Race, or tribe for that matter, – something that is really cultural – has surprisingly remained the most bothersome of human problems for hundreds of years now, despite claims to a better civilisation by humanity today.
Biologists say that human beings are from the same animal bloodline – with a few variations here and there, most of them conditioned by the environment and culture.
Yet racists still argue that the difference between people from Europe, Asia, Africa or America is biological. They still sell the baloney that the Caucasoid is superior to the Mongoloid; some Mongoloids believe that they are better than the Negroid; and there are Africans who believe that the Capoid or Australoid are lesser civilised than them.
How often does one come across the names Aborigines and Bushmen, often spoken with some derisory undertone? Yet, now, the Black Lives Matter call has metamorphosed into a global movement, spurred on by media all intent on collecting catchphrases, photos and stories of the thousands of marchers, mainly in America and Europe.
SPECTACLE OF DEATH
The media frenzy that followed the death (or killing) of George Perry Floyd predictably did what the media does today: Focused on the spectacle of the death as filmed by a bystander when Floyd was being arrested and the consequent universal condemnation of the police force in America.
When protests against police brutality spread throughout the US and into Europe and the rest of the world, the media happily reported the seeming global indignation at police brutality against blacks or people of colour.
Lately, the Black Lives Matter energy has swarmed over history, condemning, pulling down and attempting to erase memories and memorabilia of (presumably) racist white men from history.
But, what is all this street and keyboard activism addressing? What silences are too loud here in Kenya that mimic the silences in the rest of the world where the energies expended on the streets and in the studios seem not to address the salient issues that preceded and led to George Floyd’s death on the streets of Minneapolis, with tens of bystanders watching and only complaining that indeed Floyd would die unless the policeman removed his knee from Floyd’s neck?
There were many circumstances that made George Floyd to be accused of trying to buy a cigarette with counterfeit money. He was black, unemployed and poor. He had children and a partner to take care of.
Although previously employed, he had lost his job because of Covid-19 and even contracted the disease. What has been lost in the protests and debates is that Floyd was on the streets because the socioeconomic system had thrown him there and compounded his situation by culturally profiling him.
He was poor and black. He had that history of poverty and race all too imprinted on his face and body. And this is the tragedy that many Kenyans are suffering silently today.
So, although the media would like Africans and people of African descent in the world – including those who deliberately attempt to erase their blackness – to believe that black lives matter everywhere, all the time, Africans have to ask themselves this very question: Do black lives matter here in Africa? Human rights defenders and many in the civil society would respond largely that, indeed, black lives matter.
But do they, really?
Floyd and hundreds of young black men and women who are in jail and die every year in America are victims of institutionalised poverty. Millions of young Kenyans and Africans are born into poverty, spend their entire childhood scavenging for survival and either end up in crime or in jail. These are black lives, aren’t they?
Yet there are hardly street protests, keyboard wars or mass condemnation of the system that has impoverished them. The media don’t do special reports on the indigent in Kenya, with background stories of how they became landless, jobless and hopeless. They may be mentioned occasionally in a report or two, such as the National Economic Survey, but they live right next to each one of us.
They are on the streets as street children or even families. They are the car parking boys. They are underpaid helpers. They are the watchmen guarding our homes, offices and institutions. They are the underemployed nduthi, manamba, mutura, mahindi choma guys; mama mbogas, newspaper vendors, and so on.
These individuals are pretty much in the same race – the race to survive another day in the face of overwhelming privation – as George Floyd.
But why do the police violate the rights of these women, men and children, most of them simply doing casual work and hawking on the streets of towns?
Because there is an economic logic to this discrimination. The poor are first because they lack economic opportunities to improve their condition. They are indigent because the economic system isn’t set up to share communal resources among all citizens.
The prisons system is part of the economic logic – it offers opportunity for supply of goods and services; and keeps the poor away from the rest of the society. The police, on the other hand, exist to protect the economic interests of the ruling class.
Literature and the arts have addressed these questions all the time. Kill Me, Quick and Going Down River Road by Meja Mwangi are two novels that best address the question of black (poor) lives matter in Kenya. One can add Devil on the Cross and Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong’o to this list. These books remind us that racial classification was a colonial invention based on the desire for economic differentiation; and that it hardly changed when the colonisers left these shores.
Thus, the local Black Lives Matter protesters and debaters should always remember that, unless the traditional system of economic difference that privileges whites/men/the rich/the rulers, and so on, is changed, the police will always question, beat, arrest, jail or kill the poor, whether in America or here.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]