New chapter in America’s painful racial history

With police killings of black people still at disproportionately high levels, Obama’s endorsement of Clinton encapsulates the progress in race relations even as they remain riven by tensions, writes Bette Browne

New chapter in America’s painful racial history

AN EXTRAORDINARY moment in America’s racial history played out in the hours before Hillary Clinton officially became the Democratic nominee in the White House race.

It was the moment when a black president stepped onto the convention stage to help a white woman realise her political ambitions and stake her place in history.

On one level, of course, President Barack Obama in his speech on Wednesday night touting Clinton’s skills and experience for the White House was just returning the favour she did for him eight years ago when she backed his nomination.

But on another level the moment encapsulated the progress in race relations in America, even as they remain riven by tensions.

Anyone who has lived and worked in America, as I did for two decades, knows that race relations there are fragile at best and explosive at worst.

The deaths of black men and women at the hands of police have rocked the country in recent years, while police officers themselves have also been targeted.

The night before Obama spoke, seven mothers of some of those killed, known as “Mothers of the Movement”, told in graphic terms about their loved ones’ deaths and urged reform of a criminal justice system some see as broken and racist.

One mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, said: “One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter, Sandra Bland, was lowered into the ground in a coffin.

“Sandy, my fourth of five daughters, was found hanging in a jail cell after an unlawful traffic stop and an unlawful arrest. Six other women died in custody that same month.”

One after the other, the mothers spoke about their anguish. They spoke about “the talk”, the conversation African-American families have about how to behave if stopped by police.

“That is a conversation no parent should ever have to have,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davies. “I am still Jordan Davis’s mother. His life ended the day he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.”

Better race relations were about “a future where police officers and communities of colour work together in mutual respect,” she said. “The majority of police officers are good people doing a good job.”

The Washington Post put the number of black people who were shot dead last year at 258. This year 136 black people have been killed by police.

Police killings of white people are similar but blacks were killed at rates disproportionate to their percentage of the US population. Of all of the unarmed people shot and killed by police in 2015, an estimated 40% were black men, even though black people make up roughly 13% of the nation’s population.

Race relations have become so tense that more than half of black people say they were not surprised by the attack that killed five police officers in Dallas this month.

Nearly half of white Americans say that they, too, were unsurprised by the episode, according to a New York Times/CBS survey.

Entertainers sing ‘What the World Needs Now’ during the third day session of the convention
Entertainers sing ‘What the World Needs Now’ during the third day session of the convention

The lack of gun control in America is also a factor, insists Obama, saying that progress is being made in race relations.

While it’s true that centuries of racial injustice cannot be righted simply by twice electing a black man as president, the symbolism of his election has undoubtedly helped the healing process.

Some might suggest it’s all just about politics. But that misses the bigger point —when the most powerful black man in America passes the torch of leadership to a white woman it is also the beginning of a new chapter in the nation’s painful racial history.

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