Thursday, February 14, 2008

Nationality "Wog"-- Institutional Racism and David Oluwale.


Kester Aspden’s book is a criminologist’s eye view of the 1969 David Oluwale case in Leeds, West Yorkshire. The title is intended to be eye-catching, using the term—Wog—that the local police entered as Oluwale’s “nationality”. The title has upset some, who see it as offensive as “nigger”, and a deliberate attempt to court publicity. Personally, this does not seem to be the case: “wog”, though undoubtedly offensive, does not share the historical depth and scarring of the term “nigger”; and Aspden’s book is anything but a popular real crime thriller. The book is a thoroughly researched account of how Oluwale left his homeland in Nigeria, claimed his British nationality according to the phrase civis Brittanicus sum, then slipped slowly from citizen, to mental patient, to vagrant, to a corpse in the River Aire as a result of police brutality. The sub-title of the book, “The Hounding” implies what really happened to Oluwale: he experienced the slave-minded attitude of institutions who hunted him down as surely as slave owners pursued uncompromising slaves.

The historical facts are well recounted by Aspden. Oluwale entered the United kingdom as a stowaway. After a fight in the centre of Leeds, he was arrested and subsequently deemed to be mentally unstable: a schizophrenic (a rather easy and popular diagnosis of black males). Eight years of treatment left him a changed man. On his release, Oluwale became a being of no-fixed abode (mentally and physically) who slept rough in Leeds. Eventually, after numerous kickings by local police, jokes and insults over a long period of time, he was chased towards the river where he drowned.

Many modern issues connect to the death of Oluwale. Racism. Institutionalised racism (though no such legal notion existed in 1969). The belief (originating in slavery) that black males are children (wogs, pollywogs, tadpoles, babies rather than adults). The assumption that African males are violent. And the presumption that black men carry mental illness within them, rather than see that the disturbance is caused by an individual’s isolation from a white orientated system. In many ways, Nationality: Wog. The Hounding of David Oluwale is a timely book. As Aspden notes, the mental system in the UK has not had its “Stephen Lawrence moment”. Official figures show that the police are twice as likely to refer a black male as a white male to as psychiatric unit following social disturbances. The mental system has not woken up to the prejudice within the penal system. Aspden might also have added that the police system still hasn’t had its “Stephen Lawrence moment” either. It hasn’t really woken up to the institutional racism that directed the Stephen Lawrence murder…it still does not want to accept what it was told: the death of Stephen Lawrence was not about a number of bad apples in the police force. It was about a system of policing that was rotten to the core because of racial prejudices.

Aspden’s book is an important and interesting book. If it has a weakness, however, it is in its structure. Some of its comparisons are forced, such as that between Oluwale and Albert Johanneson, Leeds United’s South African signing. Aspden tries to widen the reader’s understanding of Oluwale by showing the racism that Johanneson endured. But the two personal histories are really very different. Johanneson, who had endured apartheid, found communal bathing with white footballers a traumatic event. But Oluwale’s trauma was not born from apartheid, rather from colonial rule and (seemingly) a Yoruba identity allied to an American jazz image that did not suit subservience. This lumping of the black identity is something of a weakness within the book. Also, for a book written by an academic, Aspden was a lecturer in history at Leeds University, the book has an amazing lack of references. Quotations are never referenced, and though the book has a list of sources, it has no index, something which makes the location of information a laborious task. A little more thoroughness and less generalising would have improved the book further.

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