Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

Human nature and Democracy

Human nature and democracy may, on the face of it, seem insular disjointed narrative of isolated views and ideas, but digging deep one can find intrinsic umbilical cord between the two. Human nature profoundly affects the thoughts and actions and the democratic process offers the outward expression of those thoughts and actions. Thus, these two strands are inherently, if not intricately, linked.

Human beings are fundamentally and intrinsically dangerous and coercive animals always looking out for attaining advantageous positions. They intuitively take selfish and hideous steps in order to achieve evolutionary advantage, particularly when it is perceived that they can get away with their selfish partisan actions.  

The economist Thomas Sowell contends that there are two visions of human nature: (i) The utopian vision, which claims people as naturally good and virtuous. They do virtuous things for the benefit of the community and country unless propelled to do otherwise, and (ii) The tragic vision which shows people as inherently flawed and vile.

This tragic vision in human nature comes from inherent selfishness and mendacity with the purpose to attain advantage. Exclusive personal interests override collective interests. In fact, quite often, collective interests may be viewed as counter to individual interests of a selfish individual, as any competitor in the collective pool may benefit from the collective aggrandisement and thereby jeopardising the relative advantage of the selfish individual. This is, to a large extent, part of the evolutionary drive. Thus, it can be said that science supports this tragic vision.

History also supports tragic vision. This vision is the natural drive for dominance. The philosophers Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt advanced the tragic vision and rejected the implicit natural goodness of humanity. They tendered the view that humans are potentially evil. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated that those who fight monsters must be aware of becoming monsters themselves. The implication of this view is that in a society of monstrous humans, monstrosity tends to infect the surrounding and propagate itself, unless constrained by some contrary means.

The founding fathers of the USA held tragic vision and hence created checks and balances to constrain the political leaders’ worst impulses. Nothing is more flagrantly evident than the present state of affairs in the USA of the incumbent president, where racist xenophobic tendencies are blatantly exposed and weaponised.

Democracy is manipulated and molested due to vileness of human nature not only in the United States but also in the United Kingdom and many more countries in the world.  David Gauke, ex-Justice Secretary in the UK, said on 3 July 2019 in his Mansion House dinner speech, “A willingness by politicians to say what they think the public want to hear, and a willingness by large parts of the public to believe what they are told by populist politicians, has led to a deterioration in our public discourse”. He also said, “This has contributed to a growing distrust of our institutions – whether that be parliament, the civil service, the mainstream media or the judiciary.” This vile abuse of democratic process by selfish, manipulative, mendacious, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, bigoted politicians undermines and contaminates the whole of democracy. But these vile selfish politicians care very little about the collapse of democratic process as long as they can achieve political advantage for themselves.

The word ‘democracy’ originated from the Greek word ‘demokratis’ meaning the ‘rule of the many’. Plato, the Greek philosopher, detested democracy as it embodied the rule of the imbecile and ignorant deplorables over the educated and the knowledgeable. He upheld the view that democracy is the rule of mere opinion. Indeed, this opinion could quite often be ignorant or misinformed or misled by opportunistic populist politicians.

Contrary to the conventional ‘democratic principle’, Roman Republicanism advocated that everyone was not fit to vote to elect the government. It gave some very good reasons including stating that only those who participate actively in public life and affairs of the State are qualified to vote. This ruling was eminently more sensible than allowing everybody to express opinions on issues regardless of their knowledge or suitability or association. For example, a significant majority of the general public with very little or no knowledge of the role or functioning of the EU voted in the EU referendum on 23 June 2016 to leave and then on the following day more than one million people carried out Google search on what the abbreviation ‘EU’ stands for! Their expressed opinion against the EU the previous day was not based on knowledge or rational assessment, but on pure prejudice and bias. Car workers throughout Britain voted overwhelmingly to leave Europe, because they were unhappy with their working conditions (nothing to do with EU). The farmers in Wales and in large parts of England voted to leave on misinformation and false promises by Populist politicians. The general public were fed blatant lies that the NHS would get extra £350 million per week on leaving the EU and there were many more lies. All of these misinformation and blatant lies had fundamentally altered the knowledge base on which the public had voted and hence the outcome became screwed up.

The politicians, the people in power comprising industrialists, financiers and increasingly media barons and social network bosses manipulate the very essence of democracy for advantageous positions. Boris Johnson, the present British prime minister, in his first term prorogued parliament within few weeks of gaining prime minister position, not out of necessity but out of dubious advantage of denying any democratic opposition to his sectarian views and dogma. However, his action was found to be unlawful by the highest court of the land (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the Northern Ireland) and he had to recall the parliament. Subsequently, when he signed a Withdrawal Agreement (revised) with the EU, he called it a ‘oven ready’ and ‘excellent’ agreement and on the back of it, he won the election on 12 December 2019 with an overwhelming majority. But within ten months of signing that historic Withdrawal Agreement by himself, he is now preparing to defy this internationally binding agreement to achieve political advantage. Nothing can be more mendacious in human nature with its tragic vision than this.

The Greeks had a word called ‘parrhesiastes’ which identified an individual who used freedom to uphold moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy, who adopted frankness instead of persuasion and who chose truth instead of falsehood or silence. Unless parresia, the attribute of the parrhesiastes, dominates the contaminated so-called ‘democracy’ of today, the virtuous attributes of democracy are going to be abjectly negated.

Democracy cannot survive in ignorance, illiteracy or moral degeneracy. When honesty, integrity, morality and ethics are divorced and opportunism and bigotry make inroad, democracy takes leave and tragic view of human nature dominates. As Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education”.

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Advanced science, Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political, Technical

COVID-19 vaccine facing temporary problems

The COVID-19 vaccine development round the world is going ahead in serious earnest. World’s top pharmaceutical companies are going head to head, throwing up their top scientists and technologists as well as investing large amounts of scarce resources, even when their businesses are in doldrums. The governments of various countries are also scrambling to get to the most promising candidate and at the same time hedging their bets simultaneously on a few rival companies.

What is pushing the whole world to this mad rush? The COVID-19, a strain of coronavirus, is the most vicious virus to ravage human species during the last 100 years or so. This virus has claimed more than 27.6 million positively identified infection cases and 898,000 deaths round the world. Needless to say, many more infections and many more deaths had gone unreported and unidentified.

The vaccine against this virus, as in all other viruses, has to go through certain internationally accepted and proven steps to ensure safety and effectiveness to the public. If any short-cut is made or any corners are cut, then the confidence of the public to accept this medicine or any future medicine will be seriously shaken.  

Of the hundreds of potential COVID-19 vaccines now in development round the glove, six are in the final stages of testing. This final stage is known as phase three clinical trial. Each one of these vaccines had gone through phase one and phase two testing before reaching the final phase. Only compromise that was allowed to these vaccines because of the urgency of this medication that phase one and phase two were allowed to be combined and run concurrently. These phases had to show that they are safe (with only short-term side effects, if identified, and no unexpected serious effects) and they elicit an immune response. The third phase is the final stage before approval is offered.

Usually the phase three trial comprises, what is known as case-control study, which is primarily a statistical process. The case group receives the actual vaccine which is being tested and the control group receives placebo i.e. simple saline or vaccine against a different disease. The selection of case-control groups of sample requires careful consideration and vetting. These sample groups should favourably reflect each other in parameters like racial mix, age distribution, gender distribution, economic conditions, patterns of behaviour and social habits.

To demonstrate the efficacy of the vaccine, there must be significantly fewer cases of the target disease in the vaccinated group compared to the control group. Depending on infection rates of the disease, a phase three vaccine trial may involve thousands to even tens of thousands of people. The bigger the sample size, the more reliable would be the output. To be approved, vaccines need to demonstrate that they are safe and effective.

One of these is the vaccine that the University of Oxford is developing – known as Oxford vaccine. This vaccine has passed through phase one and phase two testing with flying colours and now undergoing phase three testing. The purpose of a phase three trial is to assess whether this vaccine-induced immune response is strong enough to actually protect people from COVID-19. The vaccine is designed to provoke a T cell response within 14 days of vaccination – when white blood cells attack cells infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus – and an antibody response within 28 days – when antibodies are able to neutralise the virus so that it cannot infect cells when initially contracted.

In the Oxford vaccine clinical trial, five countries in five continents have been chosen – India, the UK, South Africa, Brazil and the US. Thus, a wide variety of rich and developing countries in different climatic conditions had been chosen. The vaccine is being evaluated in these regions and hence the result would give a generic output applicable to almost the whole world.

In the first instance, nearly 17,000 people in three countries – the UK, South Africa and Brazil – have received the vaccines, with half being in the control group. These people would then receive booster vaccination between one and three months after the first vaccination. Exactly the same procedure is followed for both case and control groups, so that the volunteers do not know whether they received actual or placebo dose against COVID-19.

The data will be analysed statistically for each country and the results will be scrutinised and assessed by the regulatory bodies. If the results are positive, then regulatory bodies will approve of the vaccine for general use. On the other hand, if the result is marginal then there may be requirements of further improvement in the quality of vaccine or further clinical trial. This will inevitably delay in the use of vaccine by the general public.

AstraZeneca, the firm partnering Oxford to develop the vaccine, is overseeing a scaling up of manufacturing in parallel with clinical testing so that hundreds of millions of doses can be available if the vaccine is shown to be safe and effective. India’s Serum Institute has already started manufacturing the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine candidate before clinical trials have even been completed. This is to avoid any subsequent delay if the vaccine is approved.

However, a spokesman for AstraZeneca told the Guardian newspaper in the UK that the trial had been stopped to review the “potentially unexplained illness” in one of the participants. The spokesman also stressed that the adverse reaction was only recorded in a single participant and said pausing trials was common during vaccine development.

Notwithstanding the technical issues involved in producing medicines, Donald Trump tarnished the world-wide efforts to produce vaccines with his political agenda of getting re-elected. He declared that the vaccines would be available two days before the US presidential election on 5 November and thereby implicitly and egregiously taking credit for producing COVID-19 cure under his watch!.

However, a group of nine vaccine developers has announced a ‘historic pledge’ to uphold scientific and ethical standards in the search for coronavirus vaccine. The group includes such giant pharmaceutical companies as Pfizer, Merck, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, BioNTech, GlaxoSmithKline, Moderna and Novavax. By their pledge, they asserted that no matter what the politically motivated pressure may be exerted on them, they will ‘always make the safety and well-being of vaccinated individuals their top priority’. Self-publicised egoistic egregious political leaders will come and go, but the pharmaceutical companies are here to stay to produce and serve the people.

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Bangladesh, Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

Lies and distortions in Indian subcontinent’s history

Egregious claims and blatant manipulation of historical facts were political armoury of Indian administrations from post-medieval period right up to the present time. The name India is used here to represent the whole of the Indian sub-continent covering the present-day Indian State, Bangladesh as well as Pakistan.

Indian subcontinent

The British Imperialism, while India was under British rule, used to segregate and differentiate cultural and emotional narrative of Indian people, which comprise primarily Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists to pursue its objectives. The Secretary of State, Wood in a letter to Lord Elgin (Governor General of Canada (1847 – 54) and India (1862 – 63) mentioned, “We have maintained our power in India by playing off one part against the other and we must continue to do so, Do all you can, therefore to prevent all having a common feeling.”

George Francis Hamilton, Secretary of State of India wrote to Lord Curzon on 26 March 1886, “I think the real danger to our rule, not now, but say 50 years hence is the gradual adoption and extension of Western ideas of agitation organisation and if we could break educated Indians into two sections holding widely different views, we should, by such a division, strengthen our position against the subtle and continuous attack which the spread of education must make upon our system of government. We should so plan educational text-books that the differences between community and community are further strengthened.”

Secretary Cross sent a message to Governor General Dufferin that “This division of religious feeling is greatly to our advantage and I look for some good as a result of your Committee of Inquiry on Indian Education and on teaching material”.

These were the policy objectives of the British Imperialism. Persistent use of these egregious objectives formed the underlying base that there were no common factors in social, political or economic lives of Indian people. This distortion paved the way for communal segregation in India and the emergence of Two Nation Theory (TNT) spearheaded by Mohammed Ali Jinnah. 

It is quite disturbing to note that nearly all governments in India from post-colonial era right up to the present time pursued the same objective violation of historical facts and information as an effective administrative tool.

The legacy of British colonial policy of establishing objective disunity among the Indian people was firmly adopted by the independent Indian State whereby the Indian history text-books were so falsified and distorted as to give an impression that the medieval period of Indian history was full of atrocities committed by Muslim rulers on their Hindu subject and the Hindus had to suffer terrible indignities under the Islamic rule.

One concrete example of deliberate distortion and lies in Indian text books was cited by Dr B N Pande, ex-Governor of the Indian State of Orissa, in his book, “History in the Service of Imperialism”, that a history text book for high schools cited that 3,000 Brahmins committed suicide as ‘Tipu Sultan wanted to convert them forcibly into the fold of Islam’. Dr Pande wrote to the author of the text book, Dr Har Prashad Shastri to give him the source material of such information. After many reminders, a reply from Dr Shastri came saying that he had taken the information from the Mysore Gazetteer. When Dr Pande tried to contact Mysore Gazetteer, there was no response and eventually Prof. Srinatia of Mysore University informed Dr Pande that the suicide of 3,000 Brahmins was nowhere in the Mysore Gazetteer and he was certain no such incident did ever take place.

The said history text book was originally prescribed in Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Orissa, U.P., M.P., and Rajasthan. Dr Pande wrote to Ashutosh Mukherjee, the then Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University, with all the evidence of falsification in the text book by Dr Shastri. The book was proscribed in all states except U.P., which was utterly shocking to Dr Pande.

It was not only the British Imperialism or the State of India that distort facts or disseminate historical misinformation to serve their perverse political purpose; Pakistan and Bangladesh are equally  also guilty of falsification, exaggeration and manipulation of historical records to serve their selfish ends.

During the nine months of liberation war (from 26 March 1971 to 16 December 1971) in Bangladesh, admittedly a large number of people, mostly civilians, had been killed. The estimates of death toll produced by various individuals or organisations vary between 50,000 to 500,000. In the book called Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, Sarmila Bose stated that between 50,000 and 100,000 may have been killed. The figure was strongly disputed by the writer Naeem Mohajemen as being flawed. A 2008 British Medical Journal study estimated that up to 269,000 civilians may have died as a result of the conflict; this figure is far higher than the previous estimate of 58,000 from Uppsala University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo. A study published by the Cholera Hospital in Dhaka in 1976 in a prestigious journal called ‘Population Studies’ stated that about 500,000 “excess death” may have occurred because of the war. The US CIA carried out its own estimate and came to the conclusion that 200,000 had died during the war.

But Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, stated that 3 million (3,000,000) people had died as a result of the liberation war. He did not provide any details or breakdown of the death figure, just the sum total of death figure, which was about ten times higher than the consensus figure.

It came out subsequently in the political circles in Bangladesh that when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to Bangladesh via London from the Pakistani prison in 1972, he was given a death figure of three lakh (300,000) by his trusted young political leader, Abdur Razzaq. But when Mujibur Rahman gave a press conference to the international journalists shortly after that, he translated three lakh (300,000) to three million (3,000,000) death toll. That mistake of 10 times exaggeration was never admitted or amended by the government. The presumption was that if the country could get away with higher death toll, all the more preferable.  

Pakistan does not fall behind at all in its bid of mendacious claims. Pakistani textbooks tried to ignore or omit country’s non-existence prior to 1947 and the territory’s shared history with India over the centuries – its multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious past. Pakistan’s history began, as it is claimed, with the conquest of Sind by the Umayyad Caliphate, led by the young General Mohammad bin Qasim in 711 AD. In one text book, it was claimed that Pakistan had suffered politically and militarily over the last thirteen centuries! This sort of history book only helps to create misinformed and blockheaded adults out of the younger generation. Pakistan’s gung-ho approach in dealing with India was not very helpful either to its national perspective. In the 1965 war with India, Pakistan’s history books claimed that Pakistan’s Army conquered large areas of India, and when India was on the verge of defeat, she asked for cease-fire through the UN! That was a blatant lie. With that mindset of super power status, Pakistan approached the 1971 crack-down of East Pakistan, which in fact resulted in the breakup of the country and the birth of Bangladesh. That war could even destroy the very existence of Pakistan. 

Such egregious distortion of facts by independent States of the sub-continent only helps to sow the seeds of dishonesty and corruption in the minds of younger people. If the State thinks that by lying and making exaggerated claims of its power and authority it can get away with falsehood and at the same time take misplaced credit, then the individuals of these States would be tempted to think why can’t they make similar bids of unfounded claims and reap the benefits?

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

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.

Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

Racism in America: Police chokehold is not the issue

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 that 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 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 to the “Southern life-style” and 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 amendment 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 the 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 percent of Blacks in the South were registered as voters.  Less overt voter suppression efforts continue to this day.

Similarly, discriminatory laws in many Southern states also imposed second-class citizenship on them. 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.

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 percent of US land area.  

They were also physically decimated. They became collateral damage 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 that of Dakota men in Mankato after the Sioux Wars in 1862.

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

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, organise 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 dehumanisation of Black people. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,400 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 President Trump advised the other day, threatening to use the military 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 of “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 neighbourhood of Greenwood was set on fire, and more than a thousand 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 brutalised that his mother could not even recognise her own son. The perpetrators were acquitted by an all-White jury. 

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

(The second part of this article will be published next week – A Rahman)