A day of reckoning for the USA on the race questionWednesday, June 03, 2020
On Memorial Day 2020, when the American nation was remembering thousands of their fellow men and women who had died in various wars down through the years, a young black man by the name of George Floyd was detained by the police in Minneapolis. He had tendered a US$20 note which had been deemed counterfeit by the store owner, who promptly called the police. They arrived on the scene and decided to arrest him. He was placed on the ground after he had been handcuffed.
One of the officers, Derek Chauvin, placed his knee on the neck of the clear victim of police abuse, and kept it there for close to nine minutes, despite the plea of Floyd that he could not breathe. Bystanders saw that he was clearly in distress and called on Chauvin to lift his restraint. He did not. Amazingly, three other officers who were on the scene with Chauvin did nothing to deter his behaviour.
The tragic outcome of this sad episode is that Floyd died. His death has triggered protests and violent outbreaks across the country and in other parts of the world.
It seems clear from the days of violent protests that have erupted and are still taking place across the country that black people in America are no longer prepared to abide police violence against them. Furthermore, and with the encouragement of COVID-19 which has laid bare the glaring inequalities in the deployment of health resources to black communities, they seem no longer prepared to tolerate the institutional and structural racism, which has made them, for too long, second-class citizens in their own country. A time of reckoning has come.
The tragic death of George Floyd is seen as the torch that will light a new path to freedom for blacks. The outrage at how black people are treated in America is understandable. Racism is a haunting spectre that has bedevilled the society ever since the days of slavery. Sometimes it raises its ugly head in well-defined ways such as police brutality largely to black men. Other times, and mostly so, it is subtle and manifests itself in housing and health disparities, in education, in communities that are deprived of social amenities, in employment and wage discrimination, in the disproportionate incarceration of blacks vis-a-vis the white population, and a host of other inequities that abound.
Again, while the outrage is clear and understandable, it is not so clear or readily understood what is to be done about it. Protest is one approach. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, with the sterling work of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and others, impressed the society as to how laws and policies can be effected to bring change. That time was one of ferment and real change for blacks. With the passage of time, such activism has been severely diminished. Today, what is left of the civil rights movement leaves a lot to be desired, as far as robust representation of the needs of the black community in America are concerned.
Some people speak of the scars of racism as if to suggest that racial wounds in this society have healed or are healing. But racism is a raw open wound in American society that has not healed. And it has not healed because it is never a subject that Americans are comfortable talking about. And yet, there is need for a robust conversation about race. It should not come up only in spasmodic response to flare-ups of police brutality against blacks or other obvious outrageous racist behaviour.
The challenge in the present outrage is how to harness all this anger into a conversation that can lead to coherent and well-thought-out policy positions to arrest the problem. But to whom should one talk and who will lead the conversation? I have no confidence that such a conversation will take place under US President Donald Trump. To a large extent, he is a fruitful contributor to the racial bile that is flowing through the country. His native and immediate response to the present crisis is mercurial: Call out the troops! He has urged the governors to “dominate” the situation in their respective states, which suggests bullying protesters into submission. I do not believe he will change his thinking between now and the November elections. But, if by some bewitching brew he does retain power, do not expect him in his lame duck years to be preoccupied with such grandiose abstractions as deep and abiding love and concern for blacks.
But there is hope. What I find interesting is the number of white people who are enraged at what is happening to the blacks. This is not new, as many were active in the 1960s movement as well. It is either that they see that their own long-term welfare cannot be secure if blacks are treated as they are, or they have a deeper understanding of the humanity of all people and the dignity of human life which ought to be respected. It may be a mixture of both, but the latter may be the more prominent explanation.
Whatever the thinking, America has reached a critical turning point on the race question. It is not just a reckoning with the past, but what can be done in the present to chart a better path into the future.
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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