Lizzie Marvelly: Nation at an impasse

Historically, not all lives have mattered equally in America.
Tensions remain high on streets in many towns and cities across the United States. Photo / AP
Tensions remain high on streets in many towns and cities across the United States. Photo / AP

In 1939, Billie Holiday sang these immortal, haunting lines:

Southern trees bear a

strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Nearly eight decades later, America is still bleeding.

Though lynching may mercifully be a rarity these days, the blood that fills the streets, often gushing from wounds inflicted by law enforcement officers, is disproportionately that of black people. People whose main crime is not having white skin.

People like Alton Sterling, who was shot several times as he lay on the ground, or Philando Castile, who was shot at a traffic stop, reaching for his requested driver's licence. Or Eric Garner, who desperately uttered, "I can't breathe" 11 times as he was choked by New York City police officers, and who died soon after as a result of "compression of neck (chokehold), compression of chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police".

Walter Scott, Michael Brown, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd . . . the list goes on.

Black. The colour of death. The shade of the "other". The justification for centuries of oppression, abuse, discrimination and murder. It was the reason for the killing of Martin Luther King jnr, and in 2016, if we are willing to confront the painful reality of anti-black bias, it remains the reason for the slaying of countless black men, women and children in a nation built on a foundation of slavery.

It is a nation that seems incapable of throwing off the shackles of its racism, with many refusing to acknowledge the uncomfortable truths that threaten to boil over and scald anyone in their path.

And the wilful ignorance is truly staggering. A quick jaunt into the worst corners of the #AllLivesMatter hashtag paints a startlingly clear picture of a stratum of American society that simply cannot acknowledge that life as a black person may be more dangerous than life as a member of the white majority.

To those people, #BlackLivesMatter is an "inherently racist" lobby group "dividing America" (which are both accusations Donald Trump has thrown about in the media to discredit the movement).

The question of whether America was ever truly unified is lost on them. The idea that the kind of "unity" that has oppressed people of colour for generations may be the wrong historical ideal to pine for is dangerous in itself to a majority that has benefited more from white privilege than it can admit.

It is a nation that seems incapable of throwing off the shackles of its racism.

It's a struggle that has been simmering for years. Amid the national turmoil, there are historical parallels to King, The Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) and their less-peaceful contemporaries: the modern-day heirs of the nonviolent resistance - the leaders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement - calling for peaceful protest in the face of continued discrimination, while others have neither the patience nor the inclination for peace. Ironically, although the #BlackLivesMatter movement, like King, is a non-violent entity, it is experiencing similar vilification to that King received in the US media, illustrating the sad fact that 48 years after his assassination, black organisations will still be seen by many as automatically hostile and aggressive.

Not that the unrest in the US is without aggression. Last week in Dallas, a young black man struck back in anger, returning fire with fire, in a racially-charged massacre that shocked the world. His crimes, for which he paid the ultimate price, were despicable. He profiled, targeted and killed five police officers, reducing their humanity to the level of base symbolism.

Those five men represented a system Micah Johnson railed against. They were cogs in a larger wheel, nameless enemies to be vanquished - never mind that they were also sons, husbands and fathers. Their lives mattered too. Their deaths have brought pain and despair to their loved ones. They did not deserve their fate.

But neither did Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Nor the thousands of black people who have died at the hands of a system that has repeatedly insisted on marginalising them.

The sad truth behind #BlackLivesMatter is not that black lives matter more than white lives, but that black lives have historically mattered far less than any other lives. Slavery in the US was abolished a mere 151 years ago, while segregation was legal right up until 1964.

When black people have been characterised as savages, thugs, criminals, and deviants for centuries, those internalised racial narratives don't suddenly disappear into the ether. A society built on such glaring inequality and division does not miraculously heal when the laws finally change. And so America finds itself at an impasse.

On one hand, a minority group is rising up, powered by the 21st century's revolutionary organising tool: social media. Black Americans are refusing to tolerate racist oppression, and a large number of white American allies are standing staunchly beside them. Their shouts of protest are heard the world over, along with the dying breaths of the slain, shared from user to user around the great online consciousness-raising circles of the digital age.

On the other, a majority group is being challenged as never before. This time, the demand isn't for the repeal of racist laws, but for the restructuring of an unequal society. Somewhere between the street protests and the Fox News building, the cry for true equality is codified as a threat to so-called "American values".

It is just one reason why Donald Trump's promise to "make America great again" is so beguiling. When you strip back the populist spin the undercurrent is clear: equality isn't such a great proposition to those accustomed to unfair advantage.

- NZ Herald

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