AFRICANGLOBE – The failure to acknowledge race as a fundamental feature of today’s unequal world order remains a striking weakness of radical as well as conventional analyses of that order. Current global and national socioeconomic hierarchies are not mere residues of a bygone era of primitive accumulation. Just as it should be inconceivable to address the past, present, and future of American society without giving central attention to the role of African American struggles, so analyzing and addressing 21st-century structures of global inequality requires giving central attention to Africa.
“We acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade, including the transatlantic slave trade, were appalling tragedies in the history of humanity not only because of their abhorrent barbarism but also in terms of their magnitude, organized nature and especially their negation of the essence of the victims, and further acknowledge that slavery and the slave trade are a crime against humanity and should always have been so, especially the transatlantic slave trade, and are among the major sources and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, and that Africans and people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian descent and indigenous peoples were victims of these acts and continue to be victims of their consequences. — Declaration of the World Conference Against Racism, Durban, South Africa, September 8, 2001
Coming only days before September 11, this acknowledgment by world governments of the legal premise of the reparations movement gained little media attention. The 62-page declaration and program of action, already undermined by a last-minute U. S. withdrawal from the conference, faded into obscurity even more rapidly than the conclusions of other global conferences that have proliferated in recent decades. In any case, the commitments made in Durban to repair the consequences of racism were even vaguer than most such conference commitments, such as new pledges to finance development adopted by consensus at the Monterrey poverty summit in March 2002.
Yet the failure to acknowledge race as a fundamental feature of today’s unequal world order is not confined to Bush administration unilateralists or international diplomats crafting new compromise language for promises destined to be betrayed. With some notable exceptions, such as Winant, 2001 and Marable, 2004, authors of the vast array of commentaries on globalization and even of the more recent crop of writings about empire treat race only in passing — if they mention it at all. Such reticence about race applies not only to advocates of the Washington Consensus of free-market fundamentalism and to cheerleaders for U. S. empire, but also to more critical analysts of a variety of persuasions from center to left.
The end of the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1994 marked the demise of racial discrimination as explicit state policy, just as the mid-1960s victories of the civil rights movement in the United States had marked the end of the Jim Crow system of segregation in the U. S. south. But the persistence of de facto racial inequality into the 21st century is pervasive in both nations, as well as globally. Its relative invisibility in public commentary and analysis must be considered a fundamental feature of the current moment requiring explanation.
21st Century Color Lines
Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2003) and other analysts, focusing on the current U. S. racial order, have posited an ideology of “color-blind racism,” which allows for continuation of racial inequality while firmly rejecting overt racial distinctions or discrimination. One of the key components of this ideology is to deny the link between past and present, so that people regardless of their background are seen as starting on a level playing field. This assumption fits well with the companion ideology stressing the virtues of the neutral market, which all are presumed to approach with similar possibilities of success. Such an ideology gains credibility from the visible success of individuals from the subordinate group, which does in the case of race mark a break with earlier ideologies of rigid discrimination. With successful individuals in the foreground, and even celebrated as illustrating diversity, it becomes easier to view continuing structural inequality as relatively unimportant, or even to dismiss it altogether. Persistent poverty or other disadvantages can conveniently be attributed entirely to individual defects, and seen as unrelated to past or present discrimination.
The dominant ideology thus diverts attention from the structural bases of persistent and rising inequality. Contrary views are portrayed as divisive promotion of class warfare or racial hostility. Meanwhile, progressive forces have failed to forge a persuasive counter-perspective integrating both race and class that similarly facilitates united opposition to the dominant order. Recently Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres have argued that race is like a miner’s canary, with damage to minority communities signaling the damaging structural hierarchies permeating the society (Guinier and Torres, 2002). They further argue that racial mobilization, combined with openness to wider coalition-building, must be a fundamental component of progressive action in the United States. Many others have made similar arguments, while documenting the persistence of racial inequality, in unemployment, incarceration, denial of voting rights, and other arenas. Yet it is no secret that progressive forces have had little success in implementing such strategies on more than a fragmentary local basis.
Building a progressive U. S. internationalism that acknowledges the impact of race, both internally and globally, is an even more intimidating challenge than that on the domestic front. The growing impact of immigration also makes such issues unavoidable in other industrialized countries as well. The much-celebrated demonstrations in Seattle and similar anti-corporate globalization events have been notable for their failure to make such connections, despite efforts to do so by many of the activist groups involved (Martinez, 2000). Despite trans-Atlantic contacts made at the World Conference against Racism, even for most supporters the U. S. reparations movement retains an almost exclusive domestic focus, rather than a campaign situated within the context of damages done to the African continent as well. Despite overwhelming opposition among Black Americans to Bush’s war in Iraq, and efforts by groups such as Black Voices for Peace, the anti-war movement has generally been unable to make connections with broader opposition to domestic and global inequality.
Neither the conceptual nor practical solutions to this impasse are easy to discern. But surely one prerequisite is for progressive analysts to acknowledge that W. E. B. Du Bois’s prediction that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line applies to the new century as well. Such continuity must surely count among the deep structures still characterizing the world today.
This is not to deny the significance of recent changes, whether the shift from a bipolar to a unipolar geostrategic order, the accelerating velocity of global communication, the triumph symbolized by Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994, or the globalization of threats of terrorism and counter-terrorism. Nevertheless, both the visible and real global hierarchies, whether measured in terms of economic power and privilege, human security, or access to effective political rights, show a close correlation with the order established by the centuries of slavery, conquest, and colonial rule.
To the extent that the gatherings of the World Social Forum in Brazil and India do prefigure another possible world vision, it is still a world in which one continent — Africa — is strikingly underrepresented. [as of writing of this article in 2005] Speculation about the rise of new forces to global prominence to challenge U. S. hegemony center on the advance of Asia, including China and India as well as Japan. The potential weight of the Asian continent, with more than half of the estimated world population of some 6.4 billion, is clearly linked to sheer numbers as well as to the structure of the world system. But the profound gap between Africa (some 870 million people) and less populous continents such as Europe (729 million), North America (509 million) and South America (367 million) is easily visible in any compilation of comparative statistics of development, from life expectancy to gross national product to vulnerability to the AIDS pandemic.
The point here is neither to rehearse such familiar statistics nor to call for continent-based quotas in reflections about the current state of the world. Rather, it is to suggest that the Guinier-Torres analogy of the miner’s canary applies globally as well as in the United States. Just as it should be inconceivable to address the past, present, and future of American society without giving central attention to the role of African American struggles, so analyzing and addressing the structures of global inequality requires giving central attention to Africa.
The mechanisms responsible for creating and maintaining such inequality are not unique to Africa, but their effects are most starkly visible there. That is why Africa figures prominently on the agenda of international institutions, from the World Bank to the panoply of specialized UN agencies. The fact that Africa nevertheless remains marginal to public debate across the political spectrum outside the continent is an indicator of the absence of a global social contract and of the current weakness of movements to establish a world order based on principles other than market values.
Within the United States, as Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro convincingly showed in their landmark book Black Wealth, White Wealth (1995), inheritance remains a central mechanism in perpetuating racial inequality, even when there is significant upward mobility in jobs and income for some. On a global scale, the common-sense case for the lasting effect on the current global hierarchy of centuries of primitive accumulation of wealth by violence is so obvious that it seems incredible that it is not generally acknowledged, whether or not one argues that there should be a statute of limitations on responsibility for repairing the damage. Yet in fact such causal links are commonly dismissed as irrelevant “ancient history” or simply ignored by policy- makers and scholars alike. The debate opened up by such classic works as Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery (1944) and Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) has yet to be integrated into current reflections about globalization and empire.