the glaring inequities in those countries.
Consequently, we have become subconscious promoters of our own dehumanisation. You cannot improve a person or nation by focusing on its weaknesses. You do so by leveraging their strength. We African elites need to begin seeing what is good and great in our societies – our entrepreneurs, citizens, leaders, institutions etc. Only that can help us see our strength and use it to promote our progress. Otherwise, our self-hate will lead us to invite those who shot Martin, Brown and Rice to come and shoot us here. It happened in the 19th century through colonialism. It can happen again.