US in black and white

Mahir Ali

 

There was no doubt a considerable degree of schadenfreude in social media activity from official sources in nations such as Egypt and Iran in reaction to the events of recent weeks in Ferguson, Missouri.
The United States, after all, is seldom backward in offering condescending advice in relation to how other governments deal with dissidence (inevitably with some notable exceptions, particularly in the case of Israel).
So a degree of implicit mockery disguised as sage advice from those usually at the receiving end of pompous homilies comes as little surprise. What’s more interesting is the tips on how to cope with teargas and bullets that have been offered to the protesters in Ferguson from veterans of the Gezi Park mobilizations and those at the receiving end of violence in the Gaza Strip.
The link in this respect is particularly interesting, because the tools of repression all too often come from the same source. When the Israelis recently were running short of ammunition in their Gaza assault, the US rushed to resupply its ally despite voicing mild reservations about the dastardly consequences of its military actions.
What is far more embarrassing, though, for the American authorities is the fact that domestic confrontations reflect its overseas military interventions, given that police forces across the country have been equipped with army surplus gear. The sight of armored vehicles and combat attire prompted some to dub the troubled St. Louis suburb Ferguson.
The death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in a seemingly gratuitous police shooting would likely have attracted little attention but for the protests and riots that followed — partly, no doubt, as a consequence of the fact that the young man’s corpse was left lying on the street for something like four hours. To some, this was a bitter reminder of the way lynching victims were left dangling as an intimidatory warning.
Sadly, it wasn’t an exceptional incident, which was another reason why Ferguson exploded. Victimization by the police of non-whites is all too common. Fatal consequences are relatively rare, but who can seriously deny that they proceed from the same mindset that leads the forces of the law to stop and search African Americans far more frequently than whites?
For instance, as Jon Swaine reports in The Guardian: “Figures published last year by Missouri’s attorney general showed that seven black drivers were stopped by police in the town for every white driver, and that 12 times as many searches were carried out on black drivers as white, despite searches of white people being far more likely to turn up something illegal.” Another pertinent figure that he and countless other correspondents have highlighted is that in Ferguson, where two-thirds of the population in black, 50 of the 53 police officers are not.
And here’s one more interesting statistic: North of a Ferguson dividing line called Delmar Boulevard, 98 percent of the population is black (with an average annual income of $18,000); south of it, 73 percent people are white (and the median income in $50,000).
The renowned former basketballer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, recently commented in Time magazine that in the context of Ferguson, “We have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but as what else it is: Class warfare.”
Making a powerful argument for greater economic equality and opportunity, Abdul-Jabbar goes on to say that outrage is not enough: “If we don’t have a specific agenda — a list of exactly what we want to change and how — we will be gathering over and over again beside the dead bodies of our murdered children, parents and neighbors.”
He has attracted some criticism for suggesting that racism may not be the key factor, given the reasonable assumption that Michael Brown would still be alive had his skin been a different pigment. More broadly, though, there are many levels at which race and class intersect, and it is certainly no coincidence that poverty is more pervasive among blacks. Nor should anyone be surprised that entrenched disadvantage can serve as a crucible for petty crime, or that the incredibly high rate of African American incarceration helps to perpetuate a vicious circle.
That occurrences of the Ferguson variety are far too commonplace 50 years after the Civil Rights Act does not indicate the absence of progress in the interim. A great deal has, no doubt, changed. But there have also been instances of regression and patterns of resegregation — and frequent reminders that prejudice cannot simply be legislated out of existence.
However, given the political will, a determined effort to tackle institutionalized racism would surely yield some positive results. At Michael Brown’s funeral on Monday, the Reverend Al Sharpton made an impassioned call for action on policing — which would arguably be the obvious place to start in terms of policies, attitudes, recruitment, training and, not least, equipment.
Sadly, a post-racial society — prematurely posited as a possibility in the wake of Barack Obama’s election to the White House — remains something of a dream deferred.
And, given the extent to which policing at home has lately begun to resemble military operations abroad in some respects, it may also be useful to ponder ways in which America’s conception of itself as the cop of the world has had domestic consequences.
One particular historic irony stands out in this context. Fifty years ago this month, the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson — the same president who had successfully striven shortly before to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act — manipulated public and congressional opinion to win approval for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, effectively a carte blanche for presidential war-making, based on a lie. The immediate consequence was a sharp escalation in the American military involvement in Vietnam, and everyone knows how that turned out.

Courtesy Arabnews

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