Racism in America

Reality of racism

Print edition : September 14, 2018

Demonstrators belonging to the right-wing Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer at an alt-right rally in Portland, Oregon, U.S., on August 4. Photo: AFP/Karen Ducey

Student activists address the crowd during a rally on the campus of the University of Virginia on August 11, one year after the violent white nationalist rally that left one person dead and dozens injured, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo: AFP/LOGAN CYRUS

The appearance of white-supremacist groups in the public sphere, emboldened by the success of Trump, combined with the casual racism in society has hardened race relationships in the U.S.

A YOUNG woman, on her lunch break, is sitting in a common area of Smith College, a small college in Western Massachusetts. She is by herself, unaware of what will befall her in the next few minutes. An employee of the college walks by, notices her and then departs. A few minutes later, a police officer arrives and asks the young woman what she is doing there. The employee of the college, it turns out, had called the police and said that there was a young woman who looked “out of place”. The young woman is a student, as it happens, and has her identification papers to prove it. The officer apologises, leaves and then does not file a report. The young woman takes to Facebook to vent about the humiliation of the interaction. “I am blown away at the fact that I cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully. I did nothing wrong. I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”

What Oumou Kanoute, a young black woman, experienced has become commonplace these days—a sentiment amongst a section of the population in the United States that has begun to assert itself in public spaces, making claims against minorities. The phrase that Oumou Kanoute used, All I did was be black, is used so widely that it is on a T-shirt. What happened to Oumou Kanoute mirrors what happened to Lolade Siyonbola, a black woman graduate student at Yale University. She was taking a nap in a common area in May this year when campus police came to ask her to verify her identity. A fellow student had called the police on her.

In both cases, the colleges apologised for the incidents and set in motion various sensitivity training for staff. This is the typical bureaucratic mechanism to control what would otherwise be a public relations fiasco. Such types of training occur periodically, but they rarely have much of an impact when they are, in fact, fighting against a culture of cruelty that has been largely emboldened by the presidency of Donald Trump.

It is not that this culture of cruelty was absent before Trump took office, but now a broad section of American society feels it can be outrageously bold in the sense that it, namely white America, sets the terms for life in the U.S. When Trump talked of “taking America back”, the question raised was “take it back from whom”? The sotto voce answer is to take it back from the minorities. This is a fantasy. Minorities have never set the terms in the U.S. But it is a great deal easier to blame a young black student for the inequality rate in the country than it is to blame the banks or the very rich.

Casual racism

Not a day goes by without the release of a new video on social media of casual forms of racism. A young child is selling lemonade on the sidewalk and someone calls the police on her because she is black. A young man who is mowing the lawn for someone mistakenly mows part of the lawn of a neighbour, who calls the police on him because he is black. People are sitting in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or barbecuing in the park in Oakland, California, and the police arrive to harass them because they are black. White men and women casually walking up to black parents at playgrounds and at community swimming pools to ask them if they have permission to be there, even when it is clear that they are residents with identification cards that allow them into these gated areas.

Two years ago, Sureshbhai Patel, an aged Indian, was beaten savagely by a police officer after a person said a black man was looking into a garage. The journalist Joy-Ann Reid wrote of these “small acts” in a way that resonates with many who feel impinged upon by everyday racism: “If you’re black or brown in America and you’re lucky, it’s these small acts that stay with you, like a residual cough after a cold.”

What Joy-Ann Reid means when she writes “if you’re lucky” is that there are many black and brown people who do not merely experience the “small acts” but who get killed in their interactions with the police. In June, the Pittsburgh police shot Antwon Rose (aged 17) to death as he fled from them. In July, the Chicago police shot Harith Augustus (aged 37) to death because they suspected he had a gun. In both cases, the men were unarmed. Police data show that since 2012, there is a pattern of disproportionate police killing of blacks (despite being only 13 per cent of the population, 31 per cent of those shot to death by the police are black).

It is important to recognise that the data of disproportionate shooting to death of blacks by the police are only from 2012, namely when Barack Obama was the President. There are deep structures of racism that have not nearly been dismantled, although, through mass pressure, they have been weakened. The Black Lives Matter movement and many other movements like it have certainly raised public consciousness about the fact of racism and its adverse social impact. Psychological studies show, for instance, that the police violence against blacks does immense harm not only to the families of the victims, but also to those who live in communities that suffer from such violence. Young people live in fear of being shot. That has become their reality. It is because of the protests that surveys recently showed that two-thirds of the U.S. population believes that racism is a major problem in U.S. society. The rest agree that racism exists but do not believe it is a major problem. In other words, everyone agrees that racism exists.

It is this racism that drives the anti-immigration policy of the Trump administration. His statements that Mexicans are rapists or that Mexico is not “sending their best” to the U.S. or that “we’re sending them the hell back”, and his policy to divide families of migrants send a shiver down humanity. Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric sends pheromones into society, excites a section to act against anyone who “looks like an immigrant” and deputises them to behave like police officers. It is not uncommon for the police to be called to check if a family that “looks like illegal immigrants” have documents, or not even uncommon for an ordinary person to demand identification of a stranger. The anti-immigrant wave absorbed an unchecked disdain for Islam and Muslims to become a tsunami against anyone who “looks like a Muslim” or “looks like an illegal”.

This is the casualness of the new racial landscape. It reflects the old Nazi slogan Die Deutschen immer von dem Ausländer und den Juden (The German always before the foreigner and the Jews), now rewritten as the American always before the blacks, the immigrants, the Muslims and the Jews. Trump’s presidency has emboldened overt racists to enter openly and proudly into the public domain. In the first week of August, a rally in Portland, Oregon, was held by the Proud Boys. Not only are they proud to be white supremacists, many wore T-shirts with the slogan “Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong”, referring to the Chilean dictator who massacred those belonging to the country’s Left.

American Nazism

These groups hold rallies against Marxism and for white rights. They consider themselves “ethnic nationalists” or “white nationalists” and hold fast to slogans such as “better dead than red”. Their virulent behaviour towards non-whites and towards the media is given licence by Trump, who calls the media the “Enemy of the People” and who speaks repeatedly of “our country” in racist terms.

At Trump rallies, including as recently as early August in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Trump supporters used Nazi language to refer to the press (Lügenpresse, or lying press) and wore Nazi insignia with pride. There are a range of Nazi groups in the U.S., from the American Nazi Party to Women for Aryan Unity, from Milwaukee’s New Order to San Jacinto’s White Devil Social Club. The entry of these racists in the public sphere, combined with the casual racism in society, has certainly hardened the atmosphere in the U.S.

Fear is only one side of the equation. The battle against everyday racism to Nazism is ongoing. Anti-Nazi groups have resurfaced to prevent the Nazi groups from feeling comfortable in public spaces. No “white nationalist” rally is allowed without contest. In Providence, Rhode Island, in early August, the group Ocean State Against Hate shut down a Resist Marxism rally in a scuffle that turned violent. Meanwhile, in Oakland, California, against the incident at a barbeque (BBQ) when the police intervened as a black family was in the park, hundreds of people came back to the same park and held a “BBQ-ing While Black” event. This was a counteraction organised by ordinary people who want no truck with casual or everyday racism.

See something, say something

Since 9/11 the domestic war on terror has created its own architecture of surveillance, most of it by the government, but a considerable amount by civilians. Citizens are told that if they “see something”, then they must “say something”. Over the years, emboldened citizens have called the police and the FBI—the political police—against people whom they have “mistaken” for terrorists. Vigilance allows old racist ideas to take on new racist forms. Now, in the Trump era, white citizens make all kinds of absurd claims against those whom they see as threat; they approach strangers and accuse them of being criminals or illegal immigrants or being “out of place”. This is government-sanctioned surveillance of some sections of society by others. It has become part of the social fabric.

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