Economic Dependence and Poverty Perhaps the most pervasive and long-lasting effect of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade is the economic dependence that has been forced upon Afrodescendants in its wake. This dependency has affected both Afrodescendants and those residing on the continent of Africa, though in very different ways.
In 1441, Portuguese traders returned to Portugal with the first shipment of captive Blacks, setting off a chain of destructive and exploitative events that scholar Robert July claims can never be undone.16 The trade of salt, spices, cloth, firearms, tobacco, spirits, gold and slaves set the stage for the first instance of African dependency on Europe and, later, on colonial nations. For the continent, this trade—which robbed Africa of many of its greatest artisans, architects and agricultural minds—has had a long-lasting effect on both economy and development, leaving her nations vulnerable to the processes and inequalities of both colonization and neo-colonization.
According to one estimate, 12 million Africans were taken to the Western world as slaves during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.17 Those enslaved found themselves completely dependent upon their captors for survival; meals, clothing and shelter were provided to the enslaved by the very ones who held them prisoner.
Institutionalized slavery meant that dependence on European powers became a total and complete reality, and it is one that has underscored the lives of Afrodescendants since slavery began in the Western Hemisphere. During the approximately 400-year duration of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, this sense of depending on white authorities for individual and collective needs became an ingrained, given part of life, erasing in the minds of most Afrodescendants the memory of a world where Africans once controlled their own destinies. Constant degradation and the need for bowing and scraping to one’s master to get material needs met became a regular way of life for Afrodescendants, who were forced to deny their own humanity in order to survive.
When U.S. and Latin American countries released their enslaved populations from slavery, little to no provisions were made for those newly freed. After centuries of demanding subservience and utter dependence, these nations released multitudes of uneducated, illiterate freed slaves into a reality rife with poverty, unemployment, homelessness and state-sponsored welfare.
Being spewed out of a position of dependence into one of abject poverty, these freed slaves struggled to find respite, to establish their own communities and a sense of political autonomy, and to create a way for themselves to survive despite the odds instituted against them. Churches and schools were hopefully raised by the same hands that had once established the infrastructures of various nations, this time for self-benefit. However, a lack of available resources—land, building materials and access to education among them—meant that the quality of such work was far less than what was necessary for true sustainability within Afrodescendant communities.
The City of New Orleans in Louisiana (U.S.) provides a perfect example of Afrodescendant reality in the U.S. Once the largest slave port in the nation and as of August 2005, 67% Afrodescendant, New Orleans is a historically Black and poor city, albeit one with a rich cultural heritage. During the final days of August, a levy break in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward followed closely behind Hurricane Katrina, leaving thousands of Afrodescendants trapped in rising waters, without transportation, food, water, electricity or help. Too poor to escape during a mandatory evacuation, Black New Orleanians found themselves suspended on rooftops, and piled on top of one another in the Superdome and Convention Center, calling out to U.S. National Guardsmen—or any passer-by—for help. In most cases, their pleas were ignored.
Through television, prior to Hurricane Katrina, the world had seen Black people in the U.S. as powerful and rich. That false image changed when the snapshot taken by Katrina on New Orleans, showed reality to the world; the majority of Blacks in the U.S. live in “3rd World” conditions, the same as all other Afrodescendants.
Invisibility is a factor of life for many Afrodescendants in the United States, especially when issues of poverty and wealth distribution arise. The Lower Ninth Ward, where the bulk of the damage to New Orleans occurred, is 98.3% Afrodescendant. Thirty-six percent of the Ninth Ward’s residents lived in poverty prior to the flooding, and 65% of the families there were headed by single women.18 This poverty has come to mean unspeakable suffering for its victims; after the flood, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received over 4,724 reports of missing or “found” children from New Orleans and surrounding areas.
According to the National Urban League, the overall economic status of Afrodescendants in the U.S. measures 57% of their White counterparts.19 Perhaps a more powerful statistic, though, is one offered up by the New York Times, which cites nearly half of all Black men between the ages of 16-64 as being unemployed.
In Canada, incidents of racism and discrimination against Afrodescendants are prevalent and well documented throughout the cities in which they reside, and the economic and social legacies of slavery are becoming increasingly apparent to scholars. Consider what Das Gupta has to say on the subject, in her paper entitled Racism and Paid Work: “Racism continues today as part of our everyday culture, and as a convenient ideology for maintaining cheap labour provided by people of colour and Black people. The ideology of racism has, in post-slavery and post-colonial days, still resulted in the over-representation of Black workers and workers of colour in the least desirable, least secure, poorest paid segments of the workforce. Simultaneously, they have been excluded from better paid, secure, more desirable jobs through systemic practices in the labour market . . .The labour of people of colour and of Black people is assumed to be “natural”, “unskilled”, and therefore inferior.20 Afrodescendants have a long history of residing in Canada, yet still their employment rates lag behind other races, even those who have newly immigrated to the nation. Black unemployment in Canada teeters near 40%, while among European groups the rates are lower than six percent. The 1991 Canadian Census estimates that 31.5% of African-Canadians live below the poverty line compared to 15.7% of the overall Canadian population. When child poverty statistics and the number of single-parent families living below the poverty level in Canada—40% and 23.8% respectively—are figured into the equation, the circumstances of Afro-Canadians become eerily similar to those of group members in the U.S. and abroad. Still another consideration in the poverty equation for Afrodescendants, in both Canada and the U.S., is the violence committed by and against young Black men, high numbers of whom end up dead, incapacitated or incarcerated, thus depriving Afrodescendant families of a primary income earner.
The poverty of Afrodescendants in Latin America is staggering, even in a region where being poor is a fact of everyday life for most. The Inter-American Development Bank, in a 1996 study of Afrodescendant quality of life in Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, found that Afrodescendant qualities of life in Latin America were much the same in all countries examined.
Presently there is little available data regarding the economic status of Afrodescendants in Mexico. Though this deficiency in the research is regrettable, it speaks clearly about the marginalization and near-invisibility of Mexico’s Afrodescendant population, and about the failure of the Mexican government to identify the needs and circumstances of its minority groups.
Studies show that over 90% of Afrodescendants in Central and South America live below the poverty line, while working poor paying jobs and receiving limited education. Blacks in Latin America often face race-based discrimination, and they remain the most excluded sector of the population, according to Quince Duncan of the International Scientific Committee of the Slave Route Project In Latin-America. Duncan adds that “the situation of blacks has received less attention than that of indigenous people,” and indeed several studies show that Afrodescendants have not been afforded the same protections and development assistance as have indigenous groups.
“Indians and blacks often compete for the same jobs,” says Oswaldo Bilbao, executive director of the Center for Ethnic Development in Peru. “Indians say, ‘We came first. We’re owners of the land.’ Blacks say ‘I didn’t want to come here. But I’m here, and I’m Peruvian.”
A brief glance at statistics from around the region serves as an eye-opener for those who might question whether Afrodescendants suffer from greater degrees of poverty than other minorities. In Ecuador, 81% of Afrodescendants live below the poverty line. Over fifty percent of Afrodescendants in Brazil live in houses without adequate sanitation, while only 28% of white Brazilians do. Similarly, ninety-eight percent of Black Colombian communities lack basic public utilities.21 El Choco, Colombia, the region on the Pacific Coast where many Afro-Colombians reside, is one of the poorest, most isolated regions in the country; civil warfare between government and guerilla forces has disproportionately affected Afro-Colombians, leaving hundreds of thousands displaced.
Over 80% of all Afrodescendant families in Colombia are poor, with an annual income of around $500US, as opposed to $1,700US for non-Black Colombians.22 Afro-Colombians, like many other groups of Afrodescendants, live in areas where poverty, violence and social unrest run rampant.
Most Afrodescendants in Latin America are relegated to stereotyped jobs, many of them having basis in slavery. Minority Rights Group notes that Black males are often shifted toward low-paying jobs that require strength and little intellect while women are hired mostly as maids or child care-providers. Many of these women are single mothers with no job security or health insurance provided to them by employers. Garifunas—or the descendants of escaped African slaves—in Guatemala and Honduras also lag behind in quality of life measurement, despite having received some attention from NGOs and aid programs, unlike most other group members. Overall, development programs across the board fail to address Afrodescendant issues. In many cases, major decisions are made regarding historically significant and impoverished communities without Afrodescendant input or involvement, in a continuation of the invisibility that has historically attempted to define their existence.
The World Bank estimates that only 38% of Haitians have access to safe drinking water. Facing wide-spread poverty, gut-wrenching desolation and deforestation and an unemployment rate of 60%, Haiti was virtually abandoned by the Western world after its revolution, perhaps because of its status as a free, Black, formerly enslaved republic with obvious military might in a world where white supremacy has systematically reigned dominant. Haiti remains isolated economically, aside from small amounts of international aid and loans from international banks, and must import 100% of its food from abroad. Haiti’s population growth has begun to spin out of control; its overall population is expected to double by 205023 despite its standing as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Jamaica’s yearly income averages $2,690US, and 45% of Jamaican families are headed by single mothers. Unemployment rates average 9.5% for males and 21.8% for females; among youth ages 15-29 unemployment in Jamaica ranged from 20% to 31% nationwide.24 In the city of Kingston, half of all households lack piped water and 60% their own sanitary facilities.
Reuters, in a 1991 study, notes that even though Bermuda has achieved one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, most Afrodescendants have not shared in the prosperity. The study found that black Bermudans with a university degree earned less than white Bermudans who had not even finished high school. In Cuba, where Afrodescendants comprise some 60% of the population, racism has worsened in the past ten years, according to a study conducted by the Cuban government. In Colombia, the National Planning Department acknowledges that 80% of Afro-Colombians live below the poverty line.