Colonial Art Thefts

Racism is not only a problem in the US, the restitution of art to former colonies in Africa reminds us it’s been widespread for centuries.  African art and treasures have ended up in European museums for many to visit and enjoy, but the problem is how they got there, through armed pillage, military expeditions, missionary collections or taken without sufficient compensation. Colonial powers had not much respect for the indigenous traditions and cultures they encountered, nevertheless they managed to realize the importance and unique beauty of the art, art which we now know inspired artists such as Picasso and Matissse.  Unlike Western art African art is part and parcel of the culture and of everyday life, masks were not ornamental, for example, but part of important ritual practices. In November 2018 France’s President asked for a report on the restitution of African Art, but since there has been no movement to follow through on the recommendations or to return the art. Both France and the UK, the two major colonial powers in the continent have done little to address the resistance returning these pieces has engendered. It’s a legal issue, a political and cultural one, but it’s also a moral and an ethical one. Part of the problem is that often museums themselves fear that restitution would deplete their collection, which considering they only exhibit a portion of it at a time may not be valid.  Another contributing factor is that African nations do not always have the necessary museums, which they are trying to remedy. Unchanged racist attitudes have made the debate contentious, nevertheless African Art pieces not properly acquired need to be returned.

Incarceration In The US

The US has the highest per capita prison rate and the highest prison population in the world. The US represents 5% of the world’s population but 25% of those incarcerated worldwide. Russia and Ukraine follow. These are meaningful figures in light of the protests asking for police reform. And what is even more meaningful are the facts of incarceration from the NAACP showing how incarceration disproportionately affects people of color. Here is a sample:

  • African Americans are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of whites.
  • African Americans and Hispanics which comprise 32% of the population comprise 56% of incarcerated people.
  • If they were incarcerated at the same rate as whites prison population would decline by almost 40%.
  • While African Americans and whites use drugs at about the same rates, imprisonment of African Americans for drug charges is about 6 times that of whites.

Those facts speak for systemic racism, they speak for an overhaul of not only our police but the entire criminal justice system.

Beyond Our Current Problems

I woke up one morning as many surely do with a heavy heart—the persistence of racial injustice, a mismanaged pandemic and an administration which systematically depreciates and debases democratic institutions. Then as I do every day, I looked at my email and the newsletters it contains. I learned that 81% of people in Malawi are more concerned about hunger than they are about getting the virus. In Venezuela, hearses with coffins had to stop in the middle of streets, having run out of gas which is now in very short supply. There too fear of being infected is second to hunger. In Yemen and Syria to name but two, the ruination of the countries economically and politically makes it near impossible to be able to have any kind of normalcy.  And then I realized that not since the civil rights movement has there been so much commitment and awareness to resolve racial injustice, that a vaccine, at least one, will be found and we shall be able to live more safely again, that we will eventually be rid of this administration and even if the country is in tatters by then (as it surely will) we shall still be standing. And I realized one more thing that the problems of the US will end up far more easily resolved than those of Malawi, Venezuela, Yemen or Syria.  That said, my heart is still heavy for those millions suffering unjustly.

Advocating for the WHO

Somewhere in my years of study and work experience I realized that there are today problems and tomorrow problems. At the outset let me say yes, the WHO can use reforms. For example, it is too much under the control of the donor countries, and big donor politics can sway it sometimes to suit their purposes. As a result it cannot always do what is best to fulfill its own agenda. But that is a tomorrow problem.

The WHO created in 1948 has 192 member countries and works to serve them all. Its agenda is global and it has been instrumental in eradicating smallpox and just about eradicating polio, which a century ago devastated many young lives and families when it was an epidemic.  Here’s the today problem. The idea proposed by the current administration to withdraw its funding will hurt the organization and its work. In an era where pandemics are likely that is far from wise, because germs and viruses don’t recognize borders, and in future we may need the organization and its resources more than we may presently anticipate. To be fair WHO warned the administration in January of the coming pandemic, and while some say it could have done it sooner, had it been tougher on the country of origin, China, fact is its warnings were ignored. Yes the US is the biggest donor, and China the second biggest. At the same time that the US has threatened to cut off all funds, China has pledged $2 billion. So if the US leaves, the organization will continue and will continue  with China having an even bigger voice. If the administration carries out its threat China will be better off, the US worse off, and a needed global organization weakened and made that much more in need of reform.