Tue | Sep 26, 2017

Michael Abrahams | The rise and rise of American racism

Published:Monday | July 11, 2016 | 7:59 AMMichael Abrahams

I recall watching an African-American stand-up comedian several years ago giving his impression of America’s first black president delivering his inaugural address. In his delivery, he kept jumping from side to side and ducking, in an attempt to dodge bullets. This was before Barack Obama was on the radar, and many thought that we would not see an American president with significant pigmentation in our lifetime. 

With Obama’s election, on the surface, it appeared to me that America had matured, that racism was gradually being eroded, and that we were witnessing the beginning of a new America. I was wrong.

Systemic racism became institutionalised in America from the days of European colonisation. The establishment of slavery, where tens of millions of Africans were overworked and tortured in captivity for nearly 250 years, and the placement of Native Americans on reservations, often utilising force and violence, was just the beginning. 

Racism has affected every ethnic minority in America, but blacks have borne the brunt of it. The abolition of slavery in that country in 1865 (1866 in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma) was a significant milestone, but the physical chains were replaced by the millstone of segregation and state-sanctioned discrimination. The demise of slavery did not magically end the humiliation and denigration of blacks. For example, in 1906, a Congolese pygmy was placed on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City, along with chimpanzees and other apes, and after Jesse Owens brought glory to America by winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, when he arrived at the Waldorf Astoria hotel for a reception held in his honour, he was directed to the service lift rather than the normal guest lift, which was reserved for whites.

It has been estimated that between 1877 and 1950, 4,075 blacks were lynched in America. One of the most heinous was that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American teenager whose life was brutally terminated in Mississippi after he allegedly flirted with a white woman. The woman’s husband and his brother abducted Till and beat and mutilated him before shooting him and sinking his body in the Tallahatchie River. Both men were acquitted. 

Rosa Parks’ refusal, in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, to give up her seat in the coloured section of a bus to a white passenger, was a significant event in the civil-rights movement’s quest for equality, and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X have left lasting legacies, which have served to empower African-Americans.

So desegregation took place, laws against discrimination were passed, The Cosby Show became the number one television show, Oprah Winfrey established herself as one of the wealthiest and most beloved television personalities, and Barack Obama was elected president, defeating John McCain, a white war hero. Things appeared to be looking up, but beneath the surface, racism was always simmering, no doubt fuelled by those who resented being governed by a commander-in-chief whose father was a black African. 

It is natural for a leader to be criticised, but the racial epithets hurled at Obama, his wife and his daughters in social media have been sickening, and it is difficult to believe that at least some of the opposition from the Republicans is not racially motivated. 

Former United States President Jimmy Carter was bold enough to state that much of the opposition directed at Obama "is based on the fact that he is a black man”.

Police brutality is nothing new in America, and affects persons of all ethnicities, but there is a disproportionate degree of aggression toward blacks, as well as higher incarceration rates, and statistics clearly demonstrate this. 

What is especially disturbing are video clips of unarmed blacks being killed by police, who somehow manage to escape murder or manslaughter convictions. It's a sickening sight to see those being paid to protect and serve mercilessly slaughtering civilians and literally getting away with murder creates chronic anger, frustration, resentment and fear in the African-American community. 

Not surprisingly, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported in 2006 that it had found that racist organisations had been infiltrating police departments for years, explaining not only some of these incidents, but also reports of cops across the country sending racist texts which included statements such as "all n-----s must f--king hang" (San Francisco), "getting drunk and killing n----rs" (Fort Lauderdale) and "hanging n----rs from trees" (Montgomery County). Some officers have even openly admitted to being in leadership positions in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

Donald Trump’s rise in popularity has been an eye-opener for many who had their heads in the sand regarding racism in America. The fact that someone who makes racially disturbing remarks and displays unabashed xenophobia could become the Republican nominee speaks volumes about the racial climate in America today. Trump may not be telling others to attack non-whites, but his rhetoric has empowered white supremacists and other racists to feel comfortable spewing their hatred and vitriol.

The recording of Alton Sterling’s shooting death at the hands of police, and the video taken in the immediate aftermath of Philando Castile’s slaying proved to be a tipping point for some, including Micah Johnson, who took it upon himself to launch a one-man attack on Dallas police, killing five and injuring seven, before he was killed by an explosive device. Johnson’s actions are to be condemned. The cops were only doing their jobs and were in no way perpetrating the aggression of those in the abovementioned videos. 

But the attack was not surprising. African-Americans have lost faith in their country’s criminal justice system. When people watch trial after trial after they and millions of others see people in uniform murder unarmed civilians who look like them, and they take part in peaceful protests, and sign petitions, and pray for justice, and are repeatedly denied, there comes a point where some will become radicalised, and push back in the most confrontational and violent ways.