Still black and white when it comes to racism in US
Published 11/04/2015 | 02:30
It was 150 years to the day yesterday since the end of the American Civil War - and still race divides the United States.
The shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina is yet more evidence that the bloodiest conflict in US history failed to resolve the question of racial equality. It was a defining moment. General Robert E Lee of the Confederate Army surrendered to General Ulysses S Grant, leader of the Union Army, in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. A war that had claimed 750,000 lives - by far the bloodiest in American history - was over.
Yet the mood was not triumphant but tragic. The victorious Northerners did not make the traditional demand that the Southerners hand over their swords. Grant's aide-de-camp recollected an air of mutual regard: "General Grant… saluted [Lee] by raising his hat… Lee raised his hat respectfully, and rode off to break the sad news to the brave fellows whom he had so long commanded."
For all Americans, the Civil War was a necessary duel over the identity and future of their nation - should its people be united or divided, enslaved or free?
But for whites it was still perceived as a war between brothers. When the war was over, there was a hunger among many to seek reconciliation, rather than to pursue the racial equality that blacks - suddenly liberated from Southern slavery - might have expected.
That unwillingness to confront such deep-rooted prejudice, a century and a half ago, had consequences that still reverberate today. Indeed, it helps to explain a recent rush of stories about racially motivated police brutality, particularly in the South. Just this week, a white police officer in South Carolina was charged with murder after shooting dead a black man who was running away from him. The scene, filmed on a passer-by's mobile phone, is reminiscent of a lynching.
The roots of American racism run deep. The Founding Fathers debated liberating the slaves but decided against it. Their reasons were not only economic. As Americans went about defining their liberty, they saw whiteness and freedom in opposition to blackness and slavery.
Freedom was a white person's birth-right; African-Americans were considered mentally and morally incapable of being full citizens. Even an anti-slavery crusader like Abraham Lincoln, whose election to the presidency in 1860 triggered Southern secession, doubted that blacks would know what to do with the liberty that the war gave them.
After Lee surrendered and the South slowly came to heel, the North promised African-Americans a social revolution called Reconstruction. Freed blacks now enjoyed the right to vote and to sell their labour. Schools and railways were built with taxes raised in large part on whites. But Southern whites fought back. One of their instruments was terror: the threat of death by the Ku Klux Klan.
As the North grew exhausted with Reconstruction, so segregation replaced slavery as the new social contract in the South. Inequality was written into local laws and practised as a matter of custom. It wasn't fully outlawed until the Sixties, when African-Americans demanded freedoms that were, in theory, constitutionally already theirs. The reaction was, yet again, violence.
Last Thursday marked another anniversary: in 1968 it saw the Atlanta funeral service of Martin Luther King Jnr, felled by an assassin's bullet.
Banning de jure segregation did not end de facto inequality, which nowadays takes many forms. There is a crisis in black fatherhood: around two thirds of African-Americans are born illegitimate. Drug use and crime are rife in black communities, while the state has actively encouraged a brutal response with disproportionately tough laws. But there is a deeper segregation in attitudes and fears shaped by the preceding two centuries of violent racial oppression. Those years encouraged people to see politics through colour: to many voters, welfare, poverty and disorder became "black" things. Values of aspiration and independence were associated with whiteness.
Geographic space became racialised, too. The blacks moved into ghettoes; the whites fled to the suburbs.
One thing that has characterised the controversial killings by police officers or vigilantes has been the ferocity shown to African-Americans crossing over into "white space" - be they genuine miscreants or hapless souls in the wrong place at the wrong time.
While the presence of Barack Obama in the White House represents a civil rights breakthrough into the most exclusive "space" in society, evidence of territorial mistrust in everyday life continues.
There is a temptation on the anniversary of the Civil War to remember it as a war between gentlemen, sharing respectful condolences in Appomattox Courthouse before passing on "the sad news" of defeat.
The reality is that the conflict represented a struggle to build a nation that was only half won by the forces of liberation, that the demand for equality was controversial even among the enlightened and that America has yet to resolve the problems it sought to address.
A significant proportion of Americans have won their citizenship yet are still regarded as scarcely capable of actualising it.
They await their full and proper Reconstruction. (© Daily Telegraph, London)