News Liz O’Donnell

Wednesday 28 September 2016

There's no room for defeatism in Obama's battle with racists

Published 27/06/2015 | 02:30

Mourners hug as Ethel Lance is buried at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church cemetery in North Charleston, South Carolina. Lance was one of the nine victims of the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder
Mourners hug as Ethel Lance is buried at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church cemetery in North Charleston, South Carolina. Lance was one of the nine victims of the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder

The barbaric murder of nine worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17 by white supremacist Dylann Roof is the latest in a series of race-related incidents which has shaken American complacency about the state of race relations.

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The eldest victim of the Charleston attack was 87-year-old Susie Jackson and the youngest her nephew, aged 26. Four of the slain were reverends.

The 'New York Times' described Roof as a "millennial race terrorist". He was born in 1994, 30 years after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.

Roof had been photographed brandishing the confederate flag in his promotional material, possessed apartheid paraphernalia and was aligned with white supremacy organisations. He wanted to start "a race war". The premeditated killing spree perpetrated in the historic African Methodist Episcopal Church has become a catalyst for the long-overdue removal of the Confederate battle flag from public buildings. Already several southern States have indicated that it is time to remove what is a symbol of the nation's racist past. The governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley has decreed it is time to remove the flag from the Statehouse. Her action has been welcomed by many political leaders, including presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Decades of resistance to removal of the emblem were swept away in a seeming unstoppable momentum for change because of public outrage over the latest race hate crime. It has propelled a national debate and review of progress in racial equality 150 years after the Civil War.

Dark emotions and recriminations have been generated north and south. It has been claimed that people have been overly tolerant of deep-rooted, structural racial bias, not only in the southern states but in the supposedly progressive north. A recent survey of 251 employees of Zara in New York City made for embarrassing reading for the leading clothes retailer when it was claimed the company practised aggressively racist policies in its stores, including racial profiling of customers.

Several high-profile killings and abuse of black people by white police officers have helped to foment an awareness of official racism by public authorities and agents. People are looking at the facts and they do not lie. African Americans are poorer and sicker, less educated, more likely to be in jail and absolutely more likely to be victimised and even killed by police officers.

The fact that there is an African American president in the White House is, of course, an indication of huge social and political progress, a fact emphasised by Barack Obama himself, who has entered the current debate with admirable candour. As a candidate for the presidency, race did not define his campaign but it emerged by way of criticism. He was either "too black" or "not black enough".

During his first term as president he was reticent about leading on the race issue. But during his election campaign in 2008, Obama addressed the race question in controversial circumstances when he had to distance himself from his pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright's incendiary sermon on race.

While distancing himself from the divisive remarks, Obama refused to disown his friend: "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community....For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away, nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years…. Occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised by the anger in Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning".

In a speech entitled "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union", delivered in Philadelphia in November 2008 to mark the Declaration of Independence in 1787, Obama described it as a document "stained by this nation's original sin of slavery" because the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least 20 more years and leave any final resolution on slavery to future generations.

There was euphoria when he was elected as the first African American president, in itself a major milestone in the long march for racial equality. But while more successful on foreign policy, his Obamacare proposals for widening health care protection to all Americans and in particular poor blacks and Hispanics were anathema to Republicans and particularly to southern states with Republican majorities. Like it or not, race remains central to politics in the United States and is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. White Republicans, particularly in the southern states with a history of slave holding, oppose Obamacare and refuse to implement it. They equally oppose gun control, trade unions and workers' rights.

This appalling cocktail of racial hatred which can be easily weaponised because of lax gun control, is a major feature of atrocities like Charleston. When I visited Alabama on a study tour some years ago, I was shocked to realise that in the home of the civil rights struggle and the Montgomery bus protests, white supremacy organisations like the KKK are still active and armed, dispensing their rhetoric of hate against blacks. The constitutional guarantee of free speech bizarrely allows them to meet and organise and foment this ideology. This is the same rhetoric that radicalises lone wolves like Roof. I was also horrified when visiting a primary school to find security guards with sub machine guns patrolling the corridors.

Removing the Confederate flag is a significant move towards Obama's task of "perfecting the union". But the flag is just a symbol which has had its day; like the swastika, so besmirched as to be obsolete. Gun control reforms and confronting race hatred is where the focus of political leaders should be.

Yet, Obama conveyed an air of resignation about any prospect of better gun control last week post Charleston. Such pessimism in the face of the power of the National Rifle Association is disappointing.

If Obama is to make a lasting contribution to the safety and civility of all Americans, he should devote the remainder of his term and even beyond it to changing hearts and minds on this one issue.

For him to accept that racism is "part of our DNA" without taking a lead on this would be to betray those who died for civil rights and to repeat the compromises of earlier generations.

Irish Independent

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