George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Duquesne University: From an Afrocentric perspective, how do you define race in America?
Molefi Kete Asante, professor of African-American studies at Temple University: Race in America is a psychological, physical and social location for determining the conditions of one’s current and future life. This is because America’s benefits and privileges have been structured around race and its markers for difference. Those markers, largely physical, identify some people as being privileged and others as being victims. As a central concept in America’s history, race has always been an arena for selecting who will eat and who will not eat or for determining the quality and condition of a group’s possibilities.
G.Y.: Given the recent killings of unarmed black people by white police officers, does Afrocentricity provide a prescription of any sort for eliminating racism?
M.K.A.: Afrocentricity as an intellectual idea takes no authority to prescribe anything; it is neither a religion nor a belief system. It is a paradigm that suggests all discourse about African people should be grounded in the centrality of Africans in their own narratives. However, the warrant “given the recent killings of unarmed black people by white police officers” is part of a continuing drama in America; its contemporary emergence is simply a recent exposure through popular media.
When one asks about the elimination of racism, then the concentration cannot be on African people but on the perpetrators of racism. Who acculturates racists? What does a white child learn about privilege? How can we dismantle the apparatus that supports white exceptionalism in a multicultural society? It will take really bold and courageous action to bring about several key components of a national will to overcome racism. It must mean an acceptance of the fact that racism is a principal fact of American life.
It also necessitates an embrace of all national cultures in the country in a defiant act of seeking to contest ignorance in all arenas. This is what the brilliant people of Starbucks attempted to do recently by having their baristas engage customers in conversations about race to the utter disgust of the racist class. Thus, in the end, to eliminate racism will also require a rewriting of our understanding of the United States of America from the perspective of the oppressed, the violated and the marginalized. The Native Americans must be folded into the discussion of racism because they lost an entire continent based on racism as a location of what their future conditions should be.
Of course, you cannot do any of this if you seek to whitewash the facts of American history. Institutions should and could support the least powerful and thereby redress a thousand wrongs. I would like to see politicians open the discussion on reparations for 246 years of enslavement.
The question of the killing of black men by police is not a recent one; it is more in view now because of the new social media. I am afraid that the country has not overcome the pockets of racist fear-mongers who are happy to kill African-Americans in the tradition of the old K.K.K. I personally believe that some K.K.K.-style racists have found homes inside police forces and are now called “systematic failures.” Removing racists, these “systematic failures,” from police departments is rightly the work of criminal-justice scholars, some of whom spend too much time seeking to criminalize black people. Consequently statements about mechanized forces, better training, mistaken shootings by reserve deputy police and aggravated behavior miss the point of dealing with rogue police officers who get an adrenalin rush by subduing black males with deadly force.
G.Y.: On your view, who is it that acculturates racists, and what does a white child learn about privilege?
M.K.A.: Let me remind you of a recent event. A white policeman in New Richmond, Ohio, refused to shoot a white man begging to be shot. The policeman, Jesse Kidder, is praised for demonstrating restraint in refusing to shoot the man, Michael Wilcox, who had been accused of killing his fiancée. Pundits and commentators announced gleefully that Kidder’s action was exceptional and certainly an example of good police behavior. Few would dispute the fact that the police used restraint, but the lesson to the white child and to the black child, I should add, is that police can show restraint when the suspect is white, even if he is suspected of murder.
The point that I am making is that almost every day, perhaps hundreds of times per day, white children learn how special they are in the society and how un-special blacks are to whites who control the society. Racism begins to assert itself quite early and children learn at an early age, perhaps as early as 3 to 4 years of age, that people are different and they are treated differently. If you are a white child, it is extremely obvious that you have privileges that a black child does not have because you are surrounded by privilege, opportunities and power buttons that are often denied to African-descended children.
Thus the white child finds three aspects of privilege immediately in a racist society. They are secure in their physical and psychological situations; they are protected in their living spaces; and they have the freedom to explore every conceivable adventure without fear or trepidation. On top of this they are granted audacity that is condemned in black children. Furthermore, white people have the privilege of being blinded to their privilege by the protocols of the society. It is like the white view of the police as good guys and the general black view of suspicion of the police. The blindness comes because the police in a racist society make racial judgments and decisions. They decide to stop and arrest blacks at a rate greater than that of whites. They decide to harass young black males and to send young white males home to their parents. This blindness to racism is an inherent part of the meanness of the system of privilege. Alas, black children are rarely protected and are not secure in their spaces.
G.Y.: I have heard from both white and black pundits that black people ought to spend the same level of energy protesting “black on black” crime. Other scholars with whom I’ve spoken see this move as a way of avoiding a critical discussion of the fact that some white police officers, who have sworn to protect citizens across race, actually see black lives as disposable. What are your thoughts?
M.K.A.: “Black-on-black” crime is not an anomaly; such crimes are committed in communities where black people actually live among other black people. Hence, within such contexts, criminals and the victims will tend to be black. But this is only part of the issue; it is a small part of the bigger problem, which is the cause of violence in the African-American community. There is a morbid philosophy of demise operating in a systemic way to destroy the elements that maintain black communities.
Here is what I mean. Unemployment, racial profiling, housing discrimination, educational shabbiness, exploitation of the poor, and the rampant physical abuse by the authorities create a cauldron of frustration and fear. The brew is violent and its manifestation engulfs those who enter the madness of this arena of violence. It cannot be justified, but it must be understood for us to continue to find a solution.
G.Y.: You stated above that Afrocentricity “is a paradigm that suggests all discourse about African people should be grounded in the centrality of Africans in their own narratives.” Given this time of grief, suffering, and sadness that so many African-Americans are feeling as we continue to hear about (and in some cases actually see) one killing after another of unarmed black people by white police officers, what are some of our “own narratives” that might be drawn upon to bring about a sense of empowerment during these times?
M.K.A.: In the worst of times there are always victories, even if they are small ones. So when we are whipped, broken in culture and spirit, effectively destroyed physically, we can still manage to sing, to laugh, to rebel and to join revolution; this is the victory of those whose lives are wounded by brutality. You remember the Middle Passage crossing? When our ancestors sat on those ships they were not all dejected; some were defiant, others nodded in solidarity to their daughters or sons and gave them signs of victory. Those who leapt over board and drowned themselves were also gaining victories over the criminal kidnappers. The key to centering is situational; that is, one must claim space or take space, intellectually or physically, in any situation however difficult and dire it may seem.
What are we to do if we are in bad situations where our freedoms are stolen? We are to resist, and the best way to resist is to claim our space, even if it is in short bursts of time to assert ourselves and consequently to become the subjects of our own narratives.
G.Y.: Speak to how you do or do not see the protests taking place, as of this interview, in Baltimore, as an example of black people claiming space.
M.K.A.: In my book “The Afrocentric Idea,” I suggested that the objective of the oppressed, the victimized and the exploited is always to “seize” the accouterments of power in order to correct the imbalance when the mastering force least expect assaults on the ramparts of villainy that seek to marginalize them. The youth of Baltimore seized the space and the time when they went to the streets and posed the threat of violence; it is always the threat of violence, not violence itself, that unnerves the system because of the uncertainty that comes when a people hold in their hands the potential of competing for power. Thus, the claiming of space adjusts the narrative of confrontation so that you no longer have a hierarchical symbolism but a more balanced position, even if only temporarily, that allows the oppressed to establish itself as a contestant for attention and power.
This is what the demonstrative protests brought into play in Baltimore because the people took to the streets and seized the space, the time, the limelight of the media and the assertive rhetoric of action that demanded change in the system. Those few who burned down buildings and destroyed cars were not demonstrating; they were much too literal to pose a threat. In effect, they took advantage of the seizure of space and corrupted it to an obvious provocation that could and did draw down the awesome power of the state. Without military capacity protesters are in no position to survive a literal confrontation; this is why the threat of violence with its potentiality is a more effective strategy for gaining change.
G.Y.: If you were speaking to young black boys and black men about the recent killings of unarmed boys and men who look like them, what would you say?
M.K.A.: There would be two points I would make to them, the same two points I made to my own son, some years ago. The first is that “the United States has always been a dangerous nation for African boys and men.” The second is that “you must always be on the side of fighting for transformation in the society.” Actually the intent of the enslavement was to kill us, to work us to death, to dispense with us one way or the other, or to conspire against our success, or to hang us from a tree because of the inherent threat that the black male body posed for the society. Young black boys must know their power and learn to respect it, to be amused by the fear that they cause in those who reflect on the violence they have measured against us. Young black boys bring a sense of unease to many whites who expect them to do something, to say something; it is the same unease that rides on the shoulders of the police who have been trained in a culture that disrespects black people.
And yet I would say to them that they must resist narcissism because journalists and social media love to fetishize them. Once you are fetishized you are ready to be destroyed, overturned, subverted, interrogated and incarcerated. The Baltimore mother who reacted emotionally to save her son from arrest by beating him away from the protests appeared to do something wholly parental because she was saying that she was not going to lose her son. However, the media saw the beating of the black male body, not the mother’s love, as the main story. I would also insist that young black boys and men understand that we must be on the side of justice, progress and transformation.
What is correct for us is correct for others and we must fight all forms of human oppression; this is truly the legacy of African ancestors in the Americas whose destinies have always been tied up with those of the abused, harmed, hurt and brutalized. In the end, they should know that they should be careful, but have no fear; be confident but not arrogant, and let no one separate them from goodness, character and justice.
G.Y.: Returning to your point about space, there is also canonical or curricular space. As a professional philosopher, I was primarily taught European and Anglo-American philosophy. In what ways does Afrocentricity seek to rethink the canon of Western intellectual and philosophical space?
M.K.A.: Yes, George, you are right about Afrocentricity rethinking the canon. There is nothing really wrong about the European canon; it is what it is, the European canon. I think that often African and to a lesser degree Asian scholars are asking Europeans to do what others have not done. We privilege Europe and European people as the ones who should set the canon, but just allow us inside with one or two books of our own. Afrocentricity understands that the European project is not something that we should change; we could, for example, suggest items for the canon, but in the end its purpose is to canonize European thought and thinkers.
Yet in a diverse society like ours we must have space for all people who share this land with us. This requires knowledge and generosity. Thales must be paired with Imhotep and the pyramids must be seen as the monumental icons of the ancient world long before the creation of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.” You cannot have a canon, however, in the United States world that avoids the profound works of David Walker, Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, James Weldon Johnson, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and E. Franklin Frazier, for example.
I think it is important to say that Afrocentricity is in opposition to the imposition of particularisms as if they are universal. There has to be cultural and intellectual opportunity in the curriculum for cultures and people other than European. Who created the calendar that we use today? Who established the foundations of geometry? If we do not know the answers to these questions it is because what has been imposed as if it were universal may be only those items and achievements that are European-derived.
Intellectual space must be shared because all humans have contributed to human civilization. The ancient African philosophers such as Amenhotep, the son of Hapu, Imhotep, Ptahhotep, Amenemhat, Merikare and Akhenaten lived hundreds, even thousands of years before Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Why is it that children do not learn that the African Imhotep built the first pyramid? Our children do not know that Hypatia, Plotinus and St. Augustine were born in Africa.