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Racism in the US: Why Africans should care

2020 has been a rough year for the United States. The country was slow to react to the looming threat of a pandemic that had already taken so many lives across much of the world before it reached its shores. 100,000 have now died there, another morbid milestone that so tragically exposes the American exceptionalism of this Trump administration.

Just as the virus appeared to be letting up, a video showing George Floyd, an unarmed African American, being choked to death by a white police officer, circulated on the internet last month, sparking race riots in more than 350 cities across the country that continue today.

The wave of anger and upset caused by Floyd’s death has been felt far beyond America’s shores. Many across Europe are tired of the longstanding racial injustices that have plagued their societies for centuries. Solidarity movements have emerged in countries like the UK, France and Germany.

Some in Africa too have stood in unity with the black community in the US, a continent that carries many of the same racial scars, and whose history is inextricably tied to that of slavery. In South Africa, where the legacy of apartheid is still felt 26 years after it was brought to an end, protestors in Cape Town gathered at the gates of Parliament, “to send the message that black lives matter everywhere in the world”, according to one young student activist.

Similarly, in Ghana, President Nana Afuko-Addo spoke of the need to inspire lasting change in how America deals with its racial past. Human rights activists also organised a protest at the US embassy in The Gambia, and in Uganda people have come out to rightly condemn the killing of Floyd on social media.

Yet Africans have long had a difficult relationship with the African American community, and as such many of the African diaspora living in the US have admitted to finding it difficult to identify with what’s going on there. African American culture is hugely divergent from African culture, something which Kenyan journalist Larry Madowo has spoken about in the past. “Both groups use derogatory names to refer to each other”, he said, while being interviewed by The Washington Post. “There is so much animus or competition that I have never quite understood”.

Tom Gitaa, who publishes Mshale, a newspaper which serves African immigrants across the American Midwest, explains how “Many of us didn’t grow up with these civil rights issues in Africa, so our understanding is not there”. Karen Attiah, a Ghanaian journalist who came to America as a child says growing up, white racism was never something she discussed with her parents: “I think we were supposed to almost maintain a distance from black Americans because we were immigrants, we were different”, she said.

But while individual culture and social identities exist that differentiate African Americans from Africans, the systemic racism imbedded into American society makes no such distinction. As Attiah points out, “if a cop sees the colour of your skin, he’s not about to ask if you’re from Ghana or Nigeria or Zimbabwe, or Atlanta or the south side of Dallas, they just see a black person”.

Those protesting in Cape Town or tweeting in Kampala are hurting because they feel the same pain as those that protest in New York and Chicago. They may not feel targeted because of the colour of their skin, but they know what oppression and police brutality feel like, they know the damage the heavy hand of the state can do.

Anti-racism movements throughout history, whether against apartheid, colonialism or segregation, have all been bound by a common grievance, a common sense of purpose acknowledging that an attack on one black person is an attack on all.

It’s encouraging to see signs of this recognition. The African Union even released a statement asking the US government to “ensure the total elimination of all forms of discrimination”. But more needs to be done. Anti-blackness should be called out by any and all around the world, not just in America.


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