17 September 2005

The law must protect black Americans

By Jacqui McCarney

Hurricane Katrina washed away the glossy façade that America likes to project on to the world. 'Liberty', 'Democracy', 'Equality' and the 'American Dream' looked as washed up as the poor of New Orleans. The stench of poverty, segregation, neglect and blatant racism hung around the Superdome stadium and in the surrounding water.

The kind of racism that allows the government in the richest, most powerful country in the world to treat its largely black people with such casual indifference does not appear overnight, nor is it an accident. While the constitution declares "all men are born equal", the law has worked in the opposite direction, upholding and strengthening racial inequality at all levels of society. And where the letter of the law is non racist, the spirit of the law is blatantly, and apparently, unashamedly, racist. America TV is a witness to such prejudice, in its nightly showing of black young men in shoot outs, and arrests. Even during Katrina, we saw this constant negative coverage as white survivors were reported finding bread and soda in local grocery stores, and black people looting it.

America's racist history goes back to the slave trade where white slave owners were protected by law. With the end of slavery the law jumped in to protect white supremacy. And it was in the city of New Orleans that a landmark case was fought. In 1892, a mixed race old man, Homer Plessy, challenged segregation in public places by sitting in the white compartment of a train heading out of New Orleans. The Judge upheld the law and cemented what had come to be known as "separate but equal" ruling legitimising segregation in the South.

Free from slavery, black people are still not equal. This legacy of injustice was all too apparent in the scenes emanating from New Orleans. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, has had little impact against powerful opposing forces of the law.

George Bush has said "The decision of the Supreme Court affects the life of every American" and it is strangely ironic, therefore, that as New Orleans struggled with the collapse of law and order, Chief Justice William Rehnquist died. His legacy in New Orleans was writ bold and large in those desperate days.

It was 1952 when a major challenge to racial segregation was launched in Brown vs. the Board of Education. Rehnquist, then, a mere clerk to judge Jackson, took it upon himself to intervene with a memo to the Judge in which he argued that "separate but equal" had been correctly decided and should be upheld. And so began a career dedicated to implementing a right wing agenda in opposition to civil liberties and racial equality.

As a Republican activist in Arizona in the 1950s and 1960s, he opposed the desegregation of restaurants. He also worked as a volunteer challenging the African-American voters at the polls, trying to get them stricken from voting on the day of the election. This tradition was continued in the first Bush election of 2000. Bush lost the popular election by 500,000 votes but "won" the election by taking the hotly contested State of Florida (see Greg Palast's book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy). Here 57,700 names were removed from the rolls on the grounds that they were felons - later research showing that 90.2 % were completely innocent of crime except for being African American.

As less than 10% of African Americans vote Republican, these votes would have lost Bush the election. It was Judge Rehnquist who oversaw the Bush vs Gore election and refused a recount.

Black Americans have entered the 21st century unrepresented, poor, angry and segregated. A pervasive and persistent form of Apartheid separates their neighbourhoods and schools.

Still separate but certainly not equal Black neighbourhoods are poorer and black children are more likely to fail at school, become unemployed, and are seven times more likely to end up in prison. Rhenquist took his mission to oppose integration personally, and had covenants on his houses in Phoenix and Vermouth prohibiting their resale to minorities. His career thrived in a culture where he felt free to write "It is about time the court faced the fact that white people in the South don't like coloured people. It is not part of the judicial function to thwart public opinion".

The America constitution boasts "all men are born equal" - its society won't survive unless black people's 200 years of demands for equality and justice are really met. As in this country, racial discrimination should be made illegal (although we should not be complacent). Black people should be given support to bring cases of discrimination against the police, employers and schools.

Black History month in Norwich and Norfolk starts on Monday 28 September (http://www.norfolkblackhistorymonth.org.uk/).