Moses Ebe Ochonu tales issues with Ayittey.


Ayittey made some good points and raised some important questions in his last two posts. The problem, as one contributor on this list once posited in the context of another discussion, is the tendency to equate provocation to an inexplicable obsession with hyperbole, callous race-baiting, sloppy generalizations and misrepresentations, and wholesale indictments of "black leaders" and black people.

One does not need to insult one's people and pass damning, inaccurate, and misleading verdicts on them in order to be provocative. Such "provocations" often have the effect of alienating readers from the substance of the contribution. My counsel to Ayittey is that he should not elevate the desire the provoke and antagonize over the much more important task of doing a holistic analysis of, and raising thoughtful questions about, our condition as black people. The debate on Africa suffers when the ephemeral satisfaction of being contrarian (for its own sake) and of being able to provoke unnecessary controversy replaces an honest, painstaking commitment to analyzing and solving the African and African-American conundrum.

That said, let me declare that I like the more measured tone and diction of Ayittey's latest contribution (dialogue 1091) than the antagonistic, confrontational, and self-righteous hubris of the last one. I however disagree with many of its submissions.

It is true that images of black people in distress have come to define the modern notion of suffering and vulnerability. However, this is yet another example of the ways in which images and texts about black people are manipulated so adroitly by the media that they acquire the status of visual verities, imprinting themselves in the minds of people as the normative imagery of suffering. This media manipulation, and the speed and permanence which now characterize the modern media are, for the most part, responsible for the fixation on Africa as a quintessential land of suffering. It is this fixation that is ultimately responsible for Ayittey's construction of African suffering as the norm and Asian and Euro-American suffering as the exception-to use his own words. Ayittey is an unconscious victim of the subtle, stealthy effect of media manipulation and its capacity to "create" reality and its exceptions. India and Bangladesh are the most flood-vulnerable countries in the world. Devastating floods are annual tragedies in those two countries, taking hundreds, sometimes thousands, of lives and destroying homes and property. Yet, because images of Asian suffering do not "sell," as much as African ones the media devotes very little attention to these calamities compared to the attention that are devoted to African ones.

My point is that one does not have to domesticate suffering and misery in Africa or inscribe it as an African phenomenon to make a case for minimizing the vulnerabilities of black people on the continent and in the diaspora.

I will now proceed to offer my thoughts on some of the points raised by Ayittey. Let me start with the notion that black people should have an alternative platform of disaster relief because "help from government is often unreliable and slow in coming." This is either a sheepish capitulation to the preventable and solvable inefficacies of government-which are usually caused by corruption and ideology-or another rendering of the neo-liberal notion that the state is useless as an organ of social reconstruction and should thus be subordinated to the private sector and to private initiative or self-help. Whatever it is, I disagree that private initiative, called by whatever name, can supplant one of the cardinal reasons why governments exist: the delivery of social goods and the protection of people in times of crisis.

Self-help is good as a supplement to governmental obligations and as a standby when government resources are overwhelmed, but its promotion as an alternative to governmental mechanisms of wealth re-distribution and disaster relief is myopic and ideological. What's more, it gives a free pass to bureaucrats and politicians who are incompetent, corrupt, or both. There is nothing wrong with demanding that government fulfill its obligations to its citizens. There is also nothing wrong with criticizing it when it fails in this duty. The answer to the failures of government to meet its obligations to citizens is not to encourage the privatization of relief efforts or the elimination or reduction of government. It is to demand that politicians and bureaucrats get their acts together to help tax-paying citizens. The notion that government as an institution is generically inclined to be inefficient and to fail is ideological bunkum that is not worthy of any intellectual reflection. When Hurricanes hit predominantly white neighborhoods, this myth of generic government inefficacy is hardly repeated; suddenly, government becomes a savior, providing both prompt relief and compensation to the victims.

The idea that blacks do not pull resources together or do not invest in their neighborhoods is an exaggeration at best, a myth at worst. Several African communities in the United States, where I live, have welfare funds that are used to meet a variety of needs of its members and to fund relief in times of emergencies. I have personally encountered a few efforts by African groups on the internet to coordinate relief efforts for affected members. Blacks do invest in their communities, although I agree that they should do more. Magic Johnson has built one of the best models of a community economy. Through his Magic theatre and other businesses, the former NBA player is almost exclusively invested in the Inner Cities. I also know of several other wealthy black celebrities who have invested heavily in both for-profit and non-profit businesses and NGOs in black communities.

It is simply not true that high profile blacks have failed to contribute to the New Orleans relief efforts. Michael Jackson is organizing a mini-concert to record, along with several black musicians, a song that he wrote specially to aid the relief efforts in New Orleans. Proceeds from the recording will go towards the relief efforts. MOST black celebrities have equally donated to the Katrina relief fund. I know that the NBA, a predominantly black organization, has made a hefty donation, and that individual NBA players, most of whom are blacks, have donated generously to the fund.

Oprah Winfrey, whom I am no big fan of, has, to her credit, been actively involved in the New Orleans relief efforts, using her status to mobilize the resources of a committed group of black entertainment personalities that includes Jamie Fox. She has been filming her talk show from the site of the disaster for the past few days.

In view of these facts attesting to an unprecedented involvement of black celebrities in helping victimized blacks, I do not see any basis for Ayittey's indictment of the African-American club of millionaires.

Can and should black people do more for themselves? Absolutely. But the idea that black Americans should have a plan B (as one of my friends put) in readiness for an expected failure of government to protect or help them in time of crisis is too forgiving of government, too accepting of governmental neglect, and definitely too endorsing of the small-government-bigger-private-initiative orthodoxy for me. Yes, there have been instances when the government and the white establishment failed blacks, and we should learn some lessons from them. But such lessons must not lead us to ignore or forget the instances when serious governmental interventions helped black Americans avoid or minimize calamity. During the Great Depression, FDR's New Deal, which would now be condemned by the latter day apostles of self-help, private initiative, and small government, was crucial in aiding the recovery of black folks and in saving many black lives. The migration of blacks from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, which began during that era, can be partly attributed to the efficacy of the New Deal as an organ of state relief intervention in black communities.

The lessons that we learn from the past failures of the government and the white establishment to protect and save us from disaster should strengthen our resolve to strive for true equality, equal opportunity, and full integration. This is the ideal that MLK, Du Bois, and other great black leaders fought for. They-and the majority of black people- rejected the separatist agendas of some black leaders, agendas which would have pleased the white establishment whose desire was to perpetuate both spatial and bureaucratic segregation and the separation of the economic and social domains of the races. The lessons learned from the past failures of the white establishment to protect and help blacks in time of crisis should not lead us to seek to create insular economic enclaves and economic Bantustans in America. Separatism is not the answer.

Finally, I think that there is a deep-seated inconsistency in the position of Ayittey and those who think like him about the condition of black people. On the one hand, they condemn the invocation, by black folks, of racism and racial politics as a factor in their condition, and they discountenance the importance of racial politics and racial solidarity in civil and political matters. They also look with scorn on racial and cultural pan-Africanism and its egalitarian and neo-Marxian dimensions mostly because of their preference for capitalism and its individualist ethos. But they curiously advocate for economic pan-Africanism (constructed around the collectivity of race) as an alternative to governmental interventions. They cannot have it both ways. If they want black people to pool resources together and execute other projects of economic solidarity based on race, they must also be willing to accept that racial pan-Africanism is a response to bureaucratized and quotidian racisms. They cannot reject one kind of pan-Africanism, which is a function of race and turn around to advocate for another kind of pan-Africanism-the economic one-which is also a function race and is a response to racism.