Celebrating “firsts” 200 years after slavery

By Patrick Hunter Thursday November 01 2012 in Opinion
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The passing and laying to rest of Lincoln Alexander got me to thinking: 200 years after the abolition of slavery, the countries that have benefitted most from it are still celebrating the first achievements by persons of African descent.


What does it say about the society we live in that this is a cause for celebration?


The 2008 election of Barack Obama as President of the United States of America is perhaps the single most important first for anyone of African descent in the Western world. At the time of his election, the mainstream White media and commentators jumped on the bandwagon that a “post-racial” society has been achieved, whatever that meant.


Four years later, racism in the U.S. has found ways to manifest itself, perhaps more openly than it has since the Civil Rights Movement.


Just last week, the Associated Press released a poll that showed:


“In all, 51 per cent of Americans now express explicit anti-Black attitudes, compared to 48 per cent in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-Black sentiments jumped to 56 per cent, up from 49 per cent during the last presidential election. In both tests, the share of Americans expressing pro-Black attitudes fell.”


In Canada, we rarely see these kinds of polls. Instinctively, we believe that anti-Black sentiments, while they may not be as drastic as those in the U.S., are strong. The relative size of the population, the all-powerful media and the inattention of government, at all levels, to validate its existence has served to reduce the visible impact. Governments and political parties, in particular, virtually eliminated the use of the word or the concept of “racism”, let alone “anti-Black racism”.


Nevertheless, in Canada, there are a number of other “firsts” to be “celebrated” where people of African descent are concerned. The first African-Canadian premier and prime minister are at the top of that list. Many of the other significant firsts have been by appointment, which makes one of Alexander’s firsts so significant in that he was elected as a Member of Parliament, and as such was appointed to Cabinet.


In the same vein, in Ontario, Leonard Braithwaite was elected as a Member of the Provincial Parliament. Alvin Curling became the first Black cabinet minister in the province.


The closest we ever came to having a Black prime minister was Rosemary Brown, who was the runner-up to Ed Broadbent for the leadership of the New Democratic Party (NDP). Notwithstanding that, the NDP has never formed the government of Canada.


Admittedly, a similar discussion can be had for the case of women. It is worth mentioning that Canada has had a female prime minister, Kim Campbell, who served briefly in 1993, although she did not come to that office as result of a general election. In other words, women also have a ways to go in achieving “firsts” in Canada. It is perhaps even more difficult for a Black woman to be elected premier or prime minister.


In the U.S., the potential for a female president could surface in the 2016 election. A potential frontrunner, if she chooses to contest that election, is U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. A potential Black candidate could be Oprah Winfrey who, through the women’s vote, could be a serious candidate.


The debate on sexism and power will continue to be a significant top-of-mind issue. With more than 51 per cent of the population, the lack of political power is a legitimate issue which crosses racial lines.


However, it can be argued that the debate also places racialized women – and Black women in particular – at a greater disadvantage. This is a cause of concern. Will the achievements of White women measurably increase the achievements of Black and other racialized women?


The truth is, whether we like it or not, the celebration of firsts for Black people in northern countries will continue for a long time. It will also take longer for Black women to break the barriers to power. Racism is the fundamental barrier.


A key to changing the status quo has to be the recognition that racism continues to be a barrier and it has to be addressed openly. Pretending it does not exist in no way eases the problem.


What we are experiencing with President Obama suggests that even breaking through the barriers is not a guarantee that racism as an issue will go away. What it does, if nothing else, is provide a sense of confidence within the Black population that it is possible to achieve your goals.


Racism will be a significant challenge to overcome, and it will take a great deal of courage to pursue your goal. You will be subject to criticism from all sides, Black and White, and racism may not be the most difficult to overcome. That, for sure, is an Alexander legacy.


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