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​‘Racism continues to poison America’

John Wight is a writer and commentator specializing in geopolitics, UK domestic politics, culture and sport.

Published time: August 20, 2014 14:28
Demonstrators protesting against the shooting of Michael Brown are surrounded by police in riot gear in Ferguson, Missouri August 19, 2014 (Reuters / Joshua Lott)

The social unrest that has engulfed the small town of Ferguson, Missouri in the United States – in the wake of the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer – is as predictable as it is horrific.

It refutes, more than any amount of academic research ever could, the notion that words such as justice, freedom and democracy accurately describe the reality of life for millions in a country that likes to represent itself as the land of the free.

Racism continues to poison social relations in America, with black people in particular regarded as an enemy within by police departments and the reactionary system they represent all across the country. This is especially the case in the South, where although African-Americans are no longer forced to live on plantations they might as well be given the brutality they regularly endure at the hands not only of the police but also the judicial system and a political class that has all but reduced them to the status of subhuman. The evidence in this regard is irrefutable.

According to statistics published by the FBI in 2012, black people constituted 51.1 percent of homicide victims and 53.4 percent of homicide offenders, an inordinate number when you consider that blacks make up just 13 percent of the total population. Further, a white police officer killed a black person on average twice a week in the United States over a seven year period up to 2012.

Crime, given the socioeconomic factors involved, cannot be divorced from the poverty and inequality that gives rise to it. And it is here where black people in America fare worst. The website Black Demographics reveals that:

- 28.2 percent of black families are living in poverty, compared to 11.8 percent across all races;

- 23.8 percent of black people over the age of 18 are living in poverty, compared to 13.9 percent across all races.

It also reveals that blacks are:

- three times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than whites;

- more than three times more likely to be handcuffed’

- almost three times more likely to be arrested.

When it comes to incarceration, the Washington Post revealed last year that the US prison population had reached a staggering 2.4 million people. Out of this number - which accounts for a full quarter of the entire world's prison population – 38 percent of them are black. Compare this to whites, who make up 35 percent of the US prison population while constituting 78 percent of the population at large.

These and other social indicators leave no doubt when it comes to the plight of black people in the United States. It is a plight which the election of the country’s first black president in 2008 has failed to arrest.

When Barack Obama swept into the White House on the back of his talent for soaring rhetoric, accompanied by the hopes of millions of poor and hitherto disenfranchised people of all races, Americans allowed themselves to believe that the ‘change agenda’ which the nation’s first black president espoused throughout his election campaign would translate into the kind of action that would transform their lives and at last release them from the chains of poverty and social exclusion they have suffered for generations.

It has not. Indeed, if anything, Obama’s record in office proves that his presidency has been nothing more than old wine in a new bottle where social and economic justice is concerned, which in the US is inextricably linked to race.

Another factor in this current crisis, caused by yet another killing of a young black man by a white police officer, is the militarization of the police. Rather than serving the public, especially in low income black communities, the focus is self-evidently on intimidating them with overwhelming force and the sort of firepower associated with a warzone rather than the streets of a small town. The mindset involved as a consequence is one of confrontation rather than cooperation, coercion rather than consent, with young black men in particular demonized as gang members and criminals even if they are neither.

As the world watches this latest crisis unfold in the streets of an American town, the words of Martin Luther King ring as true today as they did when he spoke them four decades ago: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Young black men in America are not only unheard in 2014, they are brutalized and killed with impunity.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.