US under grip of racial stress

The emotionally charged Ferguson crisis seemed to be fading away, but the grand jury verdict on December 3 on Eric Garner opened another cycle of protests across the US. The two incidents happening in a span of 10 days have literally exposed America’s vulnerability to racial division.

 In July, a white police officer Daniel Pantaleo tried to arrest Eric Garner – a black man - in New York for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. The unarmed Garner resisted arrest but stood his ground. In the scuffle that ensued, he was overpowered by several police officers who dashed him to the ground and seemingly did not bother when Garner continued to describe difficulty in breathing. He died shortly after on the spot.

The grand jury verdict decided not to indict Pantaleo. This, coupled with the video showing excess force being applied by the police in the incident, has set in motion a wave of peaceful but passionate protests with people regardless of their colour and race joining.

Another much awaited verdict, of the Ferguson shootout where an unarmed African American youth Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer was delivered on November 24. The grand jury of 12 decided against indicting Darren Wilson, the police officer involved in the shooting. No sooner did the verdict become public, protesters in Ferguson came out on the streets. More than a dozen buildings were
set on fire by the rioters and shops were looted.  One of the major reasons of people’s disappointment was that the jury decided against indicting Wilson even for lesser charges of manslaughter.

According to the jury, “no probable cause exists to file any charge against Officer Wilson.” Within a matter of hours, several major cities in the US were witnessing demonstrations. Over the next 3 days, more than 150 protests were held. The holiday of Thanksgiving Day came as a breather, leading to dying down of the protests.

In a significant move, the Congressional Black Caucus –consisting of black elected representatives to the Congress- castigated the grand jury verdict and termed it as a ‘slap in our face!’ The continued protests forced President Barack Obama to admit that deep distrust existed between law enforcement agencies and the people of colour.

It is difficult to say whether death of Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s were racially motivated, but the protests and riots throughout the country soon assumed racial colours.

Race relations have always been a sensitive issue in the US as is caste-based reservation in India. It may be noted that the racial divide in the country dates back to the colonial and slave era. Starting from President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, setting the slaves free, to the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the US has no doubt come a long way, but the susceptibilities of the country are not too far to see.

Socio-economic equality
The African-American community in the US is still far from achieving socio-economic equality. Racial discrimination and racial prejudices prevail. The African-Americans continue to be poorer, achieve less educational standards and face more prejudices and obstacles in employment.

A report this year by the Emerson College Polling Society revealed that as many as 61 per cent African-Americans in the US believe that race relations in the country are going from bad to worse. Similarly, racial segregation is a stark reality in contemporary US. Whether it is a mid-size town like Springfield in Illinois or a metropolis like New York, whites and blacks live largely in separate neighbourhoods.

Chicago is another example of racial segregation where the south side the city is inhabited by the African American community. The people of colour also have to face racial profiling. Crime rate, prevalence of drug abuse and gun violence is higher among the blacks. Blacks account for less than 15 per cent of the US population, but comprise of 45 per cent of incarcerations (in jails). Being a big black male means you would be put to extra scrutiny!

The spectacular elevation of Barack Obama as the first African-American person to assume the president’s office was seen as a new chapter in the American history, one that is free of any racial prejudice. But almost 6 years down the line, the reality on the ground remains far different from what millions dreamt of.

The 1968 Kerner Commission – set up following the dreadful riots in Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and Newark - had described the US as moving towards two separate and unequal societies- one white and one black and 46 years later, the gulf is too evident. These current protests give another opportunity to reflect back. The two episodes also raise the issue of police reforms.

(The writer is a Chicago-based practicing physician and a socio-political commentator)

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