Late last year, shortly after the protests at Yale, our professor took his students out for a beer to try to have a genuine conversation about America’s race problem. It is a conversation that has come to mind repeatedly as events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas have provided grim evidence that such problems have gone nowhere.
While sat in that bar I listened to fellow students talk about the issue in big, abstract terms like the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement and the role of the police. Others talked about it in more personal terms, including how exhausting black students find it to constantly have to explain to their white friends how prejudice and discrimination are still very real even on an outwardly progressive university campus. Another spoke up to share the experience of a family member who had spent a lifetime in law enforcement.
Those of us who were not from the United States felt as if we were intruding on the discussion of a family tragedy; something that was – on all sides – still raw and could never be fully understood by outsiders.
The tragedy is ongoing. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile now join names such as Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin as the most public victims of a seemingly endless wave of violence directed against young African Americans. Meanwhile, officers Jackson, Garafola and Gerald in Baton Rouge join the five officers killed in Dallas last week. Many of their colleagues were already working hard to restore trust in divided neighbourhoods, a job that will be even harder and perhaps more dangerous today. As Barack Obama put it in his eulogy in Dallas, ‘thank you for being heroes’.
Away from Texas and Louisiana some of the damage is still real but harder to see. The insidiousness of racial prejudice is made clear by just how far it can reach American society. Back in Massachusetts plenty of fellow students – perhaps previously under the impression that admission to one of the most liberal universities in one of the most liberal places in the country would allow them to leave racial prejudice behind for a few semesters – can still be made to feel unwelcome. To take just one example, on a morning in November students at Harvard Law School came into campus to find that all the portraits of black professors had been defaced overnight. Racism is not confined to small corners of southern states.
Neither is the anger at its institutionalised form felt only by its immediate victims. Like the wider news of gun violence in the US, news of the deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement has a terrible monotony. In response, no writer’s words have had more resonance than those of Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates. In comments that are hard to hear but strike a powerful chord with many, he put it this way: ‘the truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.’
Whether or not that is true, the fact that the latest series of tragedies has taken place during election season will only make the knot harder to untangle. Among the many absurdities of US politics is how the two-party system and the ongoing culture war reduces discussion of the country’s race problem to a series of binary choices: support the police or support minority groups; security or civil liberties; black lives matter or all lives matter; the votes of angry white people or the votes of everyone else. Politicians who think that the choice lies between either campaigning in favour of law and order or addressing racism run into that trap headfirst. Exhibit A for this is the extent to which Dallas, the centre of last week’s attacks, had already become a model for police reform.
The conversation back at the bar served as a reminder that our fascination with American politics can make us forget the powerlessness of its politicians. When we describe the next president as ‘leader of the free world’ we miss out most of their job description: to heal a badly broken country with few meaningful tools to do so. The winner in November and his or her successors are set to preside over a country with an economy and a lifestyle that is the envy of most of the world. But they will also lead a country where, in some towns, clean water does not reliably come out of the taps, where schools are so underfunded that teachers use their own salaries to buy textbooks and where neither the police nor those they are meant to protect can feel entirely safe. These things are also a problem in white neighbourhoods but they are rarer.
None of this is new. Writing back in 1952 Ralph Ellison thought his country’s unwillingness to open its eyes to racial discrimination made the struggles of African Americans invisible. Today America seems a little more awake to these problems, but not much more. As Ellison put it ‘there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.’
Charlie Samuda is a former adviser to the Labour party and is studying at the Harvard Kennedy School. He tweets @CharlieSamuda
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