Extirpating the Deep Roots of Racism in the US

With the much celebrated election of Joe Biden, and his much vaunted reversals of Trump policies in the first few days of office, there is an expectation of change for the US.  However, Richard Sudan argues that regardless of whoever is in charge, the US must deal with its foundational demons of inequality and injustice, if there is to be hope of serious change.

Black Lives Matter, the slogan, should be a simple statement of fact and one of the most uncontroversial phrases spoken in the English language.

But it’s not.  And, the fact that it provokes the reactions it does reflects deeply embedded racism at the heart of America, lining the very fabric of society. 

Black Lives Matter was born as a direct consequence of Black people being killed at the hands of the US police, an organisation which has its roots in slave patrols.  Those patrols were tasked with catching runaway slaves who were legally owned as property and treated as subhuman.

The culture of disregard for Black life in America by trigger happy police and their sympathisers, viewing Black people as targets and Black life as expendable, can be traced directly back to the foundation of the country and how the police were formed. Such racism is so deeply endemic in the US, that some people describe White Supremacy as a religion.

To be clear, White European settler colonialism is a globally exported model which has been practised in Africa, Asia, Australasia, Palestine, the Americas and in all corners of the world.

Also, the reality is that it was so effective, that it often created a tier system, or a racial hierarchy resulting in anti-Black racism being practised by non-white people, themselves also impacted by European colonialism or white supremacy.

Racism is a complicated disease predicated on the false science of ‘race’. It’s so brutal, and at times complex that it has led to many non-white populations practising this anti-black racism and even self-hate, in a desperate attempt to assimilate to whiteness, or the dominant society. The aim and result of the psychosis is to be accepted, and to not be on the receiving end of racism.

Sadly, we see this dynamic played out in the Caribbean, South America, Asia and in many other places.

And I say that, to say this.  Because the truth might not make for comfortable reading for some, who still cling to the notion of democracy and freedom in the US.

Undoubtedly, and without question, one of the most effective settler colonial projects took place in America. We see one aspect of this legacy playing out today in the United States through the lens of police brutality.  Sadly, there are many more examples to evoke, but police brutality is currently one of the most visible and certainly one of the most talked about symptoms of European White Supremacy.

Why? Because we witness one brutal killing by the police followed by another almost constantly taking place, captured not on black and white celebratory postcards, as was the case in the past, but on video for the whole world to see.  Police officers are rarely charged and almost never go to jail.  The problem is as obvious as ever and easily diagnosed.  And yet it persists, upheld by the silence of the privileged.  This barbaric abuse of power can’t continue.

In theory the US police exist to uphold the law.  But laws in the United States were written for the benefit of white populations and have always been stacked against Black people.

The Electoral College voting system, it is argued, was designed to give southern states rooted in slavery, disproportionate political power compared to the north.

The controversial ‘stand your ground law’, was designed to give white men the legal power to ‘protect’ with guns what they viewed as property and that which they owned (including white women), against Black people, and to be able to act as judge, jury and executioner against whomever they wished.

These laws are therefore not rooted in any grand sense of democracy and equality.  The stand your ground law does not work in Black people’s favour. Its critics argue that it simply serves as a means for Black people to be killed with impunity and for white supremacists to evade punishment, as was the case with George Zimmerman who murdered the Black child Trayvon Martin.

The US police are no exception to this system.  They are the system. They are not subject to the law in the same way as the people they are meant to serve.  In truth, they are above the law, and are custodians of a 400-year-long racist status quo, including when slavery was also legal.

This state of affairs is not a broken system:  It is the system functioning as it was intended, and as it was designed and built.  This is America.

The deaths at the hands of the police today are described by many as modern lynchings for good reason.  Because the lynchings that happened in the past were justified in the name of the law, fortified by racist propaganda.

The pseudo-science, the belief that the White race is superior along with weaponised Christianity, were all employed as tools to justify the murder of Black people.  Not too much has changed since then.

People often talk about the end of slavery in the US and also Britain.  In fact, Western orientated liberals often name Britain as the first nation to end slavery in 1807, when in truth Haiti was the first nation to achieve this in 1804.

Both claims are untrue.

For example, the widely celebrated United States constitution makes clear provision, in the 13th amendment, that while slavery is illegal, it is a perfectly legal punishment if a crime has been committed. 

After the Civil War ended in 1865, when this amendment was added, vast labour was needed to rebuild and reconstruct the south.

Black people became the source of that labour, despite fighting in the civil war to ‘end slavery’.  Under the same system still rigged against them, they found themselves falling victim to the 13th Amendment, imprisoned for crimes as vague and arbitrary as ‘loitering’ and ‘vagrancy’, and once again working for free, to rebuild the south shackled in chains under different forms of slavery.  This cycle has continued to the present day.

Today in America, Black people make up 13% of the population but represent almost half of the US prison population, a population which has spiralled into the millions over the last few decades as the prison industrial complex continues to yield massive profits.  President Joe Biden is widely acknowledged as helping to pave the way for such mass incarceration helping to push through the now infamous Violent Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, more commonly known now as the ‘94 crime bill.

White Supremacy runs deep.  It’s more than a few thugs in the street, convenient as that notion may be for some. In the same way many millions of Americans will never surrender their guns, many millions more will never detach from this ideology, and will fight to the death to preserve the very system which continues to benefit them as it benefited their ancestors before them.

In this sense, we have to ask the question: Is there really much of a difference between the past and present?

In 2015, for example, some have said that more Black people were killed by the police than during one of the worst years of Jim Crow.

As the actor Will Smith sharply remarked, “Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s just getting filmed.”

Understanding how this system works, and the longevity of it makes it very apparent that the problem of unchecked White Supremacy didn’t start in 2015, nor in the summer of 2020 with the killing of George Floyd.  It didn’t start with the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson.  It didn’t start in the 1960s. It didn’t start at the turn of the 20th century with the premier of ‘Birth of a Nation’, a racist piece of propaganda, shifting the American image of the Black man from the non-threatening ‘Uncle Tom’ to a hyper violent sexual predator, reigniting the birth of the Ku Klux Klan.

It started the moment the first Africans resisted and fought the first white supremacist slave merchants who landed in Africa, taking Black people as captives to America. And Africans did fight. 

While for obvious reasons, much is made of the fact that many Africans sold their own people into slavery, very little is acknowledged about the Africans who fought back.  The wide stretching battles against enslavement in Africa are well documented.  And it’s estimated that this resistance prevented up to a million Africans from being taken as captives through the Middle Passage.

The first Dutch slave merchants who arrived in Jamestown Virginia at the start of the 17th century shared exactly the same White Supremacist ideology which is shared today by all White Supremacists in all areas of life. Racism in the US cannot be neatly packaged and confined to stereotypical views of Hillbillies with guns, although there are many of them. Nor is it separate or apart from either political party, ideology or vocation. It is found in both political parties, in the homes of blue collar and white-collar families and from people of all classes.  White Supremacism is a very broad church.  There are even some Black people and other people of colour who live by the ideology too (as previously mentioned). Judges, police, politicians, teachers, doctors, nurses, firefighters, lawyers, teachers, all have been proven to have practising white supremacists within their fields. White Supremacy is not a fringe ideology.

In fact, one thing we learned from the Washington DC riots of Jan 6th 2021 is that among the many White Supremacists that descended on the Capitol, a good number of them or even most of them had ‘respectable’ jobs. And at the time of writing, many have yet to be questioned, much less arrested or charged.  The FBI have even discussed not charging some of them.   White Supremacy is so important to the United States that it often gets a free pass.

Black people who literally built the country without a day’s pay still don’t have a fair stake in the nation. And yet Black people have been in America for many hundreds of years if not longer.  Their history did not begin in the continent with slavery.  There are Black populations which are indigenous to the continent.  Black people were already on the continent when Columbus arrived, evidenced and acknowledged in Columbus’ own writings. (Ivan van Sertima)

More and more evidence has come to light reflecting the presence of Africans in MesoAmerica, long before Columbus and any Spanish colonisation of the region. The Olmec culture in South America bears glaring hallmarks and influence from West African cultures. Some scholars argue the possibility of ancient explorers from the Kingdom of Mali reaching the American continent at the turn of the 14th century, many years before Columbus in 1492.

Put simply, the history of Black people in America, is arguably older than the nation itself. It’s certainly older than the racist ideology and individuals who target Black people today.  Black people not only built America for free during the period of slavery and rebuilt it during the post-Civil War reconstruction period. Their influence in shaping the continent goes back thousands of years.

But, despite this rich history, there has been a deliberate and sustained effort in America to keep Black Americans at the bottom of the social order, and part of that has been to control the historical narrative.  We know that a true understanding of Black history in itself threatens the psychological hegemony of White Supremacy.  It defeats any idea of Europeans being of a superior race, and of so-called European exceptionalism.  It would also empower Black people, much like the history of Haiti and much like the other Black heroes scrubbed out of the books.  For that reason, only the non-threatening acceptable version of Black history is offered by white America, and even that is often met with the response, “What about a WHITE history?”

While many might point to individual examples of Black faces in high places as evidence of progress, this is not indicative of the condition of the masses of Black people. A Black President, or a number of Black millionaires or even billionaires is not evidence of the end of racism as a structure of power in the United States. Progress would be measure, by seeing the racial disparities, evidenced in policing, mass incarceration, employment, housing, education, health care and the criminal justice system, broken once and for all.

I’ve mentioned mass incarceration as one of the big systemic problems needing to be tackled. And the police are the foot soldiers of that revolving system of injustice. Since 2004, several reports from the FBI have highlighted the growing problem of the infiltration of white supremacists into the ranks of law enforcement. Despite Jan 6, and the armed attempt by White Supremacists to overthrow the government, the US has yet to designate the Proud Boys and other groups as terror groups.  Canada has but the US has not.

But should this surprise us?  After all, it was only last year that the US listed the Ku Klux Klan as a terrorist group.  Why is this?  Might it be because acknowledging these sorts of groups as terrorists, would mean that a significant portion of law enforcement in America would fall into the category?

According to film maker and anti-racism activist Tariq Nasheed, “It is common knowledge that law enforcement is not just infiltrated by White Supremacists, it is completely dominated by White Supremacists. In fact, I don’t think people are allowed to be officers if they are NOT white supremacists, or have those leanings.”

If you think this might be a stretch too far, consider this.  As recently as early 2021, Deputy Clyde Kerr III, a senior Black police officer in Louisiana committed suicide.  In a series of Instagram posts before officer Kerr took his own life, he offered a damning critique of US policing and the racism within it, describing it as irredeemable. As a senior officer, Clyde Kerr had seen, heard and lived the reality of White Supremacy within the police force.  So at odds was the grim reality with his own ideals that he saw no possible way to reconcile the two.

In one tragic way, the story of officer Kerr sums up a great deal about America.  The ideals America talks about and the image it presents of itself, is in stark contrast with the cold reality of what it really is. In 2019, FBI director Christopher Wray acknowledged that a significant portion of the FBI’s domestic terror cases can be attributed to White Supremacy.  The problem is getting worse.

The election of Joe Biden solves nothing. Tens of millions voted for Trump in 2020.  At any other point in American history, with such a result, he’d have strolled into the presidency.  But Trump was never the system of White Supremacy itself.  He is a product of it. Then again, the Republican vs Democratic paradigm regarding racism offered by liberals is too simplistic.  Both parties are guilty of upholding systematic racism and maintaining it.

The way it needs to be tackled is in many ways obvious. Mass incarceration of Black people needs to end, with justice becoming a reality for those unjustly affected. Institutions in the United States need to be incentivised to root out white supremacists within their ranks, economically in terms of losing funding, or politically, with the threat of defunding or closure. White Supremacist groups need to be unequivocally treated and designated as terrorists and treated just like any other terror groups. White Supremacists in the police need to be punished for killing Black people, not just lose their jobs.  To do this, would reverse the trend of impunity.  It would deter other white supremacists from murdering Black people.  This is the only way.  You cannot appeal to any sense of reason or morality with White Supremacists.  They have none.  The idea you can send these individuals on some kind of diversity training to remedy their foul ideology is utterly contemptible, and I would imagine for Black people in America, insulting.

And lastly, there needs to be economic restorative justice for the descendants of Black American slaves in the United States: Direct cash payments, tax breaks, extra resources given directly to Black schools and Black majority areas, ultimately reparations.  The same has been done for other groups historically wronged in America.  And it should have been the case for Foundational Black Americans or American Descendants of Slavery a long time ago. Discussions about this took place in the run up to the election of 2020, but I believe they were just for politically expedient reasons. If early indications are anything to go by, President Joe will not make good on his promise to have the back of Black Americans.  But why would he have their back?  It would contradict the other political choices he has made in his entire political career.

Richard Sudan is a journalist, writer and TV reporter and has reported from around the world. His writing has appeared in the Independent, Guardian and other publications. His focus is on a range of issues including racism, police brutality, immigration and global injustice. He has been a guest speaker at venues as diverse as Oxford University and the People’s Assembly as well as appearing regularly in the media. He has also taught writing poetry for performance course at Brunel University alongside Professor Benjamin Zephaniah. In 2018 Richard was aboard the Freedom Flotilla, aiming to deliver aid to Palestinians in the besieged Gaza strip.