Angela Davis: “Racism in Colombia resembles the one in the United States”
Interview by Cesar Rodriguez-G. / * Special for El Espectador
The famous Human Rights leader spoke with El Espectador during a gathering with Black communities in el Cauca.
Angela Davis appears comfortable in this corner of Columbian violence. We do the interview in La Toma, northern Cauca, only a few steps from the gold mines that the black communities have worked by hand for more than three centuries and that now mining companies wielding titles provided by the State seek to exploit. Davis’ hosts are the communities carrying the weight of eviction orders and whose leaders have been threatened and displaced for opposing them.
La Toma is a powder keg and Davis knows it. That is probably why she feels comfortable here. Because she grew up in “Dynamite Hill” in Birmingham, Alabama, in the heart of the southern United States, where the Ku Klux Klan would set off bombs in the black neighborhood of civil rights movement activists in the early sixties.
La Toma is a handful of houses located on top of the mountain, from which you can see, in the distance, the town of Suarez and the Salvajina reservoir. The testimonies Davis heard throughout the day relate the determination of Afro-Columbians not to abandon this ancestral territory despite the violence.
So Davis, the "sweet black angel" from the Rolling Stones song, the global icon of anti-racist and feminist causes, decided to come when she heard the history of the place a few months ago from the lips of a leader of the Process of Black Communities. Here no one was left out, as happened with more than 500 people who were unable to enter the crowded conference at the National University [to hear her speak] in Bogotá a couple of days earlier. Each female head of household, each child with no better sabbatical plan, had a place at the front of the line at the community center. Gone was the philosopher devoted to the University of California, who spoke in Bogota. Who was here was the activist from Birmingham. She heard the testimony of the villagers and joined the dance of the women who moved to the rhythm of the Cauca violins.
César Rodríguez Garavito: This is your first visit to Colombia. What impression will you take with you?
Angela Davis: I am very content to have had the opportunity to know a part of Colombia that is usually invisible. I know the struggle of the Afro-Colombian population and I had heard about what is happening in this region in particular. This is an experience that I will never forget. What most impressed me was the fact that all the generations carry so much joy in their heart. Now I understand the passion with which they struggle for their ancestral lands. But I noticed that it is not only about conserving the legacy of the land, but also of conserving a history, a culture, the music.
C.R.G.: What significance does what is happening here have for the causes that you have defended?
A.D.: The obsession of capitalism for profit, which does not recognize humanity, which does not recognize culture, which does not recognize history. I think this is clearer here in La Toma, in the struggle for ancestral lands than anywhere else in the world. The Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples that are trying to stay connected with their land—which is also the connection to their history, their culture—are trampled by transnational corporations. Anyone critical of capitalism should be familiar with the situation here in La Toma and in Colombia, because I know that La Toma is just one example of conflicts that are occurring throughout the country.
C.R.G.: What similarities and differences did you see between racism in your country and racism in Colombia?
A.D.: Racism has been able to change its structures and ideologies over time. It can be traced to the times of slavery and colonialism, so when one sees in action the structures of racism that still apply today in the hemisphere, you recognize the presence of the ghosts of colonialism and slavery. In Colombia, there are forms of racism that remind me a lot of U.S. racism.
But what interests me is not to bring the analysis of racism in the United States, but to study the relationship between the U.S. government and military and the Colombian government and military. For example, I am interested in seeing the ways that the United States is supporting the creation of a repressive apparatus in Colombia such as that of the U.S. prison-industrial complex.
This does not happen automatically. It is the result of U.S. government intervention in Colombian politics. During my stay, the U.S. government approved military aid for next year because they think Colombia is in compliance with the protection of Human Rights.
CRG: What is the role of violence and repression in racial discrimination?
A.D.: What I call the prison-industrial complex allows us to see clearly how racism is used to generate profit. In fact, the relationship is evident here in this mining region, where the commercial mining interests promote a kind of racism that will produce huge profits. In the U.S., a good number of companies are involved in the development and continuous expansion of the prison system, in which 2.4 million people are confined. Of every 100 adults, one is behind bars. Of each 31, one is under the control of the correctional system, either on remand, in prison with sentences, on probation or house arrest. This is terrifying if you consider how the prison has been used and is still used in the so-called War Against Terrorism, or in Abu Ghraib, where torture was presented as something exceptional.
CRG: Has anything changed with the election of a President of African-descent in the U.S.?
A.D.: Some things have changed. It would not have been possible to imagine the election of a black president a decade ago, two decades ago, in no way a hundred years ago. And this is good. However, the most important thing in the elections two years ago was the fact that Barack Obama presented himself, at least at that time, as the result of radical struggle for justice.
He identified with the civil rights movement, the fight for freedom, and I think that is why he managed to attract so many people. Now, the question of what happened and what will happen is completely distinct. My position has always been that it is the mass movements in the United States and other parts of the world who have the responsibility for pressuring Obama to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, for example, or to support a health system much more radical than the one he is currently supporting.
Those who suppose that we now live in a post-racial society in United States lose sight of the structural character of racism. As some say, a black man in the White House does not compensate for a million blacks in the Big House, that is to say, in prison. The structural aspects of racism still exist in education, housing, health. So the struggle continues.
CRG: In Colombia there is debate over affirmative action programs (scholarships, university quotas, etc.) to promote the access of Afro-Colombians to the labor market, higher education, as has been done in the U.S. or Brazil. What lessons are offered by four decades of such programs in your country?
AD: Affirmative Action was originally proposed as an element of a broader strategy against racism: to combat institutionalized racism, to eliminate segregation. I think that affirmative action can play an important role. But it is only a first step and has to be regarded as part of a larger cause for justice. Affirmative Action that only seeks to change the appearance of an institution, without accounting for the social class or gender of admitted persons, possibly serves no purpose at all.
In the United States it is generally spoken of seeking "diversity" in institutions. I always thought that a strong concept of diversity could bring about change. But a weak notion of diversity—which may be defined as "difference”—does not make a difference. So I think that affirmative action alone is not the answer. It should not consist only of the inclusion of individuals to guarantee that an institution is not totally white. It needs to promote and improve the situation of communities, local collectivities. The critiques against affirmative action assume that it is always about individuals and that some individuals, specifically blacks or Latinos or women, are being given an unjust advantage to the detriment of others. But it dos not have to do only with individuals.
C.R.G.: Returning to the connection between the U.S. and Colombia, what do you think of the support that a sector of the Black Congressional Caucus in your country has given to the FTA [Free Trade Agreement], arguing it will benefit Afro-Colombians?
AD: The Black Caucus does not represent the interests of the movements that are fighting against racism, or at least not all of its members. I do not think that all the members of the black caucus are supporting the FTA, because they understand the damage that free trade has caused around the world, especially through structural adjustment programs. So I would get up and challenge any member of the Black Caucus that supports the FTA and says that it is going to help Afro-Colombians.
*Cesar Rodriguez-G. is the director of the Observatory on Racial Discrimination
(French to Spanish translation by Yukyan Lam)
An icon is reaching out to miners of Cauca
Who is Angela Davis? After studying philosophy in the U.S. and in Europe, and as a militant in the anti-racist movement of the 'Black Panthers' in the sixties, she became a global cause célèbre when imprisoned for alleged involvement in the murder of a judge in 1970. When acquitted in 1972, she become an icon of social movements and the character of songs like “Angela” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and “Sweet Black Angel” by the Rolling Stones.
In 1981, she published Women, Race, and Class, one of the pioneering analyses on gender and racial discrimination. She continued this work in the next decade with the book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1999), which explored the connection of the genre with feminism and African-American culture. In the last decade, Davis has dedicated herself to denouncing [all injustices].
Her crusade today is for Afro-Colombians who have lived in the mines of northern Cauca since 1636. The state privatized ten thousand hectares since 2002 and now wants to evict them. The situation has turned violent: eight miners were killed in April and several community leaders have been threatened. There is an ongoing guardianship.
César G. Rodriguez / * Special for El Espectador | EL ESPECTADOR
 While Angela Davis is often associated with and actively worked with the Black Panther Party, most notably Soledad Brother George Jackson, she was a long-time member of the Communist Party USA during much of her adult life.