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OP-ED: A legacy of systemic racism

  • Published at 01:46 pm July 8th, 2020
Photo: AFP

The roles of colonialism and decolonization have not sufficiently been addressed in our contemporary world order

Being constantly looked down upon, like an alien in the country you were born in, requires but true tolerance.

Let me begin my story in Seattle. A leading city newspaper had reported in 2018 that the median net worth of white Seattleites was $456,000. The median net worth of black Seattleites was a paltry $23,000. White net worth in that metropolis was 20 times that of black net worth. 

If anyone believes today that racism is a thing of the past, never to have existed at all, or is defined simply as one person being mean to another person, you are claiming that white people genuinely earn, through ability alone -- because anything else would be a systemic advantage -- 20 times as much as black people. 

Others have defended the same issue differently, suggesting that white people are 20 times as good at their jobs, 20 times as skilled, 20 times as deserving. If you believe that, you are racist. And, that is racism.

Every few months, American media people trot out a new title in a TV series called Cops, which in reality could be the script for “Cops keep killing people.” Each new release has the latest tragic scene on the cover. It sure seems to be the same book recycled over and over, but please don’t form a judgment until you read all 500 pages. Maybe this time the story will end differently and the cops will be the hero! 

Worldwide protests against police racism and brutality and the toppling of statues commemorating white supremacists have led to a public reckoning in the US and many other countries, forcing citizens and governments to confront the historical legacy of systemic racism, and the enduring inequalities it has created. A similar reckoning has been long overdue. 

Beginning with its creation as an academic discipline, the subject of race relations in the US has perhaps erased non-Western history and thought from its canon, and has failed to address the central role of colonialism and decolonization in creating our contemporary international order.

The last weekend of June had closed off with some history-making events in three different institutions. In academia, Woodrow Wilson’s name was removed from the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. In government, the Mississippi legislature voted to remove the battle flag of the Confederacy from their own state flag. 

And in entertainment, a concerted effort got going to remove the name and likeness of the famed actor John Wayne from the airport in Orange County, California. These developments revealed a great deal about the domestic social order in the US, and world order, more broadly. 

They also have resonances in the dilemma-theory, if indeed the theorists were more attuned to the multitude of exceptions that had accompanied the foundational liberalism.

There are the core elements of what I hear as Euro-liberalism, that may include but not be limited to the right to life, liberty, and property; equality before the law regardless of any attribute or marker of identity; and toleration based on reason. 

American scholar John Mearsheimer in his popular book The Great Delusion has shared his major theoretical statement of why a policy of liberal hegemony is doomed to fail if it is widely believed in the West that the US should spread liberal democracy across the world, foster an open international economy, and build international institutions, and fleshes out the varieties of liberalism relevant to international relations theory as well as the catalogue of exceptions, many of them based on racism and civilizational bias.

Matters of race are usually addressed as domestic issues; that is, as questions of identity, in terms of stratification. While both of these have existed, these often neglected the international processes through which race and racial differences have also been produced.

Contemporary politics in a race-ridden world, is generally viewed through the lens of the nation-state, which is widely, but erroneously, understood to have its origins in the system of sovereign states that came into being in Europe in 1648. The history of the modern state system, as it is often taught, focuses on the impact of the American and French Revolutions in the late 18th century. 

And mind you, this is precisely the period of colonial expansion and settlement that saw some European states consolidate their domination over other parts of the world and over their populations, who came to be represented in racialized terms.

Britain, for example, did not distinguish among the members of its imperial polity when legislating for citizenship in 1948, with common citizenship available for those in the UK and in its colonies. As the empire receded, entitlement to citizenship had narrowed down along racial lines. 

Race is not a factor that enters so-called nation-states from the outside. Rather, they are racialized from the very moment of their emergence as imperial polities and continue to reproduce racialized hierarchies to this day. Scholars and practitioners of international relations need to take seriously the colonial histories that were constitutive of the formation of modern states. 

A failure to do so not only may be termed as an intellectual error, but then, may also have profound consequences for the nature and possibilities of politics -- including the politics of race -- in the present.

In the US, it may provide an emotional release “to think black, dress black, eat black, and buy black,” but it places one on a reactionary course. The real problems, from which all this is escape, are those of employment, wages, housing, health, education, and they are not to be solved by withdrawal and fantasy. 

They can only be solved in alliance with elements from the majority of the electorate, and the cement for such a coalition is not love but mutual interest. Obviously, the way forward lies through non-violence, integration, and coalition politics.

What happens, if we break the silence and the status quo? Will this cause the tyrants surely to wet themselves? Perhaps yes, or perhaps, no.

Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.

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