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Opinion » Comment

Posted at: Dec 13, 2014, 12:18 AM; last updated: Dec 12, 2014, 10:35 PM (IST)

Race riots in America

Making racial integration a long-term problem
Race riots in America

It was September 1957 and I had gone to Montgomery, Alabama in the United States, to see Reverend Martin Luther King Jr at his office. He emerged out of a meeting to accost me politely. He said he had a bad cold and would go to bed after a shot. Therefore, he could not grant me an interview.

I would have taken my reverse in good humour but for the fact that he then spent about half an hour chatting and joking with his attractive Negro secretary — before the term was banished in favour of black. Besides, I was mortified that he did meet a Hollywood producer in the evening.

The successful bus boycott by blacks had resulted in the formation of the Montgomery Improvement Association which King headed. The metropolitan area had a population of 110,000, a little over 40 per cent of them black. The railway station had two waiting rooms, one for whites and a corner room for blacks. Along the way from New Orleans I saw signs saying “colored waiting room” and “colored lunch”.

Contrast this with the American scene some 50-odd years later in 2008. Barack Obama swept the presidential election with 95 per cent black vote and 43 per cent white share, the first black President in American history. The blacks, who came as slaves, had reached the pinnacle of political power.

It was a landmark achievement, but while the blacks have come a long way, the recent killing of an unarmed black, Michael Brown, by Darren Wilson, a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, and his exoneration by a grand jury created rioting, pillage and deaths as the police fired at often violent demonstrators. And blacks and civil rights workers demonstrated around the country.

President Obama’s response seemed less than compelling, perhaps because as President of all Americans, he had the delicate task of comforting blacks while speaking for all citizens. And now he is suggesting that all policemen be armed with cameras, in addition to their armour and weapons.

To describe the black-white conflict is a long score card. For one thing, there is very little social intermingling outside the workplace. They live in two different worlds because while one can legislate equality, getting rid of long-held beliefs and prejudices is an arduous journey, as our own experiences with untouchability and caste demonstrate.

Although housing in the major cities is not as segregated as it used to be, there is often a built-in segregation by the prices of more desirable properties. Here lies the disproportionate inequality between whites and blacks. The blacks' unemployment rates are higher as are drug addiction and prison population in proportion to their numbers. Strikingly, the police forces are predominantly white, irrespective of the ratio of blacks in a community.

These statistics of inequality are compounded by two factors. Americans have a love affair with the gun stemming from their original frontier days fighting the indigenous American Indian population. Every American considers it as his or her birth right to own a gun, the deadlier the better. In the American mind, possessing a gun, or often several guns, is equal to freedom.

Given this gun culture, frequently leading to the slaying of innocents, police forces do their duties in a riot situation dressed more like soldiers brisling with arms going to war, rather than seeking to pacify a bit of civilian trouble. The assumption is that since everyone lives in a gun culture, the police need to be fully armed.

How effective camera-toting policemen will be in coping with future troubles remains to be seen, even if the legislature grants President Obama's proposal costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Since the crux of the problem often is that in black eyes, the white cop who has shot an unarmed black is lying to save his skin, a photographic record of the encounter could provide an answer, assuming the images are clear and convincing.

There are no easy answers, even if a future President were white, as he or she inevitably will be. Blacks are somewhat more than 14 per cent of America's population. But their problems are unique, unlike the Latin and Asian populations that tend to meld into the famed American melting pot. It is the historical circumstances as much as the racial divide that stump the integration of blacks and whites.

However, the task of reconciliation remains urgent. Apart from Mr Obama, there have been other black individual success stories such as those of Colin Powell reaching the pinnacle in army service and any number of cabinet ministers spread over several administrations. But these examples do not add up to the enfranchisement of all blacks.

Indeed, the feeling among many blacks is that Mr Obama has not done enough for the genuine enfranchisement and prosperity of blacks. Inevitably, the first black President is constrained by his compulsions of seeking the welfare of all Americans.

The International New York Times has reported that the first black state trooper in New Jersey, Paul McLemore, was asked whether things had changed since the area’s last major race conflagration 47 years ago in terms of blacks achieving justice. He answered, “No period. There is pervasive racism — white racism”. A recent poll after Brown's murder revealed that 62 per cent of blacks and 22 per cent whites believed that the policeman was at fault.

Meanwhile, incidents keep piling up. In 2012, there was the shooting of a black by a white in Florida. In 2009, a black in Oakland was shot dead by a white officer, who was charged with manslaughter, not murder. And recently and tragically, a 12-year-old black boy with a painted toy gun was shot and killed by a white policeman. The latest incident was of a white policeman killing an unarmed black in a chokehold. In the last two cases, grand juries acquitted both policemen, leading to a fresh wave of countrywide rioting.

Bringing racial reconciliation is very much a work in progress in the United States.

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