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USA - The question of race

Gero Schliess / ad
July 27, 2013

The US is still gripped by the fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin. His death has once again ignited a heated debate on racism. President Obama deeply moved people due to his highly personal remarks.

Annette Quintera from Miami holds an image of Trayvon Martin at a rally in Miami, Florida REUTERS/Andrew Innerarity (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST)
Image: Reuters

Protests, demonstrations, appeals for political intervention and agitated discussions about racial discrimination clearly show how deeply upset many Americans are following the acquittal of George Zimmerman. He claims to have acted out of self-defense when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin who happened to be unarmed.

The question of race - a sharp divide

"We are still very deeply divided on issues of race," says Reverend Roland Stringfellow. The Afro-American pastor from San Francisco personally knows many of those who have taken to the streets over the last few days. He himself listened to the verdict "with a broken heart," and it has made him more pessimistic towards the question of racism.

"Many people point to some advances that Afro-Americans have made in this country, particularly since the 1950's and 1960's. However, in recent years and really even in recent days, we have seen how many of these protections that have been instituted in American law have been rolled back."

Most of the demonstrations taking place in cities all over the country were peaceful, including the one which took place at the Civic Center in the heart of San Francisco, whereas neighboring Oakland saw some violent riots. Reverend Stringfellow says that he can indeed comprehend the outrage many young black Americans are feeling, and yet he strictly rejects violence.

Not everybody shares his views. Not far from the Civic Center, on San Francisco's main artery Market Street, some young black men are dressed in archaic-looking warlike costumes, beating drums and yelling battle cries with the obvious aim of provoking pedestrians.

'I'm for violence'

"The only way to express your emotions is through violence", the youngest of these black men bluntly said into my face. He declined, however, to have his picture taken. "Marching doesn't change anything. I'm pro-violence." These men are convinced that the trial was unfair. "It was racist because they basically voted for Zimmerman because he was a so-called white person. Black men, they always get killed by the police; it's a common case, it happens all the time. And that's just one of the cases that happened to get on the news," he said.

Opinion surveys confirm what many people instinctively feel: The acquittal of George Zimmerman has deeply divided US society, eliciting sharply differing reactions among whites and blacks. In a recent survey of the Washington Post, 86 percent of Afro-Americans said they didn't agree at all with the verdict. White Americans, by contrast, held a totally different view with 51 percent agreeing with the verdict and only 31 percent saying they were against it.

'No equality before the law'

And the rift goes even deeper: 86 percent of blacks, who took part in this survey published on July 23, claim they aren't treated equally before the law, while only 41 percent of whites thought that blacks suffered discrimination.

Sitting in an office in San Francisco's financial district with a great view of the entire city, lawyer Clinton Woods agrees with the blacks in the survey: Afro-Americans continue to be treated unfairly by the courts. "There is certainly a lot of evidence regarding the unequal application of the justice system for African-Americans specifically and the majority Caucasians. What you see over and over and over again are harsher sentences being given to people who are Afro-American. Those Afro-Americans are convicted at much higher rates. They are sentenced to the death penalty at grossly disproportionate rates."

Theoretically, all citizens are equal before the law. But not in practice: Woods argues that it's up to both politicians and representatives of the judiciary to change that - and that the issue also directly concerns the president, who, after all, is responsible for the implementation of laws in accordance with the constitution. As a first step in that direction, Woods demands the abolition of the death penalty.

Obama makes a confession

The recent Zimmerman verdict has once again opened up a deep rift between blacks and whites. Maybe that's what prompted President Obama to formulate his recent and very personal remarks on the issue. Unlike in his first statement directly following the verdict, he refused to adopt a conciliatory, accommodating line, but clearly expressed his own personal viewpoint. One could almost say that America's first black president has finally come around to express his blackness: he made his own identity as a black American the starting point of his message. Or, as a commentator on National Public Radio put it, he had made an attempt to explain to white Americans what it means to be black. Obama had said, there was a tradition of inequal treatment of people belonging to different races by the justice system, ranging from the application of the death penalty to laws concerning the trade and consumption of drugs - a statement that, according to the NPR commentator, clearly takes a stand.

Human rights activist John Lewis, a resident of San Francisco, recounts he was deeply moved by Obama's words, because he had finally talked about his own experience as an Afro-American, recounting how, when he went shopping, customers in the stores would throw suspicious looks at him expressing their fears that he might steal something, and how people would lock up their cars from the inside when he was passing by. Lewis is convinced that nothing can better usher in historically significant debates than "personal truths" addressed to the public at large.

Woods points to something else Obama achieved: "A lot of people in the United States like to pretend that race doesn't exist. And I thought it was a really interesting way for the President, the first African American president of the United States, to stand up and say 'Look, these are the issues that African American men face on a daily basis, whether they are politicians, businessmen or young men growing up on the street - that there is a different way of life and a different way that people react to them ."

Discrimination not only towards blacks

Back in the center of San Francisco, I bumped into Daman Singh Bhangu. Identifiable from far away by his orange-colored t-shirt as a volunteer of "Selfless Service," which regularly hands out lunch packages to the city's homeless. In this way, the student has come to know quite a lot of people from different origins, and he recounts that most of the city's homeless have fallen victim to racism, particularly those of Latino origin - mostly Mexicans - but also Afro-Americans.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Trayvon Martin case in the press briefing room at the White House in Washington, July 19, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
The tragic fate of Trayvon Martin changed the rhetoric of US President Barack ObamaImage: Reuters
Clinton Woods, Photo: DW/Gero Schließ, Washington, 23.07.2013
Lawyer Clinton Woods says a lot of injustice is still being done to blacks.Image: DW/G. Schließ
Reverend Roland Stringfellow Copyright: Gero Schließ, DW, Mai 2013
San Francisco's Reverend Roland Springfellow felt deeply hurt by the Zimmerman verdict.Image: DW/G. Schließ

Singh, who as a Sikh belongs to a religious minority, does accept the Zimmerman verdict, even though he would have preferred something different. "I have close friends that were part of those rallies here in Oakland, California, and also in Atlanta. I am very aware of that it's a very emotional topic, the race itself is a very emotional topic. It's something that definitely people need to discuss openly, without anger and emotions. They need to set those aside and then discuss it. That's the only way they'll get some product, some result."

Next to Singh, Raman Dhami zestfully dishes out food - an activity which he apparently enjoys a lot. He suffered discrimination which threatened his whole livelihood. Raman grew up in a town of 6,000 inhabitants, with only a few families of Indian origin: "I definitely grew up with racism, especially after 9/11 we faced a lot of racism, for sure. We had a distribution business, we went to different kinds of stores and delivered little pies and stuff. We used to go to towns where there is really a population of Caucasian people. And when we went in with our turbans and our beards, they thought of us as terrorists, they attacked us a few times. And that's why we had to cut our hair." Well, later on however, Raman did start growing his hair once again.

Outrage and sharp comments

Raman Dhami, Humanitäre Hilfe. Bild zum Thema: US-Rassendiskussion. Foto: DW/Gero Schließ, Washington, 21.07.2013
Raman Dhami was so worried about racist attacks that he removed his turban and shaved his beard for a whileImage: DW/G. Schließ

Perhaps like only the wide-ranging debate about gay marriage, racism has now become a major topic of debate: in offices, during happy hour at bars, in church sermons, and, needless to say, in TV talk shows. Social media are full of outrage. From the other side, there are vitriolic comments in the letters to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. "Where had been all the protesters when black superstar O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder?" asks one reader. And another one expresses his surprise at the lack of protests whenever young black men kill each other. And adding to the chorus, a man with a Latino name writes he was really fed up with his status of "being different."

But America wouldn't quite be America if it weren't for the unswerving faith in a bright future. Health manager Stuart Gaffney, who joined one of the first demonstrations in San Francisco, articulated some of this unbowed optimism: "What was wonderful about the rallies that happened all across the United States was that communities from all different segments of our society stood together, and I was proud to be there, standing with people of all different races, all different classes, with people saying that we didn't feel that justice had been done."

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