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Ferguson to Baltimore: taking on institutionalized racism

What are our values? Equal opportunities? Freedom of expression? Protection of human rights principles? If so, the US is building a frightening track record of alienating and insensitive behavior.

Meriem Bekka
4 May 2015
Second day of peaceful Freddie Gray protest in Baltimore.

Second day of peaceful Freddie Gray protest in Baltimore. Demotix/ Angel Mayas. All rights reserved.In the months following a police officer’s killing of unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9, 2014 something changed. Ferguson, Missouri quickly became the improbable backdrop for the beginning of a movement that propelled the American nation into a debate on race and inequality within our communities. As more instances of civil resistance are being publicized, leading US universities are also beginning to offer courses on The Ferguson Movement. And it’s true, Ferguson sparked greater appreciations of racial, cultural, and political sensitivities in the US, an awareness that also resonated internationally. 

These issues have not emerged only recently after all, and they will continue to manifest. However, they are emerging more prominently and easily through other mediums, such as social media. This is evident, amongst other things, in the series of hash-tags surfacing in recent months. #Dontgunmedown, for example, is visible on the mural on the first floor at The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Mainstream media sources no longer have a monopoly on the news, so more information is getting out, representing a plurality of views. But it’s important that we don’t let this opportunity to take on institutionalized racism become just a moment in our society.

To prolong the moment, laws, policies, and regulations promulgated at the federal, state, and local-level could start by placing greater emphasis on economic, social, and cultural human rights. We are ensured the right to vote; can we also be ensured the right to equal, high quality education and healthcare? The United States has a way to go, but could start by ratifying ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. We are one of few countries, including Comoros, Cuba, and Palau, which have not ratified the treaty

Furthermore, these remedies must be coordinated from both the bottom and the top. As compatriots who have been unaware of these issues are becoming more concerned with the systematic failures and cracks in our social, economic, and political fabric, there should also be increased institutionalized support for grassroots initiatives, such as Diverse Groups in Atlanta. Diverse Groups is a dialogue group that meets on a monthly basis to discuss “issues of diversity with neighbors from diverse backgrounds”.

We can't continue blaming the victims of marginalized and disenfranchised communities for their inability to integrate and subsequent resentment towards society without asking more questions. Integration, implies two things coming together to become one whole. It is distinct from assimilation, which demands individuals being absorbed into a wider society or culture, implying that nationals must renounce their multiplicity of affiliations to completely assume and fully embrace their “host-country identity”. We should understand identities are not mutually exclusive. In many instances, the US has encouraged a culture of integration and accepting different cultures as part of a whole.

Unfortunately, we've also witnessed reversals of this attitude, including: a public apology for a student reciting the pledge of allegiance in Arabic; a case to remove affirmative action from universities going up to Supreme Court level; and an unfair immigration system that does not even protect basic rights of non-citizens. These are just a few examples of our public policies and opinions that contradict core American values. 

Increasingly, minority demographics are effortlessly expected to fully assimilate to, and represent, an inconsistent understanding of what it is to be a "true American" and propagate "true American values". What are these values? Equal opportunities? Freedom of expression? Protection of human rights principles? If so, the US is building a frightening track record of alienating and insensitive behavior.

It is time to take our responsibilities seriously and check our priorities. Should they really entail spending $62.5 million in tax dollars on nine drones that apprehended less than 2% of immigrants last year? It would be more in line with our purported common values to address the fact that Hispanic residents are almost three times less likely to have health insurance than white Americans.

Many in the US are aware of the importance of elevating the multiplicity of cultures and fluidity of identities that the American people embody. Still, these efforts are tainted by poorly planned policies, combined with disparate access to information. Widespread inequality, and urban planning policies that propagate segregation, compounded with widespread messaging of counterproductive stereotypes are aggravating the situation. It is therefore important to keep these issues at the top of our agenda, and ensure that the information shared on these matters is comprehensive, easily accessible, and representing a diversity of views. Far too many Americans have suffered, from Ferguson to Baltimore.

We no longer have laws that segregate our societies, but those laws were not repealed that long ago. In a 1999 interview, Angela Davis said, “Racism is a much more clandestine, much more hidden kind of phenomenon, but at the same time it’s perhaps far more terrible than it’s ever been.” We have a rare opportunity now to change this if we seize it.

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