No beer hug, this
by Sandhya Jain on 04 Aug 2009 3 Comments

White America, represented by Vice President Joe Biden, was forced to put its weight behind first African-American President Barack Obama, to tide over an ugly spat over racial profiling in a nation where everyone admits skin colour and associated socio-historical issues still resonate deeply. It is to be hoped this will be a profound lesson in humility to a nation that tries to bully and police the world, to the detriment of humanity at large.

Whichever way one looks at it, Thursday’s beer party on the White House lawns failed to deliver the desired racial reconciliation. Sgt James Crowley, the police officer at the centre of the crisis over race, barely six months into the Obama presidency, firmly asserted that he and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. were “two gentlemen who agreed to disagree” about the confrontation that led to Gates’ arrest.

On July 16, Prof. Henry Gates Jr., a friend of President Obama, was arrested by police Sgt. Crowley for disorderly conduct. Prof. Gates, who broke into his own home after his front door jammed, refused to step out of his house when police arrived to investigate a possible burglary. As he later explained, “All the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I realized that I was in danger. And I said to him no, out of instinct.”

This instinct, according to honest American analysts, was valid, and rested on a continuing history of lynchings, cross-burnings and black men disappearing into the night at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. There is also a real history of police perceptions ending in the shooting deaths of coloured people. To list just two incidents this year: on January 1, 2009, African-American Oscar Grant was killed by a white BART police officer while handcuffed and face down; on May 28, 2009, NYPD off-duty officer, African-American Omar Edwards, was killed by a white fellow officer who mistook him for a criminal. 

Gates’ arrest became controversial after President Obama said the police officer had “acted stupidly,” a mild remark by Indian standards. But Crowley stuck to his guns and the police complained; Obama’s popularity took a hit with white voters, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. He backtracked and invited both men for beer and conversation.

In a gesture of deference to the President, Prof. Gates said he hoped the experience would prove an “occasion for education, not recrimination,” and that he and Crowley should use the opportunity to foster wider awareness of dangers facing police officers and black fears about racial profiling. Said Crowley: “We agreed to move forward.” Cute.

Though officially over, the episode has led to a sobering realisation that American society is far from achieving its “post-racial” dream. Economist Greg Palast regretted the hype over Gates’ Harvard post, as it gave the impression that merely race-neutral rules of class privilege were breached. The truth, he said, is that there is an endemic, systemic cruelty that is routinely visited upon Black Americans outside the charmed circle of the Harvard Alumni Club.

He cited a United Auto Workers member with five children and a mortgage payment of $1,100 a month on a Detroit home worth just $40,000. This is exorbitant as he pays 11% on his mortgage balance, double the national average interest rate. On such terms, he’s sure to lose his home. Palast said that this African-American was “steered” into a sub-prime loan by Countrywide Financial; “steered” being a polite term for forcing Black people into shoddy loan terms. Over 60% of African-American mortgage applicants were (and ARE) steered into “sub-prime” predatory loans.

Detailed studies by the Federal Reserve Board and the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) show that African Americans are 250% more likely to get a loan with an “exploding interest” (read usurious) clause than white borrowers. Moreover, the higher the income and better the credit rating of a Black borrower, the more likely the discrimination!

President Obama has completely failed to tackle this endemic racism in the finance system, which is even killing hope of America’s economic recovery. CRL estimates that the “exploding rate” attack focused on Black and Hispanic communities has caused 40.2 million homes to lose value due to their proximity to foreclosed properties. This has laid waste Black neighbourhoods. But Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is honoured guest of the Board of Directors of JP Morgan, which owns one of the worst financial predators, Washington Mutual. JP Morgan was sued last week by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People for “systematic, institutionalized racism in making home mortgage loans.”

These financial attacks on the Black community continue under Obama (as under Bush), though he can end it by banning loan-sharking as a condition for bank bail-outs. Instead, Obama directed the FDIC to guarantee JP Morgan loans, saving it $3.1 billion this year; loan-victims were given “hope.”

Structural racism has deep roots in the economy, voting stations, schools, health care system, jails, indeed, every aspect of life. Unemployment among African-Americans is more than twice the rate of white Americans (four times in New York) and a black family’s income is little more than half that of a similar white family’s income. The block-and-purge of Black voters is a gigantic scam which the Obama Administration does not even want to admit.

One swallow does not make a summer. President Obama does not signal transition to ‘post-racial’ America. Indeed, the furore momentarily profiled him as a Black who would have to sacrifice his race consciousness if he wanted to be appreciated by the whites. Undoubtedly, white America stood its ground that day.

To triumph, black Americans will have to rise in public life by mobilising their community as a core constituency, like India’s Bahujan Samaj Party, something they cannot aspire to in the foreseeable future, if ever. Only such strength makes a cornered farmer leader like Mahendra Singh Tikait realise Ms. Mayawati is ‘like his daughter.’ But Crowley and Gates failed to discover common humanity or Christian brotherhood even on the White House lawns!

One snarl from the UP chief minister has everyone on the defensive. The Supreme Court permits her grandiose statuary; the Brahmin Jayalalithaa has even temporary welcome arches removed! Behind such ironies does India endure.

The author is Editor,

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