A new report by the American Enterprise Institute, “Black Men Making It in America,” uses Census data to show that African-American men are succeeding in the United States. Written by University of Virginia sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox, director of research at the Institute for Family Studies Wendy Wang and Columbia University social policy professor Maurice Russel, the report reveals that more than one-in-two black males–57 percent–now belong to the country’s middle or upper class. That is up from 38 percent in 1960. Meanwhile, the share of black men in poverty has fallen from 41 percent in 1960 to 18 percent today. In comparison, 55 percent of Hispanic-Americans belong to the middle or upper class while the figures stand at 73 percent for Asian-Americans and 75 percent for white Americans. There is still clearly work to be done, but this cannot be described as anything other than huge socio-economic progress for black American males, a group often unfairly associated primarily with crime and unemployment.
However, you would never imagine such progress was going on if you were to rely on the likes of black identitarians like Ta-Nehisi Coates for news of the black condition in America. Listen to them and you might think black folks are little better off today than they were during the segregation era. The same goes for black identitarian intellectuals in Britain. When I listen to the likes of Afua Hirsch and Reni Eddo-Lodge describing how difficult things are for blacks in Britain like me, I almost feel like relocating back to Africa. Take their polemics at face value and you will believe the cards are stacked against black people today as strongly as they were in the 1960s.
But the question that’s puzzling me is: Don’t everyday black folks on the ground in countries like Britain and America see that things are not as bad as the black identitarians say? And if they do, why do they let them get away with making these ludicrously inflated claims? Why no push back?
A recent discussion on race I had with a black friend who is a political agnostic might help shed some light on the matter. A successful banker by day, he called me to complain about a black work colleague who, when stopped by a white traffic cop for breaking a driving rule in London, had promptly whipped out the race card: “Why did you stop me? Is it because you saw a black man driving an expensive car?”
The policeman became defensive, muttering nervously it had nothing to do with race. The whole affair ended with the officer issuing a caution, the British equivalent of a citation. My friend who was in the car asked his colleague why he brought up race when he knew he was in the wrong. “Dude, when in a tough spot with a white person, bring up racism and there’s a 99 percent chance they’ll get defensive and back down,” his colleague responded and laughed.
“I can’t stand such attitudes,” my friend declared, launching us into a debate on race in Britain. He fumed at the black ‘race experts’ claiming to see racism everywhere. “They’re so full of it, encouraging black people to blame racism for all their problems. I’ve never encountered racism in my career, nor can I claim to have worked twice as hard as my white colleagues to get where I am today.”
I told him that’s why we need to start taking on black thought leaders who yell “racism” for strategic reasons and leverage political correctness for psychological advantage. At this point, my friend’s tone changed. Well, actually he couldn’t agree with me on that one. He argued that while he personally felt it beneath him to play the race card, “Truth is, it’s the only card black people have to play in this country, so I don’t support what you’re suggesting.”
I asked what he meant. “Think about it,” he said. “If enough blacks started criticizing the victimhood narratives of black leftists who thrive on political correctness we’d be helping delegitimize [political correctness] itself. If PC is delegitimized in mainstream white society, what’s to stop things from going back to how they were in the 70s?”
My friend pointed out that despite progress for black people in many areas, whites still hold virtually all the economic, political and demographic power in the UK. In his view, the fear of being called racist is the only thing restraining whites from using their power to dominate us openly.
“Now imagine that restraint is removed,” he said. “It’s not even about white or black, it’s about human nature, how people behave with unchecked power. A less PC Britain would be ugly, and we’d be helpless to do anything about it. You want people to be able call you nigger without fear of ostracism? Dude, we can complain in private but in public you need to remember the big picture.”
Over the years, I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed by more than a few black people who don’t buy the racialist dogmas of the identitarian left but consider them necessary to their survival because they help keep in-check what many blacks living in white-majority societies fear most: unrestrained white power. This is why black people often discuss race very differently in private (i.e. when only blacks are in the room). In private, we can be frank and slay black identity politics but in public we need to remember the “big picture” and not act to discredit it. Such calculations, driven by the instinct for self-preservation, keep many black freethinkers from decisively criticizing divisive and hyperbolic radical identitarians.
This isn’t the same thing as worrying that the in-group will label you a “coconut,” an apologist for white racism, or one of those black people who doesn’t get how structural racism works. It is a feeling, somewhere deep down, that while these leftist claims of pervasive racism may be grossly exaggerated and disconnected from reality, the constant moral and psychological pressure on white Britain to be perpetually proving it is not racist is in the interest of all of us who aren’t white. This rhetoric is a necessary check-and-balance in the racial equation and it would be an exercise in self-harm to weaken those wielding it. So while we may roll our eyes in private at paranoid visions of white racists lurking everywhere, let’s allow the race warriors to keep white folks on the defensive. At least this way, they’ll hopefully never take it into their heads to go on the offensive against us.
The fear of domination by powerful outside groups is a human phenomenon documented by scholars investigating inter-group relations in a variety of diverse societies, ranging from post-colonial Africa to Southeast Asia. In the book Ethnic Groups in Conflict, Duke University Professor Emeritus of political science Donald Horowitz argues that for groups who consider themselves “behind” others in terms of economic and political power, “[such] groups have frequently exhibited severe anxiety about threats emanating from other groups.” Their members are susceptible to believing stronger groups want to “control” and “subordinate” them, Horowitz argues. Importantly, he emphasizes that while there are often clear differences in the ethnic configurations found in say, Africa and the West, “the underlying phenomenon of group identity is at bottom the same.”
In light of past history as well as Horowitz’s comparative studies of inter-group dynamics in diverse societies, it is perhaps not surprising that a significant number of black people in countries like the U.S. and Britain harbor fears of being openly dominated by powerful white majorities. This fear of an uncertain future, especially today with the rise of right-wing populism in the West, provides fertile ground for black identitarians to operate in.
But while some black folks are driven to tolerate the excesses of the radical left by a fear of white power, the latter seem largely motivated by envious resentment of it. This is palpable in black British writer Reni Eddo-Lodge’s recent popular book on racism in Britain titled Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. In a revealing passage seeking to distinguish between racism and prejudice, she describes an incident she experienced in a Caribbean eatery:
Years ago, buying myself a lunch of Caribbean food I was greeted by a smiling [black] owner behind the counter who waited until his white customers had left before confiding in me that he saved the best cuts of meat for “people like us.” Yes, that man was prejudiced…but he couldn’t possibly affect the life chances of his white customers with his feelings against them…all he could affect in any terms was their lunch…this is the difference between racism and prejudice. There is an unattributed definition of racism that defines it as prejudice plus power… everyone has the capacity to be nasty to other people, to judge them before they get to know them. But there simply aren’t enough black people in positions of power to enact racism against white people on the kind of grand scale it currently operates at against black people.
Eddo-Lodge acknowledges that blacks can be just as prejudiced as whites but seems to believe black prejudice is harmless and not worth moral condemnation since they don’t have power in Britain. In this view, only white prejudice and racism merit concern because they have power. While this logic is seductively practical, it nevertheless strikes me as a strange kind of morality; one where members of weaker groups are not held to the same moral standards as members of stronger groups because they lack power.
Eddo-Lodge’s stance mirrors that of Logan Browning, the star black-American actress of the controversial Netflix series Dear White People. Browning claims black people “can’t be racist.” They can be prejudiced or biased, she says, but they can’t be racist. “Racism is the oppression of a marginalized group in a society that is based on white supremacy.” There you have it. Racism is solely a white problem, so oppressed minorities like me are allowed to indulge in our racial prejudices about white people without fear of moral censure. After all, who can this realistically hurt? What power do I have?
In this way, the entire onus of responsibility for keeping diverse countries like Britain and America as unprejudiced as possible is placed squarely on the shoulders of the white majority. My sole role as a black person is to offer moral judgments on how well (or rather how badly) white people are getting on with this. Because I am a member of a “marginalized group,” my personal responsibility in facilitating a prejudice-free Britain is just about nil. See the comfortable moral high ground I’ve placed myself in? Of course, if I were a random white citizen I could not imagine finding this moral equation fair at all, but then why would any emancipated black mind care about the subjective feelings of white people who have so much power? Clearly, I must be suffering from an advanced case of Stockholm’s Syndrome.
Throughout Eddo-Lodge’s book, one gets the distinct feeling that the author’s main beef is with the black-white power dynamic rather than the immorality of racial prejudice per se. If the latter were the case, she should have been just as outraged by the Caribbean gentleman’s comments as she would have been if she heard a white restaurant owner telling a white customer he saved the best cuts for “people like us.” But she wasn’t.
I understand the psychology of this resentment. Indeed, most white people don’t need to care what black people think of them because their life chances are not dependent on black opinion. On the other hand, if you are black in Britain, your life chances—especially your career—are likely to hinge on the opinion of a white person or people somewhere along the line. You don’t have the option of not caring about white opinion. As you try rising up the ranks of your field, it is very likely those who decide how high you go will be white. It is this sense of collective weakness and dependency that infuriates many black identitarians.
Though they approach the issue with fundamentally different emotions, the common theme running through my friend’s fearful stance and Eddo-Lodge’s resentful one is the power advantage whites hold over black folks in Britain. However, when it comes to resentment at white power, I find it somewhat ridiculous to be living in a country that is 87 percent white and yet to be offended that white people hold structural and power advantages over a black minority that constitutes less than 5 per cent of the population. Majority ethnic or racial groups tend to have advantages everywhere–not just in the West, but in Africa, Asia and elsewhere as well. Being angry that a demographic group much larger than mine has significantly more power is a fruitless exercise in perpetual resentment.
Perhaps I’m too simple-minded, but the way I see it, in this globalized age, if I want to live in a place where people closer to my skin colour have power, I can always move to any of the 60 plus black-majority nations in the world. In these societies, it will be black people deciding my life chances, not white people. But as long as I choose to live in Britain I see little benefit in being resentful of demographic realities.
Going by black identitarian logic, we should assume that black citizens living in societies where power is in the hands of black people, by definition, have fairer life chances than black folks living in “white-run” nations like Britain. Problem is, the realities of contemporary Africa provide us with ample evidence to the contrary. Nowhere in the world are black people more disenfranchised, marginalized and oppressed than in black-ruled, drastically-unequal Africa where 385 million children live in extreme poverty, 625 million people have no access to electricity and 91.5 percent of the inhabitants have to make do on less than $10 a day. Despite its abundant natural resources, Nigeria, where I grew up, recently overtook India to now have the highest number of extremely poor people in the world according to the Brookings Institute. That is 87 million people, or roughly half the population. Of course, a standard excuse is to blame colonialism as the root cause of all of Africa’s failures today. There is no doubt that the post-colonial socio-economic structures inherited by Africans were seriously flawed and geared towards exploitation. Building a prosperous Africa was never going to be a cakewalk, but the question is: Why haven’t Africa’s elites done much to change those exploitative structures in the six decades they’ve been in charge? Moreover, other regions of the world experienced foreign domination but are doing quite well for themselves today.
For example, much of Southeast Asia also experienced European colonialism and yet, in 1960 when the independence wave started, sub-Saharan Africa had a higher GDP per capita than Southeast Asia, at $987 compared to $814. Fast-forward 50 years to 2010, and Southeast Asia’s GDP per capita had grown by over 330% to $3537 while sub-Saharan Africa’s had risen by just 50% to $1481. The difference in post-colonial socio-economic performance between these two regions is glaringly evident. Other examples of post-colonial success stories include the oil-rich Arab Persian Gulf states, such as Kuwait, Qatar, and the sheikhdoms that became the modern United Arab Emirates. These were all former British protectorates that today boast the kind of ultra-modern infrastructure many British cities can only envy.
While the Gulf states have an abundance of energy resources, many African countries are also abundantly blessed with minerals. Problem is, they are simply being robbed blind by their despots who rarely seem perturbed at all the black suffering going on around them. If anyone ever assumed otherwise, Africa’s kleptocratic elite have demonstrated that black skin color is certainly no guarantee that power will be exercised fairly and judiciously. But of course black identitarians pretend they don’t know that the average black citizen in Britain is much better off, not just economically, but also from the point of view of their basic human rights being respected; African countries have some of the worst human rights records in the world. Clearly, these facts don’t fit with the narrative of blacks living under oppressive white rule in Britain.
The positive news is that ordinary black Britons don’t seem to feel powerless. In the British Government’s 2017 Race Disparity Audit, people were asked whether they feel they “can influence decisions affecting the local area.” In response, 44 percent of black adults said they can influence such decisions, compared to just 25 percent of white adults.
Also, in contrast to the claims of black identitarians like Afua Hirsch, who constantly complain about how ethnic minorities are “othered” in the UK, virtually as many Asians as whites–85 percent–feel they “belong to Britain,” as do 80 percent of adults from black or mixed backgrounds. Thus, while the goal is, of course, for everyone to feel they belong, a clear majority of all ethnic groups in Britain already do, and among those who don’t whites actually make up a significant number, suggesting more complex, perhaps socio-economic forces at play here.
No reasonable person is pretending there is no such thing as racism or prejudice in Britain. The government’s audit shows significant racial disparities in socio-economic outcomes. Meanwhile, according to the most recent European Social Survey, 18 percent of Brits think “some races or ethnic groups are born less intelligent,” while 26 percent self-identify as “a little” or very” prejudiced toward people of other races. What the survey doesn’t tell us is the demographic break down of those believing some races or ethnic groups are born less intelligent. For instance, did some black, Asian, and minority ethnics (BAME) agree with this opinion as well? Were some of the prejudiced respondents BAMEs talking about their attitudes to whites? Whatever the case, racist opinions among what amounts to millions of people in Britain cannot simply be dismissed. Group prejudices and stereotypes exist in every human society; what matters is how they are discussed and dealt with.
I haven’t lived in Britain for as long as the people I am criticizing. I am the son of a Nigerian father and a Polish mother. I grew up in Nigeria and then spent my twenties and early thirties in Poland before moving to the UK three and a half years ago. Perhaps it is precisely because I haven’t lived in Britain all my life that I can appreciate what a wonderfully open and tolerant society this is. It is certainly a different world compared to the previous mostly homogenous countries I lived in. Despite the fact that I’m half-Polish and love many things about Polish society and culture, I feel incomparably more comfortable, secure, and welcome here in Britain as a black person than I ever did in Poland or any of the numerous other European countries I’ve visited as a journalist over the years. Having this personal experience makes it easier for me to appreciate Britain more than the black identitarians who usually have never lived in any other white-majority country. And no, this doesn’t speak badly of those other countries; it simply speaks well of Britain.
Ultimately, I do not think my banker friend’s fears of white domination in a less politically correct Britain are justified, though I can’t pretend his forebodings about unrestrained white power did not make me pause. While I understand such fears, I firmly believe there is a huge gulf between a society where race is weaponized—to the extent black folks can count on white folks backing down once we claim “racism”–and a society where white people feel free to call us “niggers” in public. None of these options is a sustainable social model, and to suggest it is an either/or scenario is a false dichotomy.
I know there are black folks out there who feel stuck between supporting an identity politics they often find ludicrous and the fear that criticizing it could one day come back to haunt them. The fundamental task lies in encouraging black voices to make the case, based on data, that the overwhelming majority of white Britons are not racists. Besides, if we constantly fret over which group has more power, how many of them there are, how many of theirs are billionaires—and so on—isn’t this a sure path to building a balkanized society of constantly rivalrous and mutually envious tribal groups rather than a national community united in a common destiny?
Remi Adekoya is a Ph.D. student researching group identity at Sheffield University. Follow him on Twitter @RemiAdekoya1
Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.