Obama, Intellectuals, And Race Matters

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Although we should be exhilarated by the extraordinary achievement of Obama, our long-term challenge should be less to celebrate individual success than to ensure the collective liberation of both Black and white people from the bondage of unscientific images constructed by Western intellectuals, which has poisoned human relations.

[Issues Of Principle]

The candidacy and appeal of Barack Obama, the charismatic African-American with formidable oratorical skills, in the contest for nomination of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, has generated debates about the saliency and relevance of race in today’s society.

There is a real danger that people will mistake the episodic mood and symbolic exception afforded Obama for societal change in attitude, and from this draw broad conclusions that are supported by neither historical evidence nor patterns of treatment meted out to Black people.

As people ponder the issue, a critical question to ask and answer is this: has society in its collective consciousness undergone a qualitative transformation to the extent that a people once treated as chattels or sub-humans are now regarded with a genuine rather than formal sense of equality?

Rather than draw on anecdotal evidence or momentary polling numbers or even data about the status of Black people in society, we should review the writings and views of some of the leading intellectuals, in order to discern where society has been and the possible direction it might take on the issue.

Focus on intellectuals is warranted because it is fair to summarize that in every era in history intellectuals have often played a critical role in sustaining or undermining a system and in constructing mechanisms either for liberation or for lulling people to accept their conditions, however abject they might be. This has certainly been the case with the issue of race in global history.

There are three broad additional reasons why we should put a spotlight on some of the functions of intellectuals. In the first place, although intellectuals play a critical role in shaping institutions and systems, it is often difficult to decipher their mental habits, because they often veil their role by professing to be objective and to be committed to the search for truth. Western intellectuals in particular have been quite adept at the sophistry. Thus they have often sold to the world the notion that they are successors of the Enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century, which was purported to be characterized by belief in the power of human reason and innovations. To what extent can such a claim be supported by evidence on the issue of race?

Second, precisely because of the opaque ways in which intellectuals operate, it is incumbent upon those who have been fortunate to acquire research and analytical skills to examine the works of intellectuals and disclose it to the great majority of people who have neither the time nor expertise to delve into the rather intricate interconnections and dynamics of the various systems built on the recommendations by intellectuals. This, to a great extent, is the challenge of intellectuals who combine scholarship and commitment for social justice broadly stated.

And third, we need to sometimes clinically dissect the works of intellectuals in this area, because they have had quite insidious and far-reaching impact on the collective consciousness and ideological predisposition of people. In fact, in as far as race and racism are concerned, it was largely the stereotypical images of Black people constructed by intellectuals that have anchored white people’s collective sense of superiority vis-à-vis Black people, regardless of position in society. This has in turn infected race relations on a global scale.

The role that intellectuals have played in social engineering on the issue of race and racism can be illustrated by reference to African history or the history of indigenous people the world over. But before evidence is adduced to illustrate the point, it is necessary to show the other side of the ledger, in order to provide a positive balance to role played by intellectuals in shaping attitudes.

An examination of recent African history indicates that on the positive side, intellectuals were critical in building the momentum that led, for example, to the dismantling of apartheid and the holding of the watershed democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998, and the building of a semblance of global consensus that made it possible for United Nations World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 to declare slave trade and colonialism crimes against humanity.

Certainly one of the most outstanding scientific innovations husbanded by intellectuals at the dawn of the new century was the Human Gnome Project, which confirmed a position taken by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1946 that all human beings belong to one human race.

However, these positive developments have been countered if not dwarfed by the works of other intellectuals who have lent their scholarship in the service of racial hegemony. In October this year (2007), James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize in 1962 for his part in discovering the structure of the double helix DNA molecule and is regarded as the godfather of DNA, claimed that Back people were less intelligent than white. In an interview he stated that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really." He said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

In fact, Watson has written that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”

The remarks by Watson is particularly revealing, as it comes from a person who is regarded in the scientific community not only as an individual who made the greatest single scientific discovery of the 20th century but also as one who has joined scientific immortals such as Darwin and Copernicus. It is particularly sad that the remarks came on the heels of the revolutionary scientific revelations by the Human Gnome Project about the essential unity of humanity.

What should be made clear is that Watson’s remarks are not the exception among revered Western scholars. Watson’s point of view has a distinguished antecedent. In 1831, the German philosopher, George Wilhelm Hegel declared in a lecture that the African “exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. There is nothing harmonious with humanity in this type of character. At this point we quit Africa, not to mention it again; for Africa is no historical part of the world. What we properly understand by Africa is the unhistorical, underdeveloped spirit, still involved in conditions of mere nature.”

It should be noted that Hegel made the remarks without ever setting foot in Africa or engaging in historical study of Africa or even consulting Greek sources that attribute their civilization to African influences. In terms of context, it should be pointed out that Hegel made his remarks at the very time when the campaigns led by William Wilberforce, an indefatigable fighter for the abolition of the Slave Trade and Slavery in the British Dominion, had gained ground.

In fact, the following year, the British Parliament passed the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1832, as a sequel to the Abolition of Slave Trade Act of 1807, which had also been shepherded by Wilberforce. The context might suggest that Hegel made his remarks to blunt the march of history and to divest European slave merchants from responsibility over the miserable state of Africa.

Similarly, during the decade of decolonization (1960s) in Africa, and during the heights of the Civil Rights Movement for Black Americans in the U.S.A., another salvo against African history came from a renowned vicar of Western scholarship, Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Reguis Professor of history at Oxford University. In 1964, he declared: “Undergraduates, seduced, as always, by the changing breath of journalistic fashion, demand that they should be taught the history of black Africa. Perhaps, in the future there will be some history to teach. But at the moment there is none, or very little: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre-European, pre-Columbian America. And Darkness is not a subject of history.”

Trevor-Roper was more or less echoing remarks of a former colonial governor of Kenya and Uganda, Sir Philip E. Mitchell. In 1947, Mitchell said: “It is not necessary to try to guess how long it may take to achieve this or that stage [of African local government], but it is necessary to realize that history began for these African people about 1890 and that in the business in which we are engaged the unit of time is at present generations and not years.”

The timing of the remarks by Mitchell needs to be commented on. It should be remembered that Mitchell made his remarks at the very time when the clarion call issued during the Pan-African Congress at Manchester in 1945, to organize the masses, was beginning to gain momentum.

The context of the remarks indicates that they were made to thwart organized political movements to get rid of the shackles of European colonial imperialism. What is today ironic is that in Uganda at Makerere University, the premier institution that used to be the envy of, and at par with, some of the best institutions of higher learning anywhere in the world, one hall of residence bears Mitchell’s name. Interestingly, students have not raised serious objection to his name remaining as emblematic of the era of European colonial assault on African identity. It might even be that students associate the name with pride. Yet, the same Mitchell had utter disdain if not contempt for Africans.

The ramifications of what Western intellectuals have written about Africa are manifold. What George Orwell observed with characteristic clarity during the Spanish civil war of the 1930s applies with equal force to how traditional Western intellectuals have treated Africans and African history. In 1938, Orwell observed that “I saw in fact history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’…This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.”

The refusal to admit that Africans had a historical past was not simply a convenient adjunct to the enslavement of Black people and their oppression and exploitation under European colonial imperialism but also importantly, as a form of social engineering to denude Africans of their identity and even existence as human beings.

The images in which Africa was portrayed in Western history suggested no obstacles or rights existed to the violent European intrusion into the continent. Once Euro-Americans denied Africans as rights-bearers and people without history, they could then retail without qualifications the concepts of “discovery,” “settlement,” and “exploration.” Hence in Western literature we are told that pioneer individuals ventured into “unexplored” territory and “discovered” geographical wonders or potential wealth as if no human beings already existed there. The concept of discovery—and the idea that “knowledge” was or is “knowledge” only when certified by a white person, for example, was and is still used to legitimize claims to territories, resources, as well as indigenous intellectual property of the continent.

The above quoted remarks by some of the leading Western intellectuals should be regarded now as part of history. However, it would be a mistake to think that they are relics of the past: they still remain in the armory of Western intellectuals who are intent on providing demeaning representation of Black people.

One discipline that came into existence to literally study Africans or “natives” as objects and to devise means of their control and is still very much in business, is anthropology. It is curious that despite changing times, practitioners of anthropology have barely been repentant of the role their predecessors played in constructing and promoting stereotypical images of Africans. For most conscious Africans, although the participant-observer methodology of anthropology can be recommended, the rationale for its existence is dubious if not odious.

Although the new scientific knowledge should have opened up new vistas for human solidarity, a critical examination of the works of notable Western intellectuals shows that on the contrary, scholarship still adheres to the basic Euro-centric premise that Europeans are models or archetypes of humanity; and that other people are simply carbon copies or miniatures of Europeans. Hence, whatever other people do must follow Western models. It is this viral idea that is as pernicious now as when it first came into circulation in the seventeenth century with the growth of European commerce in Africans.

Let us come up to date.

As the contests for the Democratic Party’s nomination of its presidential candidate for the general elections draw near, we should probe deeper whether the media’s fascination with Barack Obama is a radical shift in premise and attitude that place “European ways of doing things” as the normal or standard for humanity.

It is arguable that Obama will be acceptable to the general population only to the extent that he fits into, or conforms to, European normative mode of behavior. Conversely, it is doubtful that Obama would be as acceptable if he were to use his enormous intellectual prowess to question the Western intellectual construction of humanity, which places Europeans at the apex and center of every endeavor.

Until Western intellectuals embark on a serious examination and dismantling of the Euro-centric notion of humanity, the success of Obama and all of us who are proficient in Euro-American discourse and world-view cannot change dramatically the stereotypical images of Black people in the popular consciousness of white people.

It is generally for this reason that we might hazard the conclusion that with the passage of time, Obama’s success might be regarded as momentary exception rather than the rule. Although we should be exhilarated by the extraordinary achievement of Obama, our long-term challenge should be less to celebrate individual success than to ensure the collective liberation of both Black and white people from the bondage of unscientific images constructed by Western intellectuals, which has poisoned human relations.


Black Star News columnist Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is UNESCO Chair in Human Rights, Executive-Director of the UConn-ANC Partnership and Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. His column appears bi-weekly online and in the newspaper.

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