A Harvard professor was in his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he was arrested. Henry Louis Gates Jr had earlier struggled to enter his jammed front door after returning from a trip to China. With the help of his driver, they had managed to force it open. A neighbour called 911, thinking for some reason it was a burglary, and Gates was later arrested. His crime? He was Black in the United States in 2009.
A teenager is walking home in his father’s neighbourhood in Sanford, Florida. He had just been to the local grocery store to buy candy and cans of ice tea. He got into a physical altercation with the coordinator of the neighbourhood watch and was shot dead. The unarmed victim was 17 year old, Trayvon Martin, and his killer was mixed race, George Zimmerman.
In the wake of Martin’s death, protests were staged throughout the US while Florida high schools staged walkouts. This was in 2012 and it took the then president of the US, Barak Obama, nearly a month to comment on the killing.
Two years later, in 2014, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, exploded and is said to have “become a metaphor for this entire complex of relationships between Black people, police and the criminal justice system in the US.”
An unarmed teenager had had his hands up in the air, in the suburb of St Louis, when Darren Wilson, a White policeman, shot and killed 18 year old Michael Brown. Brown’s crime was that he was Black.
According to Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, Wilson had grabbed Brown by his neck and had threatened him. Brown had been shot in the back and his body lay in the street, in the sweltering heat, for hours.
Ferguson became a war zone but the first African American president in US history remained silent. Eventually, after five days, he addressed the killing but made sure to condemn the violence against police and those choosing to use the death as an opportunity to vandalise.
It was Brown’s death that gave birth to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
A year after Ferguson, six years after the arrest of Professor Gates and seven years into his presidency, Obama finally addressed the issue of race in the US.
Yet it took a 21 year old White supremacist, Dylann Roof, to attend a Bible study group before mowing down nine African Americans in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Among the dead was senior pastor and state senator, Clementa Pinckney.
By the time Pinckney and his fellow congregants were killed and 150 years after the end of the American Civil War, the Confederate Flag was still being flown in South Carolina. The war was not only about secession but ultimately about the enslavement of Black people which the southern states, such as South Carolina, fought fiercely to enforce.
At Pinckney’s funeral while delivering the moving eulogy, Obama would point out that for too long the US had been blind to the manner in which past injustices continued to shape the present. Only in 2015, did Obama utter those telling words “perhaps we see that now.”
Yet poignantly he went on to state that the killing of those worshipers had made him to ask some tough questions about how US society could permit so many of their children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career. Realities the majority of South African youth face.
One is unsure just how much Obama and those of his liberal thinking realise, or not, the deep structured link between capitalism and racism.
Ascending to the US presidency in 2009, in the aftermath of the global economic crisis, Obama defined his presidency by allowing bankers and financiers to get off free while the crisis had destroyed so many lives and livelihoods; Black ones especially.
The far-right in the US had criticised Obama for being too elitist and too far socially removed from the realities of the people living in Sanford and Ferguson.
Indeed, he was much more comfortable doing “beer summits” with Harvard professors as he, together with then Vice-President Joe Biden, later did with Professor Gates and the White policeman who arrested him.
The current events playing out in the US have deep lessons for South Africa. We too struggle with a large population of young, Black men and women who suffer systemic racism and classism. Since 1994, we have done very little to drain the toxic brew of racism and capitalism in South Africa. Little wonder that our Black presidents and professors, in the main, have also been arrested into silence.
Wesley Seale has taught South African politics at Rhodes and UWC. He has just completed his PhD in Beijing.