The unrest in Ferguson, Missouri has grabbed America’s attention.
Because a black president has been voted into the White House twice, many Americans kept hoping that their country would have advanced into a post-racial era—but the excessive force of the white police officers in Ferguson over the past few days has proven to be another indication of how little that country has transformed.
Ferguson is a predominantly black town in Missouri, a state in middle America dominated by white conservatives. It is part of the Bible belt, a geographical stretch that is home to Christian America’s fundamentalist evangelicals, Pentecostal extremists and right-wing organisations.
There, one can be confronted by gun-toting families, left-over confederates, and small pockets of rabid whites who still hold pro-slavery views.
Generally T&T migrants have settled along the US east coast, so Missouri remains largely unknown to many of us. In the 70s, thanks to the Inter-American Press Association, which at the time had a membership of some 500 newspapers, I was granted the prestigious New York Times Arthur Hays Sulzberger Foundation Fellowship to study at the University of Missouri’s Walter Williams School of Journalism, located in the university town of Columbia, about 100 miles from the St Louis-Ferguson area.
Back then the acknowledged line of racial demarcation in Columbia was startling to me. I had experienced the “1970 Revolution” here, but never witnessed blacks “contained” on one side, and whites on the other. The Columbia campus had an enrolment of 35,000 students, but only about 600 were black Americans. In fact, foreign students far exceeded them.
A decade earlier US president Lyndon Johnson had proclaimed the Civil Rights Act, yet blacks on campus still showed they knew their place and kept to themselves. That place in the university was in the lowly jobs of gardening, cleaning, washing. Their faces carried their brokenness, expressions of a story unlike any that Africans in T&T and the Caribbean had known.
It could be traced back to the duplicity of Thomas Jefferson, author of America’s Declaration of Independence, who wrote that it was “self-evident that all men are created equal” and “endowed by the creator with inherent and inalienable rights”, yet Jefferson denied Africans in his large slaveholdings “the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
At the university there were many stories of wretched racial experiences. I recall a black American student pointing to a tree, outside a supermarket, as he detailed the story of a white mob lynching years earlier.
News out of Ferguson indicates that very little has changed in the daily lives of many black Americans. The killing of Michael Brown, which started the protests, is now being placed in the context of a 1916 “Red-lining” regulation which was used to contain black communities and block black home ownership.
The American dream therefore still remains elusive. Blacks comprise 13 per cent of that country’s population, yet they continue to face institutional discrimination in housing, education, employment, the judicial system and government programmes.
Few made it on to the university faculty back then. Their greetings I recall as warm, often a “right on brother”, the slang at the time, an implicit plea urging you to advance the black cause.
I have observed some troubling similarities between the Ferguson police and our police service, for example the “megatonage” of military weapons and equipment being used against civilians, attitudes to journalists, questionable leadership decisions, contradictory official statements, and a loose system for reporting police misconduct.
US attorney general Eric Holder in a visit to Ferguson last week said: “History simmers below the surface in many more communities than Ferguson.” That comment took me to the senators who will debate the Constitution Amendment Bill tomorrow. I hope every Independent Senator will share AG Holder’s poignant statement that “history simmers”.
PS: Rest in Peace, Ainsley Albert Mark, my friend from primary school. Ainsley was a friend, supporter and champion to us all.
• Keith Subero, a former Express news editor, has since followed a career in communication and management.