Radical journalist Gary Younge talks to Hassan Mahamdallie about his latest book Stranger In A Strange Land: Encounters In The Disunited States
HM: Your book Stranger In A Strange Land is divided into four sections-war, race, politics and culture. What are the overarching themes for you?
GY: One of the themes is division. I don't think people in Britain fully understand how divided the US is. The era of former US president Bill Clinton ended with one of the closest elections that we can remember - one that George Bush had to steal in the end. So Bush, and the way that he came to power, was an expression of division. Then for a brief moment, around 9/11, the country was united - partly in pain and grief, and partly in a form of superpower bellicosity.
Another division is race. That really came out after Hurricane Katrina. African-Americans and white people saw the same things on their TVs but understood completely different things. Another theme is that the US is not as exceptional and brilliant as some people in the US would have you believe - that "we're a great country, a generous people, a beautiful people, we're God's own country". But also, it's not exceptionally bad either. We shouldn't look at the US as being some kind of freakshow. When we do that, we cordon off all possibilities of solidarity with people in the US - there are large numbers of Americans who align themselves with us. There isn't a big left, but there is a large kind of liberal community which is really upset with what's going on.
Unlike us, the US had a revolution. The US has a constitution based on basic principles, and there are large numbers of people who believe that it is their mission to spread freedom - whatever they mean by that. That many regard themselves as a liberating force is a mixture of amnesia and historical ignorance about what the US has done.
While they sing "Land of the Free, Home of the Brave", we sing "God Save the Queen". In Britain we don't feel the same sense of ownership of our country as Americans do of theirs. For example, my wife is African-American. She was raised by parents who grew up in the civil rights era - they protested, and are dyed in the wool Democrats. Nevertheless, she grew up thinking that the US was the best place in the world, and that "America" and "democracy" were synonymous. I don't know about you, but I grew up black in Britain and I never thought Britain was the best place in the world.
In the US people go on anti-war demonstrations carrying the US flag, with signs saying "Peace is Patriotic, Peace is the American Way". Recently, I met Nichole, a 24 year old African-American woman who left her baby behind with friends to join the army.
She came back and found herself homeless. When I met her she was in a ramshackle place in Harlem - a real mess. She was really struggling and didn't have a job, but nevertheless she believed that if she worked really hard she could make it. And for me, that was the power of that idea - people want to believe it.
In your book you talked to the writer Maya Angelou. She said that things have changed for African-Americans, maybe not as much as you would want, but there have been changes which should be celebrated. What do you think of the changes she has referred to?
There is one way at looking at progress. It involves saying that black people now have the right to be as every bit vicious as white people, and in that sense progress has been made. Condoleezza Rice is killing brown people - that's not the equality I was after. Maya cites Condoleezza Rice as being an example of those advances. Of course, on one level it's important that black people have the right to fuck up and to be bad, but we have to separate progress of symbols and progress of substance.
At a symbolic level, Condoleezza Rice does represent some kind of progress, but if that's where we are going with this thing I'm getting off the train now. Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 election, and that was great for Margaret Thatcher, but I'm not sure it did much for women. It didn't do much for the women in the pit communities, and, the fact that Rice is secretary of state didn't do much for the people of the Lower 9th ward in New Orleans.
I'm going to try to explain through my own life why I'm glad that I grew up in Britain. I grew up in a single parent family with two brothers. If we had been born in the US, one of my brothers would be dead, in prison, or on drugs. At 18 years old I got my grades and I went to university, and it didn't cost my family any money - of course that's changed now, as we're going backwards - but that was my life. Then you reach a point in Britain when you can't go any further, because Britain doesn't know what to do with educated people who aren't white. That's to do with institutional racism. My experience of getting a job at the Guardian is all too rare. In the US there is a huge black middle class - better organised than the black working class - which has a place in the system.
In an article about Martin Luther King you point out that integration isn't the same as equality. But all the talk in Britain from government and policy-makers is "integrate, integrate, integrate" - with equality far behind. In the US the process of integration has been going on much longer. What lessons can we learn from there?
First, that integration in the US was always a chimera. The Southern states were always very integrated. African-American women breastfed white kids, white slave-owners slept with their slaves, and for the most part they lived in the same house, as most slave-owners didn't have much money. So it was never about whether black people could hang out with white people. It was on the basis of subservience, of white supremacy.
So with integration in the 1960s and 1970s, which was a step forward, you had the right to go into any burger shop in town, but you didn't have the money to buy that burger. So before integration you had "Whites Only" signs on the doors which kept you out, and after integration it's the menu that keeps you out, because you can't afford it. African-Americans were never fighting for the right to sit next to a white person in a restaurant - they wanted to be able to afford the menu. It is economics.
Britain is a highly integrated country in all sorts of ways. But integration has to be for a purpose. Unless we're moving towards equality, then it's all really pretty meaningless. When we have equality, integration will take care of itself.
Socialists and anti-racists have always looked for guidance to the US experience - the civil rights movement, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers. But reading what you have to say about black struggle in the US, I wonder whether or not that is the right thing to do any more.
I don't believe it is. During the 1960s the needs of African-Americans chimed with black people in the rest of the world - the fight for the vote, for a level of autonomy, for basic civil rights. Muhammad Ali could go to the Congo, James Brown could tour Africa, Maya Angelou could live in Ghana. But then the interests diverged, and the issues have changed.
Martin Luther King's dream was rooted in the American dream. But after African-Americans got the vote, you have to talk about economics, and that's a different subject. During the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the most prominent African-American voice wasn't Jesse Jackson, it was rapper Kanye West, who said, "Bush doesn't care about black people. America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well off, as slow as possible."
The other thing is that being African-American is different to being black. African-Americans are people who come from particular experiences - slavery, segregation and integration. People from Africa or the Caribbean aren't necessarily part of that tradition. The racial landscape in Britain is far more ethnically mixed, and at certain moments it involves anyone who isn't white.
Regardless of whether that is actually a good or bad thing, I am grateful for it, because it means that our experience is not so ethnically particular. And, because we are attached to other people, it also means that our politics tend to be more internationalist.
For example, what happens at the World Trade Organisation affects my family, because it affects sugar and banana production in Barbados. Equally, what happens in south Asia affects young Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. But African-Americans have been in America longer than anyone, except the Native Americans and a few pilgrims, so the attachment to the US is real and shouldn't be dismissed.
Do you think we've missed out in mapping the history of our black struggle in Britain?
Absolutely. It always troubles me when Black History Month comes around. We talk about Martin Luther King, but we don't talk about CLR James or even Mary Seacole. There is a tradition of black British organising that we should not only take pride in, but which is particular about our situation. We never had codified segregation, and as a result we never had a civil rights movement.
Our experience is very different to those in the US in all sorts of ways. For example, one in three African-Caribbean men is in a relationship with a white partner. We don't have areas that are specifically black, like the Lower 9th ward in New Orleans, which is 98 percent African-American. That gives us opportunities in creating alliances, but it also gives us problems if we try to organise on the basis of race.
You wrote an article a few days after the 7/7 attacks on London called "Blair's Blowback", where you argued there was a link between British foreign policy and what those young men did in London. What do you think of Blair's refusal to admit the link and his focus on the Muslim population?
It's weird to think you can declare war on terror and that terror won't bite back. I was abroad when 7/7 happened, and I was reading writers in all of the papers saying that this was nothing to do with the war on terror, that 9/11 happened before the war in Iraq, and so on. I wondered how they could sustain that argument. The answer was that they could only sustain it if they kept on repeating it.
So I wrote "Blair's Blowback", and of course I attracted a lot of flak. But there was an opinion poll a few days later which showed that most British people believed there was a link between the two things - and later, investigations showed there actually was a link. I described how British people felt, and how Iraqi people must be feeling when their country is being attacked.
What was interesting about 7/7, looking at it from the US, was how different people's responses were to those following 9/11. There was no big display of Union Jacks, and it didn't provoke a wave of nationalism. It did provoke some increase in Islamophobia - but it could have been a lot worse. This is where the anti-war movement came in. It had helped to create a level of political maturity. We should always remember that although we didn't stop the war, the world would look very different if we weren't here.
After the police killed Jean Charles de Menenez, the Brazilian electrician, I wrote about people whose response was, "Better safe than sorry." I asked, "Who's safe and who's sorry?" Someone from the US wrote to me and said, "God, I thought our country was bad - but if that had happened in the US, first there'd be a riot, then some people would have been suspended, then there would have been a report, then there would have been a whitewash. You guys just went straight to the whitewash. What is wrong with you people?"
Some people in Britain have a problem with Muslims organising themselves by taking part in the anti-war movement and in political formations such as Respect. Can we learn anything from the US civil rights movements about the relationship between religion and the politics of change?
The civil rights movement is a very good example. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan all came out of religion. It was the only base that black people could organise from. In the US you can see that religion can be used in a reactionary way. But it can also be used in an incredibly progressive way. If people are attacked on the basis of their religion, then they will partly organise their response on a basis of that religion.
Religion doesn't scare me. I'm not going to change my views on lesbian and gay rights to satisfy an imam, and I wouldn't have changed them to satisfy Martin Luther King either. But you choose to make connections on the basis of where people are, otherwise you are choosing not to connect with them at all.
With Muslims in Britain we have a group of people being attacked on the basis of their religion, and I'm going to make connections with them. I don't remember people saying about the Republican struggle in the north of Ireland, "Ooh, Catholics!" The Republican struggle was broadly a progressive struggle for national autonomy and was rightly supported. Any movement worth its salt should be making alliances. We made alliances in Nicaragua - we didn't turn them down because of the position of the Catholic church on abortion.
It worries me that some people have been incapable of understanding the response of the Muslim community in Britain. They can only critique what Muslims are doing through religion - not through race, not through class, not through internationalism, only through religion. What they are really looking at is a reflection of their own prejudices, which is a terrible way to go.
Gary Younge's new book, Stranger in a Strange Land: Encounters In The Disunited States, is published by The New Press and is available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848.