Thu, Jul 04, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Racism far from dead

The US Supreme Court judges gutted an act to protect black voters, saying it was out of date because the problem of racism had been solved — but there are salient illustrations of their folly

By Gary Younge  /  The Guardian

Zimmerman weighs 113.4kg and had a 9mm handgun; Martin, 17, weighed 63.5kg and had a packet of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Zimmerman claims he was acting in self-defense.

“He shot him for the worst of all reasons,” state prosecutor John Guy said in his opening statement. “Because he wanted to.”

The day after the ruling, celebrity chef Paula Deen went on the Today show and wept over accusations of racial and sexual harassment that are destroying her empire. In a lawsuit, a former employee accuses Deen, among other things, of demanding a “true southern plantation-style wedding” for her brother Earl “Bubba” Heirs in 2007.

“Well, what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties,” she allegedly said. “You know, in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around.”

Since neither Deen nor Zimmerman have been convicted of anything, it should be emphasized that for now, they are both considered innocent. Nonetheless, the allegations and the debates they have provoked provide salient illustrations of the US Supreme Court’s folly. I will concentrate on just two.

First, facts that are 40 years old are still facts, and 40 years is not a long period of time when dealing with a centuries-old problem. Apartheid, whether in the US or elsewhere, is a recent phenomenon. Its direct beneficiaries and victims are still alive. Roughly one in five Americans were born after the voting rights act was passed. Deen, who was raised in the deep south, was married that year.

On the rare occasions when my six-year-old son asks questions about the civil rights era, I can point him to his grandparents, who lived through it into adulthood. Nor are its defenders part of some bygone age. Even as the lofty eulogies are prepared for an ailing Mandela, we should not forget that former US vice president Dick Cheney branded him the leader of a terrorist group in 1986 and the year before his release, British Prime Minister David Cameron went on a sanctions-busting trip paid for by pro-apartheid lobbyists.

Second, segregation has a legacy — not least because it was so recent. Quashing racist laws does not eliminate racism, only its explicit and codified enforcement. The past has consequences that directly affect the present. History does not just stop because a memory is inconvenient.

The gap between black and white unemployment in the US is roughly the same as it was in 1963; the gap in median income is the same as it was in 1975. Zimmerman did not invent his impressions of Martin out of thin air. They emerge from centuries of demonization and dehumanization in which black men, by their very existence, are understood as a threat.

In 2005, former British prime minister Gordon Brown trumpeted the values of “tolerance, liberty and civic duty” exported by the British empire; last month the British government settled with thousands of Kenyans tortured under colonial rule.

The speed at which some people seek to flee the past seems to have a direct relationship to their desire to distort it and to live in denial about the present. Power has many parents, but the brutality required to acquire it is an orphan.

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