My friend Gary is an African American. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has no Caribbean heritage. We met at Howard University in Washington DC when we were at college and have been friends ever since. He has been to Trinidad several times, particularly during Carnival and fancies himself as an honorary Trini.
Upon learning of the protest at the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain on Monday, in support of Black Lives Matter, Gary reached out to me and said he was happy that Trinidadians were showing solidarity with the cause and noted that over the years some of the greatest black leaders in the US were of Caribbean heritage.
He was, however, concerned that from his experience, blacks from the Caribbean appear not to identify sufficiently with the cause of African Americans, almost “looking down at them.”
Gary’s statement peers into the extent of nuance, challenge and difficulty in finding a sustainable solution to the obvious institutional racism to which African Americans are subject.
The snuffing out of the life of George Floyd by a white police officer, in the full view of citizens is but the latest in a history of law enforcement killings of African Americans, carried out, with almost impunity. The experts have chalked it up to issues of racism, poor training, fear, white privilege and a culture of abuse meted out to the offspring of former slaves.
But the challenges African Americans face, that appear to be magnified by the death of Floyd, are the inequalities in the society that so much reflect themselves in the economic realities of everyday life.
Today, African Americans are in danger of being killed or incarcerated by law enforcement at much higher rates than white Americans.
They are discriminated against by a system, that innumerable studies show, from access to housing, to loans to start-up a businesses, to jobs and promotion; the odds are stacked against African Americans.
Poor housing often means poor communities and poorly funded schools. It is as if the system is designed to keep so many in a state of paralysis. And Gary is right. This reality is often difficult for us in the Caribbean to relate to, especially since the memories of segregation and being set upon by dogs are still fresh in the minds of so many African Americans. Not to mention being used for experiments in a country that you have bled and died for, only to conclude that you are not 100 per cent, a citizen.
Due to their economic realities that also result in less access to healthcare and dietary choices it has led to a disproportionate number of them dying from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Add to this 40 million Americans out of work and a president who seems less than concerned for their plight and you get the explosive situation you see playing itself out on the streets of America.
So if this is to be a watershed moment and Black Lives Matter, it must also be that black livelihoods matter.
Justice must show itself, not just in criminal justice reform, but lasting solutions that allow for the construction of a society where as the late Martin Luther King famously said, his four children will “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This allows for economic opportunity to be created and African Americans find a pathway to success.
For this to be done it will require a change of heart by white Americans and if we are to judge by the kinds of protests we see and the make up of the protesters it is not beyond the society. But it will also require enlightened leadership and it is here that President Donald Trump has so far been weighed in the balance and found wanting.
Trump has to try and heal the country, one long divided but whose division he has thrived upon. The fishers this creates can be plastered across, including the institutional racism, if the economy is performing well. It is true that a rising tide raises all boats. But the COVID-19 pandemic has put paid to that reality.
According to the US bureau of economic analysis real gross domestic product (GDP) in the United States decreased by five per cent in the first quarter of 2020 when compared to the same period in 2019. This is s major turn around from the previous quarter which was the fourth quarter of 2019 when real GDP increased 2.1 per cent.
“The decline in first quarter GDP reflected the response to the spread of COVID-19, as governments issued “stay-at-home” orders in March. This led to rapid changes in demand as businesses and schools switched to remote work or cancelled operations, and consumers cancelled, restricted, or redirected their spending,” the report read.
The absence of a vaccine means any re-opening will have to be slow and deliberate and even in the land of the brave, the economy has had to be eased back to health.
Last month two million jobs were returned to the system but in a situation where 40 million were lost, the US economy is still stalled.
This has global implications as the struggles of the world’s largest economy hurts the region and T&T’s fortune.
The US economy remains one driven by services and internal demand. When that demand has been forloughed this results in the kind of recession that you see.
For sure the growth figures were already down from the months preceeding COVID-19 as Trump’s eclectic foreign policy and trade war with China had already caused a slowing of the growth numbers.
China’s economy might be the second largest in the world but its no match for the US economy. It is why the multi-lateral lending agencies are all predicting significant global economic contraction in 2020.
When you add to the global fall in demand for commodities you see how T&T’s economy will take a beating.
Therefore T&T and the rest of the world must hope that in the remaining months that Trump is president, before the next election, that he does nothing to further hurt the global economy. In a sense we must bet on Trump’s success but acknowledge that his style of Presidency has come at a cost to the global economy.
We must bet on Trump being able to improve quickly the US economy and for black people to get better livelihoods because when that happens the Caribbean also benefits from things like remittances.
But in betting on Trump we must bet ultimately against him because if we are to judge by history and his approach to this crisis, a re-election may yet again rob African Americas of a life that truly matters to all.