The two contradictory faces of America


The two contradictory faces of America

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan

It was a poignant moment: the first black president of the United States spoke passionately about America’s commitment to the equality of all citizens that the Declaration of Independence embodies.

He did so at the very spot where police had clobbered and tear-gassed blacks 50 years ago for the crime of marching peacefully to ask for their rights. Nobody could have dreamt on that “Bloody Sunday” that the United States would have a black president within their lifetimes, if ever. That Barack Obama was elected two times to the country’s highest office shows the greatness and the open-mindedness of the American people.

The other side of the picture is not so attractive: blacks suffer police brutality and racial discrimination, as Obama acknowledged, in their everyday lives. On the very day that the president spoke of his country’s high ideals, white police shot and killed another unarmed black.

The US Department of Justice also harshly criticized the racial prejudices and unconstitutional mayhem of the police and authorities of the city of Ferguson, Missouri. But it also declared that it would not prosecute a former Ferguson police officer for shooting an unarmed black.

The Justice Department’s 102-page report acknowledged that Ferguson’s police - 50 of its 53 officers are white  - routinely arrest, beat and ticket blacks to raise revenues for the city. They employ brute force illegally to arrest innocent people whom they attack with vicious dogs and Tasers.

Though blacks constitute 67 percent of the city’s population, 90 percent of police victims were black. The authorities act viciously. The report cites the case of one black woman who was fined $150 for illegal parking in 2007. She has since paid $500, was jailed for six days and must still pay more than $500.

Ferguson, however, was not the only city abusing its black residents. As Tef Poe, co-founder of Hands Up United, stated: “To isolate and exemplify Ferguson is to infatuate over the finger while the organs of our state and the soul of our country continue to metastasize.”

While Obama, Michelle and their daughters Sasha and Malia and about 100 members of Congress headed to Selma for the anniversary, in Madison, Wisconsin, an unarmed 19-year-old black was shot by police and died in the hospital.

These were not isolated incidents or aberrations. They represent generally what American blacks suffer even today though they are no longer burned to death by the Ku Klux Klan. The progress the United States has made in improving the status of its blacks is admirable. But many remain second-class citizens.

Other distinct groups - women, Latinos, the poor, Arabs and Muslims - face their own difficulties. Even Obama, though elected president twice, is routinely savaged by racists, bigots and the dinosaurs of the right wing of the Republican party.

It would be unfair to blame democracy for the plight of  non-whites. Democracy permits the people to replace leaders who fail the masses. But democracy does not change the character of a people. It’s also dominated by the super rich.

The US was built not only by the pilgrim fathers but by macho-style cowboys. Their passion was land grabbing and killing the owners of the land, the Aboriginal people. This aggression and self-reliance ensured the victory of the fittest. Morality and the rule of law had no role in this struggle. So the US rode roughshod over the Aboriginals and its Latin neighbors grabbing land and imposing unjust treaties on weak countries.

This raw energy built a dynamic country that provided opportunity and refuge for millions from around the world. America welcomed their talent, gave them citizenship and a quality of life that the world envied. The US also belatedly helped defeat the Nazis and an expansionist, ruthless Japan. Later, it shielded Western Europe and much of Asia from Joseph Stalin and Soviet expansionism.

When the Soviet Union crumbled, the US remained as the world’s only superpower. Even with all its might, however, the US could not have its way. It shielded the Kuomintang National Chinese from Communist China. But it could not prevent China and North Korea from embracing Communism.

The US fought a long war in Vietnam to try to prevent it from uniting under Communist rule. It suffered an ignominious defeat.  But such is the economic might of the United States that Communist China and Vietnam are happy to build trade and economic ties with their former foe. There is no substitute for American markets and technology in the world.

The US  is a democracy but it is a flawed one. The kowtowing of Congressional leaders to Benjamin Netanyahu is one glaring example. In its dealings with other countries, the US is more a bully and less a champion of human rights, freedom and democracy as is shown by its invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and its drone attacks on sovereign countries. It is guided by its own interests, and these are defined by its corporations, lobbies and rich billionaires. Maybe one day the US will live up to what its Declaration of Independence says. But do not expect that day to come anytime soon.

Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan is a retired Canadian journalist, civil servant and refugee judge.