As charges about anti-African racism in our society continue to be raised by the Opposition, I recuperate this piece I had written more than a decade ago. I quoted Black American scholar Cornell West about the condition of the modern African in the “New World”: “there is the lingering effects of slavery and past discrimination in the continued attack on black humanity and racist stereotypes which are designed to destroy black self-image”. And in the process, keep Africans on the “margins” of society. Very pertinently, we note that Anti-African racism is a global phenomenon recently raising its head from Ukraine to Korea.
Following the demonstrated inability of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas to withstand the labour regimen and diseases of the Spaniards (evidenced by 90% of then dying off in the Caribbean within decades of Columbus’ arrival) the Christian Church recommended the importation of Africans as slaves. Unlike with Amerindians, they could discern “no sign of a soul” in the latter group who were deemed beyond salvation. They were fair game for slavery – or extermination for that matter.
The enthusiastic entry of the English, French, Dutch etc, ensured that some 2.3 million Africans were eventually dragged across the Atlantic to the British West Indies but while there were some who had been given or bought their freedom, the fact that only 750,000 were freed at “Emancipation” in 1834 offers a clue to their prior living conditions. The appallingly barbaric treatment that included extreme physical brutalisation, destruction of families, wrenching away of languages and cultures etc. impelled some sort of rationalisation by the “civilized” Europeans. Unfolding a hegemonizing process, slaves, who worked alongside white European indentured slaves, were simply defined as “heathens” and could be kept on the margins as such. As they started to convert to Christianity colour became the marker to distinguish them from the “mainstream whites”. “Race” was created and transmuted into racist practice that relegated and maintained Africans to the margins of society especially in the 18th century. Other “races” were discerned and arbitrarily assigned their “place” on a “great chain of beings”.
In 1993, I wrote, “Race and racism, as we know them today, are very modern constructs arising out of a European 18th century “Enlightenment” discourse that ran parallel with the European conquest of the rest of the world and especially with the justification of African slavery. Notable names such as Hume, Kant and Hegel were involved in the project, which gave a social significance to physical markers. This is illustrated in Hume’s position that, “negroes… are naturally inferior to the whites”, and Kant’s view, summarised by his comment, “this fellow was quite black …a clear proof that what he said was stupid.”
“Race and racism” then, are part and parcel of the “Western Enlightenment,” exported as one weapon in the European arsenal of imperialistic conquest.” “African and Black” was constructed as the binary opposite to “European and White” and like all dualities it is not possible to eliminate one without the other. Racism is not a phenomenon that ended with the abolition of slavery – and it has not ended even though many assert that “race” has no objective existence. It persists in the totality of its relations that have become imbricated on the sinews of modernity.
Following Foucault one can consider racism as a discursive field that incorporates beliefs, descriptions and actions, and the principles on which racist institutions are based. The discursive formation that would include the normative rules and norms – including laws and moral rules about what we “ought” to act towards each other. In the words of, once again, Cornell West, racism is a product of the “structure of modern discourse…the controlling metaphors, notions, categories and norms that shape the predominant conceptions of truth and knowledge in the modern west.”
To appreciate its possible continued impact on the marginalisation of Africans in Guyana, one must inquire into the extent to which the premises of the old discourse of race and racism has survived into our particular socio-historical conjuncture and continue to influence our thinking, including that of Afro-Guyanese. In the post-emancipation era, for instance, when Indians were introduced as indentured labourers, Afro-Guyanese deployed the racist tropes concocted by Whites against them. This persists into the present. To suggest the enormity of this project, consider that even the tools we would probably use such as, say, social psychology, are all contaminated with premises of “races”, “racial differences” and “racial attitudes”.