Racism in US: Lady Justice, what’s your verdict?

By Ameen Izzadeen
In November 2008, the rest of the world partied with the people of America in celebrating the victory of Barack Hussein Obama. The victory was touted then as symbolising the collapse of the racial wall. But recent events in the United States indicate that it was not so and more blows are needed to bring down the wall.
Sadly, though, these blows come in the form of deaths of Afro-Americans and in the form of protest marches and even riots — as happened in 1991 in Los Angeles when an unarmed Rodney King, an Afro-American, was beaten up by four Euro American police officers for violating traffic laws. (If Afro Americans are called blacks, the whites should be called Euro-Americans)
Even yesterday thousands of protesters – irrespective of their skin colours, poured onto the streets in New York to convey to President Obama that there cannot be racial injustice in the United States. Their “No justice, no peace’ protest came in the wake of a decision by a grand jury not to prosecute a Euro American police officer responsible for the death of Eric Garner, an asthma patient.
“I can’t breathe,” Garner pleaded 11 times with the police officers, one of whom had him in a deadly chokehold. Garner, who died minutes later, had been arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes on July 17. A video footage taken by an onlooker shows the arrest and a police officer using a nelson hold to put him down. Like in the Rodney King case, there was evidence that excessive force was used on Garner. Yet a grand jury on Wednesday declined to charge the Euro American police officer, prompting President Obama to say for the second time within a month that more should be done to make all Americans feel that they are equal before the law.
“When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that is a problem, and it’s my job as president to help solve it,” he said.
Weeks before, when Ferguson erupted in protest over a grand jury decision not to prosecute a police officer who shot dead Afro-American teenager Michael Brown, Obama said there were still problems — and communities of colour were not just making these problems up. “…. there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in a discriminatory fashion.”
The deaths of Brown and Garner together with that of a 12-year-old Afro-American boy who was gunned down by police officers in Ohio while handling a toy pistol in a playground, have rekindled the debate on whether the United States has freed itself of racism.
Obama says the US has made much progress in race relations over the past several decades. He was probably right.
Obama, the first Afro-American to be elected as the President of the United States, would not have achieved this historic feat if Euro-Americans had been racists.
By electing and reelecting Obama, a majority of the Americans proved they were a people who had risen above racism. The Americans – the youth overwhelmingly – by casting their votes for Obama have dumped the racial barrier that had stood as an ugly monument in US history in to the dustbin of history.
Obama’s entry into White House was seen as the ultimate victory of the struggle championed by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parker and others.
But when police officers who kill Afro-American suspects are not prosecuted, questions arise whether the Afro-Americans have been fully integrated into wider American social order, notwithstanding an Afro-American in the White House.
Equality before the law is largely on paper and it is of little value when discrimination persists in practice. The Civil Rights Movement’s struggle to achieve equal rights and opportunities for the Afro-American community is not over.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an advocacy group, in its 2012 report said, “As long as treatments differ – as long as the sentences for blacks are adjudged more harshly than those handed down for non-blacks, we will continue to advocate for change and demand justice.”
The report also highlighted the sordid sides of racial profiling of Afro Americans and denounced the notorious “Stop and Frisk” programme targeting coloured people in New York City as abusive.
A bigger indictment came from the United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). In findings released in August this year, CERD slammed the US for persistent racial and ethnic discrimination and failure to meet its treaty obligations under the convention.
The findings said minority communities in the US were disproportionately disadvantaged in all areas of life, including education, criminal justice, voting, housing and access to health care.
One CERD investigator noted that despite several decades of affirmative action, segregation in US schools was worse today than it was in the 1970s.
Lauren Carasik, a clinical professor of law and the director of the international human rights clinic at the Western New England University School of Law, in an article to Aljazeera America, says African-American children are deeply disadvantaged in accessing educational opportunities. Minority students are not provided with equal facilities, many attend single-race classrooms, and their limited access to a rigorous curriculums contributes to disparate levels of academic achievement and access to jobs.
Carasik’s article cites a study by the US Department of Education. It found that African-American students face harsher discipline as early as in preschool and through high school. For many of these children, this heralds the beginning of a school-to-prison pipeline. Suspended or expelled students are more likely to drop out of schools, and those who leave school are more likely to enter the criminal justice system — a trajectory that is hard to escape.
These reports show that despite claims of much progress towards assimilation, much more needs to be done, especially in the area of administration of justice and law enforcement. Obama has two more years in the White House and he must rectify the flaws in the administration of justice system and work towards realising the dream of Martin Luther King which he expounded in his famous speech on August 28, 1963, while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on December 5, 2014)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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