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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

I Can’t Breathe!

The catalyst for the current worldwide public outburst within America and all over the world was killing of yet another 46 years old black man George Floyd, whose last dying words, “I can’t breathe” has become a global slogan against racism. On 25th May 2020, he was handcuffed and pinned to the ground by a white Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck till his tragic death and has been charged with murder. The demonstrators not only expressed solidarity with their American counterparts but denounced racism in their own countries. The criticism thundered from the streets of Berlin, London, Paris and Vancouver, British Columbia, to capitals in Africa, Latin America, New Zealand and the Middle East. Artists drew an anti-racism mural in a besieged part of Syria. Lebanese and Chilean protesters offered advice on protection from police abuse. The eruption of America’s racism problem and ongoing rioting this time in one of the most prosperous U.S. cities amid COVID-19 crises reveals how little progress has been made in addressing the lingering issue. All this because a problem that too many Americans thought had eased or decided to overlook i.e. police abuse of minority communities returned in the most shocking way, with criminals and vandals exploiting what began as legitimate protests. Yet in truth the killing of George Floyd has inflamed tensions that have been mounting for years in Minneapolis—due to not only the city’s history with the killing of its black residents by Minneapolis police officers but growing economic inequality, gaps in education and access, and most recently the disproportionate impacts on black and brown communities from the corona virus, both in terms of infections and deaths but also layoffs. Some civil rights experts said that they had been expecting this, that it was only a matter of time before such rage exploded given the rise of social tensions and racially connected arrests in recent weeks. Black men wearing face masks have been especially confronted and arrested during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Professor Annette Gordon Reed at Harvard University in an article published in January 2018, “America’s original sin” carried out detailed analysis of Slavery and the legacy of white supremacy in USA. A gist is recapitulated here to expose backdrop to the present commotion. The documents most closely associated with the creation of the United States i.e. ‘the Declaration of Independence’ and ‘the American Constitution’ present a problem with which Americans have been contending from the country’s beginning: how to reconcile the values espoused in those texts with the United States’ original sin of slavery, the flaw that marred the country’s creation, warped its prospects, and eventually plunged it into civil war. Its confident statement that “all men are created equal,” with “unalienable Rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” put notions of freedom and equality at the heart of the American experiment. Yet it was written by a slave owner, Thomas Jefferson, and released into 13 colonies that all, to one degree or another, allowed slavery. The document they fought over and signed in 1787, revered almost as a sacred text by many Americans, directly protected slavery. It gave slave owners the right to capture fugitive slaves who crossed state lines, counted each enslaved person as three-fifths of a free person for the purpose of apportioning members of the House of Representatives, and prohibited the abolition of the slave trade before 1808. There might well have been no United States without George Washington, behind whom 13 fractious colonies united. However, both Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. They, along with James Madison, James Monroe, and Andrew Jackson, the other three slave-owning presidents of the early republic, shaped the first decades of the United States.

The issue, however, goes far beyond the ways Americans think and talk about their history. Slavery in the United States created a defined, recognizable group of people and placed them outside society. And unlike the indentured servitude of European immigrants to North America, slavery was an inherited condition. As a result, American slavery was tied inescapably to white dominance. Even people of African descent who were freed for one reason or another suffered under the weight of the white supremacy that racially based slavery entrenched in American society. The system that put black people at the bottom of the social heap tamped down class divisions among whites. Consider, by contrast, what might have happened had there been Irish chattel slavery in North America. The Irish suffered pervasive discrimination and were subjected to crude and cruel stereotypes about their alleged inferiority, but they were never kept as slaves. Their enslavement would be a major historical fact, but it would likely not have created a legacy so firmly tying the past to the present as did African chattel slavery. Indeed, the descendants of white indentured servants blended into society and today suffer no stigma because of their ancestors’ social condition. It also made it easy to continue organized oppression after the 13th Amendment ended legal slavery in 1865. There was no incentive for whites to change their attitudes about race even when slavery no longer existed. Whiteness still amounted to a value, unmoored from economic or social status. Blackness still had to be devalued to ensure white superiority. This calculus operated in Northern states as well as Southern ones. It has taken until well into the twenty-first century for many Americans to begin to reject the idea of erecting statues of men who fought to construct an explicitly white supremacist society.

Since then, black Americans have made many social and economic gains, but there is still far to go. The United States twice elected a black president and had a black first family, but the next presidential election expressed, in part, a backlash. African Americans are present in all walks of life, up and down the economic scale. But overall, black wealth is a mere fraction of white wealth. Police brutality and radicalized law enforcement tactics have shown that the Fourth Amendment does not apply with equal force to black Americans. And the killing of armed black men in open-carry states by police has called into question black rights under the Second Amendment. To understand these problems, look not only to slavery itself but also to its most lasting legacy: the maintenance of white supremacy. Americans must come to grips with both if they are to make their country live up to its founding creed.

The issue of race and police violence is almost certain to enter the 2020 presidential race. U.S. soft power was already dwindling under Trump. But the new wave of police violence and racial injustice may be drying up the reserves. The overwhelmingly negative international reaction to the crackdown showed how far the United States’ reputation has fallen in the eyes of the world under the Trump presidency, evoking the international opprobrium directed at previous U.S. governments during the Vietnam War and civil rights era, when police in Southern states turned attack dogs on black freedom marchers. Trump, who at first lamented Floyd’s death, appeared to only inflame tensions when he quoted civil rights-era white segregationists, tweeting: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Strikingly, Trump, in a Rose Garden news conference on Friday 29th May 2020, then declined to talk about Minneapolis at all. Meanwhile Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden said Trump was “calling for violence against American citizens.” Biden declared that Floyd’s death exposed an “open wound” in the nation’s history stemming from the racism that “still stains” the United States. The US presidential election due in November 2020 is likely to be greatly impacted by the current wave of countrywide racial riots as well as by socio-economic backlash of COVID-19 Pandemic. Nevertheless, Trump’s white supremacist leaning is prone to shake the constitutional foundations of USA; something akin to Modi’s Nazi Hindutva nationalism and anti Muslim drive in India.

3rd June 2020

· Saleem Qamar Butt, SI (M), (R) is a senior Army officer with rich experience in International relations, military diplomacy and analysis of geo-political and strategic security issues. (Website: )

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