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Race in America (A Comment)

I am privileged to have a group of colleagues who like a bit of intellectual debate over ideas and current events. A month ago we found ourselves discussing the inequality of incomes in the United States in the context of Ferguson. We were curious to know the disparity of household incomes across blacks, Hispanics and White Americans.

In the course of that discussion we found that black people only make up 13% of the population, third behind Latinos (15%) and whites (72%). There was collective bewilderment. Apparently I am not the only one who was ignorant of this basic fact. I had always thought blanks represented something like 40-45%. That discovery led me to draw the following conclusions, as an African looking in from the outside.


First, the African American experience of being disadvantaged is not unique globally. In any country where a particular group is an extreme miniority they will be disadvantaged. We might even say their position is better. African Americas are not like black Africans in South Africa today or even many Black Africans in their own countries. In many parts of Africa black people are the majority and they find themselves in poverty compared to non-Africa elites.

Secondly, the selection of Obama was even more significant than I thought. When we consider the electoral mathematics it is impossible to have a black president unless white Americans collectively decide to have one. From the outside looking in, things may look politically bleak for African Americans. The election of Obama was really a huge statement that White America sent to Black America (and Latinos) that they are accepted as equal.

The question is whether Obama has done enough to make it politically easier or harder for the next African America or non-white person who may want to stand as president. Only time will tell! From the outside looking in, Obama appears to have been a rather divisive figure domestically, and abysmally inept internationally. But then again sometimes Americans seem to choose the party before the president. If that is the case, this point may contradict the second point above, though at the same time offering hope.

Thirdly, change cannot happen by force, black Americans must learn to persuade. This largely follows from the first point. When you are in a minority persuasion is the best course of action in bringing about change. Much of the approaches by the African American community, from the outside looking in, seems characterised by direct confrontation as we have seen in Ferguson. It is understandable given the history of slavery and discrimination. But if the African Americans are to have a lasting impact they must make intellectual investment. Again from the outside looking in the black intellectuals don't seem prominent.

Finally, black people are more noisier in the wrong areas which distorts their representation. This builds on the third point. The role models appear to be largely in sports, music, television and pentecostal televangelists. I am sure this is not in fact the case. However, representatives from these areas appear more noisy and socially influential. Perhaps they are more in touch with the the African American grassroots. The power of music, sport and film of course remains unrivalled.

And it is shocking that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson seems to be the dominant black voices. Surely there must be a plurality of voices. More variety of voices will help them deal with the political challenge of fighting to reduce large income inequalities and deal with some of the violence taking place on their community.

Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2013

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