Racism, a 400-year-old virus infecting America - GulfToday

Racism, a 400-year-old virus infecting America

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


A man wearing a face mask holds up a sign during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of African-American man George Floyd, in front of the US Embassy at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany. Reuters

It is fitting that the white US police officer charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter of an African-American in Minneapolis bears the French family name of Chauvin. The name has morphed into “chauvinist” meaning bigot over the decades since a soldier called Nicolas Chauvin was honoured as a super patriot by the Emperor Napoleon for loyal service during his multiple military campaigns. 

Chauvin families immigrated to the US in the 18th and 19th centuries and by 1840 most had settled in the southern state of Louisiana while slavery was still widespread.

The sacked and detained policeman Derek Chauvin was filmed kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes before the dying man was finally lifted onto a stretcher paramedics who arrived in an ambulance. During his ordeal, Floyd begged, “Please, please, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” Three other police officers stood by while onlookers urged Chauvin, a bored look on his face and his hands in pockets, to relent. It is difficult to understand why no one pulled or pushed Chauvin off Floyd who was lying on his stomach with hands cuffed behind him. He had been placed inside a police car but was hauled out when he, allegedly, tried to resist arrest.  This explanation does not convince as he was handcuffed and could have been easily subdued within the vehicle.

Floyd had been arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 note in a shop. He was outside in a car when the cops arrived, was asked to step out, and was shown sitting quietly against a building with his hands behind his back before the deadly incident on the ground. 

A certain amount of information has emerged about ex-officer Chauvin, 44 years of age. During his 19 years of service with the police force he racked up 17 complaints about his conduct. This was a large number although nothing has been revealed about the nature of most of these complaints.  He shot one suspect and was involved in the deadly shooting of a second. Like many poorly-paid policemen he had a second job. He moonlighted as a security guard at El Nuevo Rodeo, a Latino night club in a heavily His-panic district of the city.

Although Floyd was also employed in the security detail at the club, the former owner Maya Santamaria said he worked inside while Chauvin, who had been employed there for 17 years, was posted outside. She told CNN that although Chauvin was a largely “calm gentleman,” he took a different tone with African-Americans than Latinos. If there were fights he would pull out the “pepper spray.”

She said that Floyd, who was employed for fewer years at the club, and Chauvin might not have known each other as they had different shifts. Floyd was well liked by both black and Latino patrons. If there were fisticuffs he would call the police. 

In a separate interview with the Washington Post she said racial tension had built up at the club due to the arrival of black clients. “The cops... even the Minneapolis licensing inspectors. They were hitting on me for bringing that element into the neighbourhood.”

Floyd’s daylight killing on May 25th sparked protests and rioting in Minneapolis, where a police station, shops, and a library were torched. Cities across the US have erupted in violence, particularly those where there have been recent black civilian deaths at the hands of white police officers.

Floyd’s death was followed by a second recorded racist incident in Minneapolis.

This one, like Floyd’s suffocation, went round the world via satellite television. While white CNN correspondent Josh Campbell broadcast from one side of riot-wrecked district of Minneapolis, brown-skinned CNN reporter Omar Jimenez was arrested with two colleagues while filming the deployment at another side of the US National Guard after rioting had subsided. The arresting officer looked at Jimenez’s large press card but handcuffed him and his team members and led them away while the camera was rolling. They were held for an hour until CNN’s bosses and lawyers intervened.  They argued the detaining officer — who said he was “following orders” — had violated the First Amendment of the US Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. No explanation was given either to Jimenez or the network. Minnesota governor Tim Walz apologised to CNN over the incident; no one apologised to Jimenez and his team.

Both Floyd’s murder and the arrest of Jimenez took place in the racially charged atmosphere created by the disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos infected with and dying from Covid-19 when compared to figures for whites. Nearly 23 per cent of Covid-19 deaths in the US are black people although blacks are only 13 per cent of the population. A large number of low income Afro-Americans suffer from diabetes, asthma, and hypertension and lack of health cover.

While 18 per cent of the US population is Latino, 16 per cent of countrywide coronavirus deaths are among Latinos. However, in states where there are large concentrations of Latinos, the number of cases can be as high as 39 per cent. Like blacks, the Latino majority is consigned to low-paying jobs and all the ills faced by the poor in the world’s richest country where there is no national health care and economic inequality is rampant and growing.

The current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump has, of course, managed to enrage the already enraged public even more with inappropriate remarks and tweets. While he initially condemned the brutal killing of George Floyd, Trump warned that violence would be used against protesters. He said, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” This was a 1967 quote from a racist Miami police chief.  This has deepened the anger across the country and prompted presumptive Democratic party presidential candidate Joe Biden to observe that Trump was “calling for violence against American citizens during a moment of pain.”

Trump blamed the rioting on “very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey” instead of a racist corrupted policeman called Chauvin. By taking this line, Trump has continued his campaign to divide the US between loyalist conservatives who care not what he says or does and citizens who do.  His aim is to be re-elected whatever the costs to the country.

Slavery has left a brutal, bitter shadow across the entire US, from the former slave states in the south to the anti-slavery states in the north which raised an army to fight the civil war that freed the slaves.  Over millennia, slavery has poisoned and ended powerful empires that ruled large parts of the globe, including the Roman and Ottoman empires.

Racism is a 400-year old virus infecting the United States. It is far more dangerous and debilitating than Covid-19, which will pass.

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