In a Letter to the Editor published in the Tribune on February 4, 2006 Miss Helen Klonaris accused Mr. Brent Symonette of racism. She based this on an interview reported in The Guardian of late May 2005.
Mr. Symonette is reported as saying that he found it difficult to celebrate African-rooted culture because his heritage is French, "hence the name 'Symonette'." Because of this view he is accused of a "cultivated forgetting" and denial. Mr. Symonette wants all Bahamians to move on with their lives; while Miss Klonaris wants them to discuss race presumably so that they will understand, empathize and relate.
Generally, the discussion of race unleashes such powerful emotions that the prevailing wisdom is "You should not discuss it"…after all…"What useful purpose can be served?" and "Brent can defend himself." Nevertheless, such a discussion may be worthwhile.
Ms. Klonaris's thesis goes something like this:
* Racism and Whiteness are equivalents and are based on "four hundred years of European enslavement of Africans" and the persistence of white economic power thereafter.
* Racism and Whiteness constitute "a well defined system of relationships that encompass the "educational curricula, the legal system, Judeo Christian church hierarchies and the English language itself"; and they systematically impose values, standards and ways of being on others. In fact, they "suppress, condemn and ghettoize" other cultures.
* White Bahamians don't even want to think about African culture in this "age of racism."
This is a strident and inflammatory thesis; hopefully, the following insights may be helpful.
Without diminishing in any way the sufferings of enslaved Africans, the reader should note the monumental work of Thomas Sowell, an eminent Black economic historian who has written authoritatively on race, culture, conquests and migrations.
He starts with the declaration that slavery did not exist because of racial ideology.
"For the most of human history, among peoples of all races around the world, slavery existed wherever there were sufficiently vulnerable people to make their capture and enslavement profitable. In medieval Europe, that usually meant the enslavement of Europeans by other Europeans, just as in contemporary Asia the Asians typically enslaved other Asians, and in Africa or the Western Hemisphere the indigenous peoples likewise enslaved one another.
"The differences between the subjugated peoples and those who subjugated them were more likely to be military, geographical, and cultural, rather than racial…However, those Africans living in strongly organized states with formidable military forces at their disposal were not the ones enslaved. Rather, they were the enslavers who sold their fellow Africans to the Europeans, who in most cases acquired their slaves by purchase rather than direct capture."
In the 19th century, however, "the ideological contradiction between the European conception of freedom and the brutal reality of their enslavement of Africans began to produce…a growing political opposition to slavery as such. This was the first such mass opposition to this ancient institution in the history of the world.
"Because this moral opposition developed within countries with overwhelming military power…slavery came under pressure all over the planet. It was eventually destroyed by Europeans, despite opposition within their own ranks, as well as opposition and evasion by virtually every-non-European civilization." 1
It should also be noted that for perhaps 15 centuries Jews in Western Europe "lived under a regime of legally restricted rights and social sanctioned discrimination as severe as that borne by any population not held in chattel slavery." 2 Their emancipation started in the 1790s and ended with the unification of Italy and the closing of the Roman Ghetto in 1870.
Ms. Klonaris links economic power to enslavement in a fashion similar to the class warfare championed by Karl Marx. Let us examine this bit of history.
The period between 1750 and 1880 produced a seismic shift in how people lived and worked. It happened because of the innovations in both agriculture and manufacturing.
Agricultural innovations raised productivity, the value of land and diminished the need for labor. In England the rising price of land led to the enclosure movement – the fencing of marginal agricultural land formerly available to agricultural workers for their subsistence.3
At the same time there was an accelerating rate of technical innovation in industry. In 1750 the spinning and weaving of cotton textiles was done with manually powered machines in small cottage workshops. Textile merchants supplied materials and paid for the finished product. Three inventions changed this picture, the spinning machine in 1769; the power loom in 1787 and a perfected steam engine in 1790. 4 In an 80 year period textile production moved from cottage to factory.
Karl Marx observed this new environment and in 1867 wrote his "revolutionary" thesis. Its major elements were –
* Capitalism contained the seeds of its own inevitable destruction and would be followed by Socialism and then Communism, the ultimate ideal society.
* Capitalism had two antagonistic classes, the capitalistic bourgeois that owned the means of production and the propertyless proletariat that emerged from the ranks of the landless laborers and small artisans.
* Workers are paid an amount sufficient to allow them to "buy the subsistence goods to keep the population constant, but they are made to work more hours than are necessary to produce these goods." The capitalists take the surplus value of labor and store it in capital; and the system eventually produces maladjustments that cause its collapse.5
The reality of the workplace was this. "The conditions faced by Western European working classes were harsh before the Industrial Revolution; they were harsh during it; and they were harsh for a long time afterward. But the balance of evidence is that even though the Industrial Revolution did not initially benefit all workers, it did not, even at the beginning, make matters on average any worse; and [eventually] it led to major advances in the welfare of the working class."
Even Karl Marx, who spent more than three decades living in Victorian England, acknowledged the rise in British workers' living standards between the 1840s and the 1860s." In Das Kapital he claimed that the rise was "practically insignificant"; but later he quantified the rise as "about 40 percent." 6
Marx's "class warfare" theory was built on bad assumptions; but this did not dampen his and the public's willingness to create a myth.
One persistent question facing man is "Why has the world developed the way it has where some societies have so much and others have so little?" The explanations for the disparity have seemingly boiled down to two broad categories: the "geographical/ bio-geographical determinists" like Jared Diamond and the "culturists." The latter is a much broader and larger group that ranges from Thomas Sowell and Nathan Rosenberg to the World Bank.
According to Jared Diamond, "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves." 7
Man evolved, emerged or was created (take your pick) five hundred thousand to one million years ago in Africa; and about 13,000 years ago in the Middle East man first settled in sustainable villages. In the vast period between these two dates Africans acquired the skills and fashioned the tools necessary to survive in hostile environments, the first significant jump in human development. And…Africans migrated to places far from Africa.
According to Mr. Diamond, the first evidences of "village life" occurred along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of the Middle East, the "Fertile Crescent", and not in Africa. It was the peoples of the Middle East who discovered and developed the eight perennial crops that became the basis for agriculture worldwide. Only two of those have been found in the wild outside the Fertile Crescent. Thus the "second significant jump" was in food production that could support more people with more complex social "structures." At that time this self-reinforcing process had no counterpart in Africa.
In discussing the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe Jared Diamond contends that Western Europe had a jagged coastline with natural harbors and rivers that flowed throughout the year from the interior to those harbors. These facilitated the growth of cities and both regional and inter-regional trade. Except for the Nile River basin, Africa does not have this geographic advantage.
However, one must note that in 1400 AD the world's greatest power was China; and Western Europe was insignificant at the other end of a very large land mass. China was both an overwhelming naval power and a "leading-edge" discoverer of new technologies. Nevertheless its world dominance ended largely as a result of cultural and institutional factors; while the key element in the amazing growth of Western Europe was its "political pluralism and institutional flexibility" rather than its imperialism and exploitation of others. This example and many, many more give substance to the argument that culture also counts.
Culture is every community's shared memory or "knowledge from the past" that occasions a vicarious participation in it. 8 It is "sanctified, authorized, or even canonized in such a way that it is immune to challenges based on alternative [interpretations]"; and, in fact, it becomes part myth. Also every community develops ethical and moral standards for how members relate; and every community makes policy choices that reflect its shared memory.
Society must adapt and respond to concrete challenges. As Brent Symonette suggests, we must get on with it. The discussion of cultural issues is important; but it is a fruitless exercise when done with the strident tone and inflammatory myths evident in Helen's thesis.
1 Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures: An International History, Basic Books, 1998, pages 354-356.
2 Charles Murray, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, Perennial, 2004, pages 275 – 283.
3 Nathan Rosenberg & L.E. Birdzell, How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World, Basic Books, 1986, page 146.
4 Rosenberg, page 177
5 The MIT Dictionary of Modern Economics, Fourth Edition, page 271.
6 Sowell, page 41.
7 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Norton, 1999, page 25.
8 Avishai Margalit, The Ethics of Memory, Harvard University, 2002, pages 14 and 95.
The Nassau Institute