By Toussaint Kafarhire Murhula, S.J., Ph.D.,
Our African Studies Association of Africa has strongly condemned the appalling violence done to African migrants, many of whom died in the mishandling of Spain's Melilla border crisis. We noticed with sadness how the world cares less about African human rights and allows horrors of this kind to happen in this day and age. Racism is morally and intrinsically evil and it should be condemned. For this reason, ASAA calls on African governments to improve their institutions and structures to avoid sending its own sons and daughters to die in the desert, at sea, or on borders like the tragedy we are referring to. Those brothers and sisters of ours who need to run to Europe to feel humans are sending us a message that we cannot be bystanders to how political elites are squandering historic opportunities to make Africa again the land of life. It is obvious that others will treat African migrants the way we treat them at home. Thus, the primary responsibility in the fight against racism lies with us. African leaders should demand accountability in the recent Spain-Morocco border crisis. If people cannot see it, this incident is part of a systemic abuse and structural sin that has relegated Africans to the rank of lesser human. People might not say it to appear politically correct, but their actions towards Africans betrays it. It is this attitude, rooted in a long history of racism, in colonising structures, and in a belief that discriminates against social privileges and human treatment based on skin colour.
The Currency of Global Racism
In The East African magazine, Issue of June 15, 2020, Tanzanian lawyer, Jenerali Ulimwengu blames Africans for staying on the sideline while “we see the streets of Rome, London and Hamburg full of White people carrying placards reading “Black Lives Matter.” For him, Africans should be ashamed for their apathy to a global problem like racism, especially when an African man is directly concerned. He was referring to the lukewarm reaction by Africans when “[a]n African [American] man had his breath squeezed out of him on global live television [and] we did not see,” he notes that “we [Africans] forget our mind the Floyds took with them to America!” The “8 minutes and 42 seconds” video of George Floyd’s choking under the knee of a Minnesota police officer was widely shared on social media and mainstream televisions. Arguably, the horrifying scene appalled the world, raising a global awareness about racial injustice. The ensuing solidarity at the global level reminisces what American civil rights leader and Baptist Pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Yet, it is crucial to understand why Africans relegated themselves “to the station of spectators' ' instead of descending in the streets to protest the death of Floyd. Perhaps Africa’s attitude should give us a pause to ask the right questions.
The Art of Asking Questions
When everyone else showed concern and went out to protest the structural and institutionalized racism epitomized in the public murder of George Floyd, what could possibly explain the seeming indifference of Africans? What is so unique about the George Floyd murder that suddenly raised global awareness about the banality of anti-Black racism which, though flagrant, has remained hidden and has barely received attention in recent years? Put in a wider moral framework, this question could be rephrased as follows. Whose life qualifies as deserving respect or the benefits of social justice? When we say that “Black Lives Matter,” who counts as Black and to whom do Black Lives really matter? Why has the world failed to notice the racial plight of Africans in general? Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe is probably right when he contends that the world has already accepted misrepresentations of Africa as hell on earth, a place where nothing works, and nothing has ever worked to justify indifference toward sufferings endured by Africans.
A widespread phenomenon
George Floyd’s death was not an isolated case. And the ensuing trial and sentencing to 22.5 years in prison of the policeman involved in his murder, Derreck Chauvin, cannot bring satisfying reparation. Indeed, the existing pattern of killing African Americans by the police reveals that the problem is structural. To illustrate how racism is deeply ingrained in the American system, the Legal Action Center (LAC) Blog listed recurring incidents of violence in which Black people were brutally killed on the streets, or in their homes, by the very police that are supposed to protect them. The Legal Action Center argues that “we must acknowledge the grotesque breadth of state-sanctioned violence against Black people for what it is – racist and unjustifiable.” It provides statistics on how the Black community is affected by state violence and lists the most recent racist state murders. “The attacks on Ahmaud, Breonna, and George are reprehensible, intolerable, and horrifically all too common. Botham Jean was shot and killed while relaxing in his Texas apartment. Atatiana Jefferson was shot to death while babysitting in her home in Texas. Stephon Clark was killed in his grandparents’ backyard in California. Alton Sterling was shot outside of a convenience store in Louisiana. Aiyana Jones was killed while she was sleeping in her home in Michigan. Mike Brown was shot on the streets of Missouri. Trayvon Martin was shot walking in his neighbourhood in Florida. Philando Castile was killed sitting in his car in Minnesota. Eric Garner was choked to death on a sidewalk in New York City.”
Beyond the American experience, the plight of Africans (and people from African descent) is, indeed, tangled up in the violence of capitalism's existing order. If abuses against the Black communities are commonplace in the long history of the Americas, both North and South, this cannot be separated from the development of the capitalist system that commodified certain populations for the sake of profit. To this day, Africans and people from African descent continue to endure horrific sufferings inflicted upon them based on racial stereotypes. Thus, we saw in the aftermaths of George Floyd’s murder, thousands of protesters taking to the streets in Paris chanting that what happened in the US has been happening in France [and elsewhere] are right. Indeed, after the killing of George Floyd in the US, a 2016 forgotten case of Adama Traore, a young Malian man killed in police custody was exhumed as protesters demanded justice. A Congolese national died in the streets of New Delhi in India in May 2016 after he was assaulted on racism charges while another one died in August 2021, in police custody in Bangalore. In April 2020, a group of African Ambassadors in Beijing felt prompted to complain in a letter they sent to the Chinese government to expose systemic discriminations, mistreatments, and harassments that Africans living in China were undergoing. In June of the same year, a heart-rending witness by a 71-year-old Black Member of the European Union in Brussels revealed what is going on for people of African descent, away from media camera spotlights, when nobody is watching. This woman describes the humiliating treatment she underwent by Belgian police despite her social status as a member of the EU Parliament. In her own words, she says, “[t]hey grabbed my handbag from me, pushed me against the wall, spread my legs and one of the police officers wanted to frisk me. And they dealt with me in a very humiliating way.”
Closer to us in time is a recent video that went viral on social media, showing shocking images of African migrants mingled with lifeless bodies of their peers at the Melilla Morocco-Spain border. The corpses were piled up together with the yet alive but very weak bodies of injured migrants. A Moroccan policeman is shown beating up those already in agony with a stick. The only sign that they are still alive is their contorting movements out of pain. The images are deeply disturbing. The sight of the Moroccan border police exercising unrestrained violence on agonising migrant bodies and patrolling these dead bodies in total indifference of others is unbearable. Immigration is surely not a crime! And even if it were, there are acceptable ways of dealing with criminals that do not debase their fundamental rights and human dignity. Besides, Africans have not forgotten how EU member states discriminated against African refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. Ethel Ansaeh Otto, a Ghanaian student, testifies that they [neighbouring Poland] would mostly consider White people first, Indian people second, then Arabs before they can turn to Black people. These stories aren’t fictions; they are lived experiences in this 21st century although they constitute just a tiny tip of the racism iceberg that Africans endure daily in the international system simply because they are Black.
Is Our Moral Capital in Bankruptcy?
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality,” as Martin Luther King Jr., once said. Racism in modern history is primarily part of the development of global capitalism and the result of the construction of the international power apparatus to ensure stability of mechanisms and institutions of access to – and distribution of – privileges pertaining to the system. The problem of racism in the US (and in the world) is structural, systemic, and historical. The internalising of individualistic beliefs in US political history, rooted in a libertarian understanding of freedom and social welfare, is supported by a neoliberal ideology that tends to measure social success in personal and discrete capacity to survive the system. The result is that the capitals of self-esteem among Black people as well as their sense of having intrinsic human dignity continue to deplete, while the political community and collective solidarity also erode. Africans, then, may end up outsourcing their historical agency to the cohort of NGOs and the White men saviour complex of humanitarian networks, in which context the White people might still be carrying placards reading Black Lives Matter in the streets of Rome, London and Hamburg – but that won’t undo a system of global multinationals exploiting African peoples to ensure continuation of power control by a minority of white capitalists.
Thus, going out to protest the murder of George Floyd, every time a human life is degraded for “every life” matters no matter the color of the skin. That is, we need to raise awareness about social and racial injustices at the global level, about our common humanity and shared destiny, and about the right expression of solidarity in this time of interdependence in the global village. A cosmopolitan ethics is needed to ensure that the Christian principle of solidarity evades parochialism, ethnicism, or nationalisms that indulge in other forms of discrimination. In his January 15, 1978, Address to the diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, Pope Paul VI emphasised the inconceivability of racism for those who accept the Gospel message. They cannot “deny fundamental human equality in the name of alleged superiority of a race or ethnic group,” the Pope writes. The dignity of all human beings – including Black people who constantly find themselves profiled, stigmatised, discriminated against, marginalised, and abused all around the world – is guaranteed by the Christian teaching and should be unconditionally respected and protected. This paper does not intend to answer all the above questions. However, the questions are intended to bring complexity to the prevailing oversimplification of the issue of racism, which focuses on profiles, that is, on different manifestations of racism (slavery, colonialism, segregation, apartheid, discrimination, marginalization, immigration laws, etc.) separately instead of addressing its structural roots. Solutions provided in addressing these discrete forms of racism conceal the complexity, multiple layers, and different ways in which racism social sin obfuscates, through space and time, the history, effects, and manifestations of racism.
What we are missing the most is a broader moral commitment and intellectual depth to debunk the structures of this moral evil that we have come to normalise and take for granted. Africans fought for independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Yet, the system outthought us, and came back to continue plundering our resources, destabilising our nations, and killing our uncompromising leaders. I watched with great dismay the show put together by Belgium, with the complicity of a Congolese political elite, the mockery done to our political history as they claimed to repatriate a tooth of Mr. Emery Patrice Lumumba. We really need to avoid falling into the trap of “being dupe in good faith of a collective hypocrisy that cleverly misrepresents problems to better legitimise the hateful solutions provided for them.” What the Congo needs is a rehabilitation of its dignity, and the repatriation of its cultural heritage that still makes its home in Belgian museums. Unless Africans, in this case, the Congolese elite fail to define collectively the future that they want, they will continue to suffer mockery of western policies.
In the case of George Floyd in the US, the arrest, trial, and sending to prison all racist policemen and policewomen involved in recent acts of racist profiling and killing of Black people won’t make racism go away. Why? Because this is deeply woven within the system. It is a systemic problem. It is a hidden residue of the long history of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and slavery, built into the ideals of capitalism private property ownership, an anthropological misperception of non-White subjects, and all the ideological and theological debates about the meaning of humanity, human dignity, and racial justice. For instance, after dispossessing the Amerindians of their lands and dismantling their polity, White conquerors went as far as to exterminate the native landowners. In the aftermaths, Black Africans sold as chattel slaves were brought from Africa to work in plantations. Later, a whole legal apparatus with courts and tribunals was established, nationally and internationally, to protect the privileges of White capital owners while people from African descent came to be perceived as disposable possessions and counted among other symbols of wealth and power by the White minority.
 Jennifer Rankin, “Black MEP Describes Being Victim of Belgian Policy Brutality,” The Guardian, June 17, 20202. Accessible at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/17/black-german-mep-pierrette-herzberger-fofana-tells-european-parliament-she-was-victim-of-belgian-police-brutality
 Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, Translated by Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review, 2000, p. 32.
 James Tully, “Rediscovering America: The Two Treaties and Aboriginal Rights” in An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts pp.137-176 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).