· Any silver lining in the gloomy clouds?
There’s a basic question crying out for an answer if one really wanted to make sense of racism in America. It is this: Are white Americans truly ready to reject racism, en masse? In the previous column I noted that it’s impossible to have lived in the U.S. and not have confronted one form of systemic racism or the other. And that if a dark skinned person encountered a racist white police officer, it could be – in some abominable cases – a matter of life or death by a chokehold or gunshots.
I remember in my university days in the early 1970s, driving with a friend from Los Angeles to New York and being accosted by a highway patrol in the deep south, Texas. It was scary but fortunately grateful for a mere speeding ticket and no diabolic drama.
The roots of European racism – and by extension America’s – are deep, and cannot be underestimated. An activist against racism once said that for a white person to have been born and educated in the U.S. and not be a racist was a miracle.
President Eisenhower apologises
Sometime in 1957, at the dawn of Ghana’s independence, K.A. Gbedemah, the new first finance minister, happened to be in the U.S. Entering a Howard Johnson restaurant, he was refused entry for being a black person.
On hearing a press report of the incident, the embarrassed 34th president Dwight Eisenhower invited him for breakfast at the White House. Appalled, the republican president was reported to have said, “I believe the United States as a government, if it is going to be true to its founding documents, does have the job of working hard toward that time when there is no discrimination made on such [an] inconsequential reason as race, color, or religion.”
Gbedemah had previously entertained the U.S. vice president, Richard Nixon, during his tour of Africa. He was to say that if Nixon could have a meal in Ghana in his house, “then I cannot understand why I must receive this [racist] treatment at a roadside restaurant in America.”
At the White House breakfast, Nixon joined Eisenhower to discuss the plans and financing of the projected Akosombo Dam on the Volta River with Gbedemah.
The U.S. state department issued an official apology through a public statement. Additionally, the management of Howard Johnson’s issued an order to henceforth, serve “anybody who comes to our doors.”
That very same year, September 24, Eisenhower sent 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce a court order to desegregate Central High School and allow black students to attend.
Harry Belafonte on racism
In recounting the last years since 2016, Belafonte wrote: “Four years later, we know exactly what we had to lose. Our lives, as we died in disproportionate numbers from the pandemic [allowed to] flourish among us. Our wealth, as we have suffered disproportionately from the worst economic drop America has seen in 90 years. Our safety, as this president has stood behind those police who kill us in the streets and by armies of white supremacy who march by night and scheme in the light of day.”
It was quite an honour – when serving as president of the Ghana Association in Southern California – my invitation to Harry Belafonte to meet a visiting Ghanaian cultural group, Odomankoma Kyerema, was honored.
African musical culture often attracted Belafonte culminating in a crowning duet with Miriam Makeba at the Carnegie Hall in 1960. The calypso mogul [singer of the classic songs -Banana Boat Song, Jamaica Farewell, etc] was one of the most selfless, reliably graceful and charismatic people I ever met.
Now in his nineties, he is also chiefly remembered for his civil rights struggles alongside Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, during the stony days of the freedom marches and demonstrations in the U.S.
A silver lining?
“If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, nobody notices,” said the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. But the chicken has got quite bald and the telltale signs of racism are everywhere epitomized in the U.S. by the murder of George Floyd by a racist policeman.
The small good news is that the canker of racism is being recognised as such considering the rise of international protests in the aftermath of the George Floyd’s strangulation by the white policeman.
It was refreshing reading the article in The Economist titled, “The power of protest: And the legacy of George Floyd” the following: “most happily, the protest reflects a rising rejection of racism itself. The share of Americans who see racial discrimination in their country as a big problem has risen from 51% in January 2015 to 76% now.”
The weekly noted also that “A YouGov poll last week found that 52% of Britons think British society is fairly or very racist, a big rise from similar polls in the past. In 2018, 77% of the French thought France needed to fight racism, up from 59% in 2002. Pew research found last year that in most countries healthy majorities welcome racial diversity.”
Governments may pass laws to fight and prevent racism and other forms of prejudice, and yet still such discriminations would continue. Laws per se cannot control a person’s thoughts and feelings. Especially so in the U.S. where many whites would rather hold on to the existential “white privileges” they’ve enjoyed over the centuries by keeping others – especially African Americans – in a permanent state of servitude. That is the crux of the matter!