Barack Obama maintains that since he began his reign, race relations in the U.S. have improved. American society holds the opposite view.
According to the president, the mass protests of African-Americans against police brutality that have already lasted for half a year should not overshadow the general improvement of relations between the black minority and whites. “It’s probably in its day to day interactions less racially divided,” judged Obama in a new year’s interview for NPR radio. He also underlined that unfair treatment of blacks by the police is not a new phenomenon, although in the past people could only talk about those events in private conversations. Today, technology enables the filming and touting illegitimate brutality by officers in the media. That gives the impression that the situation is much worse than it really is.
Even if the president is right, then clearly — as Americans used to say — a picture is worth a thousand words. According to the most recent survey of Bloomberg Politics, 53 percent of citizens hold the view that relations between the white majority and black minority are worse today than they were six years ago. The number of optimists has also slightly decreased. When Obama took office, 55 percent of Americans thought that racial tensions could be eradicated. Today, this opinion is supported by 52 percent of people, whereas 45 percent suspect that full harmony is never going to reign.
But the truth is somewhere in between. Taking into consideration that a half century ago in the southern U.S. racial segregation was still persistent — African-Americans did not have the right to use restaurants, cinemas and even washbasins labelled “whites only” — progress is indisputable. Unfortunately, racism has not disappeared; instead, it has been disguised with political correctness. What is hidden underneath was recently shown by the correspondence of Sony Pictures’ leaders. Chairman Amy Pascal and one of the main producers, Scott Rudin, were discussing potential topics for discussion with Obama and they were joking that Obama’s favorite movies must be “Django,” “12 Years a Slave” and “The Butler” (about a black-skinned lackey who worked in the White House for 34 years).
When racial stereotypes are perpetuated by the esteemed promoters of mass culture, one can easily conjecture that among lower-positioned people, the opinion is even worse. Even if an open racism preached by skinheads and neo-fascists is a marginal phenomenon, white and black Americans are still not living together but next to each other, on two sides of an invisible barrier.
Murders committed by white policemen on black-skinned Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York are just the two latest links of the long chain of similar incidents. There was also 17-year-old Trayvon Martin from Florida and street stallholder Amadou Diallo, who was literally chopped up by 41 bullets in the Bronx when he was trying to reach for his documents and the policemen thought he was reaching for his gun. In Queens, 23-year-old Sean Bell was shot 31 times when he lurched his car forward too rapidly. In none of the cases (and there are a lot more of them to tell), policemen did not have the grounds to use a weapon. It was all due to biases, fear of a big black man endowed with “animal strength.”
In the ABC interview, Brown’s killer said that the 18-year-old was a “demon” the size of “Hulk Hogan.” Those policemen who 22 years ago nearly beat Rodney King to death in Los Angeles and were still acquitted afterwards confessed that the black-skinned driver had the power of “the Incredible Hulk” (the character from the comics and TV series) and that he resembled “a monster-like figure akin to the Tasmanian devil.” That is why they treated him with several dozen hits in the head, stomach and genitals.
Abner Louima from Haiti was arrested by New York officers when he was trying to separate women fighting near some club. One policeman, Justin Volpe, [became convinced] that he was hit in the face by Louima. To teach the Haitan to respect white men, after they arrived at the police station he hurled racist remarks at him, tortured him and together with his friend raped him with a broom handle, puncturing his bowel and urinary bladder; later he pushed the bloody stick down to his throat, knocking his front teeth out.
Fifty years after implementing civil law, a black actress — especially a softer shade of black — can already play a white man’s wife, but even Denzel Washington won’t play a white woman’s husband in a blockbuster. But obviously, no one would boycott a movie. It’s just that very few people from Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi or Louisiana would go see the movie, and producers can’t afford that. When a salesman in an elegant boutique sees African-Americans, he becomes vigilant and suspects a potential robbery. The practice of stopping only black-skinned drivers by traffic police is called racial profiling, and it is a feature of everyday life.
Morals, superstitions and prejudices are upsetting, but they can be ignored on a daily basis. What’s worse is that they pervade the legal system; in the U.S., the suspect is not judged by professionals but by a jury made up of his peers. As a result, an African-American accused of killing a white person has an 11 times greater chance of being sentenced to death than a white person judged for the murder of a black person. If the person lives in Texas, the figure is 400 to 1. Since 1977, when the Supreme Court brought back the death penalty, 82 percent of those executed have been black, although African-Americans constitute only 12.6 percent of the whole society.
One would think they commit the greatest number of crimes. But that is not true. They have no money for attorneys and for police, they are deemed guilty until they prove their innocence. If a black-skinned teenager is taking something out of his pocket in a dark street, [a policeman] is obliged to shoot. The majority of New York policemen are Irishmen and Italians from proletarian districts that were closed to black people even up until three decades ago: Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Canarsie, Maspeth and Woodside. Claiming that they do not pay attention to the color of one’s skin is pious thinking, at best; at worst, it’s an ordinary lie. Black policemen constitute 16 percent of the whole NYPD crew.
President Obama is not that far wrong, actually — things are getting better but the changes are very slow. Even if finding an ideal of unconditional acceptance between different ethnic groups is practically impossible, in a few years’ time the very concept of race may be blurred. Since 1967, when the Supreme Court lifted the ban on mixed marriages (miscegenation), the number of such marriages is still growing and it is estimated at 10 percent today. Black-white couples are still not common, constituting only 20 percent among interracial marriages in general, but no one is surprised by marriages between Europeans and Asians or between Latinos and African-Americans.
The number of people in the U.S. who are declaring their multiracial roots has grown to 12.5 million — about 32 percent more than 10 years ago. According to Robert Kaplan from the New American Foundation and many more demographers, Americans will become a polymorphous society. What will be the nationality of a boy whose grandmother is Japanese, grandfather is Latino-African-American, who’s second grandmother is Polish-Puerto Rican and her husband is a descendant of Indians and Portuguese from Brazil? It will be American.
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