America: Why ‘Land of the Free’ Has Always Been a Misnomer
Following the killing of George Floyd on May 25th all fifty US States have become host to protestors, many of whom have become utterly incensed by the differential treatment of suspects and detainees on the basis of race. This differential is currently best described as a vast chasm, borne from repeatedly unaddressed socio-economic and historical factors.
As New Hampshire became the crucial ninth state to ratify the constitution on the 21st of June 1788, it commenced an institutional race divide that remains stark and unaddressed to this day.
Contained within Article 1; Section 2 was the dehumanising three-fifths compromise, declaring slaves to only be counted as three-fifths of a free person, this was for federal and tax purposes. Remarkably, this remains vociferously debated to this day, as with no explicit mention of African-Americans some argue the unamended constitution could not have supported racial bias.
However, in practice it became unequivocally apparent that the Constitution facilitated both racism and the ever-growing slave trade. The wealth being generated in the slaveholding southern states, leading to political dominance in the American government. The very fabric of the American economy was built upon slavery.
The thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments (ratified 1865, 1868 & 1870) were the most radical and revolutionary in the move for American racial equality. With slaves now freed, granted citizenship and given democratic rights, this was a monumental change in American society.
Constitutionally, it appeared that the racial divide was gone, and racial equality would prevail as the norm. Rather thematically however, a far-reaching and immense partition by race continued, truly entrenching itself in American society manifesting itself in oppression and stark segregation.
Following the fifteenth amendment the democratic rights of the African-Americans should have been secured but, thematically other contradictory tactics were used to prevent them voting. There was the ludicrous ‘Grandfather Clause’ which was eventually overturned by The Supreme Court in 1915, the use of literacy tests, poll taxes and outright intimidation.
This voter oppression was so prevalent Martin Luther King Jr lead protests against these practices, culminating in the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, 1964 (abolishing poll taxes) and the Voting Rights Act, 1965 (prohibiting racial discrimination in voting). Legally and democratically it appeared true racial parity was emerging.
Thus far I have largely left the societal factors of racism undiscussed, perhaps the most striking element of this topic in more recent history is that of segregation. The clear divide within communities, impacting everything from housing, education, places of worship and bathrooms. Everything was marked with ‘White’ or ‘Colored’ and consistently, the white facilities were far better, yet again indicating America’s acute racial disparity.
Credit: Smithsonian Magazine
While America’s laws and constitution did not discriminate by race, in fact both actively sought to protect the rights of select minorities, one immense gulf remained hugely apparent: in the judicial system. A study between 1973 and 1979 (Professor David Baldus, University of Iowa), showed those found guilty of killing a white person was 4.3 times as likely to be given the death penalty, when compared with defendants found guilty of killing a black person. This colossal mathematical disparity uncovered less than half a century ago, highlights how institutional racism embeds itself within a completely non-discriminatory legal framework, a pattern still evident to this day.
As of the census in 2010, 12.6% of the American population was classified as Black/African-Americans, yet 40% of the total incarcerated population were also of this ethnic background. This huge discrepancy is also present when considering incarceration rates per 100000 of all ages: standing at 450 for white people and 2306 for black people, so the actual rate of incarceration is 5.12 times higher, a staggering and downright shocking statistic.
This huge divergence has sparked lazy assertions by politicians that black people are criminals, developing into an abominable stereotype. This stereotype has filtered into TV and film, fuelling both conscious and unconscious biases. Katheryn Russell-Brown, a widely regarded expert on race, crime & sociology of law, stated that these factors contribute to ‘racial hoaxes’ referring to the imbalance within American justice.
By studying this topic, even as briefly as I have personally, a clear pattern becomes discernible. As more governmental and constitutional action is taken to address this issue, there is a twofold net result. Racism within institutions becomes less overt, but is still present, causing a continuation of previous issues. Secondly, the socio-economic factors remain almost entirely unaddressed, leaving a disgusting rift between different races, this neglection only fuels the divide.
Many have become truly enraged and frustrated by the mistreatment inflicted on black people by supposedly moral institutions, such as the police. The widespread protests have reached all fifty states and across the globe, as this is a worldwide issue not solely confined to the United States of America.
And this is why as a western democracy, with strong protections on personal freedoms, America and many others must do better to ensure that their citizens freedom is not determined by the colour of their skin.
Black Lives Matter.