Thursday, August 06, 2015 08.15 PM / Hippolyte Fofack
Once again the world is looking at America, not for its long-envied leadership on groundbreaking technological innovations such as space technology and internet which have been the main drivers of efficiency and productivity growth over the last decades, but with consternation in the face of persistent prejudice and inability to deal with entrenched racism against African-Americans in a country that they built together with their fellow European immigrants.
Yesterday the cost of that entrenched racism was illustrated by the growing wave of innocent African-American men killed by white police officers. Today it has, once again, entered the church—a sanctuary where people are expected to go for solace and to share communion with fellow God-fearing worshipers.
Going against that sacrosanct view of the church a white supremacist who was welcomed by parishioners and the clergy of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during an evening Bible study on June 17, 2015 preyed on parishioners, killing 9 of them after sitting in contemplation with them for an hour.
The killing of African-Americans in the US has a long history and recent events are part of a recurrent phenomenon. Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American, was killed by North Charleston police in South Carolina earlier this year and more executions of innocent African-Americans have occurred in other states than the public will ever know. What sets thelatest crime committed within the premise of Emanuel AME Church apart is that it takes a nation, which has been on a perfecting-union path, though non-linear, back several decades and in the process reignites the flame on its troubling history.
During the slavery and Jim Crow era churches which were considered as the crucible of freedom movements were the target of white supremacists who burned them and killed parishioners attending services. As a spiritual landmark and home to the longest-standing African-American congregation in the South, the historic Emanuel AME Church which is back in the news was completely burnt down during the slave rebellion in the 1820s.
Fast forward into the Jim Crow era the bombing of a Baptist Church in Alabama in 1963 by the same white supremacists killed four young African-American girls, including Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s childhood friend. About a decade later Mrs. Alberta Williams King, the mother of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered at the organ of the Ebenezer Baptist Church while playing the Lord’s Prayer, and essentially setting her on an early exit to join her son through the same gate of racially-motivated violence.
Naturally, in a nation where the mantra of gun rights activists in the land of the free has been the rule the first culprit in the face of these repeated killings will undoubtedly be the NRA. No other industrialized country comes close to America in terms of gun-related violence. The count of gun-related victims for the first half of the year is already at 5,782 deaths, significantly more than the total number of US casualties during the ten years occupation of Afghanistan. Perhaps the real war is at home and not abroad where US drones have effectively taken control of the sky.
However, the racially skewed distribution of victims where African-Americans have a higher probability of being killed by police across the land suggests that easy availability of guns is not the whole story behind the persistently high number of gun-related deaths in America. At the same time, even going with prejudice which is another possible driver, the persistence of racism cannot be seen as a permanent feature of the US society, especially in light of US global leadership on human rights. Europe which was mired in anti-Semitism that culminated in the rise of Nazism and World War II successfully transcended the culture of discrimination and random killing of Jews by declaring and committing to a “never again” policy. In practice that commitment was followed by the adoption and implementation of a “zero tolerance” policy on anti-Semitism worldwide.
Under that policy the US government has invested considerable amount of resources systematically chasing Nazis, including going after octogenarians contemplating the end of their life, and in the process projecting the power of deterrence. Any attempt to engage in anti-Semitism has met a resounding response from leading nations, possibly reducing the space of free speech conferred by the first amendment to kitchen table discussions when it is potentially prejudicial and highly radioactive. A less consequential stance has been adopted when it comes to racism against African-Americans, reflecting the variable geometry in the application of a “zero tolerance” policy on racism with all the consequences we have seen thus far for African-American families.
Ending that variable geometry approach and globalizing the “zero tolerance” policy on racism is the first step to overcome racism in America and worldwide. This would require subjecting white supremacist organizations to the same surveillance, scrutiny and ultimate sanctions as jihadist ones. At the same time it may be equally important to recognize that slavery which is the first crime against humanity was first and foremost our crime; and as such we should, as a nation, courageously face it and own it by formally apologizing for it to build the foundation for a lasting reconciliation.
Last April I attended a conference jointly organized by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Workshop on African History and Economics at Harvard University. The keynote on conflict resolutions in primitive and modern societies drew on Chancellor Willy Brandt’s apology during his state visit to Warsaw in 1970, where he attended the commemoration of the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 to highlight the importance of apology for effective reconciliation. Acknowledging the fact that “The machine-like annihilation of Polish Jewry represented a heightening of bloodthirstiness that no one had held possible”, Brandt spontaneously dropped to his knees before the commemoration monument.
Perhaps the challenge associated with the legacy of slavery is that the responsibility of what was the first crime against humanity is one that was and is collectively shared unlike Nazism which had the US and other nations on the right side of history. Still as the leader of the free world and undoubtedly the most powerful slaveholding nation in the history of humanity, the leadership on race relations and globalization of “zero tolerance” policy on racism is incumbent upon America.
Unless it leads on those two fronts as it has done so well elsewhere, especially in the promotion of human rights where it has consistently published Country Reports to assess progress on Human Rights Practices since 1977, more innocent Americans will continue to fall because of the color of their skin and America’s global leadership on human rights will continue to be undermined by its growing credibility gap.
President Lincoln who invested a lot of political capital on race relations once declared that he hated “the monstrous injustice of slavery,” in part because it allowed “enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.” Maybe the time has come for another leader whose hatred for the ugly legacy of America’s birth defect—persistence of racism and killing of innocent African-Americans—has grown so strong that his courage to fully confront and assume it overwhelms short-term political calculus or risk of indifference.
Dr. Hippolyte Fofack is a fellow of the African Academy of Sciences.