Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Year Dedicated to People of African Descent

Around 200 million people who identify themselves as being of African descent live in the Americas. Many millions more live in other parts of the world, outside of the African continent. In proclaiming this International Year, the international community is recognising that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose human rights must be promoted and protected.
Father and child
Members of the Garifuna community near Tela, Honduras. The Garifuna people are of mixed African, Arawak and Carib ancestry and native to the Caribbean Coast in Central America. UN Photo/Chris Sattlberger
This International Year  offers a unique opportunity to  redouble our efforts to fight against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance that affect people of African descent everywhere.
Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
People of African descent are acknowledged in the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action1 as a specific victim group who continue to suffer racial discrimination as the historic legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. Even Afro-descendants who are not directly descended from slaves face the racism and racial discrimination that still persist today, generations after the slave trade ended.

Righting Past Wrongs

" This is the year to recognise the role of people of African descent in global development and to discuss justice for current and past acts of discrimination that have led to the situation today. "
Mirjana Najcevska, Chairperson,
UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent
The manifestations of racial discrimination which characterised the slave trade and colonisation are still felt today. Racism can manifest itself in a variety of ways, sometimes subtly, sometimes unconsciously, but often resulting in violations of the rights of people of African descent.

In order to combat such racism and racial discrimination, in 2001 the United Nations created the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent which is tasked with studying the problems of racial discrimination faced by people of African descent living in the diaspora and making proposals on the elimination of racial discrimination against Africans and people of African descent in all parts of the world.

The Working Group has found that some of the most important challenges that people of African descent face relate to their representation in, and treatment by, the administration of justice and to their access to quality education, employment, health services and housing, often due to structural discrimination that is embedded within societies.

In some countries, especially where people of African descent are in the minority, they receive harsher sentences than those of the predominant ethnicity and constitute a disproportionately high percentage of the prison inmate population. Racial profiling (The Durban Declaration and Programme of Action defines racial profiling as “the practice of police and other law enforcement officers relying, to any degree, on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin as the basis for subjecting persons to investigatory activities or for determining whether an individual is engaged in criminal activity.”)- which results in the systematic targeting of persons of African descent by law enforcement officers – has perpetuated severe stigmatization and stereotyping of Afro-descendants as having a propensity to criminality.

In many countries Afro-descendants have the least access to quality education at all levels. Evidence demonstrates that when people of African descent have greater access to education they are better placed to participate in political, economic and cultural aspects of society and to defend their own interests.

The Working Group emphasises that the collection of data disaggregated on the basis of ethnicity is an important element in identifying and addressing Afro-descendants’ human rights issues. Government policy intended to address racism and racial discrimination cannot be correctly formulated, much less implemented, if such information is not available. Nor can progress be measured.

AfroBolivians Fight For Complete Recognition... Reparations to Follow

African slavery must not be forgotten

On 23 August we celebrate a vital moment in the abolition of the slave trade – so why has the day received no state support?
  • Haitian Leader
    Toussaint L'Ouverture was one of the leaders of the rebellion that saw Haiti 
    become the first black nation in the Caribbean. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
    Britain woke up on 23 August largely ignorant of the fact that it is a national day of remembrance. Four years ago the government declared it the day to remember those millions of African people who were captured, denigrated, enslaved, tortured and murdered, who rebelled and ultimately survived a period rightly seen as the most heinous crime of humankind against humankind in history. But when was the government going to tell us? And what is it contributing to the day?

    It was 220 years ago on 23 August that Africans on the island that is now Haiti rose up against their captors and began a rebellion led first by Boukman Dutty and then by the strategist Toussaint L'Ouverture who defeated the best armies of the British, French and Spanish and in 1804 declared Haiti the first black nation in the Caribbean. Shockwaves ran through the slaving nations and set in motion the beginning of the end of the trade in African people worldwide.

    On 23 August last year, communities minister Andrew Stunell – who holds as part of his responsibilities race equality and community cohesion – said: "Acceptance and understanding of our past is important in moving towards a future which is free of intolerance and racism."

    He rightly made the link between the world as it is today and past events – this is not about gazing into history as an academic exercise, it is an essential route to understanding how the inequality of African peoples has been embedded into societies worldwide and how it continues today. For instance, it could go a long way to inform us why Haiti is now described as the poorest nation in the western hemisphere.

    The government promised workshops to "help black and minority ethnic-led organisations to access funding for educational and heritage events (including those on the remembrance of slavery and the slave trade)". But these failed to take place. A year on, no African grassroots organisations have received funding for events this year.

    When one such organisation applied on three occasions for lottery funding to organise events and activities, it was turned down on each occasion. And the Big Lottery Fund, with a £600m purse, has given zero to transatlantic slave trade applications this year or last.

    By contrast, Holocaust Memorial Day remembers the Jewish and other genocides on 27 January and has received direct Department for Communities funding annually since 2001. This year, as last, it was awarded £750,000.

    Is the government implying that one is more important than the other? Is the 400-year genocide, during which Britain became the leading slave-trading nation, no longer relevant? It appears that "acceptance and understanding of our past" is something the government is unwilling to practice itself.

    This month a group of British charities have reported the government to the United Nations saying it is not doing enough for racial equality. They and the government are giving evidence in Geneva today. The UN will report back in September.

    One way for the government to put some might behind the equality issue is to directly fund an education programme on the enslavement of African peoples. National community learning programmes would address the need to inform the public about this important historical event and its lasting legacy that has impacted so many nations for richer or poorer. And what better time to do it than in 2011, the UN's International Year for People of African Descent.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

BOOK REVIEW- Inhuman Bondage: On Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights
Eric Foner

Eric Foner, a member of The Nation’s editorial board, is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author, most recently, of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery (Norton), which was awarded the 2011 Bancroft Prize and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in History.
This article appeared in the August 29-September 5, 2011 edition of The Nation.

The American Crucible-- Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights
By Robin Blackburn. Verso.

This past spring, television viewers in Britain were treated to a six-part series called Civilization about the rise (and possible fall, if China has its way) of the West, hosted by the historian Niall Ferguson. The series offered a highly reductive version of history, identifying "the West" with qualities such as competition, scientific inquiry and the rule of law, and denigrating societies from Asia to the Middle East and Latin America for lacking these virtues. In effect, it provided a usable past for those who see the world as riven by a clash of civilizations.

One episode explored why after independence, the United States forged ahead economically while the nations of Latin America stagnated. In an unusual twist, Ferguson chose South Carolina, a state governed by a tight-knit planter oligarchy, as a model of Jeffersonian democracy resting on small property ownership, in contrast to the autocratic societies south of the border organized around large latifundia. Only after forty-five minutes of the one-hour show did Ferguson mention the existence of slaves—the majority of South Carolina's population. When slavery was finally discussed, it was presented not as a crucial structural feature of early American society but as a moral dilemma, an "original sin" expiated by the election of Barack Obama.

Among the many virtues of Robin Blackburn's The American Crucible is its demonstration that slavery must be at the center of any account of Western ascendancy. Without the colonization of the New World, Blackburn notes at the outset, the West as we know it would not exist, and without slavery there could have been no colonization. Between 1500 and 1820, African slaves constituted about 80 percent of those who crossed the Atlantic from east to west. More than any other institution, the slave plantation underpinned the extraordinary expansion of Western power and the region's prosperity in relation to the rest of the world.

In two earlier books, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1988) and The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to Modern (1997), Blackburn traced the creation of New World slavery and its abolition in the British, French and Spanish empires, covering the years to 1848. These works established him as one of the foremost scholars of slavery as an international institution. Blackburn then took a detour to write two prescient volumes on the looming crisis in pension funding, which had somehow escaped the notice of bankers and credit rating agencies. In part, The American Crucible summarizes his earlier volumes; but it goes well beyond them, drawing on recent scholarship to amplify his previous arguments about slavery's rise and fall and taking the story to around 1900. He explores emancipation in the nineteenth century's three greatest slave systems—those of the United States, Cuba and Brazil. The book is an outstanding example of a major trend in recent historical writing: looking beyond national boundaries in favor of Atlantic or transnational history. Yet Blackburn cautions that while both the growth and abolition of slavery were international processes, they took place "in national histories" and followed no single pattern or path. With its theoretical sophistication and combination of a broad international approach and careful attention to local circumstances, The American Crucible takes its place alongside David Brion Davis's Inhuman Bondage as one of the finest one-volume histories of the rise and fall of modern slavery.

Blackburn emphasizes that far from being static, New World slavery was a constantly evolving institution, and he identifies three broad eras in its history. In the first, which he dates from about 1500 to 1650, slavery was centered in the Spanish colonies, small-scale and urban-based. By 1630 half the population of the great colonial cities Lima, Havana and Mexico City consisted of African slaves and their descendants. But in the countryside, in the silver and gold mines that enriched the Spanish crown and on the haciendas ruled by powerful colonial settlers, the indigenous population performed most of the labor.

At the time, the Spanish Empire lacked an extensive plantation system. That system developed first in Brazil and then quickly spread to the British and French colonies of the Caribbean and mainland North America, launching the second era of modern slavery's history (1650–1800). Sugar and tobacco produced by slave labor, along with African slaves themselves, 6 million of whom were transported across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century, became key commodities of international commerce. Sugar was the first mass-marketed product in human history. By 1770 colonial exports and re-exports, mostly of slave-produced goods, represented between a third and a half of Atlantic trade. The profits swelled merchants' coffers and the treasuries of European nation-states. By this time, too, the slave plantation had become a highly versatile economic unit, well adapted to the demands of the capitalist marketplace and quite modern in its methods of production, marketing and credit arrangements. Far from a retrograde drag on economic development, slavery was "a sinew of national strength" and of economic prosperity.

During this second era, slavery came to play a central role in key features of Western economic development—the spread of market relations, industrialization and the rise of a consumer economy. Carefully examining the old debate about the relationship between slavery and the Industrial Revolution, Blackburn concludes that the vast accumulation of capital derived from slave labor was a necessary, but not sufficient, cause of industrialization. Such profits did not boost manufacturing development in Spain and Portugal. Industrialization required not only money but a large home market and a supportive state, both of which only late eighteenth-century Britain possessed. Once it got under way, industrialization spurred the further growth of slavery, creating a giant market for cotton from the American South and fueling the spread of a "commodity-based notion of freedom," in which ordinary consumers demanded more and more of the sugar, tobacco, rum and coffee produced on slave plantations.

* * *

In the nineteenth century, slavery entered its third era, one rife with contradictions. During the century's first four decades, Haiti, born of a slave revolution, emerged as the hemisphere's second independent republic, and the northern United States, the independent nations of Latin America and the British Empire began taking steps toward abolition. Yet Blackburn cautions against the idea of a preordained, "irresistible advance" toward emancipation. Even as slavery died elsewhere, it thrived in Brazil, Cuba and the American South. Indeed, in 1860, on the eve of the American Civil War, far more slaves (around 6 million) resided in the Western Hemisphere than ever before. And slave-grown products (Cuban sugar, Brazilian coffee, American cotton) played a greater role than ever in the new economy of mass consumption. By this time, to be sure, industry had outstripped plantation slavery in supplying goods for the consumer marketplace. But, Blackburn insists, no purely economic reason existed to prevent slave plantations from continuing to coexist with industrializing economies, supplying their demand for raw materials and consumer goods from the tropics.

Blackburn also rejects the idea that emancipation arose from what he calls "latent virtue," a comforting notion sometimes invoked by American historians to excuse the founding fathers for lack of action against slavery on the grounds that their ideals set in motion the abolition process. High ideals alone did not abolish slavery. And while not neglecting slave agency, Blackburn argues that the concessions and customary rights wrested by slaves from their owners over a long period of day-to-day struggle did not pose a fundamental challenge to the system. Rather, he insists, emancipation emerged from specific historical circumstances—a nexus of slave resistance, ideological conflict and political crisis.

Blackburn examines in detail the myriad strains of antislavery thought—religious, nationalist, humanitarian, economic—and the abolitionists' pioneering use of mass-produced pamphlets, lithographs, petitions and the like to spread their message. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, a genteel antislavery sentiment had become a hallmark of enlightened opinion on both sides of the Atlantic. But Blackburn is quick to note the limited accomplishments of respectable antislavery. Often, early emancipations consisted of "free womb" laws that ended slavery over a prolonged period by freeing future offspring, not living slaves. Moreover, in most times and places, abolitionists represented only a small minority of the free population. Only in times of crisis did abolitionists acquire the power to influence national policy.

It was not the slow accumulation of rights by slaves or the persuasiveness of antislavery arguments that produced emancipation but "revolutionary ruptures" and political crises. In revolutionary France, as well as in a Spanish Empire wracked by wars of colonial independence, a Britain beset by the crisis over parliamentary reform in the early 1830s and Civil War America, slave resistance suddenly gained new salience, and abolitionist arguments found a receptive audience among the general populace and political elites. As in his previous studies of slavery, Blackburn also insists that emancipation was closely connected to the state-building process. The act of abolition presupposed the existence of a new kind of state, one intolerant of the special local sovereignty of slave owners and capable of carrying out radical measures. It gave the state moral legitimacy, allowing it plausibly to claim to be the embodiment of liberty.

Blackburn offers an excellent account of the path toward emancipation in the United States and of Abraham Lincoln's evolving attitudes and policies. The Civil War clearly exemplified the linkage of nineteenth-century nationalism with abolition, and the destruction of the hemisphere's largest and most powerful slave system compelled Cuba and Brazil to reckon with their reliance on slavery. Spain enacted a free womb law for Cuba in 1870, but abolition there, as elsewhere, also involved violence. About half the rebel army in the war of independence of the 1870s consisted of present or former slaves, and patriots demanded equal citizenship for all, regardless of race, in an independent Cuba. Slavery in Brazil finally ended in 1888, seemingly peacefully, although numerous slave revolts and the enlistment of thousands of slave soldiers in the war against Paraguay between 1865 and 1870 preceded emancipation.

When it comes to the consequences of abolition, Blackburn presents a rather somber assessment. Antislavery ideas were always linked to notions of liberty and progress, but less often to racial equality. As they extended their empires across the globe in the late nineteenth century, European powers "claimed to be inspired by abolitionist principles" even when acting in blatantly racist ways. Everywhere in the Western Hemisphere, new systems of racial and labor subordination succeeded plantation slavery. Emancipation's economic impact turned out to be less drastic than many had hoped or feared. The export value of the main crops—American cotton, Brazilian coffee and Cuban sugar—quickly recovered.

Blackburn is particularly pessimistic about the postslavery United States, warning against a scholarly tendency to "exaggerate the gains made by former slaves and their descendants." While acknowledging the remarkable effort during Reconstruction to create an interracial democracy in the South, he sees that era as a minor detour on the road to a new system of racial domination based on segregation, disenfranchisement and economic subordination. He goes so far as to say that in the entire hemisphere, "the blacks of the US South gained least from the ending of slavery."

It is unclear what standard of comparison Blackburn is applying here, because, as he notes, postemancipation societies in general remained highly unequal. Despite its failure, Reconstruction closed off even more oppressive possibilities in the United States. Moreover, the rewriting of the laws and Constitution during Reconstruction to enshrine the idea of equal citizenship rights for blacks established the legal framework for subsequent challenges to the postemancipation racial regime. And the creation of autonomous black churches and schools put in place institutions that would serve as the strongholds for future struggles. Without attributing social change to "latent virtue," one can note that unlike racial systems in other countries, the South's Jim Crow laws remained regional, not national, and that options existed for American blacks not matched elsewhere, especially the possibility of migration to the North and West, where a different (though hardly egalitarian) racial system prevailed.

Slavery and emancipation form two of the three parts of Blackburn's subtitle. The third, human rights, receives less attention but represents a new concern compared with his previous work. In part, Blackburn's discussion is a response to recent scholarship by Lynn Hunt, who locates the origins of human rights consciousness in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution [see "On the Genealogy of Morals," April 16, 2007], and Samuel Moyn, who situates the idea's emergence much more recently, in the 1970s [see "Human Rights in History," August 30/September 6, 2010]. Earlier definitions of human rights, Moyn points out, were tied to the nation-state, as the title of one key such document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, makes clear. People enjoyed human rights by virtue of membership in a particular polity, not their common humanity. Only lately, Moyn claims, did the idea arise of human rights that transcend and challenge national sovereignty and are thus truly universal.

Blackburn acknowledges the force of Moyn's argument and has no desire to create a selective and ahistorical genealogy of human rights. He insists, however, rightly in my view, that the abolitionist movement played a major role in developing the concept of human rights unbounded by race and nationality. "In the heat of these momentous clashes over slavery," he writes, "a new notion of human freedom and human unity was proclaimed." Indeed, the attack on slavery also involved a critique of the pretensions and power of the nation-states that protected and profited from the institution.

Unlike previous scholars, Blackburn places the slave uprising in St. Domingue—the richest of all the sugar colonies, which became the nation of Haiti—at the center of the early history of human rights. The Haitian revolution, he notes, is rarely given its due by historians. Half a century ago, R.R. Palmer wrote an acclaimed two-volume work, The Age of the Democratic Revolution, that barely mentioned Haiti. Lately, thanks in part to the bicentennial of Haitian independence in 2004, a spate of works have appeared. Drawing on this literature, Blackburn insists that the rebellious slaves profoundly affected Atlantic political culture and human rights consciousness. Not only did events in St. Domingue directly inspire the 1794 French decree abolishing slavery (later reversed by Napoleon); the revolutionary convention's decision to seat black and brown delegates from the island marked a stunning affirmation that the entitlements of the Declaration of the Rights of Man were available to all French citizens, regardless of color.

Ironically, if "the West" is to celebrate the idea of universal human rights as one of its distinctive contributions to modern civilization, part of the credit must go to the mostly African-born slave rebels of Haiti.

Thursday, August 18, 2011