The Fault Line of Race in America


The annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors was held in Washington, D.C., on January 20. Later, when Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is the current head of the conference, began to speak at a press conference about the need for investment in U.S. cities, a woman activist from Washington stood before her, carrying a sign that read “16 Shots & A Cover Up. #LaquanMcDonald #ResignRahm”. A man said, almost quietly: “Black lives matter”. The mayor remained silent. April Goggans, the woman with the sign, refused to budge. She stood, facing the cameras bravely. Her protest was registered. Later she said: “I think it would be irresponsible for me not to show up here and say that this is some fantasy world that we live in, while the thousands and millions of people in their cities are experiencing something totally different.”

April Goggans’ sign refers to the murder of Laquan McDonald (age 17) in October 2014 by a Chicago police officer who fired 16 shots at him from a distance of 10 feet. The Chicago administration, led by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, tried to cover up the murder by hiding a video of the shooting. Dogged reporting on the issue by the journalist Jamie Kalven forced the administration to release the medical examiner’s report and the video. Protests across the city, led by various groups, including the Black Youth Project 100, pushed the city to indict the officer who shot McDonald dead. Calls for the resignation of Mayor Emanuel escalated, with even elected officials joining the chorus. Emanuel is President Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff. He received a good conduct certificate from the White House, which said he should not resign. The “#ResignRahm” in April Goggans’ sign is an indicator that the public mood has not changed.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has had her own problems. In 2015, Baltimore saw massive protests and violence after the death in police custody of Freddie Gray (age 25). Poverty and hopelessness stalk Baltimore, as it does many of the U.S.’ cities. The best-dressed people in these neighbourhoods are the police officers. The Mayor had called the protesters “thugs” and enforced a curfew on the city. That the Conference of Mayors invited both Stephanie Rawlings-Gray and Emanuel to talk about effective use of the police and community policing galled activists associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. This was what brought April Goggans and her comrades to the venue of the press conference.

Deaths of mainly black youths continue unabated. San Francisco’s Mayor, Edwin Lee, gave a presentation on gun violence and gun safety at the conference. Along the lines of what Obama said, Lee talked about harnessing technology to prevent the epidemic of gun violence in the country. In all, 13,000 people died in the U.S. as a result of gun-related violence in 2015, that is, 36 people every day. Of these, the police killed about 1,200 people, mostly non-white. No question that gun violence is a major issue. But Lee did not talk about police violence per se, such as the police shooting of Mario Woods (age 26) in December. Frustration over the violence drew protesters to block the crucial Bay Bridge which connects San Francisco to Oakland for an hour on January 18, two days before Lee’s presentation at the Washington conference. This action took place on Martin Luther King Day, the day that the U.S. celebrates the civil rights icon. “Today is the day when we reclaim MLK’s radical legacy,” said April Thomas, chained to two cars. “I’m here for Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, for my mother, myself, for Harriet Tubman.” Tamir Rice (age 12) and Rekia Boyd (age 22) were both killed by the police in cold blood in 2014 and 2012 respectively.

Black Health Matters

What is “Black Lives Matter”? It is a loose movement of people who are frustrated with the ceaseless violence against black youths in U.S. cities, many of them governed by black mayors. But Black Lives Matter is more than that. It is a cry from the heart that black lives do matter and that in the U.S. it appears as if black lives do not matter. Protesters on Bay Bridge held a sign that read “Black Health Matters”. They had in mind the catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, a majority black and mostly poor city which used to be one of the homes of the U.S. automobile industry. Now largely a desert of poverty, the city lost its right to govern itself in 2011.

A few years later, the city managers decided to stop buying clean water from nearby Detroit and instead pumped untreated water from the Detroit river to homes. Residents complained about the colour and smell of the water, while Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, a paediatrician in Flint, began to campaign against what she surmised were early signs of lead poisoning and other maladies. In leaked emails, the staff of Governor Rick Snyder’s office cautioned against any action. A memorandum prepared by Snyder’s staff noted: “This issue will fade in the rearview.” An email suggested that the real problem was that this controversy came from the “anti-everything group”. Health of this majority black city was low on the priorities of the administration.

‘Environmental racism’

In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice published a landmark report titled “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States”. The report, written by the UCC’s then director of research, Charles Lee, showed that the government systematically located toxic waste sites near non-white residential areas. This, the report suggested, was “environmental racism”. None of this was an accident, it was government policy, he wrote. Charles Lee is now Deputy Associate Administrator for Environmental Justice at the U.S. government’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA). During the entire fiasco at Flint, the EPA maintained that the water was within safe levels.

When the controversy got heated up, the EPA’s regional administrator, Susan Hedman, promised to resign, blaming the problem on the State of Michigan. Flint’s most famous citizen, the film-maker Michael Moore, tweeted: “This is a racial killing. Flint Michigan is 60% black. When you knowingly poison a black city, you are committing a version of genocide. #ArrestGovSnyder.”

Make America Great Again

In Minnesota, not far from Michigan, Sergeant Jeff Rothecker wrote on his Facebook wall about Black Lives Matter protesters: “Run them over. Keep traffic flowing and don’t slow down for any of these idiots who try and block the street.” The police officer later apologised for his rant. Such unguarded venom is not restricted to police officers. Reaction to the slogan “Black Lives Matter” raises questions such as, “Don’t all lives matter?” The innocence of the question suggests that the speaker does not recognise the problem at hand, namely the violence that targets black people in the U.S. by state authorities. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is a response to statements such as “Run them over” and the “anti-everything group”.

The slogan that actually opposes “Black Lives Matter” is not “All Lives Matter” but the campaign slogan of Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again”. Trump echoes the bitterly arrogant slogan “I want my country back” of the Tea Party, the group that emerged in opposition to Obama. The suggestion in that slogan was that someone had taken their country away from them, perhaps Obama, perhaps black people. The “I” in that slogan was clear: whites who are not amongst the super elite, whose livelihood has indeed deteriorated, and who, therefore, feel that they would like to return to their expectations of the American Dream. Recent studies have shown that the death rate of white adults in the U.S. has increased at an alarming rate. This death rate is largely because of suicide, drug overdose and alcohol abuse. Collapse of viable employment has driven large sections of the white population to despair. The epicentre of this malady is among the less educated, poor and rural whites. They are also, as it happens, the core base of Trump’s supporters. They have taken refuge in the toxic language of racism. Trump has stoked the fire. It could run out of control. There is no happy ending here.

Both Black Lives Matter and Make America Great Again are slogans of dissatisfaction with the direction the country is taking from populations that have seen their conditions deteriorate dramatically. But what divides them is the fault line of race. It is likely that an urban resident who is black will be in prison, guarded by a rural resident who is white. One might see the relevance of Black Lives Matter, while the other might be an adherent of Make America Great Again. Neither benefits from the system. Both are its detritus.

This article originally appeared on Frontline (India).

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).