An Analysis Brief on Sections of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa The Importance of Questions: A Revolutionary Pedagogy and Praxis for 2022 Detroit

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It is important to remember that in the preface to How Europe Undeveloped Africa (HEUA), Dr. Walter Rodney, at age 30, begins by focusing the reader’s attention to the fact that the purpose of studying history – the past – is to critically assess our present condition and to identify determinants for corrective change. We learn first and foremost, that the study of history is not a mere abstract sterile exercise relegated to the ivory tower or conducted in academic isolation, but it is a collective tool. History is a liberating weapon for analyzing our present condition and strategically improving it. 

Rodney announces that “neocolonialism cries out for extensive investigation to formulate the strategy and tactics of African emancipation and development.” So, herein lies our challenge: to answer this harrowing global cry in Detroit and respective communities ravaged by “underdevelopment,” a term Rodney places in quotes. Exploitation is the root cause of underdevelopment and the heartbeat of capitalism and imperialism whose roots are soaked in the blood of the European enslavement trade. “It must be clearly understood that the only way to solve the questions now besetting mankind is to eliminate the exploitation of dependent countries by developed capitalist countries, with all the consequences that imply.”  

We see clearly that predominantly black and brown working-class communities inside our cities suffer from exploitation caused by an inherently racist capitalist system.  This is the root cause of their underdevelopment. The uneven development between black and brown cities or sections of the cities and suburbia and developed and underdeveloped countries are apparent. What remains constant in both scenarios is that the root cause of this underdevelopment is exploitation by oppressing forces and oppressive people. This exploitation is due, in part, to the extraction of wealth and exploitation of the worker; a disproportionate accumulation of the wealth by a few from the many; and the imposition of a violent military apparatus into black/brown communities to terrorize and attempt to control these working-class populations and take their land and resources while denying them vital life-sustaining environments and resources. This same scenario plays out again and again throughout the world in such places like the lower east side of Detroit, the south side of Chicago, Lagos (Nigeria), Kibera (Nairobi, Kenya), Cité Soleil (Haiti), Rocinha (Brazil), Khayelitsha in Cape Town (South Africa), and many others.

We all understand that development is growth, it’s the positive direction of life; flourishing. Conversely, we understand that underdevelopment is decline, dying, and suffocating the breath out of hope and aspirations. Development is majority white and underdevelopment is black and brown under this system of racialized capitalism augmented by the hegemony of global white supremacy. Rodney teaches us that the qualitative and quantitative nature of a society is determined by the relationships between the members of society derived from the mode of production, that is, the methods by which people produce goods and services to sustain themselves. Demonstrating his mastery of the breadth and depth of history and his clear communication style, Rodney provides the reader an aerial perspective of societal development based on man’s ability to understand, engage and extract from nature the means of his sustenance by harnessing the knowledge of science and technology. 

What Rodney teaches us is that throughout the evolution of historical epochs, the various modes of production and their respective qualitative and quantitative conditions do not equate to an increase in moral advancement. Rodney argues that development is often restrictively viewed in only economic terms and there is zero correlation between advancement in the mode of production and the moral values for those societies. The continual concern for profits for the few over human life and the health and well-being of the majority of the world’s population speaks volumes about the moral degradation of capitalist imperialism and why it has played a seminal role against the advancement of social relations and humanity.  The United States has been the greatest purveyor of violence against man and Nature in the history of the world. It may have the ability to print zillions of dollars to raise its debt ceiling, but it has always been morally bankrupt.

We can see this degeneration of culture and social relations clearly by examining the realities of black and brown communities in Detroit, across the state of Michigan, this nation, and the world. Rodney clearly states: “Capitalism has proved incapable of transcending fundamental weaknesses such as underutilization of productive capacities, the persistence of a permanent sector of unemployed, and periodic economic crises related to the concept of ‘market’ – which is concerned with people’s ability to pay rather than their need for commodities.” This inherent positioning of money over people is quite evident by the intentional genocidal water shut-offs in Detroit under the Duggan administration and the intentional genocidal poisoning of drinking water in Flint and Detroit by the Snyder administration and the long-standing showering of toxins over largely Hispanic neighborhoods in Southwest Detroit. 

Rodney, a progenitor of the modern Black Power Movement, sharpens the focus of our lens, “Capitalism has created its irrationalities such as a vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty amid wealth and wastage even inside the biggest capitalist economies, such as that of the United States of America.” It is symptomatic of irrationality to create lies and myths to mask its true nature. So, development is couched only in economic terms, and zero references are made to the reality of exploitation, genocide, and annihilation. From the  superstructure of capitalism emerge fettered ed educational systems and media houses, and talking heads who  spout lies and myths about Tarzan, Columbus, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, docile enslaved Africans, the inferiority of women, and the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Like a deadly virus that seeks to mutate and expand globally and exponentially, capitalism has reached an advanced imperialist stage. This virus must be eliminated.   

This original and profound work is still reverberating as a weapon. HEUA is the first book that lays bare the evolutionary nature of the transition of historical epochs and centers the exploitation of Africa and  African people as the root, the active cause, for the development of Europe and the United States of America.

Rodney states, “All of the countries named as ’underdeveloped’ in the world are exploited by others, and the underdevelopment with which the world is now preoccupied is a product of capitalist, imperialist, and colonialist exploitation.” He further explains, “African and Asian societies were developing independently until they were taken over directly or indirectly by capitalist powers. When that happened exploitation increased and the export of surplus ensued, depriving the societies of the benefit of their natural resources and labor. That is the integral part of underdevelopment in the contemporary sense.” Here, we must also include the indigenous peoples of North America, the Caribbean, South America, Australia, and the islands scattered throughout this planet who have succumbed to the violence and military dominance of European invaders. This is why Rodney underscores, with emphasis, the fact that capitalists insist, myopically, on narrowing concepts of development only to economic variables. He states emphatically that “if ‘underdevelopment’ were related to anything other than comparing economies, then the most underdeveloped country in the world would be the U.S.A., which practices external oppression on a massive scale, while internally there is a blend of exploitation, brutality, and psychiatric disorder.” Violence, racism, and white supremacy all spring from deep-seated self-hate and a fundamental disregard for human beings. These are the essential elements that undergird the capitalist, imperialist, fascist impulse as it manifests in our communities throughout the world.

This skewed view of reality denies the pain, suffering, exploitation, and oppression experienced daily by the vast majority of humanity; and it denies the violence that fractures this planet at its core and bleeds into its outer atmospheres causing irreparable damage to the possibility of sustainable humanity.  As the wealth of capitalist, imperial countries accelerates, the devastation of the so-called “underdeveloped countries” accelerates downward, at an ever faster pace. Rodney illuminates the pitfalls of the western bourgeois scholarly approach and interpretation of development. He removes the veil regarding their characterization of comparative development based on the national average without giving equal reference to “the removal of the gross inequalities of land distribution, property holding, and income. Industrialization is the hallmark of developed countries where factories, mines, and other workers’ labor is exploited to drive record profits into the hands of private business owners and stakeholders. While underdeveloped countries are locked into agrarian-based subsistence. “

This difference in the mode of production creates staggering inequities, not only relative to income per capita but also in the amount and quality of the necessary and luxury goods available per capita as well.  Rodney identifies the production of steel per country and, per capita consumption of sugar, calories per day, protein content as key performance indicators of development. Rodney goes further in his analysis by highlighting the equal importance of the delivery of social services for the well-being and happiness of the population in the assessment of the development of a country. He clarifies, “The extent to which basic goods and social services are available in a country can be measured indirectly by looking at the life expectancy, the frequency of deaths among children, the amount of malnutrition, the occurrence of diseases which could be prevented by inoculation and public health services, and the proportion of illiteracy.”

The Michigan Department of Human Services reported in its January 2020 summary of infant deaths statistics the following: “In 2005, the white infant death rate was 5.5, and was comparable to the previous ten-year 1996-2005 average of 6.0 deaths per 1,000 white births. The black infant death rate was 17.9 in 2005 and was also comparable to the previous decade’s average of 17.6 deaths per 1,000 black births.

In 2020 the white infant mortality rate was 5.0 per 1,000 live births while the black rate was 14.0 per 1,000 live births. Over the last ten years, there was only a modest decline in the white death rate, and the black rate has not significantly changed at all.

Again, Rodney’s HEUA is germane not only to Africa but also to Detroit, a predominantly US African city. As a seat of capitalist neo-colonialism, it is battling against an “imperialist monster,” the harbinger of colonialism and multi-colored neo-colonial puppets, controlled by arch-capitalists like Dan Gilbert who owns 75 buildings in Downtown Detroit and carries Detroit’s mayor and Michigan’s governor and other politicians in his front and back pockets.

A Bedrock Detroit map shows properties owned by Dan Gilbert in orange, part of an estimated $3 billion in real estate investments he’s made in the city. The lower left census tract was named an opportunity zone despite being too wealthy to qualify for the program. (Black lines added by ProPublica to roughly show tract boundaries.)

The National Center for Health Statistics published data in July 2021 showing a 1.5-year decline in national life expectancy in 2020, principally as a result of  COVID-19, where white Americans’ life expectancy declined by 1.2 years and Black Americans’ life expectancy declined 2.9 years, more than double that of whites.  These race/class disparities have always existed, COVID has simply exacerbated and illuminated these stark differences for all to see. According to recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Blacks are 1.1 times more likely than whites to contract COVID-19; 2.8 times more likely to be hospitalized with the virus; and 2 times more likely to die from it. These disparities help to explain why, when adjusting for age, Black people account for 22.1% of the nation’s COVID-19 deaths despite only comprising 12.8% of the population. 

Rather than accurately determining the root cause of racism, the Brookings institute declares racism as a “public health issue in cities and states such as Michigan. While acknowledging that the state of Michigan has the fourth-highest COVID-19 mortality rate for Blacks; approximately 30 out of every 1,000 Black people living in Michigan will die from COVID-19; that Blacks represent over 75 percent of known COVID-19 diagnoses by race and nearly 90 percent of deaths; and data is “missing” so Black deaths are likely much higher than these projections.”  Who and what is the root cause of these disparities? That is the question. Are these disproportionate Black deaths the culmination of the long historical arc of criminal exploitation whose bloody roots are found in centuries of social violence, captivity, enslavement, living in systems of apartheid, and sequential progressions of structural discriminatory practices – all evolutionary faces of racialized capitalism? 

Today, we witness apologists of the ruling class like the Brooking Institute cite the myth that vaccine hesitancy and personal behavioral patterns are key determinants of disparate death rates. We know, particularly in Detroit, Blacks suffer from disproportionate exposure to pollution and hazardous waste, harmful zoning practices, and post-disaster displacement, to name a few. Rather than blaming Black people for their suffering, the conditions of place must be examined to understand the mechanics of racial discrimination that contribute to that suffering./ The brilliant writer and bioethicist, Harriet A. Washington, in her acclaimed works, Medical ApartheidA Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and the Assault on the American Mind and Carpe Blanche, The Erosion of Medical Consent, provided well-documented and searing evidence that soundly refute such apologists regarding the maltreatment, environmental challenges, and violations blacks have had to endure in this racist world where the dollar trumps human compassion and the sanctity life.  

Another key element that characterizes underdevelopment is the lack of adequate nutrition which negatively impacts health and well-being. In Africa, on the whole, there is insufficient calorie and protein intake per capita as compared with the so-called developed countries. We see the same disregard for providing sustainable food sources in Detroit, where fresh produce, healthy foods, and grocery stores are largely absent in the inner-city neighborhoods. So, salt, sugar, and liquor become the staple at gas station food marts and small markets donned with flickering green light surveillance cameras linked to police stations. Just as wealth and natural resources are drained out of Africa in the capital metropoles, the money of Detroit’s working-class and under-class is quickly depleted out of their community and transferred into wealthier communities. And the taxes generated from these exploited workers do not filter back to develop their communities but are squandered to pay top-heavy salaries of bureaucrats and the disproportionate few. Rodney reminds us, paradoxically, that it is the underdeveloped countries and communities that have the greatest wealth of natural resources and talents, and yet these are the places that suffer, bleed, and die from the lack of life-generating and sustaining goods and services.

A new report reveals 30,000 Detroiters do not have access to healthy food. Source: MetroTimes.

Now, Rodney’s in-depth historical and critical analysis brings us to a point of crystallization. The root cause of underdevelopment is the result of a relationship of racist class exploitation. This is what has been taking place in Africa for over five hundred years and this is what is taking place in Detroit, Haiti, Jamaica, Guyana, South Africa, Palestine, Vietnam, Grenada, Venezuela – all over the world touched by capitalist greed and its tentacles of white supremacist cultural, economic and political hegemony. Rodney makes it plain the old racist line advanced to explain the geopolitical and economic development- underdevelopment quandary: “It is in line with racist prejudice to say openly or to imply that their countries are more developed because their people are innately superior and that the responsibility for the economic backwardness of Africa lies in the generic backwardness of the race of black Africans.” 

But quickly Rodney raises, in many ways, a more sinister proclivity. He continues, “ An even bigger problem is that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonized world have gone through a cultural and psychological crisis and have accepted, at least partially, the European version of things. That means that the African himself has doubts about his capacity to transform and develop his natural environment.” The violent dehumanizing nature of this exploitation colors every facet of relations between the capitalist class and those subjugated by colonial and neo-colonial constructs, including, but not limited to, import-export, trade, foreign investments, predatory loans, unfair repayment terms, aid, mandated managerial intrusion and oversight, miseducation, and cultural piracy. 

The role of education is critical. This is why Detroit’s black-led African-centered school system was sabotaged. This is why Critical Race Theory (CRT), the new buzzword, which is, by the way, not taught in K-12 schools, is the subject of a barrage of misguided national attacks. In the face of it, its three words: critical, race, and theory singularly and collectively strike an uneasy chord in the mind of oppressors. Any content that provides a critical analysis of the existing status quo with its white-supremacist currents is feared and vehemently attacked from all sides. This is why the Independent Freedom School Movement, historically founded in Lowndes County with SNCC, the Detroit Northern High School Freedom School, and the Detroit Independent Freedom School Movement which is still evolving today are so vitally important. This is why independent media like Riverwise Magazine in Detroit and various grassroots podcasts and  social media channels must be marshaled to provide a  space for the voices which have been shut out  by a one-sided mass media that  serves racist and corporate class interests. 

In Africa, during African enslavement by Europeans in the Diaspora, in the US Apartheid states, and predominantly African cities globally, like Detroit, those who control have always had their black co-conspirators , to assist them in carrying out their nefarious deeds. The uninformed masses are bamboozled  by Detroit’s neocolonial mayors like Dennis Archer, Dave Bing, and Kwame Kilpatrick; oppressed by draconian Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr who championed the disenfranchisement of black Detroiters for his white masters in the wake of a state government manufactured bankruptcy; manipulated by Trump supported Detroit Police Chief Craig  who attempted to campaign  for  governor of the state of Michigan under the conservative ticket; confused by Wendell Anthony who gave confederate flag donning Kid Rock an NAACP Freedom Award, and lulled by US President Barack Obama who assassinated Libya’s Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi and intensified US bombs with drones well beyond his predecessor, George W. Bush. These men, by US standards, all don black skin. Skin color still fools many of us. After referencing how the great revolutionary Frantz Fanon “dealt scorchingly” with such turncoats, Rodney exacts his thrashing critique, “The presence of this group of African sell-outs is part of the definition of underdevelopment.”  They dance to the master’s music. They are full of self-hate and will run a caravan of limousine buses over human beings without hesitation for personal gain or simply to sit at the table with their masters. 

Now we come back again to ponder essential questions: who and what is responsible for African underdevelopment? Western capitalist imperialism that embodies the CIA, IMF, World Bank, US politicians, and leaders of corporate interests are the main bloody culprits. Secondly,  are those who as described above are in cahoots with its agents: conscious and unwitting neo-colonial accomplices with white, black, brown, or murky skin and cold hearts; the benefiting workers in the metropoles; and continental Africans who do their bidding, replacing their previous colonial masters. Having exposed all this, Rodney returns the focus and responsibility squarely to us. We are ultimately responsible, every African and progressive across the globe of this planet Earth. Not one of us can relinquish the role of slaying this vicious monster that: kills our children with undernourishment and starvation; shoots our youth openly with impunity; unleashes viruses to control populations; drops bombs on people; signals drones to cell phones; poisons our ecosystems; denies access to clean life-sustaining water; creates robots to eliminate workers and livelihoods, stamps out jobs and hope. 

It is true that How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is one of the greatest history books of the 20th century and remains relevant because the heart of capitalist imperialism is still beating. Rodney has encoded in this amazing work a pedagogical approach, a method of teaching, a strategic weapon for understanding, that allows us to understand the past, the present, and the future.  We study the past to understand the present. Mindful of dialectics, contradictions, and the relationships of opposing forces, we study the past and the present to gain insight into the future. This is the essence of historical materialism. Rodney teaches us that the onus is on us. The responsibility for making this world a better place is ours. He did not run away from his mission. Like Rodney, we must continue to fight, for fighting is winning.