Hisham Melhem/America in black and white

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America in black and white
Hisham Melhem /Al Arabiya
Saturday, 6 December 2014

The demonstrations in cities across the United States protesting a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict a white police officer whose chokehold, caught on cameras and watched by millions all over the world, caused the death of an unarmed middle-aged black man, whose repeated plea “I can’t breathe” has become the rallying cry of many outraged Americans, are but the latest manifestation of the legacy of race, racial inequality, that has haunted America for centuries.

These demonstrations, followed similar, but more violent ones in Ferguson, Missouri, that were sparked by a grand jury’s decision not to indict a white officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.

America’s original sin
Once again, the American Republic is grappling with the lingering effects of its “original sin,” that of slavery. Also, the persistence of generations of institutional racial inequality and its attendant economic inequality that shaped, and in many ways tormented, the lives of many non-white groups, (as well as less fortunate Europeans, particularly the Irish and Italian immigrants) beginning with the indigenous peoples who inhabited the continent before its conquest by European colonists.
From its birth, the great American Republic, which was based on certain self-evident truths, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..” and on an enlightened constitution, that included an impressive Bill of Rights, was marred by the inherent scourge of slavery and the institutional racial discrimination it spawned.

The failure of the Revolutionary Generation that founded the American Republic to deal openly with the issue of slavery in the late 1700’s, led eventually to the Civil War in 1861-65, the most traumatic experience and costliest war in American history. The civil war ended overt slavery, but racial prejudice continued and equality remained elusive, and blacks in the south were subjected to the so-called “Jim Crow laws” which mandated the segregation of public schools, public transportation, restaurants, and even toilets for whites and blacks.

American presidents had to use their Federal authority to de-segregate schools and universities in the 1950s and 1960s in some Southern States. For generations after the civil war, blacks were denied their right to vote by elaborate schemes that kept them disenfranchised, until the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed overt discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that ended disenfranchisement of blacks by prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. Fifty years ago many states had laws barring interracial marriage including my state of Virginia which was forced by the Supreme Court in 1967 to strike down these discriminatory laws.

Encountering the racial divide
My introduction to the legacy of racial divide in America was overwhelming, rough and direct. And from the beginning I understood that racial discrimination cannot be fully understood, let alone dealt with if divorced from the economic domain. It was in 1972 that I found myself the lone Caucasian worker manning an assembly line at an all-black work station in a Zenith plant for the manufacturing of television sets in the Suburbs of the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My shift was from 3 p.m. until midnight. The work was grinding and not safe as I discovered when I almost blinded myself with hot water and acid trying to wash the glass “panels’’ of the television sets.
“For all the dark sides of the race legacy in America, this country remains more diverse, tolerant and open to serious debates about race than most other western democracies”

All the foremen, were white and most of the laborers were black, Puerto Ricans, with a smattering of poor whites, immigrants from the third world and a band of tough Lebanese students, studying at Villanova University and struggling to reconcile long work hours with the demands of university courses and exams. In my case there was the additional burden of learning English. At lunchtime on my first day I shuffled silently with my co-workers to the huge cafeteria. Carrying my tray and looking for a seat alongside my group, I noticed that my Lebanese friends from the side were looking at me with amazement. It was then that I realized that I was standing in the heart of the racial divide in America, circa 1972. On one side a sea of black and brown faces, on the other the white faces of management and the pretenders, including my Lebanese friends. When I sat with my black co-workers, I felt the weight of all the indignant eyes in the cafeteria that were fixated on me reprimanding my effrontery to the unspoken rules of voluntary racial segregation.

Many of the white foremen were openly racists, they distrusted and feared the black workers, accusing them of laziness and complained about absenteeism, the proliferation of drugs and the occasional violence on the job. The black workers, complained bitterly about racial prejudice, and the lack of black foremen. Tensions at times were so thick that people would reach for their ever ready knives at the slightest provocation, and the wide use of drugs did not help. One day in the middle of the cafeteria a middle-aged man was stabbed several times by a youth, who walked away slowly from his bleeding victim as if he just shook his hand. Obviously, nobody witnessed the crime. Although, this encounter began in 1972, one could still feel how raw the country was because of the traumatic and violent race riots that burned whole neighborhoods in a number of major American cities in the second half of the 1960s from Watts to Detroit to Newark to Washington D.C.

America in black and white
Initially, my black (we did not use African-American then) co-workers were suspicious and unfriendly. This was compounded by my accented poor English. “Where you come from” asked “Big John,” a giant of a man. “Lebanon” I said, to which he inquired “where is that”, I sheepishly answered “Middle East.” But still I did not quite fit the stereotype of a Middle Easterner with my blondish mustache and a name tag declaring me as Richard Melhem. Then the ultimate test came, when “Big John” asked “are you Muslim?” When he did not understand what I mumbled for an answer, he emphatically shouted the question again.

Driven by my desire to survive, I composed myself and looked him in the eyes and benefitting from my years of training as a Catholic-Maronite choir boy, I authoritatively recited the full al-Fatiha, the first Surah in the Quran. I did not know then that “Big John”, was an admirer of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, a group that was not part of mainstream Islam, where people like “Big John” – being totally alienated from the white man and his culture and religion – flocked to Elijah Muhammad and his fiery lieutenant Malcolm X seeking answers and assurances. “Big John” was impressed with my Arabic and asked me to repeat al-Fatiha while rummaging in his bag, to get me the last edition of “Mohammad Speaks” the newspaper of the Nation of Islam. Later on, “Big John” was impressed, by my rudimentary knowledge at that time, of the leaders of the black community. In Lebanon I read limited accounts of the civil rights movements, and was somewhat familiar not only with the major figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. but also, other leftist activists such as Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton. My leftist background in Lebanon helped my initiation into Black America.

Communication with “Big John” was not easy. He introduced me to black slang. I realized that when he said that a movie was “bad” he meant it was “good”, that “digging” something meant liking it, that “splitting” meant leaving, that a woman would call her lover “daddy” and he would call her “mama”. But I found out that my affection for American music and my familiarity with blues music in particular (although the Motown sound was dominant then) and love for American movies were very instrumental in easing my way to gain the trust of my black co-workers.
“Big John” and I would compete later on as to who would belt the blues in a louder voice. In those days I was having communication problems at school. While analyzing Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams,” my philosophy professor began to explain the intricate relationship between time and motion by writing a big letter S on the blackboard. Then he drew a figure that looked to me like a snake and called it Schuylkill. Then he drew another figure that looked like an animal with four legs and called it Secretariat. Finally he drew the figure that looked like a two-legged man and called it Staubach. I was totally at a loss, and my frustration turned into anger because I could not figure out what was being said or the significance of these creatures and their movements and why they began with the letters.

When the class adjourned, I mustered enough spirit to hide my wounded pride, and confessed to the professor my ignorance. I can still hear his hearty laugh before he said “my son, Schuylkill is a major river in Philadelphia, and Secretariat is the great horse that won the Triple Crown, and Staubach is the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. The professor was oblivious to the fact that I had no idea what the Triple Crown was or what a quarterback does.

Progress and regression
During the decades that followed my first encounter with America’s race legacy, African Americans made major progress in the areas of education, household income, health, and life expectancy.

But in recent years, not only persistent societal and cultural prejudices continued, and unconscious racism lingers on, but we have seen a disturbing regression across the board, brought in part by the economic downturn of the last 15 years. From 1965 to 2000 poverty rates among blacks fell from a high of 41 percent to a low of 22 percent, but then it has risen to 27 percent. Schools are segregating anew, and many black children in the South attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in decades. The wealth gap between blacks and whites has quadrupled between 1984 and 2007.

Police arrest black men at 3.7 times the rate of white men for possession of drugs. As columnist Nicholas Kristof noted recently “the United States imprisons a higher proportion of its black population than apartheid South Africa did…” More blacks are still subjected to discrimination than whites in education, and employment; and a disproportionate number of black youths are killed by police than whites. And nowhere is discrimination is felt more than in the justice system. The large number of incarcerated black young men, in many cases for possession of drugs, has created a marginalized underclass.

Imperfect America
Despite the election of the first black president, and the appointment of the first black Attorney General, and the fact that 87 percent of Americans approve of black and white marriages, and most Americans don’t consider themselves racists, the United States remains a very unequal society. The persistence of income inequality, high unemployment rates among young black men, the disproportionate number of black youths dropping out of high schools, all guarantees the persistence of a marginalized, alienated black underclass.

The riots following the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and New York have focused the attention on the disproportionate violence used by white police officers against blacks, and the fact that some police departments don’t necessarily reflect the demographic make- up of the community they serve. (In Ferguson there are only three black officers in a police force of 53) Also the “militarization” of police forces because of a Pentagon program that gives surplus military hardware including heavy weapons and armored vehicles to police department at low prices (this is a legacy of the Iraq war) has come under close critical scrutiny.

While, retraining the police, or equipping them with more cameras, could improve their relationship with the communities that they serve, these measures by themselves will not significantly alter racial inequality. Economic empowerment and educational opportunity are still the best paths to address the various forms of discrimination that are still afflicting the American Republic.

For all the dark sides of the race legacy in America, this country remains more diverse, tolerant and open to serious debates about race than most other western democracies. The great quality of America is that it is conscious of its imperfections. This was always a nation that is obsessed with improving itself, a nation in a ceaseless quest for a more perfect Union, where all men and women regardless of their backgrounds celebrate “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”