US in black & white

Published August 27, 2014

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 US, 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 tear gas and bullets that have been offered to the protesters in Ferguson from veterans of the Gezi Park mobilisations 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. Security forces in Egypt and Turkey are also regular recipients of hardware from American sources.

Victimisation by the police of non-whites is all too common.

What is far more embarrassing, though, for the American authorities is 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 armoured vehicles and combat attire prompted some to dub the troubled St Louis suburb Fergustan.

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, because 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 once left dangling as a cautionary example.

Sadly, it wasn’t an exceptional incident, which was another reason why Ferguson exploded. Victimisation 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 others have highlighted is that in Ferguson, where two-thirds of the population is 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, 98pc of the population is black (with an average annual income of $18,000); south of it, 73pc people are white (and the median income in $50,000).

Renowned former basketball player 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 neighbours.”

He has attracted some criticism, 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 re-segregation — and frequent reminders that prejudice cannot simply be legislated out of existence.

However, given the political will, a determined effort to tackle institutionalised 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.

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2014


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