Caught between Systemic Racism and Structural Prejudice

July 20, 2020
African people were brought forcibly into the Americas in one of the most brutal forms of slavery in the history of humanity. Millions of people were torn from their land in West and Central Africa and transported to a new and unknown territory. These people – my people are the only group of immigrants who came into this region unwillingly. Torture, terror and death followed the slaves from the shores of Africa, through the Middle Passage in the Atlantic crossing; and on the plantations and White dwellings and businesses in South America, Central America, the Caribbean region, the United States and Canada. From the early 16th Century, a vicious system of capture, dehumanization, torture, forced labor and genocide was unleashed on African people to produce the sugar cane, tobacco, cotton and other cash crops that enriched the White planters and the Western economies that largely transformed European society.

The vicious triangle of the Atlantic Slave Trade from Africa to the Americas to Europe depopulated Africa, destroyed its youth, stunted its economic and political growth, and devastated the lives of millions of Black people. From the early 16th century until today, no reparations have ever been paid to the victims of this horrible genocide. Even though the U.S. government has compensated some Native Americans, Japanese Americans, and the Jewish people; not one cent has ever been paid to African American victims of Slavery!

Instead, Systemic Racism was introduced from the inception of the colonies in the whole region. After gaining independence from England in the Revolutionary War, the United States declared in its Constitution that the African slave was three-fifths of a man. Slave codes were introduced throughout North and South America, declaring that all descendants of Africans in the colonies were slaves and had to be severely restricted. Slave masters were given full rights to torture and even kill the African slaves like other “animal property”.

Despite this organized cruelty and repression, rebellions broke out all over the Americas. White planters were killed, and their property destroyed. Abolitionists both Black and White worked tirelessly to abolish Slavery. Finally, slavery began to crumble but even though the system was brought down, no reparations were ever given to the African Slaves.

William Wilberforce’s “Slave Trade Act of 1807” abolished the slave trade in the British Empire. It was not until the “Slavery Abolition Act of 1883” that the institution finally was abolished on a gradual basis. Since landowners in the British West Indies were losing their unpaid laborers, they received compensation totaling 20 million (GBS) which today would be worth billions of dollars!”

In the United States, a civil war broke out between the North and the South (1861-1865). It was fought for several reasons, one of the most significant being the unity of the country. The abolition of slavery was an important cause of the war but not the central objective. President Abraham Lincoln signed “the Emancipation Proclamation” in 1863 but it was not until the 13th Amendment of 1865 was passed that slavery was actually, officially ended.

An attempt at restoring the rights of the African slaves, namely, “the Reconstruction Era” (1865-1877), failed because of the fragility of the government and the relentless disruption of the white supremacists who envisioned a return to complete white domination. Military force was used to suppress the Southern forces but eventually, the South was left a poverty-stricken backwater solely dependent on agriculture. The white southerners succeeded in re-establishing legal and political dominance over the Blacks through violence, intimidation, and discrimination. Secret terror organizations like the Ku Klux Klan (1866) were formed to carry out a program of “White Rage” and destruction. Their primary role was to drive out the opponents of White Supremacy, disrupt the political process and terrorize Blacks from voting or seeking their rights. Although the KKK was officially put down by the US Government, the Southern States succeeded in consolidating power in their constituencies and enacting a set of racist, Apartheid laws.

“Jim Crow Laws” were introduced into the South starting from the 1880s and continuing till the 1960s. These laws officially separated whites and Blacks and gave dominance to the white, so-called race, in almost every affair. Blacks or “Colored people” were not allowed to freely mix with whites. This organized Apartheid affected public transportation, sports, hospitals, churches, educational institutions, orphanages, prisons, asylums, cemeteries, morgues, and even funeral homes. Whites were made superior in all ways. A “Colored person” could not even freely talk to a white person nor shake their hand, and inter-racial marriage was strictly forbidden. Violence was acceptable, and thousands of Black people were lynched, burnt, mutilated and publicly displayed. This was a clear example of a white supremacy backlash, an integral part of white domination over Black people, an uninterrupted chain of brutality.

Black people in the Americas resisted White Supremacy in many ways. The desperate slave revolts led to attempts at self-sufficiency as in the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Every time Black progress was realized, White Rage showed its ugly face in the form of so-called race riots and open invasions of Black holdings. Back to Africa, Black nationalist movements developed in the Northern States and eventually in the 1950s and ’60s, the Civil Rights movement struggled in earnest for social justice in order to gain equal rights for Black people under the law. Hundreds of sit-ins, demonstrations and peaceful protest marches were held throughout the country and especially in the South. Whites fought back but eventually, the U.S. Government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 giving the freedom to vote and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 giving equal employment.

“White Rage” rose again and Civil Rights leaders and government officials were assassinated. Riots broke out all over the USA and a near-armed rebellion was about to unfold. The US government unleashed a highly organized counter-insurgency program led by the FBI’s COINTELPRO, a series of covert and illegal projects aimed at surveillance, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting American political organizations. Illegal drugs were allowed to flood the Black communities and a “War on Drugs” was declared by the U.S. government. It was a counter-revolution against the Civil Rights struggle. The Black community as well as Native Americans and Hispanics were targeted by the Police and minor drug offences could render a person a “Felon for life”.  A prison record could strip a person of his voting, educational, employment, housing, and legal rights. In effect, a modern-day “Caste system” was created where Black males were trapped in a cycle of incarceration, crime, and death.

By the turn of the 21st century, the United States had the highest rate of mass incarceration in the world. In many of the big cities of the USA, three out of every four Black men will go to jail or be touched by the prison system at some time in their life. America has a larger percentage of the Black population in jail than South Africa, at the height of Apartheid. Black people were locked out of the mainstream and faced with almost certain frustration or murder.

In Canada, African people suffered a similar fate, in that slavery was very much part of early colonial life in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Canada, being part of the British Commonwealth had a more polite, benign way of subjugating and controlling Black people as an underclass that carried out domestic and farm labor. Up until the 1960s, the highest level of employment for Black people was a porter on trains, or a musician or an entertainer. Discrimination in education, sports, political life, and social life followed a similar pattern to the USA with the exception that slavery was abolished earlier. Slave villages and towns were also allowed to be established at the end of the underground railroad for slaves escaping America. Make no mistake, Canadian Whites owned slaves, tortured them, and after “freeing them”, forced the former slaves into a system of perpetual servitude. Therefore, when the Civil Rights movement broke out in the USA, it was embraced by Blacks in Canada as part of the liberation struggle of Black people in theAnd then, George Floyd in 2020 shouted, “I can’t breathe” before his death under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His words rang out around the world, but few realized that they represented, “I can’t breathe”, politically, socially, economically and spiritually!

Most people fail to understand that racism has three major manifestations. The basis of racism is the racist ideology; a set of beliefs, ideas or manufactured “facts” that convince the racist that his people are superior to other human beings. Then there is the manifestation of “racist behavior” where the individual abuses people by calling them racist names and displays racist conduct. The final manifestation is institutionalized or systemic racism where the color of the skin or the race of a person determines their privileges and the rights to protection by the State.

Black Muslims, the descendants of African people taken into the Americas and Europe, encountered Islam as an alternative way of life in the early 20th Century. Although 15-30 percent of the African slaves and political prisoners brought into the European colonies were Muslim, the cruel system of slavery forbade religion, language, and culture. Within a few generations of the forced separation of African slave families and continued torture and terror, Islam became only a faint memory in the minds of the Black slaves.

Middle Eastern, Eastern European and Asian Muslims came into the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries seeking upward mobility and economic progress. From the Ottoman Empire and the Indo-Pakistani sub-continent, Muslim farmers, shopkeepers, workers, business people, students, and professionals set up Masjids in Europe and throughout the Americas. In the Caribbean, former indentured laborers from India and Indonesia clung onto their faith through the building of houses of worship and schools. Many of the former Black slaves began to return to Islam establishing their own communities, and in some cases, turning to the greater Muslim community to free them from tyranny and bigotry. Immigrant Muslims were not involved in systemic racism because their ideology was Islam and they did not have state power. Instead, the Black Muslims found a type of “Structural Prejudice” being subtly manifested in the Muslim community. Black males were usually asked to make the call prayer (Adhan) as did Bilal, the Black Ethiopian Companion of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Although Bilal (R.A.) was loved by the Prophet and esteemed in Islamic history, the call to prayer became a menial position in many Muslim societies. Black Muslims were also asked to do security for Islamic gatherings and form the auxiliary corps. This notion was informed by the racist stereotype that Blacks have beautiful voices and strong bodies.

On the other hand, if a European accepted Islam, he would often be given a post of respect and could become a teacher before he understood the faith. A Black graduate from an Islamic University would have to be twice as good as other graduates to attain the status of Imam or President and rarely would he be able to marry outside of his race. Highly qualified Black Muslim women would be given menial jobs and rarely asked to teach or assume any position of authority. In the past few years, hundreds of cases of bias against Black Muslims and social ostracizing have been reported in the Islamic centers and Muslim Student associations across many Western countries. This dilemma” of being caught between systemic racism and structural prejudice has become one of the most dangerous obstacles facing Islamic communities in the West and Black Muslims throughout the world. It will require a sincere, informed return to the original Islamic way of life displayed by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and a deep understanding of the dynamics of a chaotic world. A world caught in the convergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the looming economic recession and the return of white rage and violence aimed at protecting white supremacy. This existential challenge will also need the mercy and guidance of the supreme being, almighty Allah, who described Himself as the most merciful and ever-accepting of repentance.