HOW AMERICA'S "RACE" PROBLEM IS SIMPLY TRIBALISM
Ethnicity masquerading as race
If there is one thing that stands out like a sore thumb in America’s chequered history, it’s racism and all its associated ills, from Slavery to Jim Crow to Redlining and all manner of discrimination legalized or otherwise against people of African descent.
While a particularly vicious form of racism existed in America’s past, I am inclined to believe that in 2021, most of what passes for racism can more accurately be described as ethnic tensions and bigotry with people on both sides of the racial divide—black and white— being equally as guilty.
There are several reasons why I think so and I’ll explain. I draw parallels from observations in my country Nigeria a “racially” homogeneous nation, yet if I substituted ethnicity for race, what I’ll find is that the racial tensions prevalent in America today, is no different from the ethnic tensions that define my country.
If the different ethnicities in Nigeria were different races, then racism could very well be used to define the attitudes of one ethnic group towards another. However, nobody makes that assertion.
Let me make a case with two of the three largest ethnic groups in my country, the Hausa-Fulani and the Ibos, two ethnic groups that are somewhat opposed to each other.
The tensions between both ethnic groups can be traced back to our nations earliest years in the form of coups and counter-coups along ethnic lines. So when the 1966 coup led by Kaduna Nzeogwu an Eastern Ibo resulted in the death of mainly Northern political and military leaders of Hausa-Fulani extraction, the Northerners saw it as an assault on their ethnic group and thus retaliated with a counter-coup months later where political and military leaders of Eastern Ibo extraction—including the then military Head of State, Aguyi Ironsi—were killed.
These coups laid the foundation for the 1967 - 1970 civil war—that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people mainly on the Ibo side—led by Northern military leaders, thus mutual suspicion and hatred was consummated.
Forward to 2021, both sides still hold grudges against one another, with the Ibos accusing the Hausa-Fulani of genocide against them and political oppression.
In American terms, the Hausa-Fulani would be synonymous with racialized white people who have historically oppressed and marginalized the Ibos—racialized black people— and killed thousands of them in a civil war, and continue to marginalize them politically today.
As a result of this history of mutual suspicion and hatred, both sides think the worst of each other and believes the other side is working actively to undermine their interests.
There is no shortage of evidence that the roots of racial tensions between whites and blacks in America today draw from a history of slavery and discrimination. In that sense, it is understandable that black people would have sour feelings towards whites who have historically been their oppressors.
One may argue that where the Nigerian scenario differs from racism in America is that there is no underlying assumption of the superiority of one group. That may be true for the racism of the past. Today, however, the assumption of racial superiority is not even invoked in charges of racism, if it were invoked, most white people would not be considered racist today and this sentiment finds itself in the redefinition of racism to mean prejudice plus power.
By the definition of racism as prejudice plus power, the Hausa-Fulani should be regarded as racist towards the Ibos because they have had and still do have more political power than the Ibos and there is no shortage of prejudice from either side.
But, no one would ever dream to call the Hausa-Fulani racist against the Ibos. Clearly, the ingredients that bake racism in the American context exists in the Nigerian context, but the final product is rightly identified as tribal and ethnic tensions.
If we go by the aboriginal definition of racism, which is discrimination based on skin colour on the held belief that racial superiority of whites legitimises discrimination against blacks, then most whites of today cannot rightly be called racist. This, however, would exclude the KKK who still believe in the racial superiority of whites.
For this analysis to work, I reject the definition of racism to mean prejudice plus power, because as we have seen, prejudice plus power exists outside the American context in a way that is not regarded as racist.
For something to be racist in my estimation, it must be backed with the belief of racial superiority and that one group is deserving of poor treatment because they are inferior. I would also consider something to be racist—even if there is no assumption of racial superiority—if a person of one racial group is treated in a manner different from a person of another racial group under similar circumstances, in a way that cannot be explained by anything else. Anything other than these two scenarios, I would label as bigotry, prejudice, ignorance or simply being a shitty person.
But even so, there are nuances behind why different groups might get different treatment, not that different treatment is justified, just that it happens naturally where there are “distinct” groups of people.
There are reasons to believe that the racial tensions that exist in America today have roots in America’s racist past. However, I strongly believe it is not the same motivations driving the “racism” of today that drove the racism of the past.
In a video I saw on Youtube of a black man hugging a Neo Nazi, the black man asked the Neo Nazi, “why do you hate me?” to which the Neo Nazi after staring at him for a long time said, “I don’t know.”
A racist of bygone years would be able to articulate without hesitation the reasons why he hated black people. He wouldn’t struggle to come up with a reason and justification for his poor treatment of blacks.
I suspect that what passes for racism today is mostly due to prejudice, ignorance, and bigotry and not because of any sense of racial superiority. I find some evidence for this in the way certain liberals view black people.
Ami Horowitz and his series interviewing certain white people on black issues such as voter suppression, obesity, etc reveal a pathological ignorance of the daily experiences of black people to the extent that some of the white people interviewed claimed that black people don’t have access to the Internet, don’t know where the DMV is or that there are no ways for black people to get healthy food in their communities.
These assumptions ran counter to the opinions of the black people interviewed, who were shocked that certain white people thought these things about them. Interestingly, none of these black people accused the white people of racism but rightly chucked it up to ignorance.
There is no shortage of ignorance between groups and frankly. In my country, there are over five hundred ethnic groups spread across the country, yet it is very common for Northerners to assume that there are only two ethnic groups in the South and for Southerners to assume that there is only one ethnic group up North.
The case of Daryl Davis, the African American musician who converted about 200 KKK members from the KKK ideology is worth mentioning. He took it upon himself to interact with Klan members and find out the source of their hatred for black people and ended up making friends with and changing the minds of up to 200 of them.
There is a particular incident that stood out that sort of stresses my point that a lot of ignorance is behind the racism towards blacks. Davis asked a Klan member what kind of music he liked and the Klan member said rock and roll, and Davis told him, did you know that rock and roll was invented by a black man? The Klan member disagreed and said it was Elvis Presley who invented rock and roll, Davis took his time to educate the Klan member about the history of rock and roll and by the end of the discussion, the Klan member said, “well you’re a musician, so you may know more about music history than I do.”
That was a concession to two truths, one that black people invented rock and roll and two that a black man knew anything more than a white man. Davis was not only able to educate the Klans member but got him to admit to these truths. I could reasonably guess that the KKK member never thought music as [good] as rock and roll could have been invented by black people. That sudden knowledge didn’t make him begin to dislike rock and roll, a person who truly believed black people were inferior would immediately begin to despise rock and roll or more probably refuse to concede to the uncomfortable truth. If one began to dig deep, you might find palpable ignorance behind the assumptions that man had about black people that fuelled his racial animosity.
The last evidence that I have for my assertion that racism in America today is principally tribalism are anecdotes of recent black immigrants to the US. I’ll recount a conversation I had with my friend Vincent, a US-born but British raised Nigerian now schooling and living in the US.
He relates to me that when he first got to the US for schooling, some white people who knew him to be British cautiously told him not to associate or be like the African Americans.
Another situation happened with a lady who was visibly uncomfortable by his presence, but relaxed and began to engage openly with him when he spoke up and she registered he was not [African American] but a black British person.
In an encounter with a white police officer, Vincent noticed that the policeman who was otherwise hostile to him became much friendlier and calmer once he heard his British accent. The policeman even forgot why he pulled him over in the first place and just let him go without incident.
It is very clear that something had triggered the policeman to react distastefully to Vincent and I’m willing to bet that it had to do with the fact that the white police officer assumed Vincent to be African American.
In all these instances, I could see how these incidents can be interpreted as racist because these people acted in a prejudiced manner against Vincent based on assessing him as a black man. However, when they realized he wasn’t African American—an ethnic group they did not like—all their bias and prejudice seemed to have dissipated. Why?
Well, for one, Vincent was still a black man. Why were the white people more amenable to him with this new information? If racial animus was what fuelled their prejudice, it wouldn’t matter whether Vincent was of Nigerian, Ghanian, Caribbean or Slave descent, as long as he was black, their attitudes towards him should have remained consistent throughout.
My theory is that “White Americans” as an ethnic group in the context of the US, have issues with “African Americans” as another ethnic group occupying the same space as them and the reverse is true as well.
If we understand that ethnic tensions occur naturally, even among people of the same race—ask the Serbs and the Bosnians or the Hutus and the Tutsis—then this observation makes perfect sense. There are significant understandable and explainable ethnic tensions between whites and African Americans in America that has little to do with race.
I am not by this denying the existence of racism in America today whether systemic or personal—racism is always bound to be present in a “multi-racial” society my—point is that the vast majority of what is considered racism in America today could be better described as tribalism or ethnic bigotry, and that misnaming the problem would not lead to a better resolution.
Charles Ekokotu writes from Nigeria
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