Early warning signals

05. December, 2005


Karlis Streips

Foto: R. Traidās

So I don’t think that Latvian people actually know what it means to be racist. The minorities have a different experience, and so that experience has given them what I call early warning signals. I had that before in the States, I had that before in Africa, and therefore they relate to their experiences by using these labels. These labels in many ways are alien to the indigenous population here.

Interview with Michael Frazier, Howard University in ASV

First of all, please tell us a little bit about yourself and why you’re here in Latvia.

I was invited by the American Embassy here in Rīga to come and share my views on the African American experience as one dimension of the American people. There are approximately 38 million African Americans or people of African descent who claim to be African Americans today, and they’re not embarrassed by that today. But getting to today from the past has been a bloody trail. I have studied at some of America’s major universities, having acquired five academic degrees. I’ve also had the good fortune to work for major American institutions like the Department of State, the Department of Defence, the Department of the Air Force, Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration, the US Agency for International Development. I’m a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where I have served for the past 18 years. I also have raised a family. I have personal experience with that which has happened in this segment of society.

So you’re either 117 years old, or you just can’t hold down a job.

A little bit of both. The last time I said that, they printed that in the Communist paper locally, as if it was the society that wouldn’t let me keep a job, they called me a grey-haired warrior. But it had less to do with that and more to do with me seeking part-time opportunities, because many of the jobs that I have had are jobs I have had while I was still a professor at Howard. I’ve taken leaves from time to time to explore various experiences. During the time that I was at the State Department, my university let me go on leave to be a part of that operation, which was the first time I came to Latvia.

In these times you’ve been to Latvia, do you have a sense of racism in this country? Can you have any sense of it?

Yes and no. The first time that I came to Latvia [in 2002], there was no discourse about racism, I did not hear the locals commenting about people being attacked, I did not hear about skinheads. Since that time I have heard and read through Amnesty International, some of their reports they’ve put out on the Web. So the press informs a person who lives on the other side of the world that there are some problems in Latvia.

People here in Latvia tend to think that there are no black people in Latvia, so we can’t possibly be a racist society.

Racism is a slippery topic, and people don’t always like to be considered racist, particularly if they don’t know how they could possibly be such, given the demographics. I would submit that racism, when it’s implemented, is based on biological differences, and one group feels that they are superior to another group, so a part of that idea of superiority is that if you’re an outsider, then you don’t belong here. But Latvia is trying to join the bigger world, a world that’s global in scope, you can’t keep parochial ideas, because then the “visible minorities”, because of their either skin pigmentation or physical features, they become pronounced – Oh, no, you’re not like us.

That’s true, but as the demographics change, as people come and go, as Latvians as a society try to grow, try to create jobs, there will be migration. I do believe the minister [Artis Pabriks] was correct in saying today [at a conference] that you can be proactive or you can be reactive. The reactive posture right now is that this has never happened here before, we’re a peaceful nation, we’re a new nation, we’re a new country trying to get started in a way which will benefit our people, so we can’t be racists, there’s not enough people for us to be racist, but we certainly can discriminate, which is what the society does. It’s harder to prove or to legitimise racism because the numbers are so small, but in terms of discriminatory practices, that expands the group.

Now, identifiable minorities who have had experience with racism, they can call it racism, because that’s what their experience has been. When George [Steele] says, Oh my God, these are racist people, people say, Well, we’re not racist. But they also may not admit that they’re biased or they’re prejudiced, or they discriminate. They don’t necessarily see their behaviour as being discriminatory – that’s how we always behave, they say. But the people who’ve been affected, they feel it.

If you come from an experience as an African or African American, racism has been a part of your life. The Europeans came and took Africa, took it, kept it over 500 years. They feel racism, and many of us feel angry. They accuse the Europeans of being responsible for their plight. Colonies, colonisation, that’s true, partially, but again, to me, when you point the finger, you have to remember that you have a thumb, so you’re pointing at others, you’re also pointing at yourself.

So I don’t think that Latvian people actually know what it means to be racist, because their experience has been marginal in that regard, it’s been a relatively homogeneous society. It’s the minorities who are coming who feel this, because they have a different experience, and so that experience has given them what I call early warning signals. I had that before in the States, I had that before in Africa, and therefore they relate to their experiences by using these labels. These labels in many ways are alien to the indigenous population here.

People would, however, probably admit that discrimination has been around for awhile in Latvia. I’m not talking about gender or sexual preference discrimination, I’m talking about discrimination in terms of the Soviets, the Nazis, and how they treated the people. That was ethnic discrimination, because they weren’t Germans, they weren’t Russians. So people in Latvia don’t see discrimination as based on race, but instead on ethnicity.

In America, the highest-ranking black official is the secretary of state, and the highest-ranking black officials have been, generally speaking, appointed officials. I believe in the last century there have been only three black members of the US Senate. Is there a ceiling to what black people can accomplish even in as open and democratic a society as the United States?

You know, we have a mythology in America, we tell our children in all schools that if you work hard, you can grow up to be president. That’s not true, it’s not true. The idea is true, but the idea is abstract, this is the reality. Now, Bill Clinton beat the odds, he beat the odds despite his class. He beat the odds, because he’s a smart guy. But an African American? It won’t happen in my lifetime.

You are talking to a person now who is of a generation, of the same age, as the last two presidents. We’re light years away in terms of opportunities and possibilities. That is not to say that I do not have a good life. I’m not unhappy, and I’m able to support my family, and I’m pretty well respected among the people that I care about. I get invited to go to places all around the world, but I would never, ever have had so many opportunities as either of the last two presidents would have had. And I don’t think that necessarily either one of them is any smarter, that’s irrelevant. They’re there, and I’m here as a person who was hired to perform a service. They thank you and put you on a plane and send you home.

Finally, you used to be a Black Panther. I would just bet that lots of people in Latvia don’t know what a Black Panther was.

Absolutely. The Black Panther movement – I was what you would call a foot soldier. Got out of the military, it was right at the tail end of the 1960s, and because I had been in the military, I really missed some of the social dynamics that had been taking place in America in terms of the movement from non-violence to confrontational politics, from passive, peaceful non-violence, which is what Martin Luther King and others espoused, to the National of Islam, the Black Panther party … and disciples of Malcolm X. I went to a few meetings to see what the discourse was about, because I wanted somehow to contribute to black people’s betterment. When black people in general learn about how bad our people have been treated, young people get real mad, they get very, very angry, and they want to strike out. Sometimes they do. But I was searching for my place, but then they were starting to talk about how to break weapons down blindfolded in case you were attacked by police or you were in a fire-fight, they would be able to handle their weapons.

My brother was a trainer, he was much more intimately involved with the organisation than I. He had spent two tours in Vietnam, and he, too, like others from my generation, was very disillusioned about the possibilities for the future, and we saw this as a potential avenue where the action was. It didn’t take long before people started getting killed. The FBI, we later learned that they had a secret programme to destroy the movement, and they were very successful. They locked people up, or they killed them.

As a young person, I thought, maybe I ought to go to college, maybe I might need to learn something else. And so I did, and it changed my life.

And ended up with five degrees.

With five degrees. I never thought that I would get even one, but I told myself – well, you owe it to yourself to try. I had dated college women when I was in the service. That opened my eyes to a bigger world than a small little enclave of all black people known as Gary, Indiana, where people grew up working in the steel mills, the biggest employer. People expected – that’s where they’re going to spend their life, working in the steel mills. I left in 1965, when I graduated. It’s been 40 years since I finished high school, and I never look back. I went back as long as my parents were living, but now I only go back to the class reunion every five years.

It’s a much bigger world, but with that bigger world you have to grow, too, and so I am not mad at anybody. I’ve also learned along my journey that a lot of whites helped me, and I wouldn’t have amounted to anything if others hadn’t helped me.

I still get mad from time to time when I hear about things in terms of atrocities which whites commit against blacks, for whatever reason, like the Rodney King situation – the police said, We didn’t do anything. Well, everybody’s looking at you, you were there! When those kinds of events happen, of course I’m disturbed, because I do believe that it’s racially motivated. But I can’t carry that weight, it’s unnecessary, plus it holds you back.

I’ve moved from being just a black person to, in my own judgment, my own definition, a citizen of the world. I have been willing to, and I will continue to go anywhere in the world where I don’t think I’ll be killed, if I think I can make a difference, if I can shed light in what I consider to be a dark place. raksts

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