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17 April 2023

Why wealth trumps whiteness

It’s high time the money question took centre stage in the debate about racial equality.

By Remi Adekoya

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour-line – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea,” WEB Du Bois declared in 1903. The colour-line Du Bois famously identified at the beginning of the last century has followed us into this one. The anger and frustration around race is driven by the idea that racial hierarchies still order our world.

As the son of a black (Nigerian) father and white (Polish) mother who grew up in Nigeria, lived for many years in Poland and now calls Britain home, I’ve long asked myself: why is it that we continue to live in a world that, by and large, positions whites at the top, blacks at the bottom and everyone else somewhere in between? What makes this possible? 

Yes, there was the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and the ideology of white supremacy. But even in combination, these at best explain how the order came about, not what continues to sustain it. Historic legacies do not explain why such an order persists despite a general consensus that racial hierarchies are morally unacceptable. If a human phenomenon most people say is wrong persists, it means there must be something very powerful keeping it going. Something capable of truncating all our best intentions.

[See also: America’s oldest shame is violence, not racism]

All hierarchies reflect differences in power and status, so I believe the relevant question is what gives some racial groups more power and status than others?

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Bluntly, money is the chief shaper of racial dynamics today. It is not the only thing that matters but it is what matters the most under the conditions of modern capitalism. I do not say this out of anti-capitalist feeling, merely as a statement of fact. In a system that runs on money, the distribution of wealth shapes the distribution of power. Where there is wealth, domination can occur without intention.

Such is the case in, for instance, academia. Irrespective of the intentions of those who run British, American and other Western universities, the financial resources at their disposal mean they dominate the sector globally, enjoying a credibility, prestige and pulling power that institutions elsewhere cannot compete with. There are British universities with larger annual budgets than all those in a Global South nation put together. Oxford University’s 2021-22 income of £2.8bn is higher than Nigeria’s education budget for the same period.

The racial order is an international order. The debates we have about race in the UK, particularly since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, ignore this. They bypass the global perspective of earlier thinkers like Du Bois in favour of a parochial Anglo-American lens, as if the race issue can be resolved in London or New York. It can’t because barely 4 per cent of the world’s black population live in the US and UK. This proportion will shrink; Africa’s population is projected to double to 2.5 billion by 2050. There are already five times more Nigerians than African Americans in the US, and according to some estimates Nigeria’s population will surpass America’s by the mid-century mark.

Likewise, only a small proportion of other non-white populations live in the West. Demographic realities mean it is global-scale dynamics that will shape the future of race relations, not their manifestations in particular Western societies, such as decolonising Western curriculums, obsessing over “whiteness”, and putting more black and brown faces in cultural spaces like television and publishing – however important those approaches are.

Those dynamics will in turn be shaped by socio-economic realities that drive everything from migration patterns, knowledge production, technological advantage and media influence. They will also be apparent in perceptions of group competence, status and diplomatic power.

[See also: Gary Younge: how racism shaped my critical eye]

Consider that European states like Britain and Germany have larger economies than the whole of Africa, a continent of 1.4 billion people and home to roughly 90 per cent of the world’s black population. If you created a single economy comprising all the 60-plus black-majority countries in the world, including the Caribbean nations, their combined GDP still wouldn’t amount to Germany’s $4trn figure.

The economic gap is not just between black and white. The GDP of Norway’s five-million-strong economy is larger than that of Bangladesh, populated by 170 million people. Nine million Swiss citizens live in an economy twice the size of Pakistan’s, despite the latter having a population of 231 million. The differences are starkest in GDP per capita figures, which are crucial to gauging the average buying power of individual citizens: 16 of the 20 nations with the highest GDP per capita in the world are white-majority countries. At the other end, 17 of the 20 countries with the lowest GDP per capita are black-majority nations. Luxembourg has a GDP per capita 600 times that of Burundi – $133,590 compared with $221.

The wealth divide is even wider at the level of individuals. According to Credit Suisse’s 2022 global wealth report, median wealth per adult in the UK was estimated at more than $141,000, 83 times the figure in Nigeria, 41 times what it was in India, 38 times what it was in Brazil, 27 times what it was in South Africa and five times what it was in China. While countries are made up of diverse groups, virtually all nations in the world contain a clear racial majority. England and Wales are 82 per cent white – and the UK is probably the most diverse country in Europe. A strong correlation thus exists between national and racial wealth.

This correlation helps explain why it is mostly white people who can move around the world freely (travel is made easy for those with rich-nation passports) while black and brown people with poor-nation passports have to line up in long queues for difficult-to-get visas. It is why Western universities dominate knowledge production. It is why competence, the key criteria for the ordering of a meritocracy, is associated more with whites and successful East Asians (like the Japanese and South Koreans) than with black and brown folk hailing from unsuccessful nations. It is why Western societies – again, with a few wealthy East Asian nations – lead the way in technology production. It is why even mid-sized European nations often wield more influence in the corridors of international institutions like the UN than black or brown nations with several times their population. It is why Western media is the only media with a truly global sphere of influence. It is why the powers that confer true prestige still reside mostly in the West.

We can debate the details of colonialism, slavery and Western imperialism all we want, but such debates will not change the world’s economic realities, nor change their practical consequences for the everyday lives of most people of colour. It is high time there was a relentless focus on the material pillars of today’s global hierarchies. It is time we put money at the centre of the race debate.

Remi Adekoya’s latest book, “It’s Not About Whiteness, It’s About Wealth” will be released on Thursday, 20 April.

[See also: The narcissism of anti-racist therapy]

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