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America's Race Against Itself

19/07/2016 12:11 AM IST | Updated 19/07/2016 9:01 AM IST
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Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The United States has a long history of emphasizing the value of personal freedom, liberty, and equality. It has also positioned itself as the champion of these values globally.

There's also good reason why the world largely accepts America as the leader of the free world. The American Dream has promised its citizens social mobility, freedom from old world hierarchies, and a climate of innovation, all of which have combined to create tremendous economic opportunity.

To say that the US has been a magnet, an El Dorado, for generations would not be an exaggeration. Wave after wave of immigrants have landed on its shores, and, after an initial struggle, have by and large successfully established themselves in the country and found great prosperity of the kind that would be largely unattainable in their native lands.

However, beneath this surface, there are fissures. As much as America espouses freedom and liberty, it also cannot deny the legacy of exploitation and avarice that forms the foundation on which the country was built.

The peace between the races has largely been underwritten by economic opportunity, which helps paper over past injustices.

The ugly history of slavery and the expulsion of the Native Americans from their lands still echoes. Equal rights for non-Whites are just about five decades old and still evolving, and the salve had not had enough time to heal many old wounds.

Even with all the progress made in this direction, race relations are still a potential flashpoint. While instances of serious hate crime are relatively low, and you don't have ordinary Americans killing each other in the name of race, the potential for a conflagration is never too far.

Large, multicultural countries like the US and India face a bigger challenge with such issues than smaller, more homogenous nations. The pressure valves and checks built into the systems in these countries have worked well to keep the conflicts under control, but there is a need for constant vigilance and sensitivity to prevent any escalations.

In the US, the stage where this uneasy relationship can be seen most frequently is in the interaction between law enforcement officers and young Black males. The historical factors mentioned above, along with current socio-economic factors have conspired to make Blacks more prone to crime and therefore end up making them a disproportionately large number of prison inmates.

There have been numerous instances in the last few years of the police using excessive force against Blacks. Many cases have hit the headlines and sparked protests that often culminated in civil unrest or riots. These have mostly been the ones where extreme brutality was seen or the victim ended up losing his life. The list is long, and includes names like Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Freddie Gray and many others whose cases attained worldwide attention.

The outrage usually isn't just about the atrocity. It is also because in most cases, the police officers walk away unscathed. While high-profile cases hit the news every so often, the everyday discrimination and fear is omnipresent for Black youths.

To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, the American Dream might continue to be a bounced cheque for many Blacks and other minorities.

Police personnel in the US are trained to not take any chances and use force when needed. This has been pretty much a founding principle for the country. While young Blacks undoubtedly make cops uncomfortable for many reasons, it should not be an excuse to use more force than necessary.

This is gradually alienating the Black community and has the potential to be the biggest threat to the US. The recent Dallas shooting is one of the first instances of this resentment manifesting itself in violent retribution against the police, but it might not be the last.

In the case of the US, community leaders and law enforcement agencies must work together to reduce the instances of police brutality. Dealing with this epidemic requires greater compassion and understanding from all sides. The US needs to practice what it preaches to the rest of the world and provide a safe environment to all its citizens.

The peace between the races has largely been underwritten by economic opportunity, which helps paper over past injustices. However, if such incidents continue, it might unravel quickly, giving the US government a bigger headache than most external threats, and to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, the American Dream might continue to be a bounced cheque for many Blacks and other minorities.

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