It is 28 years since four white police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King to death in Los Angeles, triggering race riots in several cities across the United States. In these nearly three decades, the US has changed in many ways, particularly for the outside world. In a post-Cold War world order, it rose as the only global super power. As a victim of one of the worst acts of terrorism, it fought wars on foreign shores to protect itself from those who threatened the “American way of life”, and declared it would reconstruct those countries that bore the brunt in its own image, by taking to them its own “democratic values”. It policed the world, pronouncing judgement on the lack of freedoms in countries it did not see eye to eye with, threatening them with sanctions or worse. Through it all, however, there was, and there is, much to admire about America, its founding ideals, its freedoms and its wealth. It made new friends, and nations across the world were flattered when it bestowed on them the title of ally. But as it changed, its deepest internal fault line remained unhealed, and erupted repeatedly — Cincinnati, 2001; Ferguson, 2014; Baltimore, 2015; Charlotte, 2016 and countless times in between.
Each racist incident, with its attendant impunity, was a warning that there would be a George Floyd who would come up against a policeman named Derek Chauvin. The election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States served both to hide the ugly persistence of racism as well as to aggravate it to the point where a “white backlash” handed over the keys of the White House to Donald Trump. Now bidding for a second term, President Trump, whose popularity may be at a low point for his botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has thought nothing of using a white supremacist trope — not the first time he has done this — to portray the violence sweeping through the country as black lawlessness in order to polarise Americans, and play to his own voter base.
The manner in which American racism has endured, subverting the country’s deepest democratic institutions in the process, it may be too optimistic to view the present moment as a turning point. But it is not without a glimmer of hope. Not all the anger erupting across American today at the horrific manner in which Floyd died, helplessly pleading to be allowed to breathe, is just black anger. The participation in the protests shows that the wound has cut deeper and wider this time, across racial lines. Perhaps even on Trump’s side of the fence, it may turn out to be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back that can force America to confront the reality of the distance it has still to cover — to fulfil the possibilities of its own admirable democratic ideals.
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