He was thirteen when his dad and a couple of older cousins sat him down for “the talk”. How he should act any time he was talking to a police officer for any reason. How he had to be super polite. How he must resist any attempt at humour. And, especially, how he must never reach for anything like his wallet without saying in advance explicitly what he was doing and why. The teenager in question was Dante de Blasio, the mixed race son of the mayor of New York city and, as a 24 year old Yale graduate, he wrote of that searing memory last year. It’s a conversation every American parent of colour feels obliged to have with their children, in particular their sons. Too many black boys have lost their lives to trigger happy “law enforcement” officers for this family ritual not to be a common rite of passage and self preservation.
And how sad and sick it is, this is still necessary these many decades after white lynch mobs regularly hanged black men from trees for the unpardonable sin of looking at a white woman. Nina Simone sang of these victims as the strange fruit to be found on branches in southern states, the last to be dragged into a desegregated world. How sad and sick that well into the 21st century so many young black men are still victims of white rage. Just last month a young black jogger was shot by two men, one of them a former police officer. It took widespread outrage for them to be arrested.
Not that their being charged would be any guarantee of justice. The white vigilante who gunned down a black teenager in Florida in 2012 when the latter was going home with shopping, was belatedly charged and swiftly acquitted. And there has been a litany of similar deaths since then, the one constant being an unarmed black person killed by an armed white one.
President Obama, himself mixed race, felt the victims’ pain keenly. Trayvon Martin, could have been his son, he said. He went to the Charleston church where a young neo Nazi gunned down 9 worshippers and sang Amazing Grace. In contrast President Trump has called white supremacist marchers fine people and black protestors thugs. That rioting and looting solves nothing is a given. But America is reaping the whirlwind that it has sown; the deep vein of systemic racism which still divides what should have been the original rainbow nation.
Two images burned deep into my consciousness these past weeks. The first was an armed mob of white protestors carrying battlefield grade weaponry storming the state capitol building in Michigan to protest at being locked down. The police stood in a passive line, medical masks their only armour, as the angry mob screamed in their faces. The second was a 21 year old black man lying spread eagled on his grandmother’s lawn as armed cops from three police cars pointed handguns at his head. His 90 year old grandmother asked why they were threatening to shoot a young man whose crime was to jump a red light on his way to see her. That appalling, all too frequent scene is why Dante’s dad, Bill de Blasio sat down his son for “the talk”.
Bigotry is a virus which defies logic and is seemingly immune to reason. In the United States it is the legacy of a slave trade which established a social order some cannot let go. I once had the privilege of having in my home a man called Robert Bell. As a teenager in Maryland he was arrested for sitting down in a whites only café. When we first met he was a senior and much respected judge. That virtuous circle is not the norm in today’s America. In Trump’s America.
But this virus too has long been a pandemic. It persists in huge democracies like India where the small ads in newspapers are laden with advertising offering products to lighten the skin. It persists in countries like South Africa where the hope fanned by Mandela’s presidency has been stilled as massive racial inequalities persist. The emergence of a black middle class should not avert our eyesight from the failure of successive governments to tackle the twin scars of poor housing and rampant poverty. Neither should we deny the serial corruption of some black politicians; a venal sin they did, quite literally, learn at the feet of their masters.
There too the scourge of historical racism has bred a still divided society, many white citizens now living their lives in gated communities, usually armed and ever vigilant. It may be a materially comfortable lifestyle, but surely no more emblematic of a country at peace with itself than dwelling in the neighbouring townships.
It is a Scottish conceit that we are not a racist nation, a conclusion which will be news to many in our small black and larger Asian communities. There is not a successful brown skinned man or woman in our country who has not had to deal with casual prejudice. Ask Jackie Kay. Ask Humza Yousaf. Ask Aamer Anwar or Anas Sarwar. But in truth the principle disease that blights parts of our nation is bigotry of the “religious” variety. I’m still at something of a loss as to why attempts to stop fans singing of historical hatreds, are considered an assault on our freedoms. Dyed in the wool tribalism is bad for our national health.
In one section of America’s white tribe, it seems, the right to bear arms is the freedom most cherished. No matter that it was devised that communities with riflemen might rebuff corrupt national governments if threatened. Not so that contemporary crazies could strut around with machine guns.
But these crazies now seem to be in charge of the asylum. Let’s hope the voting cavalry rescue this once formidable nation come November.
First Published in The National June 1st 2020