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Black People Aren’t...

Philip Burrowes

February is Black History Month, which means many things to many people. Some see it as far too small a time period to address long-neglected cultural issues. Others look at it as an offensive manifestation of political correctness and discrimination. Between those extremes lie those who are not bothered either way by the month, whether because they find it useful or couldn’t care less. Almost none of these people will ever bother to wonder what, exactly, this “Black”-ness they are supposed to study means. Perhaps it is undefinable, but some items would definitely not appear on any hypothetical list. We should take care to remember that Black people are not:

African American: “Black History” is often referred to as “African-American History,” “African-American” being the PC euphemism for “Black-American.” Without spiraling off into a polemic against the PC term, it should be apparent that these two strands of history, however intertwined they may be, are not equivalent. Most people who consider themselves Black do not live in the United States, and a significant portion of those that do are immigrants who do not see themselves as American. If you really want to focus on African-Americans this month, then go ahead, but don’t conflate that and the studies of Black people internationally.

Descendants of slaves: Slavery plays a smaller role in the histories of Black people than it might seem. It is often blamed simultaneously for the state of Blacks in the Americas and for the state of West African countries. This in turn overshadows the importance of the years following the various emancipations of this hemisphere (let alone those of others), which ranges from a two-century period for Haiti to barely one for Brazil. Even worse, it overlooks the fact that most Black people are not descendants of slaves nor do their nations have any significant connection to the Trans-Atlantic or Horn-based slave trades.

Only Black/White: While the previous two points concerned the vast majority of Black people, the population of this group cannot be properly quantified, given the global variance of racial paradigms (e.g. a Black person in the United States may not be a Black person in the Dominican Republic). That being said, some portion of the world’s Black population may be counted in nearly any other demographic category the layman would care to name. Just because exogamy rates are low does not mean they are zero. Black people are more than just some “combination” of Western European and Sub-Saharan African, just as your average “obvious” Ashkenazi, Latino, or Asian may be gentile, Anglo, or Occidental too.

Minorities: Non-American Blacks tend to be the “majority” group of their country. However, even within the United States, given de facto segregation there exist many communities where Blacks would be considered the plurality, or even the majority. Atlanta and Washington, D.C., are the perennial examples, but the same hold trues for other major cities like the Bronx and New Orleans, not to mention large sections of other cities, like Chicago and Detroit. While on a national scale Black people still constitute a minority, nobody lives in a national microcosm; no state is a fractal.

Oppressed/Underrepresented: Despite the picture painted domestically, in many places Blacks are fully in control of their political prospects. This control comes at the expense of other groups. Baseo Panday, the only prime minister of South Asian descent in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, lost his post to the Black Patrick Manning in what effectively became a racial contest. Zimbabwe has confiscated land from thousands of white farmers since 2000. Black ethnic groups have monopolies over power in numerous other countries, including ethnic minorities such as “Americo-Liberians” and ethnic majorities like the Fang of Equatorial Guinea.

Poor: As the American plight of urban poverty, which disproportionately affected Blacks, accelerated in aftermath of the decline of the civil rights movement, the number of Blacks in upper and middle economic classes increased. The result has been an increasing divide in the financial status of the so-called “Black community,” a divide growing faster than that of the general population. Internationally, not only may such class divisions be even greater, but it should be recalled that some primarily Black countries like the Bahamas and Bermuda are actually relatively well-off--not just compared to the “Third World,” but compared to the world.

Good at sports: Given the disproportionate overrepresentation of Blacks within the major athletic leagues, even the least racist American can be forgiven for associating Blacks with physical achievement. Primarily Black nations, however, have an overall poor record in international competition. Aside from track and field, and perhaps cricket, an English sport played in South Africa, those places have little to no presence in major events. Basketball is dominated by Europeans and the United States, baseball by the Americas and Japan, football by Latin America and Europe, ice hockey by Canada and Europe, field hockey by Asia and Europe, and so forth. No indigenous sports have made it big from Black countries to the international stage, and these governments generally lack the money to spend on a luxury like a decent national stadium.

Then again, maybe Brazil and Cuba could be considered Black nations. It’s harder to tell what Black people aren’t than what they are, but it’s still not easy.