As America celebrates 244 years of independence, there is a new blot on its international image: that it is a ‘racist’ country. In June, the US saw a revival of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement with many parts of the country erupting in protests over the killing of African-American man George Floyd, by a white policeman in Minneapolis. The BLM protests soon spread to other parts of the world.
But the impression this incident created, that the US remains largely a racist society, is not entirely accurate.
Racism in America runs deep, like in many societies. Prejudices like racism never really go away. But the American system, despite its history of racism, has helped whites and blacks come together in significant ways. The author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an African woman who migrated to the US in 2006, recently tweeted: “... America is the best place on the planet to be black, female, gay, trans or what have you. We have our problems and we need to address those. But our society and our systems are far from racist.”
As a brown man who migrated to the US in 1979, I can vouch for Ali’s statement.
And as a longtime student of America’s political system, I can also add that racial equality there has improved dramatically, despite the country’s Original Sin of slavery and racism’s deep-roots.
Slavery & Racism: Has America Atoned?
Many of America’s founders were slaveholders, and the country’s Constitution, written in 1787, accepted slavery as a legitimate institution. Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person in determining a state’s population and governmental representation. As President Abraham Lincoln later wrote, “The thing is hid away in the Constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away… a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.”
America has been atoning for this injustice ever since. The first big penance was the Civil War (1861-65), which nearly ended the nation.
It pitted the slaveholding southern states against the north, and killed more Americans — estimates go up to 750,000 —than the two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam combined. Nearly 200,000 black soldiers had joined in that fight. In 1863, President Lincoln emancipated all slaves and spoke of “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
That war was followed by three constitutional amendments—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth—which gave black Americans legal status. But the protections were poorly enforced and the southern states continued their racial apartheid.
A Turning Point In Race Relations In US
A turning point in race relations came with the 1948 presidential election which allowed blacks to enter the political mainstream. After WWII, black veterans launched a ‘double victory’ campaign, saying that America, which had just fought fascism abroad, could not tolerate discrimination at home.
Harry Truman, a southern politician, realised that without black support, he couldn’t win and election, and so announced a Civil Rights platform. The blacks gave him 77 percent of their vote and spearheaded the greatest upset victory in US history. The black vote has continued to be a major factor in every presidential election since.
- Racism in America runs deep. But the American system, despite its history of racism, has helped whites and blacks come together in significant ways.
- The author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an African woman in the US, recently tweeted: “America is the best place on the planet to be black, female, gay, trans or what have you.”
- As a brown man who migrated to the US in 1979, I can vouch for Ali’s statement.
- A turning point in race relations came with the 1948 presidential election which allowed blacks to enter the political mainstream.
- The last redressal of racial inequality came with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
- Today, the US Congress is perhaps the most racially diverse it has ever been in its history.
- Within one month of George Floyd’s murder, more than 20 city and state governments have scaled-back police forces, and created new means of supervision.
- The Congress is also debating major reform bills after Floyd’s killing by a white police officer.
The last redressal of racial inequality came with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. During the 1950s, both the executive and judiciary branches of government promoted civil rights, but the legislature, controlled by the white majority, dragged its feet. With the shocking assassination of President John F Kennedy, though, public support for his civil rights program forced the majority to relent. The Act provided blacks with comprehensive protections against discrimination in housing, schools, and employment.
Did America’s Civil Rights Act Make Any Impact On Ground?
During the 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, blacks made significant gains in political power, economic condition, and education. Black voter turnout surpassed that of whites; their number of elected officials rose sevenfold; median income increased from USD 22,000 to USD 40,000; and their high school graduation rate rose from 25 percent to 85 percent. One president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People noted that progress had been “breathtaking and unimaginable.”
Today, the US Congress is perhaps the most racially diverse it has ever been in its history.
And 12 percent of the members of their House of Representatives are black, equal to their share in population.
America’s Criminal Justice System Is Yet To Treat Blacks Fairly
No doubt, racial inequalities in the US still remain. They are most notable in the levels of wealth and income. But those are arguably inequalities of outcome, not inequalities of treatment. Blacks are treated ‘fairly’, according to a 2019 Pew Research survey, in most areas, like loans, stores and restaurants, elections, medical treatment, etc.
That survey did indicate, however, that they are still treated unfairly by the police and criminal justice system.
Today, Black Lives Matter protests are again making widespread impact and a difference in the US on ground.
Within one month of Floyd’s murder, more than 20 city and state governments have scaled-back police forces, and created new means of supervision.
The Congress is debating major reform bills. In the wake of Floyd’s murder, even though President Trump – controversially – “largely defended police officers, saying Americans ‘demand law and order’...,” as per this NPR report, at the same time, bowing to public pressure, he ordered a national registry of police officers who use excessive force. In fact, the issue of police and criminal justice reform is likely to be among the deciding factors in the upcoming US presidential election.
This, even as people of several countries continue to look forward to such responsiveness in their own governments.
(The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’. He can be reached @BhanuDhamija .This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)