If anyone thought for a moment that the USA was free from racism or that it was not a major problem, then presumably they will now think again. That country has not experienced anything like what we have witnessed over the last week for some 50 years. For a great majority of people there (and here in the UK, for that matter) the assassination in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th 1968 of Martin Luther King is matter of history. But for others, and black people worldwide in particular, it was a moment in history.
The riots that followed King’s death, the ‘Holy Week Uprising’, was the greatest sweeping wave of social unrest that the US had witnessed since the Civil War just over a century earlier. The rioters were demonstrating against systemic inequality and, simply, racial inequality. This dreadful systematised form of oppression has existed in the United States since the colonial era when ‘white’ Americans were given a combination of legal and social privileges whilst the very same rights were denied to others and, in particular, certain races and minorities. The so called ‘European Americans’ ( those with European ancestry) enjoyed exceptional privileges over matters such as education, immigration, the right to vote, the acquisition of land and rights regarding criminal justice and procedure. These rights were afforded in particular to those regarded as being of ‘WASP’ ancestry (‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestants’).
Non-protestant immigrants (and in particular the Irish and the Italians) often suffered the most appalling xenophobic exclusion. A salutary glance at films (fact-based) and early documentaries have clearly shown not only the abject poverty in which these immigrants were forced to live but a country that has been driven by racial division for centuries. In fact some believe that discrimination of varying levels (none of which are acceptable) permeates through virtually every aspect of life in America in the present day. Always has, always will, if you like.
Whilst we evolve as a planet and one would like to think that views change over time, a startling article by leading US news channel ABC as recently as 2007 indicated that 1 in 10 Americans were prejudiced against those with Hispanic or Latino heritage and a gobsmacking 1 in 4 over ‘Arab-Americans’. The latter is doubtless a relic of ‘9/11’ but even so. Many had hoped that with the advent of the first ever black President in 2009 that this would see that country enter a new ‘post-racial era’ but the President that followed Obama seems to have put pay to that. Many consider his election to be a racist backlash against the election of Obama himself. Discrimination, of all sorts, is almost a way of life in America. Overwhelmingly, if not exclusively demonstrated by whites whose treatment of blacks is mind-bogglingly appalling.
But then America was founded on white supremacy. The nation’s founders were not ashamed to say so. The first slaves arrived in the early 1600s and in the next 250 or so years Virginia passed well in excess of 100 ‘slave statutes’ to ‘regulate’ the ‘ownership’ of black people. Virginia didn’t have a monopoly over this – South Carolina passed a comprehensive slave code and Georgia was not far behind. 10 of the first 12 US Presidents had slaves. Have a look at the ‘Tulsa Massacre’ of the early 1920s. Very few of these facts are publicised, for understandable reasons. But they are facts.
What seems apparent over the last week are at least two issues – firstly, of course, a man lost his life and under the most appalling of circumstances. His race and colour are of enormous significance. Would a similar fate have become if Mr Floyd was white? Secondly, this has, again, brought America’s racial fault lines to the fore. This grotesque sense that white supremacy appears alive and well. In 2020. Certainly the four officers in Minneapolis were exhibiting behaviour that even the most violent within the animal kingdom would have been ashamed and horrified.
The disparities are there for all to see: the poverty rate among African Americans is 21.8% but among whites it’s 8.8%. The home ownership rate for blacks is 41.2% but 71.1% for whites. The statistics regarding BAME Covid-19 relating deaths are unspeakably shameful. Whilst some have a medical propensity to certain conditions that increase their vulnerability, there are, of course, a morass of other more sinister factors.
But, while this problem has been around for hundreds of years, is it perhaps the current administration and incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that is at the core of this current wave? He uses dehumanising and inflammatory language to females of colour to ‘go back’ to where they came from , despite being born in the US. He has used utterly disgraceful language with words such as ‘breeding’ and ‘infested’ before summing everything up, preposterously, by saying ‘ I am the least racist person anywhere in the world’.
When you have a leader espousing such abhorrent views by use of such provocative language isn’t that likely to filter down through the masses? His comments that he will instruct the military to intervene in the protests is, literally, a world leader turning his country on its own citizens.
In life, we need someone, something, to ‘blame’. For everything. For unemployment, for our health, our finances, the weather……..America went through a phase ( a kind of ‘Obama-niceness’) when they believed that the problems and issues (that deep down they ‘knew’ they had) had all but gone. Trump shattered that. He challenged everything about Obama, took on that wily old warhorse Hilary….and won. He referred to Mexicans as ‘rapists’, proposed banning ‘all Muslims’ from entering the country and proposed buiding that ‘wall’. He has openly picked fights with North Korea (referring to their leader as ‘the rocketman’) and the Chinese, soon to be the world’s greatest superpower. He embodied the very essence of being ‘white’, in the eyes of many an American. In fact the degree to which many Americans identified as being white was directly attributable for his victory. Many a milennial had a sense of vulnerability which bred insecurity and further resentment – but here was a President who was speaking for them. ‘Vote for me and I’ll have your back’ appeared to be the cry. And it worked.
Whilst the events since last week leave us feeling extraordinarily uncomfortable and nauseated to the pit of our stomach, this is not just about Mr Floyd. That is not, of course to in any way belittle or trivialise what happened to him. Of course not. This is about an issue some 400 years plus in the making. Entrenched like a constitutional amendment into mindsets that , for many, are not for changing – for change is something they are simply not capable of achieving.
I hope I am wrong and that it may indeed prove to be a watershed but the ‘race issue’ is, I fear, going nowhere soon across the pond.
Stay safe everyone.