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Race and colonialism

Race and colonialism

Reginald Dumas

Monday, November 14th 2005

Condoleezza Rice was perfectly right: she would not be Secretary of State today if tired Rosa Parks hadn't refused to give up her seat to a white man that December 1955 day in Montgomery, Alabama. What is always referred to nowadays as "that act of defiance" led to Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and to the easing-though not, alas, the end-of racial discrimination in America.

It also had repercussions beyond America's shores, and implications for the political independence of others-in the Caribbean, say, and in Africa, both then chock-full of satrapies of Europe.

Change took time. When I arrived in Washington DC in late 1962, seven years after the Montgomery confrontation,to join our newly established embassy, the unsavoury realities of being black (it was then "Negro") in "the nation's capital"at once manifested themselves. I was chased out of a barber shop. I would go to look at an apartment I had been told on the telephone was available (I had a "foreign" accent, and had called from an embassy), and would be greeted with a look of surprise (if not worse) followed quickly by downcast eyes, a shuffled foot, a mumble: "I'm sorry, the place was just rented." I was sometimes called "boy".

If it was bad for the black diplomat, imagine what it was like for the "Negro". But brainwashing is a remarkable thing, you know. I remember being told by a black woman one night in 1964 in Washington's "Gold Coast", where the better-heeled "Negroes" lived (perhaps many still do), that all this civil rights business was upsetting and counterproductive, and that King was a "rabble rouser".

The disciple of Gandhi's philosophy of non-violence a rabble rouser! Mind you, that was how the British saw Gandhi. Understandable: after all, he was confronting them. King however was struggling on behalf of people like this woman. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I much admired Malcolm X and that some months before I had sprung Stokeley Carmichael from a Maryland jail.

Rosa Parks and Civil Rights Acts notwithstanding, the African-American is still at the bottom of the US totem pole. It isn't merely that he is materially unprivileged. It is that he is instinctively considered inferior by all, even by recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America, and in that consideration race plays a central role. You must remember the images of New Orleans at the time of Katrina, and the flaccid initial reaction of the folks in Washington. Their apologists are quick to tell us it was poor people we were seeing on our television screens. True, but by no means the whole truth.As so often, anthropology intruded. They were poor black people.

It isn't only in the USA that these perceptions, I mean convictions, of racial and other superiority endure. I was appalled to learn recently that last February the French parliament adopted legislation making it mandatory to enshrine in textbooks the "national contribution" of French citizens who lived in France's former colonies (Tobago is one). "School programmes," the law stipulates, "(must) recognise in particular the positive character of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa." Well! Are we now reverting to the fables of enlightened French imperialism in Haiti and Algeria and of the criminality and shiftlessness of "les nègres" (the niggers) and "les sales Arabes" (the dirty Arabs)? "Reverting" is not the word, though: some people have clearly never budged from their original obscurantist position.

So if you were thinking that the myth of the "mission civilisatrice" (civilising mission) of the European supremacists had vanished for good and that the new colonialism, awful enough in its own way, was one of finance,trade, education and technology, think again. Colonialism in all its flavours, with racial disdain and compartmentalisation as its offspring, is alive and well in Hydra's many venomous heads. Understand now the major reason behind the riots of the last few days in France. Understand now our own situation as chasms of socio-economic inequity, linked closely to race, widen daily.

The Algerians have of course savaged the law. French academics have condemned their politicians' "practice of manipulating history." President Chirac's spin doctors have put it about that he is embarrassed: a "big screw-up," he is reported as saying privately (though whether he was referring to the law or to the subsequent furore I'm not sure). The French Minister of Education has soothingly announced that despite the law no textbook will be changed. But who introduced the measure in the first place, and why? Why was it passed? Why does it remain on the books?

I am not a racist, never have been. But sometimes I wonder why.

Reprinted from the Trinidad Express:

Trinidad and Tobago News

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