Black America: A Country That Was Never Meant to Survive | by Danielle Purifoy

“My American-ness is undercut by my blackness, because black Americans were never meant to be.”

Cotton_field_kv17
Photo: A cotton field in the United States.

The thing about being a black American in general, and a descendant of African slaves in particular, is that although you built it, the country that you claim was not made for you. So far as our records demonstrate, my family has been in America for centuries, and some ancestors lived on these lands before they became these “united” states. Legally speaking, this evidence should legitimate my identity as an American citizen, as a person belonging to the land that was stolen from, and toiled by, my family. But as a matter of fact, this evidence reifies my sub-citizen, third class status in this country.

‘Developing country’ is just another term for the colonized; and colonization is inseparable from white supremacy

Because of this evidence, not in spite of it, I am not an American in the way of white Americans. My American-ness is undercut by my blackness, because black Americans were never meant to be. In the words of the radical feminist Audre Lorde, “we were never meant to survive.”

So we must speak in real, demonstrative terms, of a country within a country; of a black America embedded in a white America. In the same breath, we must also speak of a non-white world dominated by a white supremacist world. ‘Developing country’ is just another term for the colonized; and colonization is inseparable from white supremacy. In the Racial Contract, the political philosopher Charles W Mills calls white supremacy the “unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today.”

That political system that enslaved and colonized millions across the world still functions as well as it ever did; just with different mechanisms. Anyone who studies modern political institutions can understand that the social, economic, educational, and political structures that determine what transactions, decisions, and power relations across the world are legitimate are themselves the legacy of a Euro-world dominance. Whether or not we name them, we all play by those rules.

It is no coincidence that such revisionist histories help to foster the illusion of the ‘European miracle’ and ‘white exceptionalism’, wherein the European and North American nations simply pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and apropos of little else, manufactured superior economic, political, and social structures.

But not naming those rules is what keeps them hidden from their origins, making them the ‘natural’ order of things, or ‘common sense’ practices. Scholars of political institutions devote a lot of words to explaining the differences between so-called ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ nations. Rarely do the words Euro-centrism, colonization, pillage, and slavery appear on their pages. Instead, from the works of scholars such as the late Douglass North, the Turkish-American economist Timur Kuran, and the American political scientist Barry Weingast, Western intellectual discourse is endlessly focused on individualist societies, in which vertical power relations, and impersonal, and ‘efficient’ economic transactions are used as key variables to simultaneously explain both the successful development of Europe and North America, and the ‘failure’ of non-white countries.

Similarly to the Marxist political theorist Fredric Jameson, Charles W Mills argues that European colonization excluded colonized nations “as conceptually and historically irrelevant to European and Euro-world development, so that these raced spaces are categorized and disjoined from the path to civilization (i.e., the European project).” It is no coincidence that such revisionist histories help to foster the illusion of the ‘European miracle’ and ‘white exceptionalism’, wherein the European and North American nations simply pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and apropos of little else, manufactured superior economic, political, and social structures.

The ‘underdevelopment’ of colonized nations is cunningly disjoined from the ‘super-development’ of Europe, North America, Australia. The condition of colonised states is falsely constructed as a consequence solely of their own deficits and malfunctions; be these economic, moral, intellectual, and political.

Our ‘development’ is undercut by our non-whiteness because fully developed post-colonial, non-white nations were not really meant to be. We were never supposed to thrive.

This constructed logic of colonization is familiar to Black America. After 250 years of slavery (without reparations), 100 years of Jim Crow, and at least 35 years of what Eduardo Bonilla Silva calls “colorblind racism”, in every facet of the lived experience of black Americans, the inequalities between white and black America remain stark.

Even as we narrow some gaps in education and income, white wealth is still 13 times higher than black wealth. Black men were six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men in 2010, and black Americans were incarcerated at more than three times the national rate. Professor of Public Health at Harvard University, David R. Williams documents that racial disparities in health between black and white Americans have remained persistent since they were first recorded in 1950. Black American women are more likely to get breast cancer at a younger age than white American women. Black American heart failure before the age of 50 is 20 times more common than for white Americans.

Black American depression is more chronic, severe, and untreated than white American depression. According to Dorceta Taylor, Black Americans are more likely to live in toxic environments than white Americans, and less able to move away from them, partially because of de facto racial residential segregation and discriminatory public and private housing policies. In 2015, black American men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police.

in every facet of the lived experience of black Americans, the inequalities between white and black America remain stark.

The dominant explanatory narrative about these disparities very rarely touches on the white supremacist history of the United States, the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing physical, social, and economic violence against black Americans. In Racism without Racists, Bonilla-Silva argues that white Americans employ several tactics to erase racism and white supremacy from any explanation of inequality for black Americans. These include attempting to naturalise racial segregation (“every race just naturally wants to be with their own kind”), attempting to lessen the appearance of discrimination (“those racist days are over; black people have equal opportunity”), and blatant cultural racism (“blacks are lazy, and play the race card to get a handout instead of working hard”).

Convinced of black criminality, even in the absence of any transgression, black persons killed by police, regardless of age or gender, are inevitably placed on trial in the media and across social networks. The condition of black America, like those of ‘developing countries’, is construed as a consequence of its own deficits.

Black American depression is more chronic, severe, and untreated than white American depression

More than whether black America is a ‘developing country’, it might be of greater significance to ask if ‘developing countries’ can ever really be ‘developed’? If what we mean by ‘development’ is the kind we are taught through the European miracle narrative, then we ought already to know the answer. Our ‘development’ is undercut by our non-whiteness because fully developed post-colonial, non-white nations were not really meant to be. We were never supposed to thrive.

Our task then, is to identify what visions of development are most suited to our prosperity. But though the histories of colonized states and black America are interconnected, they are not the same. What ‘development’ can look like for a former European colony might present a different vision from that envisaged by those whose oppressors still live in their midst. Nevertheless, what our visions must have in common is a reckoning with white supremacy in all its forms. We must be committed to thriving and ‘developing’ in ways that do not recreate the strictures that led to the ‘miraculous’ development of Europe and North America, and the ‘deterministic’ underdevelopment of the rest of the world. Succeeding on our own terms requires acknowledging that the individualist bootstrap winners in Europe’s vision of development never existed.

Danielle Purifoy is a North Carolina native. She is a lawyer and obtained her JD from Harvard University. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Policy at Duke university. She also writes and edits for Scalawag Magazine.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Black America: A Country That Was Never Meant to Survive | by Danielle Purifoy

  1. Black U.S Americans have always negotiated with the Nation just like any other country. I don’t even have to explain Alexander Crummel’s attempt to christianize Africans or Richard Wrights disdain for African culture which he called backward. Black U.S Americans enjoy way more privileges than other black people in the Americas. Being part of a World Power has made y’all recognizable all over the world and when y’all say Black Lives Matter you have the luxury for speaking only for Black people in the U.S (and Africa) while ignoring the rest of the Americas. Being a black migrant in the U.S means that you better assimilate to an African american nomenclature or your black body won’t be recognized at all. So there are a lot of privileges with being black in the U.S empire. Just because nobody writes about it doesn’t mean people are blind or cant put two and two together.

    Like

  2. Hi williamgarcia1987,
    Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I fully appreciate and agree with your argument, and don’t think this piece contradicts that. I was responding to the parallels between black America and the so-called developing world vis-a-vis whiteness. There’s much more to be said about our privilege relative to each other, and that should be taken up in a future piece.

    What I hoped to convey here is that our histories and legacies of struggle against colonization and white supremacy are all connected. And we have to reckon with that legacy. One facet of that legacy is that we are conditioned to mistrust each other. African Americans are taught that the continent of our origin is a “backwards” land. Black migrants to the US are taught that African Americans are lazy and entitled. Neither of those narratives serves us well, but it does keep white supremacy intact.

    So we’ve got work to do. As quasi-citizens of an imperialist nation, African Americans must recognize the significant, albeit limited power of our voices, and use them to connect our struggles across the world. That doesn’t change the fundamental power dynamic, but it’s a start. We have to work together with black migrants to the US to teach each other our histories and to unite against white supremacy so that our multiple black modalities and livelihoods can be preserved and cherished.

    Thanks so much again for reading and responding, and wishing you many happy returns in the new year!

    All the best,

    Danielle

    Like

  3. Shalom Danielle,
    For the narrative to change we must use all the tools necessary, we must honor our biblical history land, nationality, ethnicity, language. We must become aware of who we are as a nation of people. The scriptures are our history book and we need to recognize. We use to sing about our homeland and history those negro spirituals. To recover from what you describe we must become whole! Deut 28 Praise YAH!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s