Environmental, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

Racism in America: Police chokehold is not the issue (Part II)

(Following the previous post which constituted the initial section of the article, the present post is the concluding section of the article).

According to the Sentencing Project’s Report to the UN in 2018, Blacks are three times more likely to be searched, twice as likely to be arrested, and receive longer prison sentences for committing the same crime. Thirty-five percent of all executions in the US have been Black; they constitute 34 percent of prison inmates and 42 percent 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 percent of the population. But currently, while their presence in the House is roughly equivalent (52 out of 435), they have only three Senators (the highest ever), and no Governors. Of the 189 American Ambassadors, only three are Black, usually in “hardship posts” or less relevant assignments (like Bangladesh?).

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

Approximately 23 percent 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 pronounced. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, while almost 80 percent of Whites graduate from high school, only 62 percent of Blacks do so. While 29 percent of White males and 38 percent of White females graduate from college, only 15 percent of Black males and 22 percent of Black females do the same. 

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 pointed out, Black performance in standardised 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 impose 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.

President Johnson’s effort to “level the playing field” 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 programmes 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.

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 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 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.

Postscript: Having lived in America for many years, I can personally attest to the fairness and decency of the vast majority of colleagues, students, and general people 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.

(The cases mentioned in the article are all Supreme Court cases.)

 Ahrar Ahmad is Director General, Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation, Dhaka.

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