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The Fragile State Of American Tolerance

Assessing Deep-Cutting Racial Problems In The United States

The United States is many things, an ‘economic powerhouse,’ a military superpower, a global engine of technological development, and is considered as one of the oldest Liberal Democracies in the world. Despite all this glory the US is a state that was founded on land stolen from its indigenous population. Its early economic strength was built upon race-based slavery against people of African descent.

African-Americans have faced a long arc of systemic oppression in the United States, from the era of slavery, to the current ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. Racism remains an issue that is grave in the African-American community, and understanding its context means looking back at over 400 hundred years of slavery. It also means looking at the emergence of the Jim Crow laws, that conventionally destroyed the achievements of the Reconstruction Era. A period in American history, that emerged following the end of slavery in 1865. It enforced segregation and inevitably marginalised the African-American community; to a life of misery, poverty and persecution. In much the same way, it means looking at what happened after the Jim Crow laws were dismantled, when old philosophies of exclusion and discrimination were reborn, cloaked in a new and euphemistic terms. These may have not been race-based on the surface, but they have, whether intentionally or not, disproportionately targeted African-Americans and other minorities.

On the surface, American society claims to be open and free, granting ‘equal opportunity’ to all, everyday experiences leave people of African descent deeply doubtful. As a consequence, African-Americans are convinced in many cases that they must work twice as hard to get half as far in life as a non-coloured person. The everyday reality for a person of color is that of being peculiarly subordinate in almost every way, making it difficult to successfully achieve the very ethos that is rooted in the declaration of independence, that all men are created equal.

Civil Rights March in Seattle (Photo: Athena LeTrelle, Flickr)

Not until 2008, when the American public placed their faith in Barack Obama,  did black America’s conception of themselves forever change. For African-Americans, the former president helped to unlock the possibilities of a liberal democracy. An affirmation that too often excluded African-Americans. Barack Obama´s victory was the promise to generations who persisted in loving America – even when the nation refused to love them back. However, for the black population, the euphoria of election day in 2008 did not elicit the post-racial fantasies articulated by the mainstream press. Instead, the presence of Obama on the world stage, confirmed deep-rooted truths about the racial tensions that existed in the country.

Consequently, the systemic problems and the legacy of racism that has always arrested the development of US democracy was back to haunt the country. Law enforcement agencies, particularly police officers shoot and kill hundreds of people each year. One such individual was Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American boy killed by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012. Just two years after that, a similar incident occurred, when 18-year-old Michael Brown  was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Both these incidents became the catalyst for a national controversy. Despite this, Obama refused to engage deeply with these issues, claiming he was “The President of everyone.”

It was for this reason that former NFL Quarterback, Colin Kaepernick silently protested racial discrimination, injustice and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem before his NFL games in early 2017. He has since been sidelined, receiving treatment that has been considered as harsh. This disproportionate penalty for Kaepernick reveals how white-led institutions speak of inclusion, but in reality, don’t want to listen when someone speaks uncomfortable truths.

One week before this year’s NFL season,  Nike confirmed that Kaepernick would be the face of their new ad campaign, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the ‘Just Do It’ slogan. This year, the fitting slogan did not only feature Kaepernick, it also brought attention to the embattled Quarterback’s stance against police violence and institutional racism, which began two seasons ago when Kaepernick kneeled on the field during the national anthem.

Colin Kaepernick in action (Photo: Erik Drost, Flickr)

Nevertheless, it is difficult to give the company too much credit for courage when they’re simply following public sentiment rather than trying to influence it. Nike has endorsed Kaepernick since 2011 but chose to feature him now since his departure from the NFL. This raises the questions of whether or not the better time would have been two years ago, when Kaepernick took his first knee?  If Nike really wanted to make a difference on behalf of the causes that he was championing, wouldn’t it have been more dramatic to endorse Kaepernick’s protest? At the same time, Nike has always been a sports apparel company that celebrates strength in being different.

The United States is an ‘economic powerhouse,’ a military superpower, a global engine of technological development, and one of the oldest liberal democracies in the world. Despite all this, it remains a country that has hesitated to deal with its legacy of white supremacy. It is time for America to reclaim its promise. Because, at the end of the day the red, white and blue should represent coloured people too.

Nasra Mahat

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