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OP-ED: Conflict in the US: The underlying reality

  • Published at 08:59 pm June 15th, 2020
police brutality protests
No progress without equal footing REUTERS

The US confronts its original sin, Covid-19, and the truth

The United States confronts the consequences of its original sin, grapples with Covid-19 that is laying waste to its people, while its fabled $20 trillion economy implodes.

In three articles we describe these events: First, the underlying reality; second, the different viewpoints; and finally, the relationship of truth and belief, and the consequences for America.

‘Original sin’

The underlying reality of events in America is not difficult to understand. The first point is what some call the “original sin” of American society. This sin was to accept in the writing of the American Constitution in 1787, that in order to draw all 13 of the disparate colonies into the United States [8 free, 5 slaves], it was necessary to accept the institution of slavery.

Slavery violated the basic document of America’s political foundation: “All men are created equal.” This contradiction has shaped American political life from the start of the Republic to this day; in 2020, many of the senior leaders of the United States, including the president, do not accept that a black man or woman is equal to a white man or woman.

Every day, most black men as they go through life feel that white men are looking down on them; this ties many into a knot desperate for acceptance for what they are. Too often this acceptance is not forthcoming.

It is the American military that has best overcome this. When you are in battle, you learn the integrity and courage of the man next to you. Both sides can accept the other for what they are.

You see the same relationships among doctors and nurses where performance under pressure is the gauge of who you are.

This leads to the second point of reality. Blacks are not treated the same as whites in economic opportunity. Over decades, this has led to the following outcome.

First, the household income of the median black family is 58% of the white [Bureau of the Census 2018]; this is a decline from 63% in 2000. The median black household’s assets are $17,000 compared to $170,000 for the white household [Federal Reserve Board 2016].

In 2018, 8% of white households were in poverty compared to 21% of black households [Bureau of the Census]. The percentage of whites without health insurance is 5.4%, compared to 9.7% for blacks. However, the insurance held by blacks is inferior in coverage to whites [2018 Bureau of the Census].

The percentage of whites with college degrees [Bachelor or higher] is 40% compared to the blacks’ 26% [2019 Bureau of the Census]. The death rate from Covid-19 for whites is 22.9 per 100,000; for blacks it is 54.6 per 100,000 [Financial Times survey 2020].

In fact, for many health conditions, the black rate of difficulty is about twice the white [hypertension and diabetes for example]. The unemployment rate for males 20+ after Covid-19 struck is 16.8% May 2020 [Bureau of Labor Statistics] for blacks compared to 10.7% for whites.

Some 30% of black men spend time in prison. The rate of imprisonment for more than one year’s sentence in 2019 was 392 per 100,000 for whites and 2,272 for blacks [US Department of Justice].

The story is very clear, there is no equality between white and black Americans. The accumulation over decades of discrimination in education, medical care, and social stability has resulted in this catastrophe for the 40 million black Americans.

Change of these numbers cannot be achieved quickly, but is a matter of sustained effort over decades, continuing application of resources, and political will.

The first thing needed is a massive early childhood education program that will develop the cognitive skills poor black children and poor white children need to make progress in the world in which they live. The dimensions of such programs have been studied and worked out by James Heckman, among others.

Has the US lost its way?

This leads to the third point: To deal with these problems and similar problems of low educated, low income whites costs lots of money. Based on their behaviour to date, the top 20% ranked by income or wealth of American citizens are unwilling to pay to fix the problem.

Instead, they mouth slogans about self help and hard work, etc. It will take very strong political leadership to come forth with and sustain a meaningful program. As political leadership is dominated by wealthy men and women, it is unlikely that a meaningful, sustained program will be forthcoming.

In 1967, when Martin Luther King was shot by a man paid by wealthy southern men, followed by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the United States lost its way. Bobby Kennedy was perhaps the last American politician to really understand how important real improvement was in the condition of the blacks.

Despite all of the hype, there has been no closure of the gap in the economic and social conditions of blacks and whites. The military-industrial alliance that President Eisenhower had warned against, took over after 1968, and the US Government began spending money on military toys and useless wars that have soaked up such massive resources.

The United States now spends $750 billion per annum for a military establishment that cannot win any war that it fights. It builds expensive weapon systems that it never uses.

A number of companies benefit from the expenditures while not one military officer, politician, nor business leader is ever held accountable for the string of failures. This bloated military establishment results in lack of resources for treating blacks and whites equally by paying for the costs over two or three decades of resolving the neglect.

Health insurance for all at an adequate level of care; a massive early childhood education program; housing programs that allow more black households to participate; reducing the high incarceration rate of blacks; better education facilities for everyone. 

The massive gaps between blacks and whites that now exist, must be removed. Income disparities will vanish with higher education achievement, early childhood education programs, and better health care.

What I have described has been known for decades. The past teaches us what the present will be. I do not think one can expect American elites to accept any program that will bring the black and white communities into equality on the major economic and social parameters.

There will be many words if Biden wins the election, but it is unlikely that sustained, well-focused programs will be implemented. There is little chance that America will be saved.

On the matter of racism, the US has been delinquent since the civil war. America’s leaders have ignored the problem or failed to deliver what they have promised.

The role of the police

The fourth point is the police role in the United States as seen by the 40 million black Americans. For them, the police are out of control -- a brutal, never-ending repressive force. The police believe one of their roles is to insure that black discontent is controlled.

The American military supplies them with toys so that they can play soldier. Police unions and state laws block any real reform that will hold policemen responsible for their actions against blacks.

The militarization substitutes for a police force that is linked to the community and serves as part of the glue of a great society rather than suppressing a minority. There are many good police officers, but not enough to shift the centre of gravity towards a community approach. We need many police officers, but a change in approach that brings them more in touch with the community.

One should not be innocent; George Floyd was a drug user; he was probably difficult to control when arrested for passing a counterfeit $20 bill. But there was no justification for his public execution by a gang of four police officers.

There are many dangerous people in the United States, white and black, high on drugs or broken in spirit within a system that treats them as inferior and denies them opportunity. The police manage such people.

But more importantly than a more humane police force, the society must reduce the number of persons in such a condition.

The surveillance state

The fifth point is a kind of alert for America: The military has built up sophisticated intelligence and surveillance systems that, having matured on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, are ready for the big time in America itself.

Already, the surveillance of American citizens is comprehensive. Databases, facial recognition systems, and telephone and internet surveillance enable the state to do with you what they want. In another decade, the American population will be on the edge of losing its freedom.

What will the ability of a political movement be, following the law, to seriously threaten the existing elites with their wealth, fancy schools, gated housing, providing demand for the services of large parts of the working community, and paying for a police force and an army to protect them?

The surveillance state is here; it has been involved in the events of the past two weeks, but this is hidden from our knowledge. Very senior leaders tend to treat this kind of intelligence as sacred, and usually have no experience in assessing its meaning and using it correctly.

Science and belief

The final reality point is the emergence of Covid-19 that has shaken the American establishment. What has happened is a shocking reminder of the grim consequences of rejecting science as a guide.

We are not as smart as we thought, and there is no real understanding of where we are headed with Covid-19.

A government and a society that scoffs at science and believes in myths, is not going to lead the United States to a better place. There is little hope for wise governance when there is such ignorance of science and what it means to know something.

Racism will only be gone when the economic and social parameters for the two races are the same.

Forrest Cookson is an economist who has served as the first president of AmCham and has been a consultant for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.

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