Racism is America's original sin. And those ancient lies about colour still linger on
Dallas. The name was already a byword for political violence before Thursday's massacre - the place where Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F Kennedy in 1963 and shattered America's post-war innocence. Now, five local policemen lie dead, killed while serving their community. Others fight for their lives.
The bloodshed at what was supposed to be a peaceful rally on Thursday night was plainly a hate crime. But how do we define this hate? Was this an act of terrorism, an assault inspired by racial tensions, or both? Whatever the motives behind this madness, race is back at the top of the agenda in America. The country's first black president may be in Poland, at a Nato summit designed to stamp on Russian aggression, but he could soon need to return to put out the flames in his own country. That is not the progress he promised.
For black Americans, innocence was lost long ago. Violence has been the norm for centuries. Last year, US police shot at least 102 unarmed black suspects dead - five times the rate of unarmed whites - and the protest at the centre of Thursday's horror was a response to the 'death-by-cop' this week of two more African-American men.
America prides itself on being an experiment in democracy that guarantees the rights of all. Yet racism remains a fact of everyday life. One hundred and fifty years after slavery was ended and 50 years since segregation was outlawed, some black citizens still live in fear of their own police - and are still more likely than whites to grow up in a single-parent household in poverty or to go to jail. We mustn't stereotype: a black middle-class certainly exists. The problem is that American democracy is racialised.
It always was: racism is its original sin. Ta-Nehisi Coates once observed that "America begins in black plunder and white democracy." When the first colony was constructed in Georgia, slavery was banned for a mix of moral and economic reasons. It was the poor white colonists who insisted that it be introduced: growing demands for popular representation and white supremacy went hand-in-hand. The American Revolution of 1776 was a cry for freedom by men who, in many cases, owned slaves. Intellectually and emotionally, they associated being enslaved to the British crown with the racial binary of a black slave owned by a white master. Their revolution was thus an assertion, subconsciously, of their dignity as white men. "No one can govern me because I am not black."
I don't base that notion upon inference but the words of the founding fathers themselves. In the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson wrote 'Notes on the State of Virginia', a philosophical thesis on what it meant to be American. When justifying the existence of slavery, Jefferson said abolition was undesirable partly because of white prejudice and the potential for black backlash. But also because blackness and freedom were irreconcilable: "Whether the black of the negro resides in... the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature."
African-Americans, concluded Jefferson, were intellectually and perhaps morally incapable of being full citizens. Citizenship was, thus, colour coded. And that is the attitude that has overtly or subconsciously shaped race relations throughout American history.
There are those who argue that black people get arrested or even shot more often than whites because they commit more crime. This overlooks two cultural problems. The first is a history of institutional racism - of militias, police forces and individual citizens arming themselves specifically out of fear of supposed black criminality. Racism in America has often been official policy, and that official policy has, over the decades, left an imprint on the minds of some white people.
There is an irresistible correlation between the dogs being turned on civil rights protestors in the 1960s and the invidious 'stand your ground' laws that today empower citizens to shoot if they feel threatened. One study found that juries sitting on a 'stand your ground' case are twice as likely to convict the perpetrator of a crime against a white person than against a person of colour. People sometimes question why the campaign group Black Lives Matter insists on saying "black" rather than "all lives matter" - but the uneven application of the law suggests their political bias is a rational response to the bias they experience in everyday life.
The second problem African-Americans face is one of class. There are poor whites - far more of them are on food stamps than African-Americans. But while white incomes have risen, then plateaued, in the past few decades, what's striking about black incomes is the continuous stagnation and disproportionate levels of unemployment. The problem is partly cultural: rates of fatherlessness and gang membership have a role to play. But, argue civil rights activists, these challenges are themselves products of that lingering cultural assumption that black people cannot handle freedom. Never accepted as full citizens, many angry young African-Americans have found other sources of validation: drugs, sex, crime.
The search for dignity is difficult when society constantly asserts that you don't have it. American democracy has a surface ideal that is beautiful and universal. But its practice on a local level in the last 250 years has too often shown the triumph of prejudice and the persistence of ancient lies about colour. Black and white people have become victims of America's legacy of racial injustice. (© Daily Telegraph London)