The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare contradictions deeply embedded in societies and shattered many lies commonly agreed upon. The air brushed historical narratives are crumbling as protests in solidarity with the American Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign spilled over to cast spotlights on similar discrimination and racial oppression worldwide – a refreshingly creative globalisation.
It left Neo-Liberal economies floundering on the ropes. The pre-eminent American Neo-Liberalism is grossly dysfunctional: an ineffective pubic health system, numerous business failures and close to 40 million unemployed (and counting) that impoverishes the many stand cruelly juxtaposed with the bullish NASDAQ (6/jul/2020) surging to a record 10,433.65 to enrich the few. The pandemic exposed similarly rampant irrationalities in other countries but the United States’ experience remains emblematic.
The pandemic did not discriminate; it levelled expectations across each society and dragged racial, ethnic and class disparities out into sharp relief. Naked racial repression of enslaved African-Americans for four centuries, their descendants indirectly after the 1863 Emancipation, and more than five hundred years of massacres, land grabs, forced migrations, sexual violence and extreme ethnic cleansing suffered by First Nation Peoples (so-called Native-Americans) turned the country into a political power-keg. The Hispanic- and Latino-American ethnic groups are the more recent ingredients in the explosive mix. They chanted ‘Tu lucha es mi lucha’ (‘Your fight is my fight’) and joined the BLM campaign, evoking memories of atrocities suffered under America’s 1846 colonial conquest and annexation of Mexican land and US multinationals’ devastation of Central and South American countries throughout the 20th Century – both driven by the racist ideology of ‘Manifest Destiny’, a version of the medieval Divine Right to Rule. Alt-Right supremacists are gleefully rubbing salt in their wounds: they insist English should be the sole official language to denigrate Hispanic-Latino peoples and their culture and reduce them to second-class citizens (or worse).
The deadly cocktail of the pandemic and heightened racial inequities, the latter already on a short fuse, exploded when the incontrovertible video evidence of the knee-on-the-neck killing of African-American George Floyd lying prostrate made it impossible for officialdom to trot out the perennial excuse for police killings: justifiable homicide as the officer feared for his life. It also buried the White-Americans’ self-congratulatory myth, ‘we are beyond race’.
The preceding BLM campaign swiftly coordinated spontaneous street demonstrations; First Nation Peoples and Hispanic/Latino-Americans joined African-Americans in the unprecedented nation-wide June Uprisings. Multiple Tiananmen-Squares erupted across the United States powered by the centuries-long history of systemic racism, now seen as a public health crisis.
Long festering class antagonisms surfaced as many poor whites sympathized with and sometimes joined to reinforce the June Uprisings. The Occupy Movement, a relative newcomer, sought economic justice. It homed in on social class fault lines – the 1% vs 99% divide – though statistically inaccurate nevertheless notionally captured the essence of Adam Smith’s prognosis more than two centuries ago: ‘Whenever there is great prosperity, there is great inequality…the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.’ The Movement shattered the second myth, ‘we are beyond class’, and exposed the widening income and wealth disparities. Are economists who cheerfully fed the false ‘Trickle Down’ theory in universities during my undergraduate studies in the US rethinking now?
Discerning Americans confronted the obvious question: How did we come to this pass? For America is of course not only about its race underbelly. The country made path-breaking contributions to science, technology, industry and the arts; it’s so far the preeminent economic and military power. It’s resources could satisfy the aspirations of virtually every citizen. Moreover, did not America legislate against racial oppression? But the June Uprisings made it agonizingly clear legal reforms, positive discrimination and the like merely tinkered with systemic racism, which persists virtually unscathed. To solve the riddle some searched where we came from: they turned to history. A historian debunked U.S. history myths as ‘dangerous’. For example, the White-Settler government unilaterally imposed the legal fiction of ‘domestic dependent nations’ with ‘tribal sovereignty’ upon First Nations supposedly to help ‘Tribes’ administer their internal affairs but in fact to lend legal façade for land grabs they were coerced to concede at gunpoint under numerous unequal ‘treaties’. Successive governments violently corralled First Nation Peoples into ‘reservations’ that eerily resemble Apartheid South Africa’s Bantustans for an obvious reason: both countries are White-Settler colonies that robbed the indigenous peoples’ land, water and livelihood. White-Americans celebrated 500th Columbus Day in 1992 with picnics and parties; the remnants of First Nation People came together in remembrance of their 500 years of resistance, and to give thanks for (barely) surviving.
As demonstrations in support of African-Americans spread to numerous countries similar demands arose to re-examine how their own histories have been mystified to suit political interests, how people’s warped perceptions of the past made them incapable of correctly grasping the challenges of the present. Britain’s Prince Harry made a beginning: he urged his country should re-visit its imperious history to acknowledge the colonial past to move forward.
However, the Janus-faced protests in South Asia condemned George Floyd’s killing but clinically foreclosed a simultaneous evaluation of their own governments’ brutality towards non-majority peoples. In India strident supporters of the BLM campaign are virtually silent on the Hindutva government’s militarised repression of Muslims in Kashmir and other Peoples in the northeast region of the country. A Bollywood star lambasted Floyd’s killing but backed down when challenged why she appeared in advertisements promoting racist skin-whitening creams. In Pakistan there are hardly any street demonstrations but an essay underlined the egalitarianism in Islam while ignoring the atrocious treatment of non-Muslim minorities. An essayist of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority bluntly asserted there is no no systemic racism in the US, evidently to pre-empt an examination of his government’s similar institutional racism against the smaller Tamil and Muslim communities. Another, a Sinhalese professional, wished British colonial monuments brought down but, ironically, is silent on local collaborators who enabled their imperial masters’ plunder and joined in to enrich themselves.
Just as the white Americans fear White Vulnerability – losing out to non-white minorities – majority ethnicities in South Asian countries suffer a ‘majority-with-a-minority-complex’: India’s Hindu majority that overwhelmingly controls the commanding heights of the State and economy is being conditioned to fear the virtually power-less Muslims; Punjabi majority is convinced the smaller Balochi and Sindhi communities threaten the Idea of Pakistan; and the Sinhalese majority self-hypnotised itself into loathing Tamils, Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka. In fact the victim-complex is the majority community’s self-justifying narrative to oppress smaller groups and push them to the social and economic margins so as to virtually monopolise national political and economic power. More precisely, the elite within the majority community constructs the vulnerability/minority-complex to defend its interests but politically indoctrinates the rest to buy into the false narrative of a common ethnic-group interest under a nebulous threat. The German majority’s victimhood mind-set combined with economic decline to culminate in the Jewish minority’s Holocaust. Worryingly anti-minority hostility and allegations of Neo-Nazi turns are rife in the US; and South Asia’s non-majority peoples fear similar forces are prowling in their region.
But most of South Asia’s majoritarian democrats have sanguinely looked on for several decades as their States labelled the resistance by oppressed peoples as ‘terrorism’ – whether in Kashmir, Jaffna or Balochistan – to criminalise their legitimate aspirations. The Trump administration similarly threatened Washington’s BLM protest as ‘terrorist’ and unleashed counter-terrorism to crush dissent in Portland. Is it any surprise, then, that about 1,000 heavily armed African-American men marched through Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park?
Opposition in India to systemic racism in the US ought have paralleled a blistering attack on India’s occupation-related Jati (Caste) System that dove tails with Varna (colour) to establish the oldest racial hierarchy in the world. Civil society organisations criticise the caste violence against (Untouchable) Dalits and military repression of Militants, that often cause their deaths; but there are no sustained public uprisings against caste-racism in any South Asian country.
Perhaps the most important take-away from the Covid-19 Revolution is that the fabled American Dream was never a reality for the vast majority of African-American, Hispanic/Latino and First Nation Peoples; and it remained a chimera for the lower-middle and working class White-Americans – the pay check-to-pay check majority. President Ronald Reagan’s Neo-Liberalism retarded economic growth by delivering the double blow of Stagflation – stagnation of income and simultaneous price inflation – which vastly enriched the 1%, eviscerated the economy that nourished the 99%, and exacerbated and prolonged the recession from the late-1970s. Prime Minister Margret Thatcher’s market-friendly policies similarly wrecked the British economy. Neo-Liberalism sank its fangs into South Asian (and other) economies through the US-controlled international financial institutions and placed economies around the world on the chopping block for Covid-19’s coup de grace. Governments’ policy makers are reduced to toying with universal basic minimum income (UBMI), supplanting national dreams with economic survival tactics.
What’s next? For starters we must discard the facile assumption of a mythical equality between individuals that disingenuously masks real inequality between ethnic and racial collectivities. When collectivities are unequal individuals among and between them cannot be equal. Second, group action by individuals coalescing around an issue (for example, the BLM) is necessary; but more is required. Collective action mobilised around the idea of real equality – to build a kinder, compassionate society – is urgently needed for transformative results.
The primary obstacle is combative individualism – the war of all against all – in which everyone is everyone else’s enemy, encapsulated in Social Darwinism manufactured in America and exported with the Dollar. It’s amoral, unjust and violates the social contract; all of which undermines democracy and, during economic crises, invariably prompts the paradoxical yearning for an authoritarian State that could revitalise democracy. We must abandon this self-defeating, free-market culture Covid-19 has exposed as dysfunctional and re-discover our collective will rooted in the millennia-long history of social individualism, prized for cooperation, inclusion and mutual assistance to climb out of the abyss. The pandemic has opened a desperately needed portal to achieve just that: to salvage our humanism.
* Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan received his Ph.D degree from the University of Cambridge and is an award winning filmmaker