On Racism: Two Distinct Narratives
On the 7th of July PepsiCo, Inc. announced that its Board of Directors had elected Segun Agbaje as an independent member of its Board. His appointment marks, in all likelihood, the first time a Nigerian has been elected to the board of a major US corporation.
Segun Agbaje’s appointment comes against the backdrop of widespread anti-racism protests in the United States.
The contrast in fortunes is stark, a Black African has been appointed to the board of a premier US company, whilst Black Americans are protesting systemic racism and discrimination.
The concept of blackness is in many ways an artificial construct, created by Europeans to reinforce a racial hierarchy. Scientifically speaking, there is more genetic diversity within African populations than there is between any other race on the planet.
To put this in layman’s terms, some Africans are genetically more similar to non-Africans, than to other Africans. It is expedient for the West to put black people into a single category, but this breeds a tendency to conflate issues which could be better addressed if kept separate; addressing systemic racism is a case in point.
Individual vs Systemic Racism
Much has been written on the subject of the protests in America by Nigerians. However, many of these articles miss a fundamental truth, which is that it is almost impossible for Nigerians to understand the day-to-day existence of a significant proportion of the African American community.
Many Nigerians have shared sobering stories of the discrimination they have faced and whilst it is important not to trivialise these, it is important to note the difference between individual and systemic racism.
Having an individual refuse to sit next to you, or use a racial epithet in your presence, is very different from the systemic discrimination African Americans are protesting about.
Some Nigerians have even taken an accusatory tone in responding to these protests. This demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding.
Despite some progress since the civil rights era, it is evident that there are institutions in America that preserve a racial hierarchy that disadvantages Black Americans. Selected examples include:
· Employment rates for African Americans are much lower than White and Hispanic Americans. In May 2020, less than 1-in-2 African Americans were employed.
· A study published by Harvard University found that when African American applicants amended their resumes to sound more like white applicants, they got more invitations to interviews, which the study finds ‘highlights an implicit bias in hiring practices’.
· African Americans earn on average, over 30% less than White Americans; overall Household Income is on average 42% lower. However, the average Nigerian American household income is almost double that of the average African American.
· College attainment of African Americans is 10% less than that of White Americans. However, 17% of Nigerian Americans hold Master’s Degrees, which is twice the proportion of White Americans. Similarly, 4% of Nigerian Americans have doctorates, this is four times greater than the White American population.
· Intergenerational education mobility, that is, the proportion of African American children graduating with college degrees whose parents only graduated high school, is lower than that for Asian, White and Hispanic Americans.
· African American mortgage applicants are more likely to be denied loans than White, Hispanic and Asian Americans.
· The proportion of African Americans who own their own home is substantially lower than all other racial groups.
· The proportion of African Americans without health insurance coverage is almost double that of White Americans.
· African Americans have a higher risk of premature death and serious mental illness than any other racial group.
· African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and are more likely to die (or be hospitalised) than any other racial group.
· There are more African Americans (in number) in US prisons than White Americans and Hispanic Americans, although crime rates are equivalent.
· African American men are five times more likely to be imprisoned than their white counterparts. In the 18-19 age group, African Americans are 13 times more likely to be imprisoned.
· In police shootings where the victim is unarmed, African Americans are (proportionally) almost 3 times as likely to be shot and killed than White Americans.
The Nigerian vs African American Experience
An excellent biography titled “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs, outlines the life and death of Robert Peace, an African American Yale graduate who was killed, in a drug-related murder.
The book poses a number of fundamental questions relevant to race relations in America, key amongst these is ‘why would a graduate from one of the top universities in the world, resort to dealing drugs?’ The best way to fully answer that question is to compare Robert Peace’s life as an African American in New Jersey, to that of a Nigerian.
Being Black in Nigeria
Figure 3: Nigerian Graduates
Irrespective of socio-economics, most Nigerian children will be able to identify professionals or figures of authority who are Nigerian, most if not every judge, engineer, architect, politician or doctor they will have encountered will have been a black person.
In every interaction and on a daily basis, it will be clear to them that the colour of their skin is not an impediment to them realising their goals, although the social-economic or cultural circumstance might be.
Nigerians also have a firm understanding of their intrinsic worth, which comes from being a sovereign people in a sovereign nation, confident in their place in history. This is not to say that Nigeria is a utopia, but rather to juxtapose how Nigerians see themselves versus a significant proportion of African Americans.
Being Black in America
Figure 4: Robert Peace at his graduation
In common with many African Americans, Robert Peace’s early life was one of struggle and significant turmoil. Robert DeShaun Peace was born on June 25, 1980, in East Orange, New Jersey, which is 89% African American and one of the most deprived urban areas in America.
His father ‘Skeet’ was a drug dealer who was convicted of murder and sent to prison. His mother Jackie, wanted a better life for her son and was frequently absent, working long hours to send Robert to a succession of private schools.
Despite his humble beginnings; through his academic achievements, Robert was able to secure a benefactor to pay his tuition at Yale. Robert graduated a few years later, with honours but struggled to find a steady job, and resorted to dealing drugs, which is what he was doing when he was murdered aged 30.
The author (Jeff Hobbs) poses many theories in respect to why Robert, with a brilliant education, would elect to become a petty criminal. What the book makes clear is that once he had broken through a glass ceiling (in graduating from Yale), he discovered a succession of other more intricately constructed glass ceilings, bolted in place by institutional racism and designed to keep him in his place as a poor, black man in America. It is clear that after many years of fighting against it, he allowed himself to become what he perceived the system had always intended, the stereotypical black thug.
There are very few examples of individual racism in the book, which is unsurprising given that Robert lived in a community that was 89% African American. What is more disturbing is the ever-present spectre of systemic racism in every aspect of Robert’s life. Examples include:
o The influx of African American families into East Orange (where Robert was born) in the 1960’s, resulted in transfer of middle-class jobs to white neighbourhoods.
o Robert was very intelligent, but all the public (non-fee-paying) schools where he lived were underfunded and unable to give him the intellectual challenge he needed. His parents were also intelligent but were victims of the same education system, which rather than fostering intelligence, prepared them at best, for a succession of low paid menial jobs or at worst for petty crime on the streets.
o At his private schools, there were very few teachers or positive role models who looked like him because of the broken and ineffective education system in predominantly black districts in New Jersey. This impacted Robert’s perception of what black people could achieve in America from a young age.
o The influx of black residents in Newark resulted in changes in real estate rules and the mortgage/ credit system, which made it almost impossible (by design) for black families to live in desirable, lower crime neighbourhoods.
· Criminal Justice
o The ‘War on Drugs’ in the US in the 1980’s led to the imprisonment of a large volume of black males, often for relatively minor crimes. This, in turn, resulted in a large number of absent fathers in predominantly black neighbourhoods.
o Robert’s father, Skeet was arrested for murder in 1987. The evidence against him was circumstantial, however, he could only afford an overworked public defender, who had little interest in his case. Because of the high incarceration rates (as a consequence of the ‘war on drugs’), Skeet was held without trial for three years. By the time he went to trial, several witnesses had died (or left the state) and he was found guilty. The lack of a father figure in Robert’s life had a lasting impact on his perception of himself.
It is clear that an experience of racism from an individual, however abhorrent and upsetting it might be, is quite different from having to deal with institutions on a daily basis, that are deliberately or incidentally racist.
In common with many other disadvantaged groups, African Americans deserve the unqualified support of every Nigerian, not because of the colour of their skin, or our shared racial heritage, but because what is happening to them now, and for the past 400 years, is unjust and unacceptable to any decent person or society.
In doing this, Nigerians must accept a fundamental truth, which is that their movement is not about us, it is about righting a historic wrong and lending our voices to support those who most need it.