Sun | Jul 5, 2020

Editorial | Why our voice must be heard on America’s shame

Published:Friday | June 5, 2020 | 12:18 AM

THERE ARE times when circumstances demand that people, and even nations, override inhibition and fear and do what decency demands and is morally right. Jamaica has in the past responded to these imperatives, like our leadership, even as a colony, in the struggle against apartheid and other forms of racial or ethnic discrimination.

It is against this backdrop that this newspaper adds its voice in support of the millions of people in the United States (US), and elsewhere in the world, who have this week marched against racism in the US. Our Government should, too. For, this issue is not narrowly about US domestic social relations. Rather, it is a deeper historical matter about injustice and of kinship, in which Jamaica has a stake.

Moreover, under Donald Trump’s presidency, the instability of the past week, and Mr Trump’s response to it, is symptomatic of a crisis of ideas and thoughts in American leadership that has leeched into its foreign policy, threatening the global rules-based system that provides some measure of security for small countries like Jamaica.

The proximate cause of the demonstrations was the death of an African-American man, George Floyd, during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A white police officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on Mr Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, ignoring his complaints that he couldn’t breathe. Three other police officers either looked on or helped in the restraint of an already-prone and handcuffed Mr Floyd. In the time – 526 seconds – that Officer Chauvin’s knee was on Mr Floyd’s neck, Usain Bolt, at his world-record speed, could have completed 54 100-metre races, and would have been nine-tenths of the way to finishing another.

Officer Chauvin’s callously objectionable action isn’t novel in the treatment of black people in the United States – a country whose Declaration of Independence asserts it to be “self-evident … that all men are created equal … endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”, including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

Not, though, up to now, for black people. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery – in the midst of a civil war for its maintenance – was 86 years after the Declaration of Independence, and 76 years after the signing of a constitution that committed Americans to forming “a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity”.

But 157 years after formal emancipation, and more than half of a century after the civil rights movement, and the Civil Rights Act that it spawned, African Americans still struggle for a place in the union. They, on average, earn nearly 28 per cent less than white Americans, are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed, own a fraction of the wealth of their white counterparts, and generally have worse health outcomes than white people.

The systemic racism, of which these are symptoms, plays itself out in other ways, too. Like the George Floyd incident, or the Eric Garner case, or Trayvon Martin, or Ahmaud Arbery. And the many other black people who suffer violence from law-enforcement officials, or have to encounter countless other indignities in their daily lives.

Common ancestry

The struggle of African Americans isn’t unconnected to Jamaica. Many Jamaicans and people of Jamaican origin live in the United States and are contributing productively to that society. Our kith and kinship, however, runs deeper – in the common ancestry between African Americans and the vast majority of Jamaica’s citizens; the similar circumstances of their forebears’ arrival to the Americas; and their shared history of slavery. Moreover, Jamaican and Caribbean figures have not only asserted our common humanity, but have been active participants in the African-American struggle for their place in a perfected union – from W.A. Domingo and Marcus Garvey to Bob Marley and the other voices in academia, politics and popular entertainment who speak out against injustices.

But America’s ideal of perfecting its union, with African Americans having a natural place in it, today faces hurdles similar to, if not as great as, those of the years leading to the Civil War and its heated debate over slavery.

Donald Trump, for instance, would fit easily – literally and figurative – into the Know Nothing movement of the day, with it xenophobic, nativist and ethnocentric ideas, the same notions that inform Mr Trump’s political slogan of ‘Make America Great Again ’, as well as a foreign policy that eschews multilateralism and promotes Great Power assertion. Indeed, the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, could easily be a hybrid of the Know Nothings and the pre-20th century, the slavery-supporting Democratic Party of Civil War era.

This context insists on Jamaica’s solidarity with African Americans. Not quietly, but a full-throated declaration as brothers, without fear, talking in support of kith and kin. We have greater legitimacy here than in Venezuela.