On U.S. Independence Day 2020:
Has America’s System Failed to Cope with Racism?
[by Bhanu Dhamija]
As America celebrates 244 years of independence there is a new blot on its international image: that it is a racist country. Last month the streets there erupted in “Black Lives Matter” riots when George Floyd, a Minneapolis black man, was brutally killed by a white policeman. The incident sparked BLM protests around the world. But the impression these riots create, that the U.S. is a racist society and its system doesn’t treat blacks fairly, is inaccurate.
Racism in America runs deep, like in any society. Prejudices like racism never really go away. But the American system has helped whites and blacks come together in significant ways. The author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a black African woman who migrated to the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
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 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, realized that without black support he couldn’t win election and so announced a Civil Rights platform. Blacks gave him77% of their vote and spearheaded the greatest upset victory in U.S. history. The black vote has continued to be a major factor in every presidential election since.
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.
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 $22,000 to $40,000; and their high school graduation rate rose from 25% to 85%. One president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People noted that progress had been “breathtaking and unimaginable.” Today, the U.S. Congress is the most racially diverse in their history. And 12% of the members of their House of Representatives are black, equal to their share in population.
No doubt, racial inequalities in the U.S. 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’s Black Lives Matter protests are already making a difference in that country. Within one month of Mr. Floyd’s murder, more than 20 city and state governments have scaled back police forces and created new oversight. Congress is debating major reform bills. And President Trump has ordered a national registry of officers who use excessive force. In fact, the issue of police and criminal justice reform will most likely decide the next U.S. presidential election.
People of many countries would probably be willing to die for such responsiveness in their own governments.
 Gettysburg address, 19 November 1863
A version of this article was published on The Quint on 4 July 2020