Many of us (i.e., white Americans) are surprised by the recent and not-so-recent events in Ferguson. To many white people, the recurrence of such stark racial issues reeks of a time forty or fifty years past, irrelevant to a so-called post-racial America. What many of us don’t realize is that very few people outside white America- whether American minorities or people outside the US looking in- are surprised. Firstly, our memories tend to be shorter than the memories of people living in other countries. The LA riots were barely twenty years ago. Those with power tend to write the history books, and, as such, we have been very successful in ensuring that any obvious signs of racial inequality are relegated to dusty corners of the history books. Secondly, I learned US history once outside the US and once inside, and I can vouch for the graphic, brutal horror with which America’s racial narrative is taught overseas. It is simply not taught in the same way here in America. This is not to say that people in other countries are not racist. But the racism of people in other countries generally resembles tribalism or xenophobia more than the systemic societal schisms were see here. The American form of racism (much like baconnaise or deep-fried Coke) is a unique and terrible thing.
With the possible exception of Brazil, in no other post-Enlightenment country were labor and capital ever divided cleanly along racial lines. In no other post-Industrial Revolution society did labor ever own zero wealth and resources. Nowhere else in the world was national unity ever challenged and redefined by the right to own other human beings. In no country were slaves ever literally half the population, as they were in the US at the peak (trough?) of slavery as an institution. Nowhere else did it take a hundred years to ‘clean up the law books’ (read: establish a series of marginally less unequal equilibria) after slavery ended. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point: there should be small wonder we’re still struggling with the idea of racial equality.
When people say things like ‘there’s still a lot of racism in this country,’ I can only think ‘no shit.’ There’s very little else in American history that rivals the centrality of the racial narrative as a driver of the American identity. The concept of individualism may come close, but, lest we forget, the right to own slaves was itself for years couched in the language of individual rights. It was varying opinions on this racial divide that formed the biggest challenge to the American identity in its formative years, and it wasn’t until that schism came to a head and quite literally tore the country apart that the identity of the country coalesced into something remotely unified. White Americans- even white liberals- don’t want to hear any of this. We want to be in charge of opening and closing the debate on race. We want to define when racial America ends and post-racial America begins. Realistically, we can’t do that. The debate has been open for well over four hundred years, and we can’t close it unless we discuss our own failings as a society. Until then, there will only be more Fergusons to come.