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Racism in the 21st century

Peter Wickham

Racism in the 21st century

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The concept of racism is surprisingly difficult to define but is nonetheless a heavily used term.
Persons are referred to as “racist” and we often speak of “racism”, notwithstanding the fact that the central concept of “race” is subject to contextual interpretation.  
This was playfully explained by Jeannette Layne-Clark several years ago in a classic piece which examined the racial labels we in Barbados assign that could result in two “black” people being identified and treated differently.
At the other end of the spectrum would have been the apartheid era laws which segregated people according to race on the basis of a designation that could only be proven by a ridiculous assessment known as the “pencil test”.
In Barbados we know that the terms “black” and “white” can be variously interpreted depending on the individual’s wealth and influence. We also know that political power can impact minimally on modes of racism, which is a lesson that our friends in the United States are now beginning to appreciate.
Ironically, one distinguished American by the name of Thomas Jefferson reminded them 200 years ago of the need for government to evolve along with the society. His words are immortal and are unsurprisingly engraved in marble at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
It is for these reasons that I am seldom inclined to frame issues in racial terms as I discovered long ago that the smorgasbord of bases upon which we discriminate against each other is vast and evolving.
Moreover, at different epochs in our development, we have identified highly simplified labels which often only tell half the story and race is but one example. It is perhaps for this reason that the German philosopher Karl Marx did not need to allude to race specifically in his theory. Marxism is essentially an economic theory and to Marxists “race” is a function of economic realities. Marx was therefore spot-on as Eric Williams demonstrated convincingly in Capitalism And Slavery.
This preamble is presented against the background of the recent exoneration of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin in the United States.
Unsurprisingly, the fact that the assailant is white and the victim black has fuelled the suggestion that the teenager was killed because he was black.  This juxtaposition of his race with the assailant’s is a most unfortunate simplification which sadly Americans are inclined towards.
Similarly, when a black man named O.J. Simpson married a white woman who later turned up dead, some Americans appeared to assume that his prosecution was racially motivated and didn’t arise from a logical assumption supported by evidence.
The fundamental misunderstandings that exist among some sections of America are unfortunate, especially because the same incident could occur again tomorrow and a jury of right-thinking people (of any colour) would have no choice but to return the same verdict, once they received the evidence dispassionately and were guided by law and not emotion.
At the root of this issue is the concept of “self-defence” and Americans’ fascination with guns, coupled with their belief that all manner of people ranging from teachers and immigration officers, to neighbourhood watch volunteers, perform their job better once armed with a gun. It is to my mind a notion that is absurd and as we have just discovered, quite dangerous.
Certainly, the defence of oneself is an entirely subjective concept. It is therefore relatively easy for any person to establish genuine fear and the need to defend themselves, regardless of whether or not this fear is reasonable to the “man on the Clapham omnibus”.
The fundamental issue is not whether it is reasonable for “me” to feel fear under the circumstances, but whether “I” genuinely felt fear.
In the instance that the individual feels fear, he normally “fights” or “flies” and if either gentleman fled the scene, Martin would be alive today. Similarly, if Zimmerman were forced to “fight” without recourse to a gun, the matter would perhaps now be in civil court.
It is tragic that this young man lost his life, but it is more tragic that another young man or woman who is dressed similarly and in similar circumstances, could die tomorrow because of America’s refusal to appreciate that arming the “haves” against the presumed “have nots” can have profound and negative consequences.
•  Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).