"Shady blacks" and the shades of racism
I know Sri Lankans who take off to the USA for their studies clutching their F-1 (student) visas and dreams of other types of visas, hopefully a "green card" and eventually citizenship in the land of glittering promise. I know that at least some of them were cautioned by friends and family to be wary of the "kallas". Why? Because all the blacks they had seen were those on cheap cops and robbers TV shows, and they were typically the crooks. I know Sri Lankans who became Mericans who still believe that "black" equals "shady". On the other hand, most non-white foreigners in the USA, sooner or later, come to recognise such portrayals for what they really are: racist stereotypes.
The problem is that racism is not something that restricts itself to the celluloid. Movies are not produced in a vacuum, ideological impulses do leave their signature on creative urges. Movies themselves often factor into the larger construction of ideology and provoke action.
My first experience of the USA was at a small school called Carleton College in Minnesota. During the three months I was there, I saw less than 5 black students. Boston was different. I soon learnt that "black" had less to do with criminality than with poverty. The ghetto areas such as Roxbury were teeming with black people whose abject poverty made even the most rural and "backward" places in Sri Lanka seem affluent. The proportion of blacks in homeless shelters far outstripped the national percentage. White America did have a ready, racist answer. "They are bums because they dont have it in them to be anything better than bums". White America, even now, for the most part, refuses to acknowledge that there is something fundamentally wrong in their social order and that this flaw has more to do with racism than with some vague notion of a "culture of poverty".
In Boston I was once beaten by a drunk white youth because I came to defend a friend at whom he was casting racist slurs. Fortunately, there was a policeman around who took down the mans name and address and persuaded me to lodge a complaint. I said "fortunately" not because I have absolute faith in the police, in the USA or elsewhere (and I will get to this later), but because the process included a peep into the judicial system of Boston.
The Boston courts are unmistakably marked ethnically. The judges were all white. The lawyers were Jews. The policemen were Irish. And the "accused"? Black. There are exceptions, I admit, but the racial lines are nevertheless apparent. And it was in these courts that I first experienced the fact that racism was deeply rooted in the system.
I was issued notice to appear in court and was directed to the chambers of the assigned judge. The thug who punched me relentlessly with the full force of his 250 odd pounds (more than double my weight by the way) had already arrived. He got off with a warning not to touch me again. I got nothing by way of compensation for the bruises I sustained. Upon subsequent reflection on the conversation that took place, it occurred to me that basically the judge had taken upon himself to make sure that the thugs interests were looked after. I was new to Boston, and fully armoured with all the weaknesses and hesitancy of a recently arrived F-1 visa holder. Didnt want any more trouble.
A couple of years later, the Los Angeles Police Department was caught off guard when a brutal attack on an unarmed black was caught on video camera. Rodney King, the victim, became a name that showed the world the racist face of the "land of the free and home of the brave" America, champion of human rights and democracy. The cops were found to be "not guilty"! And it took a riot, the destruction of millions of dollars worth of property and several deaths for that "ruling" to be overturned.
The Great White Media just couldnt ignore the Rodney King incident. It was just too big. Countless others, although well documented, go unheard by the courts and unmentioned in the media. Often it takes a Malcolm X to say the word loud enough. For the most part there are vast silences in whose womb men, women and children are born, live, suffer and die.
It seems also that racist America is just too belligerent to learn its lessons. A little less than two years ago something happened which made the welcoming words etched on the Statue of Liberty lose some of their lustre. Forty two shots were fired by undercover cops of the New York Police Department at an unarmed West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo. These "brave" officers, all of whom have had excellent records, were well trained and commended for their work, if they really believed that Diallo had a gun, could have easily crippled him with a couple of bullets. Instead they peppered his body as well as the hearts of those who really believed in the American Dream. The judicial system found all of them NOT GUILY of racial motivation in the attack. It was all a matter of "mistaken identity" we were told (how innocent and child-like!). I am willing to bet my next paycheck that had the suspect been white, he would be alive today.
A couple of nights after the verdict was announced, I was walking home when two sets of young white undergraduates accosted me (less than 5 minutes between the two incidents) and called me "nigger". Being black, being a foreigner, I was not allowed to be angry. I was supposed to walk away. I walked away, thinking to myself "the idiots are too dumb to get even their racist epithets right!" My Hispanic friend Joaquin, who is from New York City, when I told him about this a few minutes later, had this to say "Man, I dont want a child of mine to ever hear a racial slur. In the City, the lines are clear: you either take them out or you get taken out. Back there it is a war, nothing else. You dont talk to a gun because when the gun does the talking you go silent. Pronto.
I had friends who would listen to my story. Most stories are like that. They get told to friends and family. No one else.
This is why not many people know of the Black Panther Party, or how its headquarters in Philadelphia was bombed and its leaders arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Or that there are political prisoners in the United States who have spent more years in jail than did Nelson Mandela. Or that long before Mandela became a hero for White America, he had been a villain in their eyes, and that when he was freed he said a special thank you to Castro, Gaddafi and Arafat for having denounced apartheid during those long years when the USA slept. Nor is it "common knowledge" that genocide and ethnic cleansing started with Columbus and the massacre of the native populations. And that Leonard Peltier, a key leader of the movement to protect the rights of the "First Nations" (i.e. those who were kind to the starving Europeans who came to their shores fleeing war and famine, and who were thanked with invasion and colonisation) has been held for more than a quarter century now on largely trumped up charges.
It is well over a decade since Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black radio journalist and former Black Panther was found guilty of killing a white police officer by a jury that had a disproportionate number of whites, upon highly dubious evidence and amidst gross violation of due process. He was sentenced to death by a judge known for "hanging" blacks, despite the emergence of evidence that proved his innocence and massive protests regarding the blatant racism of the case.
As I write, good people in North America and elsewhere, who consider themselves first to be human beings and only then black, white or purple, are fighting to demand a fresh trial for Mumia. I have seen and have been moved by the serene and optimistic countenance on this particular face of the USA. For me, such people, few though they may be, redeem Racist America.
Freeing Mumia has been the focal point of the struggle against white racism. And thousands of white people have stood shoulder to shoulder with black people to win freedom for Mumia and dignity for the rest of the USA. At a rally held in Philadelphia in April 1999 I was privileged to hear Geronima Pratt, a Black Panther who was held for 23 years on false charges and later acquitted, speak from the same platform from which the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (both executed in the infamous persecution of the "reds" during the Macarthy era) demanded Mumias release.
Today racist America is speeding up paperwork that needs to get done before Mumia is murdered. Perhaps it is time to reflect.
Out here, as you know, the bars of the iron cage bend slowly.
So slow the movement in the enormous incarceration
that events merge, things relational blur.
I was arrested by the news that verdant morning
and my concerns went spinning in the vortex of dreams
straight into the heart of your detention.
But tell me, free human being of North America,
where in that maximum security cell
with its many unblinking eyes keeping watch,
among what thoughts,
what regrets, dreams and memories,
does the mad composition of resolve reside?
By what magical logic do your sinews break the chains
and caress unknown hearts and callused hands
in strange lands also heavy with tyranny?
In those long hours of solitude,
towards what shores does your heart soar?
What fragrances do you breathe?
Tell me, because eyelids refuse to shut this cold evening,
and, in this blind moment of reflection
I cannot really say, "I know you, brother".
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