Guy Hewitt | Eradicating the racism pandemic
On June 9, the world paused in tribute to and protest of the killing of George Perry Floyd Jr Reminiscent of the first Moonwalk, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela, and the 9/11 NYC terrorist attack, there is a sense that we have entered a new era.
The worldwide protests across major capitals, cities, towns, and villages, supported by celebrities and corporate leaders, reveal the solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and demand for an end to systemic and institutional racism.
With Caribbean, English, and Indian ancestral derivation, the complexities of race are a lived experience for me. Having been involved in struggles for equality in Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe, I know that change, while never easy, is within reach. Moreover, the sustained, passionate, voluminous multi-age, and multiracial protests suggest that we have reached the inflection point on the way to racial equality.
There were three important influencers of the current mood. The first is that we were able to witness the lynching of George Floyd. This term is not used inflammatorily to conjure up old notions of Jim Crow ‘mob justice,’ but rather to accurately depict what this and all the killings of predominantly black males has been – acts of terrorism; brutal, calculated acts of intimidation and fear. The second is that the Obama era nurtured millennials on a promise of hope and commitment for change.
The third important factor is the effect of COVID-19 on the awakening to racial injustice. There is the practical side. Persons are able to follow the situation across the media and participate in the protests without the constraints of competing demands on time. However, there is the more significant reality that many aren’t conscious of. Through COVID-19, non-black persons are experiencing social isolation, economic disenfranchisement, and the inadequacy of healthcare services, which, regrettably, is the norm for the majority of black people.
We are confronting two pandemics: COVID-19 and racism, the latter claiming significantly more lives. While we have some of the best minds working on a vaccine for the former, insufficient attention is paid to finding a cure for the disease of racism. While the origins of COVID-19 are debatable, we know from where the pernicious and virulent strain of modern racism stems. It is not a simple case of finding someone to blame for one’s inadequacies or the rejection of difference. Racism has deep roots.
Racism was not the natural state of affairs between white and black people. When Europeans first visited Africa, they encountered empires and cities as advanced as their own. However, with the “discovery” for the Americas, the exploitation of these new colonial possessions required a labour force that neither European nor the decimated Native American sources could supply.
The roots of modern Western racism are located in a Eurocentric narcissism that gave them a sense of dominion over the Earth and all its resources. Using science, social theory, and religion, Europeans and their North American cousins dichotomised humanity between people and subpeople (the ‘civilised’ and the ‘savages’). Armed with moral justification and technological advances, they plundered the African continent and enslaved its inhabitants to labour in the “New World”.
ARROGANCE AND HYPOCRISY
Modern Western racism is rooted in a Western arrogance and hypocrisy where egalitarian ideals were reserved for ‘people’, that is, ‘whites’. This is how the US Founding Fathers, notwithstanding the ‘self-evident’ truth that everyone is “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, could reconcile the glaring contradiction of slavery.
When the Haitian Revolution in 1804 created the second independent country in the Americas, the US enacted a trade embargo and aligned itself with the European powers against this nascent state. It is no coincidence that outside of a cultural curiosity, few in the ‘West’ are genuinely interested in the realities of life outside of the Western world. It is no coincidence that the ‘West’ gave both apartheid South Africa and Israel unconditional support despite serious human rights violations. It is no coincidence that the ‘West’ feels abhorrence for the Holocaust but little unease for the capture, slaughter, and enslavement of Africans. Do black lives matter?
It is in this context that I weave the racial thread between the George Floyd killing in America to the toppling of a statue of known ‘slaver’ in Bristol, England, a thread that passes through the Caribbean.
While I don’t condone the destruction of public property, the spontaneous dismantling of the statue of Edward Colston was hugely symbolic. Portrayed as a ‘philanthropist’, Colston made his wealth from transporting ‘human cargo’ - enslaving black people. Given that many of those sold into slavery lost their life at sea, it may have been cathartic for the protesters, some with Afro-Caribbean ancestry, to commit his likeness to a watery grave in Bristol, once the leading slaving port.
Deplorably, the UK’s race crimes are not only historical. The current British government is still trying to resolve the Windrush Scandal. It seemed incredulous that in this age, Caribbean-born “Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies” could have been denied their rights of citizenship and residency and associated benefits. Those more unfortunate experienced destitution, detention, or worse yet, the nightmare of deportation.
The Windrush scandal is a blot on Britain’s socio-political landscape and a repudiation of their “sense of fair play”. It seems inconceivable that in the 21st century, a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council, tasked with defending peace, democracy, and human rights globally, could implement such an unjust, discriminatory, and racist immigration policy. Compensation to the victims for their pain and suffering remains largely unpaid.
While personally involved in this recent struggle in the UK Government against racist policies, I was mindful of the complexity of dealing with race at home. In Barbados, a statue of Lord Nelson, the ‘great’ protector of English colonialism and oppression, particularly slavery in the Caribbean, looms over the National Heroes Square. The latter is a tribute to leaders of the antislavery, anti-colonial, and nationalist struggles.
Furthermore, in Barbados a tiny white minority still control the vast majority of wealth in the county. Most regrettably, the island paradise now has the dubious distinction of joining Lafayette Park in Washington DC, as the only other location where the police successfully disrupted a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest.
There is a distant link between Barbados and the life of George Perry Floyd Jr as the island was responsible for the settling of the Carolinas. The Carolinas’ historic origins are so closely tied to Barbados that it was referred to as “colony of a colony”. The tentacles of oppression run far and deep.
We often don’t appreciate the complexity of a situation while in it. In years to come, I anticipate that people will regard 2020 as a unique moment in time. However, the time for reflection, debate, and finger pointing are over. We have to confront these two pandemics.
Just as our leaders and scientists prepare strategies to reopen our societies and economies amid COVID-19, we must similarly act systematically to put an end to the pandemic of racism. In 1980, the World Health Organization, through tracking and vaccination, declared smallpox eradicated. Perhaps with a similar determination to bring about real change, we can eradicate both COVID19 and racism.
- The Reverend Ambassador Guy Hewitt was Barbados’ first London-born high commissioner to the UK. He ended his public-sector career to serve God. He is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.