I wonder if Americans realise how different racism is for them. If they can see that the degree to which racism pervades their society, their behaviour, their conversations, and their attitudes, seems bizarre to the rest of the world. I wonder if they’ve noticed that black people in Britain aren’t called African-British and white people in Africa aren’t called European-Africans. I wonder if they understand that calling people African-Americans implies that these people aren’t real Americans. Or at least that they’re not Americans first and foremost.
I wonder how a country can be so convinced of its greatness that it’s afraid to change, even as the evidence of its failures is filmed dying on its streets. How many eloquently written articles about injustice and the need for change will be written, how much righteous outrage will be expressed in impassioned speeches, how many thoughts and prayers will be sent, how many riots will destroy hard-won businesses and lives and how long it will take before all of it fades into the background again.
I wonder if they’ve forgotten that people rioted when Rodney King was brutally beaten by the police, that people spoke out when Philando Castile was murdered in his car. I wonder how it makes them feel to see George Floyd killed in almost exactly the same way as Eric Garner was 6 years ago and whether it makes them realise how little has changed or that a new strategy is required. I wonder why they can’t do better than this and whether they even want to.
I’m not trying to suggest that Americans are all racist or that the rest of the world is free of racism, that’s obviously not true. Racism seems to be an inescapable relic of humanity’s tendency towards tribalism, a vestigial fear from the days when contact with someone who wasn’t one of our own was likely to be dangerous. The colour of a person’s skin was an easy way to identify whether or not they belong to our tribe, and all of us still carry a little of that programming today.
But the rest of the world — for the most part at least — has recognised that the world is now too small for us to live separately, in a way that America still hasn’t. Despite being a nation of immigrants, Americans still seem to see black people as grudgingly tolerated guests, as a resource, brought into their country to play a part, not to be a part.
Indeed, that’s what the first category of black people in America do; they play a part. There are the musicians, the celebrities, the sportspeople. The black people who made it. The 50 Cents, the Michael Jordans and the Kevin Harts. Even the Tiger Woods’ and the Williams sisters’ occasionally. Beneath them are the cheerful, hard-working blue-collar workers. The garbage men and supermarket staff, the people who work in food trucks and DMVs, who park cars and deliver mail. Then, of course, there are the criminals. The ubiquitous black males in their late 20s or early 30s. The 13% of the population who commit 40% of the crime.
Despite their apparent differences, these people all make up the first category of black person in America. The kind of black person whose role in the United States can be easily understood. This category is more or less tolerable to racists because they understand, even if only subconsciously, the importance of these caricatures that put black people in their place are. Black people are fine as long as they’re entertainers, workers, or proving that deep down black people are no good.
The second category is a little trickier, and is also responsible for all the problems. What do these people do? Surely not the same as everybody else. They’re not especially athletic or musically gifted. They don’t possess an anatomy or musicality that can entertain millions (literary or other artistic talents like painting aren’t really permitted in the “black entertainer” category). They aren’t the type of black person that would grin broadly, or better yet sing, whilst doing menial work. They’re not at their best with dirt under their fingernails and the hot sun on their backs. Nor are they the dangerous, barely civilised savages that are so awful we accept that they can only be dealt with by caging them, or when it’s easier, murdering them in the street.
No, this second category is made up of the people that remind everybody that black people are just ordinary people. They have ordinary jobs and ordinary ambitions. Their identity is based on where they grew up and not where their ancestors came from. These people will spend much of their lives fighting attempts — from within and without — to shoehorn them into one of the subsets of the first category. They’ll be cheerfully informed that they must be good dancers or singers because it’s “in their blood”. They’ll be applauded or chastised for their ability to speak English properly. They’ll be treated with suspicion when they walk into stores.
This second category of black people lays claim to their right to live in America by the same token as anybody else who lives there; because they’re Americans. And they expect that to mean the same thing as it does for any other American. That they can walk the streets without fear. That they will enjoy the same privileges, opportunities and protections. That they can expect to be judged not by the colour of the skin, but by the content of their character.
But these perfectly reasonable goals can’t be achieved with thoughts and prayers or eloquently worded statements. They won’t be accomplished by arguing about whether black people should be referred to as “coloured” or as “POC”s or about who can say the N-word and under what circumstances. These perfectly reasonable goals won’t even be accomplished by protesting or by rioting. They’ll be accomplished by Americans, all Americans, sitting down together and recognising, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, that a nation divided against itself cannot stand.
I wonder if that’s the problem. Maybe nobody cares whether the nation can stand anymore. It’s true, there were a few murmurs when Colin Kapernick took a knee. But what America’s racism problem really looks like to the rest of the world is that before any serious action is taken, many more bodies will need to be lying in its streets.