It would be enjoyable to write about the victorious Swiss Davis Cup team or a fascinating recent visit to Armenia, but the riots in Missouri dominate the news and once again the world is reminded that racial equality remains problematic in the United States. For someone who worked in the African-American enclave of Harlem in New York City from 1968-1972 there is only dismay that after the many victories of the civil rights movement and the election of the first African-American president, deep-seated animosities remain.
Why is this so? After all, the American Civil War took place from 1861-1865. The legislation that followed the war’s conclusion and Northern victory formally ended slavery and the Great Society legislation of Lyndon Johnson 100 years later formally ended racial discrimination in the United States. But, formal legislation has proven to be necessary but not sufficient. While civil and political rights have been enacted into law, economic, social and cultural rights remain elusive. In spite of a growing black middle class and such prominent figures as President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, National Security Chief Susan Rice and others, the number of blacks in jail and living below the poverty line remain unacceptable in a society that prides itself on equality.
The Ferguson riots reflect this inequality. Whereas previous riots have taken place in inner city ghettos such as in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, Miami, Cincinnati and Newark, the Ferguson riots are in a suburb of St. Louis. The recent migration out of the inner cities has not led to a change in the authority structure: whites continue to dominate the police force and political establishment. Blacks continue to be marginalized, both politically and economically in spite of the symbolic importance of Barack Obama’s election.
What is to be done? The first answer has to do with the President himself. Patrick Chappatte’s outstanding cartoon in the November 26 International New York Times shows the President alone, slouched in a chair in the Oval Office watching the riots on television. What is he doing to change the situation? While his election was symbolic, it has, unfortunately, remained symbolic. Black leaders such as Cornell West and Jesse Jackson have been highly critical of his lack of action towards racial and economic equality. He has been called an Oreo, like the cookie, black on the outside and white on the inside. He has remained aloof from the street African-American community.
While the President has remained aloof, the rest of the American society has forgotten the civil rights movement and its demands for equality. The income gap in the United States continues to grow. The 1% has amassed enormous wealth while the middle and lower classes have been left behind. There have been very few manifestations against this situation; the Occupy Wall Street movement had little traction. The acceptance of this gap, like the number of African Americans in prison, is the great shame of a country that professes to be a beacon of democracy.
The riots will play out. The specific anger at the killing of Michael Brown and the lack of an indictment of the police officer will have a limited life cycle. Like the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King and the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, speeches will be made, promises will be forthcoming, and people will go back to their normal lives. No fundamental change will take place because there is no leadership and no real pressure for fundamental change.
The world will look on. Some will be bewildered at how racial inequality remains in the United States. Some will rejoice that the country which sells itself as the shining city on the hill is in fact a highly segregated and unequal society. Others will be dismayed that the fundamental problems highlighted in the 1960s have not changed. Protests against the military-industrial complex, manifestations against senseless wars, lives lost trying to help those marginalized enter the mainstream have not been compensated. Plus ca change.