WHEN Barack Obama assumed office in January 2009, he unequivocally announced to America and the rest of the world that he was “not the president of black America” but rather “the president of the United States of America.” Predictably, African-Americans and other ethnic minorities were palpably excited that the United States had finally begun to heal its divisions over race and atone for its past disgraceful misdeeds by electing its first black president. At any rate, the racial barrier had supposedly been broken and the historic election was celebrated and heralded by the rest of the world as the dawning of a “post-racial” era.
Now seven years later and nearing the end of his second term, Obama has traversed a tough road and the general feeling is that despite his fairly good performance in office, his presidency has not had much effect on race relations in the United States – a circumstance which a popular German newspaper has described as “the tragedy of America’s first black president.”
But seriously, did we really expect Obama to fix America’s age-old race problem? No one expected that America’s turbulent history with race would altogether stop with the momentous election of a black president. If anything, discrimination and racial profiling still remain deeply and systemically ingrained in U.S. society – a fact oftentimes revealed in official data.
In the mainstream media, racism may not always be so blatant, but it remains latent. Much to our dismay, presidential candidates continue to hold twisted notions on immigration, ethnic minorities and political history – and debates quickly devolve into a horror show of absurdities and infelicities as candidates unapologetically display disquieting prejudices and make racial appeals to mostly conservative white voters. In recent times, the nation’s once proud democracy has been reduced to a noisy race to the bottom by divisive demagogues like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
Yet despite the ushering in of a new political era through the historic election of an African-American president, the U.S. has maintained a plethora of racialized policies over the course of its history. Deep racial schisms are evident in responses about law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Above all, the events of the past two years, including the slaying of an 18-year-old African-American man in Ferguson, Missouri and the execution of nine people in an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina by a white Nazi adorned with the Confederate flag, have soured judgements about the current state of race relations. Of further disquiet is the fact that America still has little regard for African-American protesters who march for justice and who demand overhauls in policing under the “Black Lives Matter” movement around the country.
Some of us will recall in 2013 that the Supreme Court declared blatant racism a thing of the past and ruled that the Voting Rights Act of 1965, aimed at combating the disenfranchisement of African-Americans, was no longer valid. Needless to say, daily experience tells a different story.
But why should African-Americans still be complaining today about overt and persistent racism more than fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equality and the end of segregation? Why does Baltimore, the city where the black teenager Michael Brown was killed – and whose population of 21,000 is two-thirds African-American have a police force that is 95 percent white? Has the system failed African-Americans or should they themselves be held responsible for their own state of poverty and disillusionment?
A flurry of new scholarly studies have warned that as America grows richer, a large pool of African-American men are becoming ever more disconnected from mainstream society – mired in a vicious cycle of underachievement and social immobility. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted recently, “nearly six in 10 Americans, including heavy majorities of both whites and blacks, think race relations are generally bad, and that nearly four in 10 think the situation is getting worse.”
The irreducible truth is that the United States is still grappling with the problem of racism and with discrimination. Although the situation today is nowhere as bad as it was during the bloody 1950s and ‘60s, the recent killings of young black men by white police officers and the inexorable rise in islamophobia have reignited the debate about race relations in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the rise of far-right candidates and parties in Europe and America (the Tea Party, for instance) attest to the general fear of ethnic minorities and refugees – and attitudes toward non-Christians are also perilously shifting. For many, the Paris attacks as well as the violence and chaos that erupted in Cologne on New Year’s Eve may have finally brought to light what they have always been saying: that too many foreigners in the country bring too many cultural and social problems along with them. I’m afraid those events have the potential to easily trigger a radical shift in refugee and immigration policy in America, but especially in Europe.
Much to their discredit, two major Republican candidates, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, are advocating for the U.S. to officially discriminate based on religion, claiming implausibly that only Christians should be allowed to enter the country as refugees. Ted Cruz has even announced that he would introduce legislation to ban Muslim Syrian refugees from entering the country, following further incendiary remarks by former Governor Chris Christie that not even “three-year-old orphan” refugees should be allowed to enter the country. What is more, only recently a Muslim woman wearing a hijab was ejected from a Donald Trump campaign rally – an ill-fated action that plays further into the hands of the nationalists. Trump, the iconoclastic frontrunner, has previously called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S.
Sadly, all of this points to a desecration of American democracy and a new dangerous national mood that could trigger social unrest across ethnic, religious and other cleavages in a country that has depended and prospered on immigrants. It’s about time America genuinely embarks on a journey of soul-searching and contemplate what it truly means to be a “great nation”. As Germany has shown, every nation has dark spots in its past, but the greatness of a country is reflected in how it deals with this past and the steps it takes to reflect and critically examine it. I believe even in modern America, it will be some time before racism truly becomes a thing of the past. Hence, in this respect, the United States is not the great nation it believes itself to be.
For comments, write to ClementSoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.