The great Pan-African leader Marcus Garvey once stated that “Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, [and] Japanese” were spared from being lynched because they are represented by some of the most powerful nations in the world.
With this statement, Garvey was making a direct connection between the treatment of a particular social group and their degree of power. Therefore, according to the argument, Blacks and Latinos in the United States can expect to suffer all types of state-sanctioned abuse (i.e. police brutality, lack of medical care, poor schools) because they lack significant power over the social, political, and economic system within the country they reside in. Although Garvey uttered these words nearly a century ago, recent developments in the world have re-enforced its significance. As was the case in Garvey’s day– one where the world was coming out of the ashes of World War I – we are experiencing a global shift in power and influence.
China is now a world power with India and Brazil at the brink. Feeling vulnerable for the first-time in centuries, European nations desperately banded together to form the European Union (EU) as a way to maintain political and economic power. While the United States is still the most powerful nation on the planet, it no longer has a monopoly. With mixed results in Afghanistan and Iraq and millions of dollars in debt owed to countries like China, America – according to many – is losing its firm grip around the world’s people and resources.
All of this creates an interesting dilemma for Blacks and Latinos, who along with Native Americans, have long occupied the bottom rung of U.S. society.
Centuries of slavery, racism, colonialism, legalized discrimination, economic exploitation, and incarceration have rendered a large number of people of color ill-prepared to acquire power domestically. With U.S. global hegemony lessening, Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans are faced with an interesting situation.
On one hand, declining U.S. power hurts the nation’s ability to force other countries to buys it products, which shrinks market share for its corporations and economic growth at home. As a consequence, domestic jobs and services become fewer and fewer with Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans – who are largely dependent upon the white power structure for life’s essentials – receiving even less. In other words, the poor could get poorer.
However, the situation possibly presents people of color a golden opportunity to destroy the oppressive social, political, and economic relationships that keep them in bondage. Established elements of the white power structure may become extinct or significantly downsized as foreign governments and companies gain control of the world’s landscape and markets. The void in power that could result from this scenario may be filled by Blacks, Latinos, or Native Americans. Barack Obama’s rise to the Presidency may the first of many examples to come that illustrate the before-mentioned theory.
Whatever side one chooses, it is important to consider one of Garvey’s other teachings. He believed that “the only protection against injustice is Power – Physical, Financial, and Scientific”. Physical power meaning the ability to defend oneself against attack and violence. Financial power meaning the ability to accumulate and increase material resources in order to provide the needs of a people. Scientific power meaning the ability to develop methods and tools necessary to master one’s environment. When considering Garvey’s criteria for power, it would appear that Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans have a long way to go to effectively grab social, political, and economic power within the United States. As mentioned earlier, America’s system of oppression has ensured such a reality. Until we develop a new game plan, people of color will be largely left with an over-dependence on government services and protection, social protest, and mainstream political activity as its core tenets of change. While the positive value of these tenets cannot be discounted or ignored, we must admit that they - in isolation – cannot and will not build power. As Garvey taught nearly a century ago and countries like China and India are proving today, power requires a long-term plan and commitment to building leadership and expertise in areas that develop a group’s skills, create group unity, and produce things that fill needs. Maybe then, Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans will be truly protected from the abuses they are currently subjected to.