Martin Luther King Jr., 1963 speech
Race relations, particularly between African-Americans and whites, remains a highly emotive and polarizing subject in the United States, 238 years after independence.
Racism relates to prejudice or discrimination; verbal, physical or otherwise, based on one’s race. Tribalism and or gender chauvinism draw certain similar parallels in other parts of the world.
These all involve depriving a set of people, on account of their origin or sex, of opportunities and rights enjoyed by groups that often are dominant and consider themselves, or indeed are, superior.
In South Africa, it manifested as apartheid.
Whichever prism it is looked through, the aspect of inequality, and with it unresolved tension between the unequal and often competing class interests, is magnified. It is a struggle by one class to restore its dignity, privileges and rights equal to that of the unyielding other, which instead reacts by reinforcing its contested higher-up status.
Therefore, it is easier for people in such folds to talk at or over, rather than to or with, each other. Why? Because their world constructs are different, often contrasting. It is a mosaic of the mighty and powerless, the haves and have-nots. Such make clashes an accident waiting to happen.
The forefathers of African-Americans were slaves, captured violently in Africa and carted away at a meager fee to the US as subservient servants or laborers. They had no rights except to capitulate. Rich white families owned them as personal property and equal relation was unfathomable and even criminalized in law until the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts.
In the most telling of the exclusion, President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 had to deploy about 1, 200 of the 101st Airborne Division troops and have the federal government take command of national guards in Arkansas, amid violent protests by whites opposed to enrollment of the first nine black students at the all-white Central High School.
That was shortly after the civil rights movement began sweeping through the United States like a tsunami.
Rosa Parks’ 1955, and before that Claudette Colvin’s, refusal to yield bus seats to standing white passengers as required by law then, had sparked more than a year of bus boycott by blacks in protests led, among others, by the legendary Martin Luther King Jr. Racism, calamitous and dehumanizing as it is, helped catapult and immortalize King as a titanic icon of the struggle for equality in US, something which dovetails with how apartheid birthed Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as a colossus for South Africa’s liberation.
The enduring lesson for me is the agility of these leaders to turn a volatile differences of opinion, framed as us-against-them, into glue for rough cohesion by fostering cross-cultural understanding, which elevates the power of dialogue above coercion.
Many commentators agree the rise of Barack Obama, whose father was a Kenyan, to become President of the United States was a fulfillment, even if symbolic, of King’s ‘I have a dream’ prophesy.
Thus the world was horrified when a week-long violence — not civil conversation — greeted the August 9, 2014 shocking incident in which white police officer, Darren Wilson, shot dead an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri.
The flare-up showed existing mutual and combustible suspicion between blacks and whites. It also means it still is a longer journey for the liberally democratic United States to achieve an inclusive society where all feel equal — even if a truly egalitarian society in reality is a mirage.