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Maziki Thame | Black Lives post-Rio, back to Jamaica and reality

Published:Sunday | August 28, 2016 | 12:00 AMMaziki Thame

Our athletes performed beautifully at 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. In preparation for the Games, the Brazilian state displaced families and intensified violence in favelas and working-class neighbourhoods as a way of 'cleaning up' the city.

Such action disproportionately affected black Brazilians who are over-represented at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Brazil and Jamaica have both had national myths of racial democracy.

Since the 1930s, the Brazilian state claimed that racial mixing was the source of a genuinely multiracial and multicultural society, the hallmark of Brazilianness. This myth was a useful way of hiding racism until black activists and scholars began to expose realities on the ground.

Jamaican nationalism is also based on a myth of harmonious multiracialism, captured in the national motto, 'Out of Many, One People'. This idea took hold of the Jamaican imagination and has not yet been displaced. The contradictory nature of the claim to harmonious multiracialism is most powerfully captured in the celebration of brownness as an ideal and the marginalised status of blacks relative to other groups, both socially and economically, in Jamaica.

It has been four years since the slaying of Trayvon Martin under questionable circumstances fuelled by racist anxieties. The subsequent spate of extrajudicial killings of people of colour in the US has mobilised African-Americans. They are demanding the recognition of their humanity by the American state and by the wider society.

Brazilian blacks have also been mobilised around the dehumanising experiences they face today. They have taken on the mantra of #BlackLivesMatter. It has been more than two years since the killing of our own Mario Deane in police custody, but we were not so mobilised.

We are no strangers to extrajudicial killings of poor black Jamaicans. They are one reminder of the anti-black character of our society and times. They occur in the context of stereotypes about who black people are and, therefore, how black lives are to be valued and in structural contexts that make blacks vulnerable.

 

Poor blacks victimised

 

Among the unjust contexts that had begun to be addressed by the last administration and that played out in the Deane case was the criminalisation of ganja possession. Like vagrancy laws in the colonial period, the criminalisation of ganja allowed police to capture and imprison poor blacks for a practice that is a regular part of life in Jamaica.

The social use of ganja takes place in public spaces in poorer communities. Given the crammed conditions of private homes and given the character of socialisation - community interaction is common outdoors, on corners, and in streets - what is usually a private activity becomes a public affair and more readily open to state intervention.

Police also have a constant and often severe presence in ghettos and other poor neighbourhoods. Blacks' over-representation in those spaces, as well as their stigmatisation as criminals and freeloaders, conditions the State and society's attitudes to them and makes them vulnerable to abuse. But why aren't we outraged?

After Usain Bolt's victory in the 100m finals, comedian Ellen DeGeneres Photoshopped herself mounted on the back of the fastest man in the world and captioned that this would be her new method of running errands. Even while in other contexts he has acknowledged experiencing racism and classism in his home, Jamaica, Bolt found the meme funny and retweeted it. Blacks are made for running (errands) after all.

Contrast that to the response of the African-American Simone Manuel after her victory in the 100m freestyle. She said she hoped it would bring hope, given what was happening in race relations in the world. This is not a Usain Bolt thing. Many Jamaicans would have shared his sentiments.

In his own time, Marcus Garvey felt that African-Americans were at the vanguard of race struggles, while we in the West Indies were asleep. His analysis of the black condition in the early 20th century still remains relevant.

In the Jamaican context, the fact that blacks are the majority and are represented at all levels of society, the black faces of the police and the national celebration of our athletes and performers when they gain global recognition are parts of what lulls us into passivity.

 

'Ghetto' representation

 

There is hardly any protest at the over-representation of black Jamaicans in ghettos with limited access to the resources needed for a meaningful human existence such as quality education. There is very little uproar over the fact that given their failures in English, linked to the character of their education, the black majority is effectively being cut off from social mobility. Indeed, rather than decrying the systems that produce injustice, we are satisfied with the idea that it's because they are ghetto, because they don't "speak well" that they are where they are.

We are keen to perpetuate humiliation such as the stereotyping of black women (our former prime minister included) as vulgar and careless, breeding indiscriminately and burdening the nation; or of black men deemed violent, lazy, and careless, breeding women indiscriminately and burdening the nation.

We are at ease with the killing of blacks by the State - they are criminals, after all. We call for states of emergency and more police and soldiers to protect tourists from our people in Montego Bay and Negril - because those lives matter more than our own.

We are at ease with the ways our society ensures that non-blacks get privileged access to the resources of the State, the beach, better schools, the hills, anything of value. Whose interests should the State serve, after all?

Jamaica's context is part of a broader one facing blacks globally. What happens in the US, like Brazil, is part of our condition. The American election season has been an important one and signals what is possible for us.

The groundswell of support for Bernie Saunders, especially by the young, indicates a questioning of the dominance of capitalism as the only game in town. Blacks have been the worst victims of capitalism since the transatlantic slave trade. That the anti-Left United States is so mobilised - from the Occupy Movement to Black Lives Matter, to support for Bernie Saunders - is important to assessing how space for similar questioning and reorganisation might develop in our Caribbean.

That type of ferment has been taking place across Latin America since the dawn of the 21st century, but it is now under attack. It has not yet arrived at our gates. Many here are bogged down in the business of survival - we are the survivors, after all.

Distrust of politics and a minimalist understanding of democracy as participation in elections have encouraged disengagement from political life. Too many see politics as a dirty effort and not as it is better formulated, a way to create just societies.

Democracy means inclusion and respect for people as people. It demands that we protest injustice of all forms, but, in the first instance, we must be awakened to the injustices all too prevalent on our shores.

• Dr Maziki Thame is a research fellow at the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute for Social and Economic Studies, UWI, Mona. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and maziki.thame@gmail.com.