From the origins of the US constitution – which recognised black people as only 3/5 of a person, to the civil war that virtually threatened to rip the nation apart, to the violent civil rights movements of the 1960s, the so-called ‘Land of Freedom’ and ‘American Dream’ has always struggled to be a nation that treats all its citizens equally
When thousands of outraged people took to the streets, vandalised and burned down a Minneapolis police station located near the place a black man named George Floyd was murdered, the US President Donald Trump reacted by calling them "thugs" and threatening to shoot them "when the looting starts."
The president apparently doesn't like violent protests when it comes to the black people. However, he doesn't mind praising the White armed protesters in Michigan who physically threatened elected officials to lift coronavirus restrictions.
Because "they are very good people," said Donald Trump reacting to the incident.
For a president widely accused of racism, such comments hardly surprise people. In response to his crazy remarks, you often hear many ordinary Americans and his political opponents say "it is just Donald Trump; this is not the United States!"
That may be true to a certain extent. When it comes to certain issues, the United States does get a pass, as Trump's comments are often a by-product of his own bigotry and individual views.
But when it comes to issues of race and colour, the fissure runs much deeper and has had a stranglehold over the entire history of the United States as a nation.
From the origins of the US constitution – which recognised black people as only 3/5 of a person, to the civil war that virtually threatened to rip the nation apart, to the violent civil rights movements of the 1960s, the so-called 'Land of Freedom' and 'American Dream' has always struggled to be a nation that treats all its citizens equally.
The latest incident comes on the back of a number of incidents in recent years of police brutality on unarmed black Americans that have been captured on video. As one commentator pointed out, this has become 'life as usual' for Americans.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an American writer quipped in a recent article on The New York Times that "ready or not, life is returning to some sort of normal in the United States, and normal inevitably includes police officers killing an unarmed black man in their custody, followed by street protests."
By 'returning to normal', Taylor is referencing the easing of lockdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. Even when it comes to the pandemic, it is Black Americans who are paying the heaviest price. According to New York Times one in every 2,000 African-American citizens are losing their lives because of the coronavirus.
So, even after decades of struggles for equal rights and dignity, it is debatable even today whether 'black lives matter' in the United States at all.
At least 23,000 black people have died this spring. The way in which the pandemic wrought havoc on the Afro-American community is a perfect example of the deep-rooted inequalities in US society. For example – during the ongoing social distancing initiative in New York, the black community endured up to 93 percent of coronavirus related arrests.
Whether during a pandemic or in normal times, being a person of colour has a cost in the United States.
A history of repression and fightback
In 1619 a Dutch ship brought some 20 Africans ashore to Jamestown of Virginia, laying the foundation of slavery in the United States.
After the US founding fathers – George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – tacitly guaranteed in the constitution to reclaim any "person held to service or labour" euphemistically, slavery was sealed on Afro-Americans for a long time.
Over the nineteenth century the US witnessed events which gradually ended the slavery. Congress outlawed the import of new enslaved people in 1808.
Following the historic civil war where the Abraham Lincoln-led North emerged victorious over the slave-owning-Southern states, the 13th amendment in 1865 and 14th of 1968 officially abolished slavery and defined citizenship on the basis of equal protection.
Despite these victories, all through the twentieth century, people of colour in the United States had to struggle for basic rights and dignity.
The racism built upon the history of slavery always sunk its claws whenever the people of colour raised their voice for equality and social dignity. From rights of sitting in buses to jobs and other freedoms, people of colour had to earn them through a long civil rights movement for racial equality, that included many sacrifices during the 1960's and 1970's.
The United States as a state, didn't offer them dignity out its wisdom, remorse or some sudden epiphany.
When John F Kennedy made the passage of new civil rights legislation part his presidential campaign, he won more than 70 percent of black votes. Even though he didn't survive to fulfil the promise, his successor Lyndon Johnson pushed the Civil Rights Act through the Congress in 1964.
This act gave the federal government power to protect citizen rights from race, religion, sex based discriminations.
These rights came through the sacrifices of Malcom X – assassinated in 1965 – and Martin Luther King in 1968, two of the brightest of black rights campaigners.
Ever since, the US has abolished racism on paper. But the dignity and equality that the people of colour have been struggling for has not been achieved yet.
The latest police brutality and murder of a black man exemplifies this once again. Such police brutality on people of colour and the subsequent outrage is not an isolated story.
In 1992, while arresting a black man named Rodney King while he was on probation, the US police had brutally beaten him, which was captured on video camera.
When the footage went viral, people took to the streets in a manner similar to their reaction to the death of George Floyd. Soon race riots broke out all over the US, centering the state of California.
Time elapsed, and in between, African Americans earned a symbolic victory when the country got its black president – Barack Obama – in 2009.
But the intrinsic racism lurking behind the US societies didn't even spare Barack Obama as he had to show his birth certificate to prove he was born in the US, thanks to propaganda of people like the current President Donald Trump.
Take another example. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr was arrested on suspicion of breaking and entering his own home. Baffled at the turnout of the incident, Professor Gates later said, "Why, because I'm a black man in America?"
In July 2019, a black teenager named Elijah Al-Amin was stabbed to death by a white man at a gas station in Phoenix. Al Amin's crime was that he was playing his rap music loudly.
Earlier in May in Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery, an African American man, was shot dead by two white men when he went out for jogging in the park.
Or what about the black kids who were arrested for selling CDs?
Corey Jackson – a 12 years old rapper once featured on Ellen Show – was selling CDs in a mall on October 6, 2018.
Then a police officer came and asked, "You're 12? You are about to go to jail."
When Jackson's aunt who was nearby insisted that the officer talk to the boy's dad, the aunt was charged with felony obstruction.
The boy was later released. But the police maltreatment of black community and harsher actions for minor offense never really stopped.
In the widely circulated videos of George Floyd murder, the faceless voices behind the camera, have been urging to "get off his neck," or "he's a human," or "he's dying," when the police officer knelt on his neck.
But the officer didn't pay heed. Instead, he went on kneeling on Floyd's neck to the extent that he eventually murdered him.
If such malevolence among the US officers are hard to comprehend, or a sitting president's warning to shoot the protesters' appears too bizarre, you have to look at the "layered and complex" history of racism in the US to understand why such violence refuses to go away.