Racism in America – Conflict or Consensus?
When I was a lad at school in the UK, there was a book on the reading list for my GCSE exam called Animal Farm. For those of you unfamiliar with the work, it is a fictional story about animals on a farm and their social hierarchy, written by the famous English author, George Orwell.
It probably wasn’t the best book available, the most entertaining or – even by some people’s standards – the best written of novels, but there it was on the curriculum. And as seventeen-year-old school students, we read it.
Now my question is this … What has an author writing in England in 1945 got to do with today? And especially, present day American society? Well there are a few parallels. The first one being the fact that in any society, there are the people at the bottom, people in the middle and people at the top. What is also interesting is that even in more ‘egalitarian’ societies, such as in the former Soviet Union, the disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ can be just as wide as that seen in purely capitalist societies such as the United States.
Recently the world has been transfixed with the achievements of the dedicated athletes at the Rio Olympics and it is small wonder that millions of young sportsmen and women are inspired to get involved and aim higher. What is truly amazing is the inclusion of all. To focus on one group, it is refreshing to see that black Americans – despite a racial legacy – have successfully excelled at their chosen sport and are out in front. What will be interesting is the reception these athletes receive when they get back home. Personally, I am sure they will be celebrated and serenaded. However, let’s turn the clock back to 1936, which in historical terms is not that long ago. Jesse Owens, the four-time Olympic gold medal winner, was living in another time. A time when the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York asked him to enter via the tradesman entrance rather than the front door. A time when President Franklin Roosevelt was unable to invite Owens to the White House to mark his achievement.
So maybe there are not so many differences between modern day society and that which is depicted in the Animal Farm novel. There has obviously been a shift in attitudes in America, but the fact that many fundamental inequalities remain shows that there is still some way to go.
If we look at early American history, we see it was the colonialists – namely the British – that brought slaves from Africa and introduced a country of settlers. It was the pool of cheap labour built up from these slaves that in part brought prosperity to the Europeans over generations and subsequently brought wealth and success to the new American nation. The majority of slaves worked in the South, predominantly on the vast cotton plantations. It was slavery on an industrial scale in the colonies that finally reached America and served the needs commercially, domestically and to a degree sexually for many generations.
America has had to grapple with its history for a very long time and it is not alone. Some people may like to single out the plight of Afro- Americans as the group that has had the most difficult of histories, but this would clearly be far from the truth. It was not only the black population that suffered at the hands of racism.
One only has to look at the atrocities carried out in the name of Christianity by mostly white Europeans as they carved up Africa many centuries ago. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which was the legalized transfer of all Native American Indians east of Mississippi to lands west of the river. Less than twenty years later, in 1848, the U.S. defeated Mexico and ‘purchased’ over one-third of Mexico’s land. The area included the states we now know as California, Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, as well as parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Only a year later, in 1849, a Chilean mining community was attacked by the Hounds, a white vigilante group in San Francisco. Following on from this, in 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Chinese individuals were ineligible for naturalized citizenship.
Turning our attention again to the history of Afro-Americans, it took almost 150 years after slavery was introduced into America for many politicians – and ordinary citizens for that matter – to reject the idea of slavery. In 1861, the American War of independence caused mayhem and destruction across America. The war was essentially about the ending of slavery and all the injustice it entailed. The process had started, and in 1864, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, slavery was abolished.
The Gettysburg Address drew the nation together by outlining a vision: a commitment and a notion that could be shared by both sides irrespective of loyalty; historic tradition; or background, race and creed. The address, which heralded the peace settlement, was not only a brilliant testament to highly skilled word craft – it also set out the principles and ideas which the nation as a whole could aspire to. That of freedom and equality: “The land of the free”. To this day, these principles are embodied in the constitution and are enshrined in the national anthem. They are part and parcel of the fabric of American society’s values and celebrated in the song by Woodie Guthrie, ‘My Land is Your Land’, sung at the inauguration of America’s first black President on the steps of the White House. However, despite these brave moves, it would be a long road that would follow before America could proudly hold its head up high. Some would argue that it has not reached this point yet.
Although the 1800s had its successes, the 1900s saw a fair share of racial friction. An attack by white people on African Americans in race riots in East St. Louis, Illinois in 1917 was just one of a series of conflicts. In 1955, a fourteen-year-old, Emmett Till was kidnapped, brutally beaten, shot and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The two white men arrested for the murder were acquitted by an all-white jury and they boasted about the murder in a Look magazine interview. Later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of the ‘coloured’ section on a bus to a white passenger and was arrested. In response to this, the Montgomery bus boycott began and lasted over a year. Civil rights workers marching for voting rights were stopped at the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama by police who used tear gas, clubs and whips against them. This tragic event was dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday’. After a peaceful period, 1992 saw the Los Angeles riots – the first in decades – following the acquittal of four white police officers after the videotaped beating of an African American, Rodney King. Need we go on? The point is clear. The spirit is there even if the body is unwilling.
Let us turn then to more recent events of violence, where five Dallas policemen were shot dead by Micah Johnson, a 25 year old army veteran. This shooting followed the killing of Alton Sterling, a black man shot dead by police. This would seem to some as a lone protester enraged by the shooting of black males by white police. However, an approach of shoot first and ask questions later has seen 270 civilians shot over a period of only just over a year. Added to a backdrop of under-privileged, poor black communities representing the majority of inmates at state prisons, it appears very difficult to hold the ideals of Gettysburg up as relevant today.
Britain, with a predominantly white police force, has for nearly twenty years tried to reflect the multi-ethnic completion of Britain today. It is a similar situation in America, which has seen some successes. Many large cities, including New York and Detroit, have had black officers and police chiefs since the 1990s. Dallas has its own black police chief too. Yet despite numerous interventions by agencies and volunteers as well as race and police relation professionals, many within the black community feel the police are racist and are the enemy.
Institutional racism may have been partly tackled both in the UK and the USA, but the reality is seen in the grim statistics of the dole queue and the inmates at many prisons. A black American President, decades of multiculturalism and liberal democracy have not seemed to have brought equality for all, especially for black citizens in the US and – to maybe a lesser degree – within the UK too.
The more legislation passed and the more that state and political leaders espouse the virtues of equality and multiculturalism, the more there seems to be an equal and opposite force against this tide. From Barak Obama’s America to Donald Trump’s, there seems no middle ground. However, it is the middle ground that the vast majority of citizens want to inhabit. The conundrum is that whatever the media, politicians and voters say about the kind of society they want, this is not reflected in the polls and the election booths.
It is a dream of opportunity, real freedom and justice. But the core feelings, tensions, disputes and ingrained attitudes still mean that racism is as alive today as it was over 150 years ago. Obviously, there is a lot still to do. Let’s just watch for the return of our Afro-American Olympians – we might just learn a thing or two.
Global Seven News