Don’t push the marginalised in the corner

Each black rebellion pushed US back just a little bit, equality between blacks, whites remains a longing dream in 2020

Sarwar Bari June 06, 2020
People continue to protest over the death of George Floyd on June 4, 2020 at Lafayette Square near White House in Washington, DC, United States. Photo: Anadolu Agency

“No justice — No peace” and “let me breathe” are the two slogans that depicts the spirit of the recent uprising in the US. This spontaneous upheaval has already spread to 140 cities, and in dozens of cities authorities have imposed strict curfew. Mr Trump keeps fuelling the situation by his annoying tweets i.e. “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, blaming the left and ANTIFA — an anti-fascist coalition. No wonder, Prof Paul Krugman, a renowned economist, blames in his recent Op-ed article that Mr Trump “seems very close to trying to incite a civil war”. As manifestation of anger persists more and more white people are joining the uprising in the US and within couple of days some European capitals including London and Berlin experience huge protest demos in solidarity with the cause of the American protesters.

The two slogans of the uprising remind me of an inspiring song of the 1971 movie, Yeh Aman: “Zulm rahay aur aman bhi ho, kaya mumkan hai tum hi kaho?” written by Habib Jalib, a revolutionary poet and sung by great singers Noor Jehan and Mehdi Hasan. The film is about the brutalities of Indian forces in Kashmir. The Indian state, instead of responding to non-violent and peaceful demands in the 60s and 70s, tried to suppress it with state violence. By early 90s, the movement turned violent too. Violence breeds violence. Resultantly, it has become a two-way violence.

Despite huge contextual variations between the two situations, the main message of the film is not different. Do watch the film and make your own judgment.

What appears to be a spontaneous ‘social’ occurrence very often is a result of a prolonged neglect and oppression. Karl Marx would call it “historical accident”. And remember many historical accidents changed the course of human history. The assassination of Ameer Kabir in April 1978 triggered the Afghan Communist revolution. WWI too was a result of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. A very recent example is of the Arab Spring that sparked anti-government protests that spread across much of the Arab world in the early 2010s. It was a social response to the oppressive regimes of Tunis, Egypt and other Arab rulers.

Often historical accidents spark violence. Charles M Blow, an Op-ed writer of The New York Times, couldn’t have said it more profoundly: “You destroy people’s prospects, they will destroy your properties.” Just consider these realities. In 2017, blacks constituted just 12% of the US adult population but 33% of the total sentenced prison population. Whereas, whites were 64% of adults but had just 30% of prisoners. Let’s look at these figures from another angle. In 2017, there were 1,549 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults — nearly six times the imprisonment rate for whites (272 per 100,000) and nearly double the rate for Hispanics (823 per 100,000). By the end of 2019, the US had 724 incarcerated people per 100,000, which was the highest rate in the world by having 2.2 million prisoners, while China with four times more population had 1.54 million.

This inverse relationship is glaringly visible as far as Covid-19 related deaths. According to a think-tank, “the rate for black Americans is 2.4 times as high as the rate for whites. If they had died of Covid-19 at the same rate as white Americans, about 13,000 black Americans would still be alive.” This can’t be natural, it is a result of certain prolonged neglect. For instance, a 2012 study shows that 80% of the racial life expectancy gap between black and white men could be attributed to socio-economic factors (read public policies). This gap is 70% between white and black women. The gaps between white and black populations could be found in every aspect of life i.e. literacy, access to health facilities, employment and justice. Put simply, a country whose prison population is the highest in the world must have something seriously wrong with it.

A country that could spend trillions of dollars on foreign wars and development projects overseas seems to have failed to end poverty of its own citizens. Before the Covid-19 breakout as many as 40 million (14%) were living in poverty. A country that could produce billionaire innovators couldn’t reduce poverty of its black citizens in a 100 years. A country that could produce hundreds of noble laureates couldn’t find socio-economic model to end poverty. A country that could create Asian Tigers has failed miserably to transform prospects of her own Black Africans. Something is seriously wrong with the American system and that is perhaps the strangulation of the state by large corporations whose deceitful greed has no bounds and causes endless problems, from inequality to corruption, from unhealthy minds to unhealthy bodies, which will ultimately lead to kleptocratic rule.

Consider this. According to a study of the Equality Trust, there is a strong co-relation between inequality and socio-psychological problems in more unequal rich countries. Some of them are: “The quality of social relations (trust, violence and community life) is worse in less equal rich societies as inequality divides people by increasing the social distances.” For instance, “People trust each other most in the Nordic countries and the Netherlands because these are more equal societies.” As many as 40 studies show “the link between inequality and homicide rates. A five-fold differences in murder rates between different countries related to inequality. The most important reason why violence is more common in more unequal societies is that it is often triggered by people feeling looked down, disrespected and loss of face.”

The Equality Trust also discovers that “over 170 studies of income inequality in relation to various aspects of heath (life expectancy, infant mortality, low birth weight, etc.) to be worse in more unequal societies.” It also shows how “inequality makes life more stressful and how it makes social relations more stressful.” According to the Equality Trust, the US and UK are the most unequal societies of the developed countries.

Let’s get some help from a great scientist to understand a social phenomenon. According to Newton’s third law of motion, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” For instance, when one body (read state) pushes against another, the second body (read people) pushes back just as hard. The African American, as we see above, have been exploited, cheated and oppressed far too much, not for decades but for centuries. History tells us that tyranny ends only when the oppressed say enough is enough. The African American history is full of heroic uprisings. According to some estimates, there were about 250 slave rebellions before slavery was abolished in 1865. Each rebellion was ruthlessly crushed. Though each black rebellion pushed the American state back just a little bit, equality between the blacks and whites remains a longing dream in 2020. The current uprising, however, has heightened the hope.

What lessons and conclusions should the ruling elites of the developing countries learn from the American failure and the black uprising? Don’t push the marginalised in the corner. One unjust event can trigger an explosion.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2020.

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