As thousands of protesters clash with riot police and the National Guard in the US in the wake of George Floyd’s asphyxiation after policeman Derek Chauvin kept his foot on his neck for more than eight minutes in Minneapolis on May 25th, we must face the reality that the American Civil War is not over.
America has not made its peace with its history of slavery. America has not made its peace with black skin.
For those who believe in their hearts, not just their heads, that “Black Lives Matter” every bit as much as lives of any other hue, the video of George Floyd’s killing and his last words, “I can’t breathe”, bespeak a horror which goes beyond this particular outrage.
We know somewhere in us that countless thousands of black men, women and children have been trampled to death under the boots of people like us.
Watching the video - if you can - scratches a very old guilt. Millions of slaves were trafficked from Africa to the US, the UK, the Caribbean, the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere in a trade which lasted over 400 years.
The writer Mary Russell has found evidence of a black, four-year-old boy being trafficked into Cork Harbour during her research into the Munster butter trade.
Neither the black world nor the white world has done more than partially recover from this horror. Though it’s likely that many genuinely believed that black slaves were not as fully human as they were themselves, I think it’s likely many knew they were, and hid the emotion.
Servants of all kinds were badly treated but the difference made by black skin was that our common humanity could be completely overlooked. People with black skin became the victims of our most extreme passions, whether sexual, violent, emotional or all three.
It’s clear that when Abraham Lincoln won the American Civil War in 1865 many on the Confederate side did not accept the victory, It’s clear their descendants are still fighting.
The African-American is several generations away from slavery, the white American is several generations away from the Confederates, and yet the black man must still be the whipping boy for loss of any kind.
The extinguishing of black lives by the white “justice” system in the US is in fact routine. In 2017 Blacks made up a third of the US prison population, while comprising 12.6 percent of the general population. Their imprisonment rate is six times that of whites.
Well yes, they are poorer and poverty is a background factor in some criminality. Of course the relative deprivation of blacks in the US underlies all of this.
This is the reason that Blacks are facing a death rate from Covid 19 which is four times that of whites. Given the kind of death which the disease can inflict on its victims, George Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe” tell the tale of countless other black people who have died in recent weeks.
But African-Americans don’t just face poverty and high rates of imprisonment. They comprise about 34 percent of all the prisoners legally murdered by the State for their alleged crimes since 1976 in the 38 states which permit capital punishment.
The crimes deemed “capital”, almost always involved white victims: 80 percent of them, according to independent research carried out in 1990. Nearly all of the prosecutors involved in these cases are white.
In the words of the American Civil Liberties Union, “”A systematic racial bias in the application of the death penalty exists at both the State and Federal level.” They are calling for a “moratorium” on the death penalty to address this “miscarriage of justice”. Maybe abolishing racial bias would in effect abolish the death penalty.
Frank Baumgarten, the author of a study of race and the death penalty called Deadly Justice, describes capital punishment in the US as “an ugly symbol of racial hierarchy designed to preserve the southern way of life.” It was the Republican Abraham Lincoln who won the war which finally abolished slavery in the US but today the Republicans frequently line up on the other side, making political footballs of black lives, particularly in the South.
Under North Carolina’s Democratic-led Racial Justice Act (2009) the death penalties of three black men and a Native American woman were commuted because it was found that the juries had been “bleached”: black potential jury members had been rejected at about four times the rate that white jury members had been rejected, so that the juries all had strong white majorities.
In one case the prosecution had described a possible black jury member as a “thug”.
In another, the all-white jury which remained after the “bleaching” agreed to send to his death a man described by the prosecution as “a big black bull.” The new Republican administration repealed the Racial Justice Act in 2013 and in 2017 the court ruled that the overturning of the death penalties based on that law should be reversed. The battle for those four lives is again going through the North Carolina courts.
The vision of President Trump holding his Bible up like a Crusader after protesters were cleared with tear gas in Washington DC on Monday shows his utter betrayal of Lincoln’s legacy.
But the Trump circus must not blind us in Ireland to our own significant racism towards the sub-Saharan Africans in our midst. We too inherit the history of slavery. If you doubt that, check out the O’Haras of Tara in Gone with the Wind on Netflix.
I resented the anti-black bias of my mother, who grew up in rural Donegal and never had a single Black acquaintance, but I don’t think it was fully rooted out of me until I visited sub-Saharan Africa for the first time early this year and was welcomed as a white guest in a black country.
Not many people have that opportunity. It is vital, half way through the International Decade of People of African Descent, that Ireland attacks afro-phobic racism with root-and-branch reform of education to include the African experience.
Africans in Ireland experience more racist incidents than any other group. As Irish Network Against Racism reports, these include political hate speech, racist crimes, racist violence, intimidation, racist bullying, discriminatory treatment in housing, education and service provision and lack of access to healthcare and employment.
Crucially, reports INAR, the responses of the gardaí have been considered inadequate in two out of three cases. Many Africans don’t think it’s even worth reporting racist incidents and there have been allegations of racist harrassment by gardaí.
We urgently need Hate Crime legislation, such as is on the books of in a majority of OECD countries, accompanied by intense anti-racism training for gardaí and perhaps positive discrimination to “unbleach” the force.
We may see ourselves as “The blacks of Europe”, to quote from Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments, but we too could have crushed George Floyd. Only by recognising that fact will we get the kind of aggressive reform which would make it impossible.