Posted - 20 Sep 2020 : 15:53:20
OUR SONS AND DAUGHTERS
[Friends, the following opinion piece is about gang violence in Sweden that has over the years brutally claimed the lives of several young people of Gambian origin as well as youngsters of other nationalities besides being Swedes. A disproportionately large number of them, I believe have immigrant backgrounds, although I am yet unable to lay hands on any official figures. The article is in two parts and I shall post the second part next week. While I am addressing it to parents, I am keenly aware that even Gambian youths may want to have access to it, thus the need to have it translated into Swedish eventually. Share it with other friends if you find it useful. May their souls rest in Perfect Peace and May their memories be a blessing to us all].
The untimely death of Pa Sulay Jallow is a tragedy beyond description. To be only twenty-one and to have your life so violently cut short must inflict unimaginable pain to parents, siblings, and close friends for as long as they live. It is a departure that rips open a vast landscape of loss, forcing us to fill yet again, another fresh grave. The recurrence of gang related violence in Sweden has taken the lives of 24 young people this year alone. The loss of so many lives in the poorer suburbs of Stockholm is a severe indictment of the current political order as well as the Swedish criminal justice system. Although society as a whole must answer for institutional failures, it must be understood that the maintenance of law and order as well as the provision of a secure and safe social environment for everyone, especially for children and young people is the primary responsibility of the state.
Having said that, the wider society also comprises of individual households as well as the local institutions whose functions are administered by the municipal authorities. Of foremost importance are the social welfare offices, care givers for the elderly as well as people with disabilities, the kindergartens, and the schools. Pa Sulay’s death, like that of all the others, was neither natural nor accidental. It was the explosive outcome of a combination of societal factors that converged into a terrible fatality. Certainly, it can also be understood as the result of parents losing track of the daily routines of their children; parents who fail to inspire their children to remain in school or to imbibe in them the virtues of honest, hard work; children whose imagination gets captured by the fashion and gadget industry and who fall prey to the control and predatory appetite of drug dealers and hard core criminals. At the institutional level it may also be understood as a consequence of an educational system that has failed to motivate and to boost the curiosity of students for learning; a legislative process that has been too slow to accord the police tools they need to forestall the frequent occurrence of violent crimes as well as a porous pan-EU border that facilitated the inflow of all sorts of illicit drugs and the smuggling of firearms from the Balkans since the end of the war there in the late 1990s. To these should be added the rampant privatisation of public companies followed by cuts in public spending (causing the closure of many schools and leisure centres for youths in ghettoized suburbs), and the (perhaps) unintended effects of housing policies that instead of enhancing integration actually exacerbated segregation. These factors, like most degenerative social processes, have long been in the making, with roots in political decisions that stretch back decades.
The death of so many young people has precipitated a national crisis, with politicians of various ideological hues competing to outdo one another in proposing tougher legislation against gang violence. These include, among other things, the removal of rebated sentencing for young offenders, longer jail terms for violent criminals, the degradation of rehabilitation rights, the deportation of offenders lacking proper documentation, and awarding the police the right to eavesdrop on suspects. Although the legislative process is painfully slow in Sweden, it should be expected that the police will eventually break up the gangs and get a hold on their criminal activities. But until then and beyond that point parents and concerned citizens must do their utmost to make sure that no more young lives are lost to the senseless violence; that youngsters get the support they need to embark on attitudinal change; that they understand and believe that progress, and in fact prosperity, is possible beyond the dark addiction to bling and easy money.
Clearly, the business of pushing the youths in a direction away from crime starts with knowing why they choose to, or get lured into, committing crime in the first place. In our case, what are the forces that attract young men of Gambian origin to criminal activity? Is it because of the absence of their fathers in their lives or is it because their mothers are too preoccupied with the stressful demands of making ends meet in an increasingly competitive modern society? Is it the school that has failed them or is it the community that has not culturally been able to help the sons of immigrants cope with the educational demands of an informational economy? Are the poor choices they make perhaps the result of an identity crisis in which a sense of rootlessness facilitates disregard for norms and social values? Is it because they feel unloved or is it that they see crime as a swift gateway from poverty and a depressing social environment? The questions are many and there are no easy, singular answers. The answers might be a combination of different factors whose effects aggregate to a pattern of behaviour that may prove critical to luring our youths into criminality. These factors may be as varied as the criminals themselves and hence the need to look at them from different perspectives, perhaps the result of honest conversations. My own views have been moulded through years of teaching and interacting with Gambian youths and other immigrants, from primary school through adult college. That experience has afforded me insights into some of the issues and the conflictual influences that I raise here. Also, my own experience as the very proud father of four sons (and three grandchildren!) have plunged me into involvement with the law to the extent that I had to critically re-examine my own role as a parent in dealing with the forces that affected my thinking and actions in their upbringing. The murder of Yonathan Reyna, who slept in our house and dined with us, has been especially traumatic.
Importantly, I suspect that a disproportionate number of those who have been killed are young black men, perhaps just an “accident” of geography. Discursive praxis in Sweden is to ignore race issues on matters that adversely affect specific ethnic groups. We should not however be distracted by that sort of wilful negligence especially given the fact that we have a greater responsibility than anyone to support our children and youths grow into responsible citizens. What to do collectively can only be the result of serious conversations amongst ourselves. ALL those who were killed in this senseless violence needed adults who cared, who loved them, who intervened on their behalf. As we recall the names of Seydou Jammeh, Yonathan Reyna, Ndeela Jack, Alfusainey Jobarteh, Pa Sulayman Jallow, Faisal Nuur, and everyone else, we must resolve to do all we can to make sure this list of great loss gets no longer than it already is. I believe that there is an urgent need for serious conversations to arrive at what we can do collectively. This is my contribution to that conversation.
Both institutional and societal racism in Sweden are hardly recognised as an issue worthy of serious debate beyond the often-sensational headlines of tabloids and the spotty coverage on television news. That kind of selective bias allows any discourse on racism against African-Swedes as nothing different from any other kind of racism. Even more importantly, it bereaves society of the urgent perspectives on crime from those who suffer the consequences of racial abuse and discrimination more than any other group. Black people, after all, are the ones who are openly denied entry into nightclubs without consequence, called to job interviews the least, avoided the most on seats in the metro and other public transport, insulted at will in public spaces (“go back to Africa”), do the most unskilled work, and belong to the poorest groups of citizens in Sweden. The complicated anxieties of black people are the reasons we develop underlying diseases such as hypertension and diabetes causing our high mortality rates from Covid19. Cases of alcoholism and mental health issues are legion amongst blacks in Sweden. Black people are perceived as intruders into and contaminants of pure white spaces. When a well-known journalist whined that the football team was letting in yet another blackie (“en till svarting”), almost the entire corps of veteran journalists came to his defence insisting that he was not a racist. It left the rest of sensible mankind in Sweden wondering whether it was simply a case of a non-racist journalist making a racist comment on national television. Defending the man’s personal reputation took precedence over concern for the hurricane he let loose. A clear-cut case of the preservation of white tribal unity at any cost.
These are the sort of societal racial practices for which young blacks in Sweden are so poorly prepared. The reason is because there is little official recognition of racial practices much less the political resolve to address them. Schools are not compelled to teach racism as a scourge deserving special attention. Indeed, in the teaching of history schools delve into the Atlantic slave trade and Sweden’s relatively minor role in it, colonialism, and the holocaust. The Civil Rights movement and the struggle against apartheid are popular topics amongst lower secondary school students. But racism as a current social issue to be taught in civics classes is almost non-existent. Schools are naturally not immune to the rest of society and organised racists have occasionally found their way to high schools to canvass for the support of foot soldiers, first-time voters, and potential storm-troopers. It is this sort of wilful institutional negligence that made possible the outrageous staging of a “slave auction” at a student party at Lund’s university a few years ago. Apparently, a great majority of Swedish students find themselves in the wedge between those clamouring for free speech and freedom of association and those bending towards rigorous application of the International Convention on the rights of the child emphasising equality, the right to a safe and secure learning environment for every pupil, and person-to-person solidarity at school. Otherwise, besides the episodic treatment of racial issues in the media, movements against racism remain the intermediate projects of left-of-centre parties in their campaigns against fascists and neo-Nazis. Former left oriented autonomous organisations that ran constant campaigns against racism and that usually organised against Apartheid and for International solidarity with oppressed people everywhere, have folded up offices and the space they vacated are now crowded with a loose collection of anti-fascist groupings. Young black Swedes, (as well as Swedes in general) no longer grow up seeing adults demonstrating for the independence of African states, demanding an end to Apartheid, or denouncing American imperialism. The school system, despite its laudable emphasis and practice of democratic values, does not prepare them for the racism they subsequently experience as young adults. The responsibility to strengthen the ethnic and racial identity of our youth, therefore, falls on the shoulders of parents, the community, and the youth themselves.
…AND BLACK IDENTITY
All children of African origin growing up everywhere in Europe must experience a period of identity affirmation. Who am I? Where do I belong? Why is my skin black when the majority around me have fair skin? Many may experience it as an identity crisis especially because black children’s awareness of themselves as different from the majority population forces them to question their identity. Small children may often ask their parents or even teachers about their skin colour or hair texture. This does not simply indicate their awareness of difference. It may also indicate the child’s attempt to assess or respond to society’s idea of values, norms, and aesthetics (what is considered beautiful and less beautiful). The answers the child receives may be very significant in determining how the child perceives itself and how it eventually reacts to issues of race in society. Institutional care for children in Sweden is largely very professional in that they are treated equally despite racial or cultural differences. Teachers and leisure pedagogues are rigorously trained in upholding fundamental values of the national curriculum such as democracy, equality and fairness, respect for diversity and the personal integrity of the individual. Racial difference and colourism are often explained biologically.
The issue of race as it relates to our Gambian youths and their involvement in crime is important for two reasons. One reason is the existence of structural racism which negatively impacts all immigrants in Sweden. This is the normalization of practices and societal dynamics that accords whites advantages and privileges that are denied others. Despite the occasional exceptions, you will find that you might not even be invited to a job interview because of your name or your skin colour irrespective of your qualifications. And if you are a black reporter, the “camera would often dislike” showing your face on Swedish television. Blacks and other immigrants receive stiffer prison sentences than whites for the same crimes. Structural racism often operates as a hierarchy and therefore affects blacks at several levels. It is for instance, not uncommon for Africans originating from North of the Sahara to quickly associate with and identify themselves as Arabs rather than sub-Saharan Africans. In most cases, denying blacks entry into certain entertainment premises is an unwritten rule enforced by other immigrants. Structural racism and its hierarchies fundamentally reflect a power structure.
The second reason is related to a psychological phenomenon called implicit bias. This is when our understanding of people and our attitudes towards them are affected by unconsciously held beliefs and stereotypes we associate them with. Implicit bias is often negative, although it is sometimes positive. The belief that black people jump high and run fast spurs many young black kids to invest time and energy in ball games and other sports. Unfortunately, implicit bias mostly works on negative stereotypes for black people. Some weeks ago, my comrade Kabir Njaay posted a story by Kenyan literary icon Ngugi wa Thiongo titled “Time for Africa To Reclaim the Black Body”. Ngugi explained how, despite being a pent-house guest at a hotel in San Francisco, a complete white stranger insisted he vacates the terrace where he sat reading a newspaper. The man never even bothered to enquire whether the occupant of one of the most expensive suites at the hotel was a guest. For him it was totally inconceivable for a black man to be a guest at such a hotel; his mere presence there was an offense to white sensibilities. The thinking is that black people are supposed to relax at certain designated places, and the hotel’s terrace is not one of them. Closer to home is when white drug addicts approach you at “plattan” and inquire if you have something to sell, simply on account of your skin colour. White western society usually “assign” to black people particular roles to play, failing which makes them “intruders” into white space.
It is this type of stereotyping that some black youth with low self-esteem fall victims to, by unconsciously acting out roles expected of them by society. Admittedly, this is a very powerful force to resist as it often generates a tendency of submissiveness rather than resistance. Instead of fighting to defy your “assigned” role, you find it more convenient submitting to it, perhaps even accepting it as God’s will. Black music videos play a critical role in strengthening this attitude. While much of it is important cultural and social criticism, a tiny genre may express gangsterism as a form of protesting against the perceived oppressive power structure. “Get Rich or Die Trying” may cast visions of kids gunning one another in gang violence, but it is also an indictment of the economic conditions that force migrants to risk drowning in the Mediterranean to get to Europe.
The gang attracts youth of very low self-esteem into a parallel subculture where crime and violence are glorified and where there is addiction to quick and easy cash. Other attributes of the subculture besides adopting a habit of crass dishonesty, are eating out at restaurants, sporting expensive clothing, jewellery, cell phones and a life of frequent partying; a lifestyle they can hardly finance through honest work.
As parents, it is difficult to influence which kind of black cultural impulses from outside that one’s children take to heart. Besides the often invisible walls of division, there is also the struggle against negative representations of black people in the increasingly pervasive media. Television commercials in Sweden are fond of casting blacks in the role of happy fools, and although black pop and sports stars are also frequently screened there is often a thin veneer toning down cheerful exhortations of white supremacy. Swedes are naturally very fond of boasting about Ingemar Johansson’s defeat of Floyd Patterson to claim the world heavyweight title in 1959. But they would never whisper that the boxing great got a severe beating just the following year when Patterson reclaimed the title. Although a handful of Gambians have made sporting success in Sweden many youths do not pay attention to the statistical evidence showing that not even one out of a hundred make it to professional contracts; and this ignorance, of which most parents are guilty, may detract from emphasising equal investment in school work.
A most unfortunate misreading of the impulses from the US is the tendency to copycat African American violent gangs. Black youths in Sweden appear not to understand that the criminal justice system in the United States is designed as a caste system that deliberately dehumanises blacks as much as it shuts them out from participating in the formal economy. There is hardly anything that closely resembles the American politics of mass incarceration in all western Europe. But as mentioned earlier, there is always an invisible white racist wall around most highly skilled sectors of the labour market. Yet as the African American astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson has opined, the higher the invisible racialised wall, the more he gets spurred to be even better at what he does, to work even harder. True, that may be a formula for geniuses, but for ordinary black people like you and I, the presence of these walls feels like a dispiriting steel dome blanketing so many layers of glass ceilings. Nonetheless, the presence of these hurdles should not be an excuse for anyone to revert to criminality. It must be recognised that there is a power structure that puts blacks at great disadvantage in Sweden. At the same time there is clear evidence that more and more black youngsters are succeeding in culture and sports as well as in the world of academia. This means that the walls can be scaled, and the ceilings broken. That is the vision we must instil in all our sons and daughters. I tend to believe that the greatest insurance for black people against racist walls anywhere is, first and foremost, an investment in education.
© Momodou S. Sidibeh
A clear conscience fears no accusation - proverb from Sierra Leone