Letter from America:with KENNETH MUFUKA
Just last week, June 18, my wife and I went into Lowes Store in Greenwood, South Carolina, looking for some shelving for a television set. As we looked around, picked one set of board after another, an older black man came by.
“I can’t get any help here!” he said. A white attendant was six feet away from us.
As we approached the works station, two white girls came behind us, and the attendant jumped to attention. “May I help you?” he announced.
African Americans experience this behaviour more often than one would think. I have to meet a black man who has not had a similar experience. The rejection or being ignored is part of the black experience.
Several weeks ago, I went into a store with which I have had business for more than 20 years and have been treated with the utmost consideration. I had written my name on an envelope, included my telephone number and the details of what I wanted done. A young white woman absolutely lost it, but I kept my cool since it came as a surprise to me.
“What is your name?” she asked. The details were all on the envelope, and there was a cheque of $200 attached as well. No matter how I explained my needs, she seemed to assume that I was a fraud, perhaps an illegal immigrant.
I had the presence of mind to turn the experience around. “Madam,” I said, “I am legit. I have my papers.” Since she already had an attitude, she missed the joke. There were two other mature white women who witnessed the encounter and rather enjoyed my joke about being legitimate.
I recounted the story to them a week later, and I was warned not to tell the owner of the store. He would be mortified to hear that I had been treated that way.
South Carolina’s only black US Senator, Tim Scott, is spearheading a bill on police reform in the Upper House. When he recalled his being stopped seven times in one year in his first year in Washington DC as a senator, it came as a shock to his colleague, Senator Lindsey Graham. Graham had inquired among his black colleagues, assuming that black fears of the police are unfounded. Scott says that two stops could have been related to speed limits, but the other five were due to driving a fancy car while being black.
Two things are missing in this narrative. Many good people, black and white, cannot differentiate bad behaviour from racist behaviour. The attendant in Lowes definitely behaved in a racist manner. The white woman in the store probably was simply unsuited for her job, because all the details she needed were written on a piece of paper.
But because of the history of slavery, all bad behaviour by white people towards blacks is seen within the perspective of racism; a small incident can become blown out of proportion.
Some of the cases are hilarious. When I joined Lander University in 1976 as a pioneer black professor, both black and white students would gather round my office.
One day, I saw two students examining the name plate hanging on my door. When I asked if I could help them, one student asked: “Are you really a doctor?”
The name plate stated clearly: Kenneth Mufuka,PhD.
I return once more to James Baldwin, in his 1965 lecture at Cambridge University.
“It comes as a great shock, that the country you have pledged allegiance to, has not evolved a place for you. I built the railroads; I built the roads, for nothing. Why are my freedom and my right to live there a question now?”
My students were struggling with finding a place for a black person of substance in their lives. White professors they knew, but who is Ken Mufuka in their universe? Black Lives Matter is asking that question. The greater shock is with white folk, who, until the video-graphed death of George Floyd, were unaware that such police encounters are everyday affairs in the black community.
A storm is gathering
The protesters are backed by 50 years of critical thinking research on white privilege and intersectional oppression. Senator Graham, cocooned in white privilege, has no idea what an oppressive society has done to blacks. Hypertension, almost universal among black adults, is partly attributed to slavery and everyday harassment of the blacks.
The hegemonic white group set norms for the whole society, and impose punishments. Higher interest rates are universally imposed on blacks, but not on whites of similar qualifications.
Bankers securitised certain mortgages between 1992 and 2007, knowing full well they were irredeemable. In 2008, the whole economy faced collapse; former president Barack Obama rescued the bankers with taxpayer money. Not a single banker went to jail.
I have a tenant, even as I speak, who mugged a white schoolboy for a quarter of a dollar, was tried as an adult under no tolerance for misbehaviour and served five years in prison.
The cry is for all unjust structures/hegemonic organs like the police to fall. In New York City, the mayor has disbanded a 600-man secret police unit and taken away US$1 billion from the police budget.
The other cry is for minor crimes to be forgiven and prisoners set free on the grounds that their crimes pale in comparison with structural crimes. A protester was arrested in Seattle City for hitting a Trump supporter with a bicycle key chain on the head.
The protester turned out to be a professor of ethics at a local college. His defence was that hitting a Trumpkin (an ignorant person) was small potatoes compared to the egregious crimes committed by the President Donald Trump’s racist regime.
Critical-intersectionality theory says that a thief, forced to steal by centuries of oppression and hegemonic behaviour, or a deadbeat dad who refuses to care for his children, are all part of this centuries-old slave trade deal.
James Baldwin, mentioned above, has asked the question. “I worked for 400 years for nothing.” Now, a banker, say from Standard Bank/Baring Bank of England, which had their roots in chibharo (forced labour) in South Africa, preaches about honesty and self-actualisation among blacks.
Our readers should keep in mind that all this adds up to one purpose — Dump Trump.