By Austin C. Okigbo
The recent and still ongoing Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, which were sparked by the murdering of George Floyd by four police officers in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020 has shaken the world. Unlike other protest demonstrations against the killing of unarmed black men by the police, the current BLM is epochal for its heterogenous racial and ethnic participations, but more so for how it has been adopted across major cities of the world. The protests have led to the toppling of some colonial monuments, forcing new conversations on racial injustice in many quarters and spheres of human activities- economics, education, the arts, labor, health, and even in the spaces of religious bodies, some of whom have championed the cause of social justice even while being blindsided on the sets of inequities within their own ranks.
However, an important layer that has hardly garnered enough attention to warrant deep reflection and conversation is the ways in which African immigrants and those on the continent have responded to the current situation. There is seeming assumption that African immigrants (who I actually prefer to call the New African Diasporas, in contrast to the Old Diaspora whose founding in North American came about via the Middle Passage) are in the same boat as their African American brothers and sisters. That is true to a great extent given that many African immigrants and their American-born youths have been participating in the protests. There are also solidarity protests in cities such as Abuja, Accra, and Pretoria. In fact, BLM was cofounded by Opal Tometi who self-identifies as Nigerian American. Despite these, the indifference of many African immigrants, but more so the unguarded utterances by Africans here in the US and from the continent as seen on many social media platforms is telling. A Nigerian woman in Chicago for instance was seen reeling against the protests as excuse for African Americans to exonerate themselves from their self-inflicted social and economic woes. Some back on the continent tried to suggest that African Americans have been too lazy to take advantage of all the great opportunities available to them and rather preferring government handouts. Some wondered aloud why African immigrants succeed but African Americans do not.
The problem with these rantings (that’s what I call them) is that they exude ignorance of the fact of Black successes first, the history of American racism second, and how the systemic nature of that racism has functioned to impede or at least limit the extent of Black economic success. Yet, many African Americans have succeeded despite the obstacles of systemic racism. Thus, a refusal by our African brothers and sisters to acknowledge those successes amounts to another form of privilege- for what these Nigerians and Africans, especially those living and thriving here in the US are just saying to their African American cousins is, “we are better than you.” That attitude itself is more painful than the exhibition of white privilege. One wonders how an African knowing about the likes of Barack and Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Ben Carson, Quincy Jones, Robert F. Smith, Robert L. Johnson, David Steward, Jay-Z, and Michael Jordan to name but a few, can still assume that African Americans are so generally lazy and unproductive, contributing nothing to the economy except to live on government handouts. They are unaware of several Black-founded multibillion-dollar businesses which employ thousands, including some Africans on their payrolls. According to the US Census Bureau as reported in the Forbes Magazine online, there are roughly 2.5 million black-owned businesses. Among them, David Steward’s World Technology, Inc, which according to Investopedia 2018 listing is worth $11.28 billion with over 5,000 employees. Robert Smith’s and Bryan Sheth’s Vista Equity Partners employs about 65,000 people worldwide including in African countries such as Nigeria and South Africa.
Africans unfortunately have been relying on the Blaxploitation Hollywood portrayals of Blackness which is packaged and marketed to the rest of the world as part of America’s cultural self-image. My question to my fellow Nigerians and Africans is, have you considered also that the media-distorted images of African Americans you consume and on the basis of which you judge them is comparable to the same stereotypical packaging of the African as savages and which are still being distributed to the western audiences? Are we not perplexed when Americans (particularly white Americans) ask whether you ever drove a car in your country, or when upon entering a classroom your professor and fellow students act towards you like you are an innocent savage who may never grasp the “complex” education system, subjects, and the learning process?
I suggest that before you rant about African American laziness and wonder why African immigrants succeed and African Americans do not, first consider the fact that the same African Americans shed their blood and they still bear the scars of the struggle that made it possible for you to come here, and to succeed. Secondly, if you are unsure of African American intellectual contributions to America’s scientific and technological dominance, for goodness sake begin with going to watch the movie Hidden Figures. If you have no knowledge of how America’s racism has functionally impeded African American economic success beyond the history of slavery, then begin by reading Richard Wright’s The Black Boy and the story of the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa Oklahoma in 1921. Richard Wright and the story of the Black Wall Street show how, despite being given nothing to start with after the emancipation, every successful African American effort to build their own wealth have met with the backlash of white jealousy often culminating in lynching as a way to cease Black-owned businesses, or mob riots to destroy what Black people have worked so hard to build.
Africans here and on the continent must desist from regurgitating the same excuses that we often hear from Fox News and some White supremacists who want to divert attention from violent form of policing Black bodies by pointing to Black-on-Black violence, as if there is no White-on-White violence. Like I have contended with some friends, if you believe that all White people are so intelligent, rich, and morally untainted, free from drug problems, sexual immorality, and so saintly nonviolent, then I have a bridge that I can sell to you.
Finally, I urge us all to be good students of history and recognize that African American poverty is part of the larger global Black poverty that is historically rooted in late enlightenment and the Europeans’ quest for global and racial domination. That history still largely accounts for Black poverty in Africa, Brazil and the Greater Latin American, and the Caribbean. Hence, I must reiterate by saying no, African Americans do not want handouts, they want equal opportunity and the freedom to live and grow their own wealth without interference from supremacists. Right now, America’s systemic racism is still impeding Black economic development and independence, and, every instance of violent policing of the Black body such as in the murder of George Floyd heaps insult on the historical pain and injury.
Austin C. Okigbo teaches Ethnomusicology and Africana Studies at University of Colorado at Boulder.
Twitter handle: @aokigbo