The tragic and racist events making headlines these days in the United States give us a painful reminder that there have always been two Americas: The ideal one, which sometimes even believed its own fantasies; the one that enabled the election of Barack Obama a dozen years ago. And the other one, anchored in reality; the one where inequality and racism often conceal the ideals that it claims to hold.
It is this America that was reestablished in terror with the death of George Floyd, an African American man, during a violent arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Protests shook Minneapolis as the video of Floyd’s arrest by a white officer, who was charged yesterday with third degree murder and involuntary manslaughter, went viral.
The 46-year-old man, who is suspected of having attempted to use a counterfeit $20 bill, was brutally pinned to the ground for several minutes. He pleaded, telling the officer that he could not breathe — in vain.
This death, the black community’s indignation, the protests turning to riots … Americans have enacted this scene too often. A scene where, this time, a black CNN reporter was arrested, while his white colleague right next to him was allowed to continue his work.
“People are trapped in history and history trapped in them,” wrote James Baldwin, a writer and spokesperson for the civil rights movement, during the 1950s.
In 2020, echoing this inescapable reasoning, American media are also reporting these days on the shocking developments related to the death of Ahmaud Arbery. The 25-year-old black man was jogging on a Georgia street before being shot by two white men. As always, the scenario does not surprise anyone: They said that they thought he was a robber.
Let us digress here to explain that the death of Arbery allowed us to understand that in a country where it is said “all men are created equal,” an act as commonplace as jogging is tinged by the racial divide.
The New York Times, in the wake of this event, published “Running While Black,” a series of testimonies on the subject. They are overwhelming.
“Like many black runners, the very act of doing one of the things we love most in life comes with a searing existential stress and constraint … I have never jogged without the specter of race. The way I look shadows my every stride,” explained journalist Kurt Streeter.
For certain readers that were cited, the smartphone, because of its camera, is just as important as running shoes. A woman from Missouri says that she has made certain that she can automatically upload her photos and videos to three different platforms in order to document any potential incident while running. She also shares her location with friends and family.
Another woman says she runs with a system, in Philadelphia, in the company of a white friend. And a man from Texas has a whole series of questions for himself that would be superfluous if the color of his skin were different. Whether his beard is too thick, for example, or if the positioning of his hat could send a “bad message.”
Fifty years ago, when the pianist and singer Nina Simone was asked to give her definition of liberty, she responded: “No fear.”
Several decades later, the color of someone’s skin in the United States remains the principal barrier on the route to such liberty.
Fear … profoundly linked to hate, distrust and intolerance.
Let us remember that the same day that Floyd died, almost 2,000 km (1,243 miles) from there (in Central Park), a white woman called the police to accuse a black man who had simply asked her to put a leash on her dog.
“There’s a man, African American … recording me and threatening me and my dog. Please send the cops immediately!” she yelled, about Christian Cooper, an amateur ornithologist.
This woman was certainly aware of the power she had because of the color of her skin, and the terrible consequences such a call would have brought for Cooper. He could have been another victim of white police brutality.
The election of Obama was in and of itself an unforgettable accomplishment, but it did not lead to a revolution. Racist incidents have also multiplied since his two terms in office. Police brutality against blacks has as well. Eric Garner suffered from similar circumstances in 2014 as those that lead to the death of Floyd this week.
Maybe even by an unfortunate reversal of sorts, the United States is suffering the repercussions of this historic election.
Some believe that the racial divide, rather than narrowing, is becoming even wider.
Is the election of Donald Trump, after everything, inseparable from that of Obama? The intellectual Ta-Nehisi Coates, who considers the Republican politician “America’s first white president,” is convinced of this. To him, the victory of the Republican president is the logical result of the historic election of 2008.
“Trump truly is something new — the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president,” he wrote.
As if he wanted to confirm such ideas for the umpteenth time, Trump confirmed Friday on Twitter that the National Guard could shoot the protesters and looters in Minneapolis. His tweet was flagged by Twitter for “glorifying violence.”
No, decidedly, progress is not linear. The United States is continually presenting us with proof these days. Another demonstration that history, as Baldwin wrote as well, “may be that nightmare from which no one can awaken.”
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