Percy Zvomuya spoke to Gary Younge, former journalist for The Guardian newspaper, author of five books, including Another Day in the Death of America, A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives and The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King Jr’s Dream, and now professor of sociology at the University of Manchester. This is an edited transcript of the interview.
Percy Zvomuya: Europe has responded to the murder of George Floyd with outrage. In your New York Review of Books piece, you wrote, “Europe’s identification with Black America, particularly during times of crisis, resistance and trauma has a long and complex history. It is fuelled in no small part by traditions of internationalism and anti-racism on the European Left, where the likes of Paul Robeson, Richard Wright and Audre Lorde would find an ideological – and, at times, literal – home.”
Gary Younge: The responses have been interesting. There have been demonstrations in every major city, including Krakow, Poland, and Helsinki. In each place, the slogan, the urgency and the demands – when there are demands – have been different.
In Holland, a lot of attention has been on Zwarte Piet, a character that comes together with St Nicholas, Father Christmas’ evil sidekick. It’s so obviously black face. People in Holland have been saying, “Let’s stop doing this,” but others would say, “No, no, it’s part of our tradition. It’s culture.” In Belgium, the focus has been on the legacy of King Leopold. In Britain, we have looked at our statues – that of Cecil John Rhodes at Oxford University, Edward Colston in Bristol and Winston Churchill in London – the curricula and death in police custody. In France, there has been focus on Adama Traoré, a black Frenchman who died in police custody in 2016. In each place, the protests have focused on different things.
The protests have rattled institutions and the result has been a lot of declarations in a ham-fisted way. When it comes to issues of racism, white European culture is quite remedial. Europe exported its most egregious forms of racism to South Africa, Rhodesia and America, so the mainstream culture, by which I mean white culture, hasn’t been educated about its historical role in the New World because it happened abroad. They never had to internalise it. In Europe, the logic is, “We are above this. America has this problem. Africa has this problem.”
The French don’t even recognise race as a category because they say, “All we see are French people.” If you don’t recognise race, then how are you going to recognise racism? At the same time as this, there is a racist party, National Rally (formerly National Front). Beyond France, you have the paradox of a continent that does not acknowledge the problem of racism, but in most countries in Europe, fascism has become a mainstream ideology. For black Europeans, we see this explosion of Black Lives Matter (BLM) in America as an opportunity, a boomerang. You throw it, it hits America and mainstream culture will look at American culture the way it doesn’t look at us. Then you are going to hope the message will come back – and it has come back in lots of different ways. What happened in America sparked protests and a culture of resistance that did exist here in Europe but was in need of regeneration.
Zvomuya: In the same essay you write that in 1998, while a public inquiry into the racist murder of British teenager Stephen Lawrence was taking place, news reached Britain of the gruesome murder of James Byrd, an African-American man who was chained to a pickup truck and dragged until his head came off. During an editorial meeting at Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, one of your colleagues remarked of Byrd’s killing: “Well, at least we don’t do that here.” It seems Europe hasn’t quite learnt to come to terms with its racist past and present.
Younge: There is a false sense of superiority in Europe, and not all of it has to do with race. Some of it has to do with Europe’s peculiar sense of inferiority with America. The US is superior – materially, militarily and politically – effectively occupying the positions once held by Britain, France, Belgium and Germany. I think it was the Danish finance minister Kristian Jensen who said, “There are two kinds of European nations. There are small nations, and there are countries that have not yet realised they are small nations.”
So this hand-wringing about America is a way of feeling morally superior, but it doesn’t work. There is no interrogation of our history or the present. For the most part, they can get away with it. This moment presents a window of opportunity to get as many concessions as possible out of it.
Zvomuya: Are you optimistic that substantive gains can be made in this moment of ferment?
Younge: I think it is implied. I wouldn’t say I am optimistic or pessimistic, but there is potential. They have said things out loud, made symbolic contributions, to tackle racism. Our challenge in Europe is one of capacity. Even Britain doesn’t have a big, settled black middle class or longstanding black institutions. What can a poorer, less organised black community and its allies hope to achieve? What can we carry forward, given our numbers, our capacities? Unlike black Europe, America has centuries-old organisations, a substantial middle class and in Donald Trump, it has a nativist, brazen target.
We should also not underestimate the degree to which our enemies are also organising. It is a moment of chaos and upheaval, in which white people who haven’t been educated (but who might be willing to be educated) will be preyed on by hucksters and bigots, who will say, “We can bring order to this chaos. We will defend your statues. We will defend your honour.” We are also coming into an economic recession and that’s not an insignificant challenge for us.
Zvomuya: It’s something of a paradox that the BLM movement, the loose coalition of activists protesting against the carnage of black lives, came into being during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Younge: It’s a paradox. It actually illuminates the paradox of his presidency, of America, that it can elect a black man to be its president, but yet cannot ensure that a black boy can walk the streets without being murdered. That really speaks to the class differences within black America and Obama’s limited appeal within black America.
Obama is the poster in the barber, in the corner shop. He is someone that black Americans felt proud and protective of. Yet at no stage did he say, “I will improve the lot of black people in this country.” Indeed, the gap between the rich and poor grew under him, as black America lost the wealth of a generation. In part the gap grew because he came into power during the time of economic crisis. But the Obama phenomenon speaks to the degree to which people will embrace symbolism, even when substance is lacking. That was always the paradox of his presidency, that he made black Americans feel good about themselves even when they were faring worse.
Zvomuya: Couldn’t more have been done to change the criminal justice system, in which black people are disproportionately represented?
Younge: One has to be cognisant of the fact that a president is not a king, that there is congress. But if we go back a little earlier, there were some changes. He did manage to bring some changes around crack and coke laws.
When we go back to the George W Bush era, it’s one of the worst periods of American foreign policy. But who were the faces of American foreign policy? Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. It has been established that you can have a diverse cabinet doing very racist things. As long as the system is in place, you can have black or white hands operating the system just fine. It’s the system you have to change.
I remember interviewing Angela Davis in 2007, and she said, “The Republican administration is the most diverse in history. But when the inclusion of black people into the machine of oppression is designed to make that machine work more efficiently, then it does not represent progress at all. We have more black people in more visible and powerful positions. But then we have far more black people who have been pushed down to the bottom of the ladder. When people call for diversity and link it to justice and equality, that’s fine. But there’s a model of diversity as the difference that makes no difference, the change that brings about no change.”
We can be demanding equal opportunities and end up with photo opportunities, unless we are careful. That’s not to say Obama didn’t change anything or Obama’s tenure was a waste of time, that his symbolic importance was irrelevant. When BLM emerges you begin to see the limitations of his presidency. He can’t keep black people safe, obviously you can’t keep everyone safe on an individual basis, but I mean structurally, systemically.
I remember Obama in South Carolina after the murder of nine African Americans at the Charleston church by Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who had Rhodesian and apartheid South Africa insignia. They arrested him – they didn’t shoot him. And Obama was singing a Negro spiritual in church, and people said it was powerful. This speaks to the impotence of the situation: a black president, singing spirituals in a black church in which black people have been shot, and he can’t do much about it. He exemplifies this role, serenade after the act, to a problem he can’t solve. It’s not that he can’t fix it outright – racism can’t be fixed outright, it’s a lifetime’s work. But what this episode underlines is that he wasn’t making inroads at all.
Another incident is Ferguson following the murder of Trayvon Martin. He convened a meeting of activists but nothing happened. He is not a king, but he could have made a raft of suggestions and could have put them through to congress, but he didn’t.
Zvomuya: So does this point to the limitations of race as a political category?
Younge: I think in the case of Obama it points to the limits of race as a representational category. Just because you have elected someone who looks like you doesn’t mean they are going to champion your interests. Alongside that, we talk about capacity: I do think as an organising principle, race is limited. In the West, where blacks are a minority, using race as an organising category would be crippling and morally and logically flawed as a notion, particularly in the US (where African Americans make up 10% to 11% of the population) and Britain (where black people make up 3% to 4%). We are not going to be able to do it on our own. But, also, I don’t want to achieve it on my own. The world we want to create cannot emerge from such a limiting category. My community is like-minded people.
In Britain, we have a debate that has been going on for the past 40 to 50 years about the degree to which black is a political colour. In Britain, Africans, Caribbeans, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are a political colour. We have a black journalists union that everybody who is not white can join. The idea was, the colonial experience unites us, how we are suffering racism in this country. Yet there are ways in which that notion falls apart, for example, in the war on terror where Muslims, especially people from Bangladesh and Pakistan, are targeted. Certain types of harassment are targeted at certain minorities. Housing discrimination mostly affects Bangladeshis, schooling mostly affects Caribbean boys. You can see how the political colour holds, but you can also see where it falls apart. I am interested in race insofar as it is a political category.
Zvomuya: Is class as a political category more useful than race?
Younge: I would say class is almost as limiting. Class is vital. It speaks to material experience, as does race. In the past, for example, in the trade union movement, it has been the sole or primary tool of organisation. It is primary, but it is not singular. I always found myself resisting a very orthodox, crude notion of Marx, and it’s not even accurate. When it comes to it, this notion of understanding class being above all else and everything else being identity politics is wrong. If you are black, you are four times more likely to die of Covid-19. If you are a woman, you are going to get paid 80 cents to a dollar. It was Marx who said that labour in a white skin can never free itself so long as labour in brown skin is branded.
I feel that class is central but that it exists in relationship to other categories: gender, race, ethnicity, religion, region, country, and that it often has a symbiotic relationship with them. To try to understand race and class separately is to misunderstand them both completely. I think class is important, but in a multiracial country, it would be impossible to understand it without understanding race. Similarly race is important, but trying to understand it in a capitalist country without understanding class is impossible. When people offer analyses of race that have no relationship to class and analyses of class with no relationship to race, it’s flawed. A good example is this: in Britain there are more people who work in Indian restaurants than who work in ship building, coal mining and steel manufacturing all put together. The three were once the engine of Britain’s industry, able to shut down the country. That tells us about how the British working class has changed.
Zvomuya: When you lived in the United States, where you were based between 2003 and 2015, did you see the Donald Trump phenomenon happening?
Younge: I never thought he would win the presidency. I never saw that coming. But in the whole time I was there, you could see it building. I arrived before the Iraq War and I remember going to a pro-war march and people saying, “We gave peace a chance, and we got 9/11” – an entirely ahistorical, peculiar notion of what happened. People then didn’t use the term “fake news”, but they were dismissive of The Washington Post and The New York Times. There was dissemination of fake news around John Kerry. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth claimed in ads that Kerry’s Vietnam war medals were fake. The culture wars around gay marriage – which they lost – were already taking place. Bush won his contest with Kerry, and then there was Hurricane Katrina and the fallout from that. You could see the roots of this from the time of Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate in the elections of 2008. The people who went to these rallies changed. They literally started spitting at black reporters, and there was an embrace of a certain kind of idiocy. For example, Palin couldn’t name the newspapers she read.
There was a moment when McCain was talking to a crowd in Minnesota and then a woman got the microphone and said, “I can’t trust Obama … he’s an Arab,” but McCain took the microphone from her and said, “No, ma’am. He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not an Arab.” But McCain was at odds with the crowd. There is no big cheer when he does that. You have this base that’s propelling Palin and being driven crazy by Obama, not just because he is black, but because he is mixed race, because he lived in Indonesia, because his father is an immigrant and of Muslim heritage, because his mother married a black man. All of these things come into play in a case of the cosmopolitan against the parochial. McCain lost the election and then you get the Tea Party. The Tea Party are really the foot soldiers of Trump. There is then the Birther Movement and the conspiracy theories that Obama is a Muslim, which Trump was involved in.
There is something that people don’t want to deal with often, that a significant number of people who voted for Trump had voted for Obama. They say, “Obama offered us hope but nothing got better.” Obama took some people to the top of the hill, but there was nothing there when they got there. This guy Trump comes along and says, “I will do better”, and they went with him.
Zvomuya: You were in South Africa in December 2013 following Nelson Mandela’s death. In the 1990s, you visited South Africa, sometimes staying for a couple of months. When you came to South Africa the last time, did you notice any changes in the atmosphere, in the fabric, in the texture of the body politic?
Younge: I was there for the first time in 1994, for the first democratic elections. At the time, in Britain, there was a kind of romantic excitement about it. I stayed with a family in Soweto and went to vote with them. People were engaged, happy, but there wasn’t dancing in the street. There was joy, but it was understated. It’s not like people didn’t know who was going to win and what was going to happen. There had been a lot of political education. The Mandela rallies were amazing. At least that’s how I experienced it.
I came back in 1997, 1999, and each time I came back there was more cynicism, a bit less belief. With Thabo Mbeki, there was a sense of distance, maybe alienation, none of the affection that you saw during the tenure of Madiba.
The ANC was faced with a typical challenge, how to transition from a liberation movement to a government. The notions of discipline and debate are different when fighting the apartheid government to when you are leading the government. There was a shift from reconstruction to regular rule, and you could see a shift in people’s attachment.
Then there was Jacob Zuma, and I did worry that it could go the familiar path of kleptocracy, corruption and dictatorship. I think it went somewhere down that path. It was intriguing to be in the FNB Stadium and to hear the booing aimed at Zuma. It reminded me of the booing of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian dictator. There had been a massacre in the city of Timișoara and as he was giving a speech, people started to chant the name of the city of Timișoara. It was then that he realised how he had lost control of the crowds. He died a few days later. Ceaușescu went from autocrat supreme to corpse.
Zvomuya: To what extent are South Africans’ present grievances to do with the collusion of white and black elites during the negotiation that brought about democracy?
Younge: I guess the way I saw it, going and coming, was that there was necessary negotiation between white capital and black politics for the transition. It reminded me of cities like Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, in the American South, where white capital and black politics came together. That negotiation in the 1990s was necessary to achieve a smooth transition. There was always going to be a negotiation.
But the question is whether the blacks got enough? The blacks didn’t get enough, and the situation was made worse by pillaging by a handful of people.
When I came back in 1999, I was struck by the fact that nobody I knew had the same phone number as before. That almost everybody had moved, both literally and metaphorically. There was this moment, as if there had been a sale, and everybody rushed for bargains.
When I left, Ronnie Kasrils had been a member of Parliament and I used to play chess with him in journalist David Beresford’s back yard. One time when I came back, Kasrils was a minister of defence. I remember interviewing people who were in the struggle but had not gone the government route or the corporate route, and they said it was interesting to see who was still carrying their own bag.
You had these people who had been comrades, who had slept on each other’s couches, who had slept with each other; people who had been leading working-class lives in London and suddenly they are in power. So a journey that used to take 30 or 40 years happened in three or four years. There was this moment of opportunity. People dived through the window and came out with cash. There was chaos in that moment of looting. Of course, most people were left out.
I think the negotiation between black politics and white capital was necessary and the outcome of that negotiation wasn’t a foregone conclusion, and black people should have got more. I think it is easy for me to say because I am British and wasn’t involved. I think it is important to remember that the conversations were happening at a time when the Soviet Union had collapsed, the Berlin Wall had collapsed and capitalism was king.
I remember watching journalist and activist John Pilger’s 1998 documentary, Apartheid Did Not Die, in which he is wandering in the township waving the Freedom Charter. But the Freedom Charter was written in 1955, and you can’t reasonably believe they are going to implement the Freedom Charter in 1994. That’s not a plausible demand. Pilger was trying to say nothing was achieved, but my feeling was South Africans had achieved the right to vote out a government they don’t like. That’s an achievement.
It’s also important to realise how determined some reactionary forces were – Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s militias in Inkatha. There were some real risks to be contended with. That’s my reading, which I offer since you asked, but I offer it with considerable humility.
Zvomuya: The New York Times puts content behind a paywall while The Guardian, your old home, asks you to pay what you can but you can still read what’s on the site. What’s your preferred model?
Younge: I think my preferred model is closer to The Guardian’s. Nobody knows how to make money out of newspapers at the moment. I think that if you can, keep the platform open. If you want your paper to be global and to have impact, then a model in which you encourage – not force – the readers to pay means people who can’t pay can still read, that means you can grow your readership, grow your impact and find other revenue streams.
A third of The Guardian’s readers are in Britain, a third are in America, the other third is elsewhere in the world. It is the last third that’s going to grow. Everyone in Britain has heard of The Guardian. Many in America have heard of The Guardian, but the real growth is going to come from the readers who speak English in India, Nigeria, South Africa, China, etc. It is going to grow if it is free but if this model doesn’t work, content might have to go beyond the paywall. This model partly works for The Guardian because it is not owned by an individual but by a trust.
When you see websites say we are giving the corona stories for free because it is a public service, I think, but what about the other stuff behind the paywall? Isn’t that part of a public service?
Zvomuya: Some readers might not know of Claudette Colvin and her role in civil rights history. Why is this the story you are most proud of?
It is the story of a woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who was kicked off a bus and pleaded not guilty. People used to get kicked off the bus all the time, but she pleaded not guilty. The civil rights leadership was going to go with her. She was going to be the face of desegregation. She was dark-skinned, and she got pregnant at 16, and she came from a poor family, and they just dropped her and said we need to wait for someone more suitable. Then Rosa Parks came along. It’s very important to me for a few reasons because it’s a way of talking, and about how history is made. If you look at the way Rosa Parks’ story is told, it’s told as a story of someone who doesn’t want to stand up; she is told to stand up but she refuses because she is tired. It is told as the story of how one woman can change the world. The truth is Rosa Parks was a militant. She had been kicked off the bus many times before. She never supported non-violence. She was more a Malcolm X woman than a Martin Luther King woman.
There was a mass boycott of buses afterwards in which people like Colvin’s mother and father were involved.
The real story, in Rosa Parks’ case, is not told properly. It shows how we confect history. Colvin was written out of history because she didn’t fit. You don’t have to be a saint, to be above reproach, to make history. She was 16; she had vim. It is a lesson to the youth who baulk at becoming this dignified seamstress that was Rosa Parks. Colvin is, in many ways, a much more accessible figure. When I was doing my book, she was a footnote in every story. And I said, what happened to her? It took me three years – I wasn’t looking for her every day, but I would keep checking – to find her. I had to put her back in her rightful place. I had to resurrect her because she had been killed. It was a real service to journalism.
Zvomuya: When you were a youth you went to teach in a refugee school in Sudan. You also studied French and Russian. You have always been inside looking out the window.
Younge: Growing up in Britain, I am 51 now, people would always ask me where I am from. There was this sense that you couldn’t be British, and I would always say my mom and dad are from Barbados, and I would say I am from Barbados (I had been there once when I was four). I had a sense of not feeling any loyalty to any soil. I am British, and I have the right to Barbadian citizenship, but I never would come off the plane and want to kiss the soil. I have always been told I have no claim to wherever I have been. You then start looking around. I used to look at maps, when I was young. We didn’t have much money so we didn’t travel a lot, and I would look at them in wonder.
I was good at languages in school, and it felt like something I could do. The desire to travel wasn’t a quest, but rather an orientation, an itch, an urge. It wasn’t as straightforward as this, but I was thinking maybe I should go and see other places. So I did a volunteer year, and Sudan was chosen for me. I actually wanted to go to Zimbabwe, but Sudan was chosen for me. So I went to Kassala on the eastern border and worked at an Eritrean refugee school. And then I studied French and Russian. I lived in Paris for six months, and I lived in Russia for five months. I travelled around a bit, doing my job, in South Africa for three or so months, and then in America for 12 years. Now I am back in Britain. I don’t think I am going to do a big move again. This travelling wasn’t a travel bug in that kind of way some people have to keep moving, but I have an ambivalence to place. And so people ask, “Did you miss Britain when you were in the USA?”, and I always say, “Not really.” Now some people ask me, “Do you miss America?”, and I say, “Not really.”
I am at home when I am with my people. My people are all kinds of people. When I went to Russia to live with a Jewish lady and her son I felt at home. I am at home when I am with people with whom I share assumptions and presumptions; where people, even when they don’t like my sense of humour, understand it; where beer is good; where I can lay my head and be myself.