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Racism in America: Police Choke-Holds Are Not the Issue

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The American project was founded on rank hypocrisies. On the one hand, President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the stirring words in the Declaration of Independence which upheld “these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”, did not free his own slaves (not even Sally Hemings, who bore him six children).

Similarly, the Constitution of the US, celebrated as the first and one of the finest examples of a self-conscious construction of a liberal democratic order, defined Blacks as only three-fifths of a person, not a full human being. Though “slave trade” was abolished by Congress in 1808 a brisk market in slaves continued since it was considered essential for the maintenance of the “Southern life-style” and inherent to the mode of production in a plantation economy. Even in 1857, the Supreme Court ruled (Dred Scott v Sanford) that Black people were to be deemed “property” not “citizens”.

It took a Civil War, and three momentous amendments to the constitution (the 13th in 1865, the 14th in 1868 and the 15th in 1870), for slavery to be abolished, for Blacks to be accorded the “due process” protections of citizenship, and for them to receive the right to vote. (Women did not receive that right till the 19th in 1920).

While the abject inhumanity of slavery may have been legally mitigated to some extent, the institutions, practices and values of exclusion, exploitation and devaluation were not. Constitutional guarantees, and Supreme Court decisions, could be cleverly subverted by States. For example, Black people were denied the right to vote through poll taxes, arbitrary registration requirements, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, white primaries and so on. In 1940, 70 years after they had received the right to vote, only 3% of Blacks in the South were registered as voters. Less overt voter suppression efforts continue to this day.

Similarly, discriminatory laws, often manifested as Jim Crow practices, also imposed second-class citizenship on them in many Southern states.. There were restrictions on residence, employment, bank loans, travel (they had to sit in the back of the bus) and, till the Court’s decision in Brown (1954), the schools they could attend. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed many of these ostensible barriers, but the shadows remained long, corrosive and cruel.

ii

While slavery may have been “the original sin” through which America came into being, its treatment of other minorities was not very tender. The ones who suffered the most immediately and most grievously were the Native Americans. This land which was theirs was taken away from them. Today most live in reservations which constitute only 4% of US land area.

They were also physically decimated. They became collateral damages in the relentless westward expansion of the Europeans based on notions of “manifest destiny”. They were killed through forced marches, e.g., the “trail of tears” between 1830-1850, when almost 60,000 of them were uprooted from their habitats and relocated elsewhere, with almost one-fourth dying on the way. There were massacres e.g., in Bear River, Idaho, 1863, Oak Run, California, 1864, Sand Creek, Colorado, 1864, Marias, Montana, 1870, Wounded Knee, South Dakota, 1890, and many others. And there were summary executions, e.g., the largest execution in US history was of Dakota men in Mankato after the Sioux Wars in 1862.

When Columbus had “discovered” America, the Native population was between 10-15 million. By the end of the 19th century, thanks to the efforts to civilize and Christianize those “red savages”, it had been reduced to 238,000. Today, it is less than 7m, or about 2% of the population.

Smaller minority groups in the US faced similar discrimination. Jews were saddled with the long-standing accusation of being “Christ-killers” and their intellectual cleverness and business acumen (both learned from the diasporic challenges they had faced) generated envy and anxiety. They were also considered to be consummate conspirators intent on taking over the world, ironically as bankers and financiers (Henry Ford’s argument), or as Bolshevik revolutionaries (Hitler’s conviction, also echoed by White supremacists in the US).

The Chinese were the only people to be formally denied immigration into the country through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Many Chinese, welcomed earlier as “coolie” laborers to lay the railroad tracks, faced harsh treatment and even violence. The Japanese, restricted through a “gentleman’s agreement” in 1907 from coming into the country any more, were herded into internment camps after Pearl Harbor even though there was not a shred of evidence that anyone had done anything wrong. “Indians” i.e., from South Asia, were not considered to be “free Whites” and thus not eligible for citizenship (US v Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923). Asian immigration was completely banned in 1924, and when the door was slightly opened in 1946, limited by strict quotas of about 100 annually from these three countries.

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Thus racism was sown right into the fabric of American history, practices and values. The question that is frequently asked is why, while other minority groups subjected to discrimination were able to prosper later, Blacks did not. There is usually a racist subtext to that question to underscore White assumptions about Black laziness, intellectual inferiority, moral weakness, and collective inability to cooperate, organize and develop social capital. That conclusion is both self-serving and untrue.

First, no other group endured the sheer ferocity and persistence of bigotry in the same way that Blacks did. All others (except Native Americans, whose conditions have not improved) had voluntarily come to the country. The Blacks were captured, enslaved and commodified. They were not scrappy immigrants who came to the land of opportunity to pursue the American dream, they were forcibly brought here and left to contend with their American nightmare.

Second, while others also faced stereotypes and prejudice, none encountered the uncouth mockery and the sheer physical violence that were inflicted on the Blacks. Minstrel shows which caricatured Black people as sub-human beings (played by White folks in blackface), were wildly popular.

But it was the slaps and kicks, the lashes and chains, the nigger hunting licenses and tar-and-featherings, the burning of crosses and the lynchings that were emblematic of the dehumanization of Black people. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, between 1877 and 1950, more than 4400 Blacks were lynched. Many of these lynchings became public events which communities enjoyed as spectacle and the celebration of White power.

It is certainly not that Blacks only understood the language of violence. But this was certainly the only language preferred by Whites to speak to them. Those attitudes and tropes remained, manifested in new forms, sometimes hiding behind police badges. This is vigilante justice dispensed and protected by the instruments of the state, and sanctioned by historical practice. Hence we hear about teaching them a lesson, demonstrating overwhelming force, putting them in their place, to “dominate” as Pres. Trump advised the other day, threatening to use military force if needed. It is for this reason too that Philonise Floyd poignantly pointed out, in his testimony to the US Congress, that his brother had been subjected to a modern day lynching.

Third, there was a psycho-sexual dimension to this relationship that complicated matters even further. While White men had always been fiercely protective about “their women”, their concern and insecurity regarding Black men were particularly pronounced. Even a hint, a look, a word, the slightest of moves that could be construed as expressing Black lust for a White woman, would provoke savage reprisal. This lasted well into the 20th century.

In 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a Black teenager was accused of molesting a white woman, even though she never pressed charges. In the resulting carnage, there were 10-15 White casualties and, by some estimates, up to 300 Black. The entire Black neighborhood of Greenwood, one of the most prosperous Black enclaves in the entire country, was set on fire, more than a 1000 homes and businesses were destroyed. Not a single person was convicted.

Similarly, in 1955, Emmet Till, a 14 year old boy from Chicago visiting his aunt in Mississippi, was accused of making a pass at a White woman by whistling at her. The boy was tortured to death, so badly brutalized that his mother could not even recognize her own son. The perpetrators were acquitted by an all-White jury.

One hears the same refrain in Harper Lee’s 1961 classic To Kill a Mocking Bird.

iv

The Black situation in America remains rather grim. According to the Sentencing Project’s Report to the UN in 2018, Blacks are 3 times more likely to be searched, twice as likely to be arrested, and receive longer prison sentences for committing the same crime. 35% of all executions in the US have been Black, they constitute 34% of prison inmates, and 42% of people on death row.

However, while police brutality and related injustices are obvious, the most overwhelming burden for Blacks is the political disempowerment and economic inequities which they have to bear.

Blacks are approximately 13 % of the population. But currently while their presence in the House is roughly equivalent (52 out of 435), they have only 3 Senators (the highest ever), and no Governors. Of 189 American Ambassadors, only 3 are Black, usually in “hardship posts” or less relevant assignments.

According to Valerie Wilson from the Economic Policy Institute, in 2018, a median Black worker only earned about 75% of what a White person does ($14.92 per hour to $19.79), and the Economist reported that in 2019 mean household wealth was $138,000 for Blacks, and $933,700 for Whites. While more than 72% of Whites own homes usually in nice neighborhoods, only 42% of Blacks do usually in shabbier environments. Unemployment rates are typically twice that of Whites.

Approximately 23% of covid-19 patients are Black, and similar discrepancies are seen in terms of people suffering from blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, asthma, cancer, and other health challenges.

Educational disparities are clear. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, while almost 80% of Whites graduate from high school, only 62% of Blacks do. While 29% of White males and 38% of White females graduate from college, only 15% of Black males and 22% of Black females do.

This is not because of innate intellectual differences traditionally used to explain the “achievement gap” (comparative lower scores in reading and math for Black students). As John Valant of Brookings has pointed out, Black performance in standardized tests has much more to do with “exclusionary zoning policies” that keep Black families from better school districts, “mass incarceration practices” that remove Black parents from children, and “under-resourced Black school districts” that imposes relatively poor quality teachers, weak supportive infrastructure and an environment of hopelessness and despair that students are compelled to endure. Expecting these kids to perform at the same level as others is like tying a weight to their legs and hoping that they can be competitive in a marathon.

Pres. Johnson’s effort to “level the playing field” (his language) led to some Affirmative Action policies, and the formation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1965, to provide historically disadvantaged groups some extra educational and economic opportunities. Some progress has certainly been made. A small Black middle class of professionals has gradually come into existence, some Black entrepreneurs have been notably prosperous, and a few Black performers have gained spectacular success in the entertainment and sports industries (unrelated to affirmative action).

But, on the other hand, many Whites resented these programs which were gradually challenged and, in some ways gutted, through charges of “reverse discrimination” (Bakke v Board of Regents University of California, 1978). The sentiment was that these policies unfairly violated a merit-based system of rewards, and created an entitlement culture for undeserving Blacks (conveniently forgetting that Whites had gained from it for centuries). Sometimes affirmative action only meant incorporating a few Blacks in various positions to prove an institution’s quantitative adherence to EEOC requirements. It was tokenist, grudging and alienating. Instead of bridging racial divides, they deepened them.

v

Ay, and there is the rub as Shakespeare would say. The issue of racism is not about a chokehold of a White police officer, but its stranglehold on US society. It is ingrained in the predatory capitalism that the US worships with its emphasis on ugly materialism over human development, selfish individualism over collective welfare, desperate profit-seeking over social responsibility, immoral inequalities over a sharing culture, patriarchal dominance over an inclusive democracy, mindless consumerism over ecological concern, and a phenomenally successful cunning strategy of keeping people, particularly the working class, divided and loathing each other.

It is also true that the races are prisoners of their respective assumptions, perceptions and judgments that lead them to see “the other” in radically distorted terms. Their narratives of history, their engagement with reality, and their judgment of events, condemn them to their own rhetorical echo-chambers, making communications difficult. What the Blacks will see and remember will be vastly different from what the Whites will (e.g., Blacks will hear George Floyd crying out for his mother as a casually sadistic White officer chokes him to death, Whites will be more prone to see the looting). In these conditions hate becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, when racism is reduced, and isolated, to a simple problem (e.g., police brutality), it will let politicians shake their cynical heads and issue condemnations with platitudes and clichés that will come trippingly to their tongues. It will permit them to tinker with this or that aspect of law enforcement and claim to have “fixed it”. It will encourage the power-elite to seek TV-rich moments such as taking a knee, or carrying a BLM placard, or raising a fist at a funeral memorial – high in symbolism but pitifully, perhaps deliberately, low in accomplishment.

As long as they ignore the larger historical, political and psychological context in which White defensiveness and Black weaknesses are located, one can treat the symptoms and not the virus of racism. The intellectual honesty and moral courage this would require has been absent in the past, and there is neither much evidence, nor much hope, that we will see it anytime soon.

Post Script: Having lived in America for many years, I can personally attest to the fairness and decency of the vast majority of colleagues, students, and others my wife and I have met, and the genuine graciousness and warmth of many friends that we have been blessed to have. This merely underscores the point that the issue is not individual but institutional, not personal but structural.

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Ahrar Ahmad is Professor Emeritus, Black Hills State University, USA, and Director-General at Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation, Dhaka. Email: ahrar.ahmad@bhsu.edu 

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