Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2016
“I knew that my portion of the American galaxy, where bodies were enslaved by a tenacious gravity, was black and that the other, liberated portion was not.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates
WHILE everything appears to have changed for the better, almost gleaming, in the US this summer of 2016, what stays the same, I feel, is the status of African-Americans: you see black people as usher boys, janitors, guards, cleaners, salesmen. You find more black homeless people sitting in the parks and shabbily dressed, obese, sad-looking women on the streets. Indeed, when you read the 40th Status of Black America report, your observation is validated: the 2016 Equality Index of Black America stands at 72.2 per cent.
The report, brought out by the National Urban League, informs us of the wage differential: for each dollar a white person earns, the black gets 60 cents. Compared to 10.8pc whites, 27pc blacks live below the poverty line. The unemployment rate is twice as much for blacks (9.6pc) as for whites (4.6pc). While 35.6pc of whites of age 25 years and above have got a Bachelor’s degree or more, 22.2pc blacks go that far.
What these figure fail to convey is the depth of marginalisation: how deeply it is embedded institutionally and at how many structural levels it operates. The data does not embody the pain and suffering of the marginalised. I would not have had a chance to glimpse the soul of a black person had not I picked up Between the World and Me in a book store.
The book was released last year but it was now in NYC that I happened to read it. This tale of a dark world sears your heart, makes you wonder what went wrong with the American Dream and raises questions not just about America but about any society, including ours, that excludes its minority groups and dehumanises them in ways implicit and explicit.
Written in the backdrop of the rising number of extrajudicial killings of blacks by police and vigilantes, and in the form of a letter to his teenage son, the book is a personal reflection by Ta-Nehisi Coates, an African- American writer, journalist and educator, on how a black body negotiates a restricted portion of the American galaxy and what lessons he can offer to his son. Ta-Nehisi inhabits the space wherein he feels “a cosmic injustice, a profound cruelty”.
The spatial segregation that came about in post-war America has played a crucial role in maintaining the oppression of African-Americans. Dr Marc Lamont Hill, a leading black intellectual, professor and journalist, analyses the multiple forms of oppression that operate simultaneously along race and class lines in his book Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond, released this August. Hill explores public policies, institutionalised private practices and discriminatory attitudes nurtured in a post-civil rights era that turned blacks vulnerable, disposable, invisible, or ‘Nobody’ as he calls them. “To be Nobody is to be vulnerable…to be subject to State violence”, he says.
Hill traces the spatial, demographic and social development of Ferguson, a small city in St Louis County that erupted in protests and caught global attention when an 18-year-old black boy was shot to death by police in August 2014. He analyses the public-nuisance laws and how these are used to marginalise the vulnerable. Hill tells us that out of the 20,000 population of Ferguson, more than 16,000 had some form of “outstanding arrest warrant, nearly all of them relating to a missed payment or court appearance on a traffic fine.…”
Dr Hill analyses how urban policies, zoning laws, private real estate contracts, urban development, razing of city centre slums — where lived the African-Americans who had migrated from the rural south to the cities of the north — and the invention of public housing ensured segregation by race and class.
Indeed, I have encountered spatial segregation everywhere. In NYC, the most multicultural city in the US, there are enclaves of white, African-American, Chinese, South Asian, Italian and Latino populations. In the suburbs, the epitome of the American Dream, comprising neat, freshly painted houses, strip malls and huge parking lots, you seldom come across black families.
Black Lives Matter, a movement that emerged in the aftermath of acquittal of a white policeman in 2012 for shooting to death a 17-year-old black boy, faces challenges. White America does not approve of the movement and the section of media that gives coverage to it is demonised. Meanwhile, the “chilling pattern of deadly encounters between Black bodies and State power”, as Hill calls it, continues. The shooting to death of a 17-year-old black boy in Chicago on 28 July, and a similar death on August 13 of a young black man in Milwaukee reinforces this observation.