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Why Colorful View of American Politics Is Wrong

Why Colorful View of American Politics Is Wrong

Friday, 2 October, 2020 - 06:00
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

The way world media cover the current US election campaigns may foster the impression that the nation is gripped by a crisis due to institutional racism with black Americans as victims. Professional anti-Americans even claim that the US perpetuates a version of apartheid.

How accurate are such claims?

There is no doubt that race, or skin color, remains a cause of friction with small radical groups, both white and black, seeking to legitimize their agendas by fomenting fear and loathing with racial themes.

On the right White supremacists try to portray black fellow citizens as genetic criminals whose presence is a cause of anxiety. They cite figures showing that a disproportionate number of blacks are in prison for breaking the law.

On the left, some radical anti-capitalists try to cast blacks as victims of institutional racism and use the concept of victimhood to justify violence.

White supremacists forget that in most cases what they present as lawbreaking by blacks is primarily caused by socio-economic factors, not skin color. Even then, lawbreakers form a small minority of black Americans who account for 12 percent of the population.

Promoters of victimhood, on the other side, ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of black Americans are proud of what two centuries of struggle for equal rights within the democratic system has achieved.

The claim of institutional racism is hard to back by evidence. All institutions of the US have been open, if not always welcoming, to blacks since the 1960s. The current Congress is the most racially diverse in US history. It includes 56 blacks from 26 states, slightly less than the share of blacks in the total population. Even then, this is higher than other democracies, for example France and Great Britain, with large numbers of black citizens. Another important part of US institutions, the US Senate, includes 10 non-white members out of 100.

Blacks are also well represented in another important part of the institutional US: the judiciary. Of the nine members of the Supreme Court, two are blacks. Below that level, 40 black judges sit on the crucial US courts of appeal. More than 12 percent of judges on US district courts are black. Moves to speed up representation started under President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s but accelerated under his successors.

Bill Clinton named 58 black judges, more than any other president. Barack Obama, himself half black, comes second with 52 appointments of black judges. Jimmy Carter with 28 and George W. Bush with 20 appointments come third and fourth. Blacks also have a significant presence as public attorneys at district, state and federal levels.

The first black governor of a state was PBS Pinchback of Louisiana who launched a project in 1871 that became a model of black-white cooperation for reform. Since then four other states have had black governors from both parties, not counting “colored” ones from Asia and South America.

Even the diplomatic service, traditionally a niche for rich whites from New England, has not been closed to blacks. Over the past 70 years, blacks have accounted for seven percent of ambassadorial posts. But the black diplomatic elite includes stars such as Ralph Bunche and Edith Sampson not to mention the five black diplomats, out of 30, who served as permanent representative to the United Nations. The US has also had two black secretaries of state, both under George W. Bush.

On a broader level, since Johnson’s reforms, some 13 percent of all cabinet posts have been filled by blacks. Blacks have also increased representation in the US armed forces up to the highest grades including chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That however, is still not satisfactory. Although promotion of blacks speeded up under Obama and President Donald Trump, blacks account for over 43 percent of all military but only six percent of higher ranks. A similar picture can be drawn for the police, which controlled by local government is not a federal institution.

Blacks have increased their representation in non-governmental domains. Hollywood blacks are no longer limited to actors given bit parts but include major stars. The phenomenal success of the film “Black Panther” marked the integration of the blacks in the America’s cinema on equal terms.

In the literary world such authors as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison have entered the canon of American literature. More recently, Colson Whitehead became only the fourth novelist to win a Pulitzer Prize twice, joining such iconic writers as William Faulkner, John Updike and Ruth Tarkington.

What is significant is that black progress toward equality in the US is no longer dependent on tokenism and positive discrimination that blacks, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X, regarded as counter-productive.

Today, black Americans are rising in the world, so to speak, thanks to their own struggle and self-improvement efforts rather than charity from bleeding-heart liberals.

Fighting for equality by blacks also benefited poor whites, dismissed by some supremacists as “trash”. Speaking in 2013, Angela Davis reminded the world that the black fight for free education also benefited whites who had no money for schooling their children. In some southern states, poor whites were mobilized to register as voters when blacks won franchise.

The broader quest for equal rights for blacks may be tangentially linked to the recent violence in some American cities. But, although most polls in the past half century show that a majority of Americas endorse the quest for equal rights, it is clear that they also oppose violence and the use of color as a weapon against the democratic system.

The death of George Floyd on May 25 pushed support for Black Lives Matter (BLM) to 53 percent with 28 percent opposed, among registered voters. However, when violence, accompanied by looting, was pushed centerstage, support for BLM fell to 48 percent with 38 percent opposed. One reason may have been the promotion by media of firebrands like Shawn King as BLM leaders, downgrading the movement’s less radical but real leaders such as Alicia Graza, Opal Tomei and Patrisse Cullros.

While racists, both white and black, do exist in the United States it is wrong to talk of across the board institutional racism. A majority of Americans of all colors understand that slavery was an evil and harmed every American regardless of color. They have also seen in real life that advancing equality benefits all, not only those of any particular color.

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