Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Three weeks ago, I wrote an article commenting on how the fatal shooting of unarmed black jogger Ahmaud Arbery was symptomatic of a system which prioritizes the right to bear arms, over some people’s lives. Today, I want to examine race in the history of the US system as a whole and consider what can be done about it.
In these last weeks, many have asserted that the US is systematically racist. Racism in America is no by-product of the system. It is systematically entrenched and legally (and until recently, constitutionally) enshrined. Racism is present in the attitudes of too many, as it is in the UK. It is also surreptitiously stoked by political dialogue, as it is in the UK.
Neither nation teaches enough about the realities of its history, instead focusing on the perpetuation of national myths. When the organisation, Teaching Tolerance published a report ranking each US state for its mandatory coverage of Civil Rights on the school curriculum, 16 states scored zero and 35 scored an F- with less than 20% of the recommended content being mandatory. In the US a racist superstructure exist which accepts and reinforces racism in society.
This legal and constitutional superstructure has its roots in the “Original Sin of Slavery“ and the 3/5th compromise which banned blacks from testifying against whites. In Dredd-Scott v Sandford 1857, the Supreme Court asserted that American citizenship did not cover blacks– whether free or slave. By the end of the century, laws that discriminated against African Americans were given constitutional weight, culminating in the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’.
In the 1960s, the Brown v Board case ended segregation, however, law makers then paved the way for continued subjugation of African Americans. Ronald Reagan’s introduction of mandatory minimum sentences in 1986 disproportionately affected those who took crack cocaine, with a 5-year minimum sentence for possession of 5g of crack versus 500g of powder. Crack was seen as a ‘black drug’ and by 2003, African Americans constituted 80% of the defendants under crack cocaine laws, despite 66% of crack cocaine users in the US being White or Hispanic.
Policies like this were an emphatic full stop to a decade of Democrat-led racial progress. Not that Democrats are innocent; Bill Clinton’s ‘1994 law’ introduced a three-strike system which could lead to life in prison for even the most minor offences. You hardly need to be told that African Americans are incarcerated at 5 times the rate of whites.
Whilst laws hindering African Americans were being created, laws designed to support them were being struck down. The complicated case of Uni of California at Davis v Bakke 1978 upheld affirmative action, but banned quotas reserving places for minority students. As recently as 2010, in Shelby County v Holder, the ‘pre-clearance’ element of the Voting Rights Act was removed meaning Congress no longer needs to approve changes to voting laws. This had been designed to prevent the introduction of measures used to limit the black vote. In the five years after this clause was removed, almost a thousand polling places closed- most in southern, black communities.
This is clearly a story of discrimination, of double-standards and of entrenched and constitutionally constructed racism. It seems that there is not one, but two Americas. The sides share no political language and are almost incapable of dialogue. For one, the demonstrations since the death of George Floyd are peaceful protests. For the other, they are riots. One is young, multiracial and generally diverse. The other is male, pale and stale. One is personified by the Black Lives Matter movement. The other by Donald Trump. Trump once boasted that he could “shoot somebody” on Fifth Avenue- and not “lose any voters”. Similarly, he could turn water into wine and few people who vote against him would change their mind.
General Mattis’ merited criticism of Trump this week, was the first inkling of a crack in this façade. Nonetheless, the American system is so polarised and broken that it seems there is little chance of racial justice any time soon. The legacies of the way in which the American system was designed are so pervasive that there is no quick fix. However, there are a few key steps that can pave the way for change. With perseverance, these will begin to come following a Biden inauguration next year. Change will only come with education, with passing on what we learn to those who are yet to come. The message is not that little can be done. It is that a little must be done, day in day out and by many, for years to come.
Barack Obama had the words of Martin Luther King embroidered onto the White House Carpet; “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Let us all do all we can to make it bend that little bit faster.
These resources may help with some further understanding on these topics:
On Britain’s Colonial legacy- https://www.theguardian.com/news/2016/aug/18/uncovering-truth-british-empire-caroline-elkins-mau-mau
On how structures enslaving African Americans were perpetuated post 1865- Ava DuVernay’s documentary film 13th (on Netflix)
On the early civil rights movement in America- Examining the life of African American academic, activist and philosopher W.E.B DuBois, here is a brief snippet; https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/feb/22/featuresreviews.guardianreview30