The US urgently needs to address the widely varying ways people of different races experience life in the country. Otherwise it has no business calling itself the greatest nation on earth, writes DW’s Spencer Kimball.
Segregation officially ended half a century ago, but in many parts of the United States, black and white Americans are still living in two separate and unequal countries. We cross paths in public and sometimes in the work place. We’re polite, kind to each other, as strangers should be. But at the end of the day, we too often come from and return home to very different realities.
Take me for example. I grew up in a small Kentucky town, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, a mid-size city that’s about half white and half black. But in my town, you would have never known the population was split almost evenly between whites and blacks. There were only a few black kids at my high school. To this day, they live in other neighborhoods and attend other schools – where the opportunities are not the same.
I am from an ethnic enclave, a wealthy and privileged one. Even now as an adult, I have far too little exposure to blacks and their experience in America. It’s not like this everywhere in the country, but it’s still the case in too many places. It’s lack of contact with people of other races that plays a major role in explaining the widely varying views of race and the police that are visible across the nation – most recently in the case of Sandra Bland.
A 28-year-old black woman, Bland was pulled over in Texas for failing to use her turn signal. She was upset that she’d been pulled over, refused to leave her car, was threatened with being “lit up” by a Taser, forcibly removed and arrested. It’s on videotape. Bland was later found dead in her jail cell, an apparent suicide, according to authorities. There are reports that she suffered from depression and may have attempted suicide in the past. That information is still coming to light.
It’s easy to predict how many whites will react: Why was she being rude to the police officer? Why didn’t she just do what he said during the traffic stop? It’s the same argument that was made in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, both unarmed black men who were killed by police.
Many blacks would view the traffic stop very differently and ask very different questions. Why was the police officer so violent toward an unarmed woman? Would someone with lighter skin even have been pulled over, and would an offer then subject her to such harsh physical treatment during a verbal dispute? And, above all, why did this end with Sandra Bland dead in a jail cell?
Blacks and whites perceive, feel and react differently because we’ve had very different experiences in this racially divided nation.
But this is the reality: Blacks are more likely to live in poverty and be unemployed, are less likely to have health insurance, are more likely to suffer and die from many diseases, are more likely to be incarcerated and are more likely to be killed by police.
This is because since blacks were brought here as slaves and since the Civil War and emancipation, they have continued to be systematically marginalized and depicted – blatantly in the past, subtly now – as a threat to white power.
White Americans – like myself – are the descendants of European immigrants who had opportunities historically denied to blacks – to buy land, learn a trade and pass their wealth down for generations. Simply put, the United States was originally built by and for white men, and humans aren’t normally disposed to sharing the power they’ve accumulated.
Until we Americans truly address and correct this historic racial injustice, we’ll continue to live in a racially divided nation, one where blacks have less opportunity to achieve the American dream. And as long as that’s the reality in America, until we as a nation truly believe that black lives matter for more than a hashtag, we have no business calling ourselves the greatest nation on earth.