“I can’t breathe”, gasped an able bodied black man, George Floyd, as he was pinned down on the ground by a white policeman. It was a brutal killing of a human being, whatever his crime may have been. Another white policeman was seen standing close by without any reaction. Passers-by kept pleading to let the man go, but the matter ended only when the man was sent to the hospital where he was declared dead on arrival.
This is not the first incident in recent US history of racial tension and conflict, but a deadly combination of a pandemic and racial violence with an insensitive and unpredictable president mismanaging the crisis is an apocalyptic cocktail. After a week of violence in more than forty cities, it reached Washington and the White House precincts, forcing President Donald Trump and family to take shelter in his nuclear bunker. Even worse, he threatened to deploy the military if the law and order deteriorated any further. In the middle of all this, the president walked to the church nearby with the Holy Bible in hand for a photo opportunity as tear gas kept the protesters at bay. Nothing could be more bizarre than that at a critical moment in history.
There is an old saying that sums up the disparities in the US with a health metaphor: "When white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia". But now, white America is not just catching a cold. It is getting ravaged by the coronavirus on nearly every front. The virus has claimed the lives of over 106,000 Americans, accounted for over 1.7 million positive cases and cost the country 40 million jobs. The result is that the brunt of the pandemic is borne by those black Americans, who do not have the required medical cover or live in unhygienic conditions, which do not permit social distancing or quarantine. The proportion of black Americans in the long list of deaths proclaims the tragedy. The blame is put on them as they invariably indulge in alcohol, tobacco and drugs. The sustained racial inequality is fanning the pandemic fire.
The president, blinded by racial hatred, is determined to fight the protests by harsh words and provocative action. He described the white armed anti-lockdown protesters as "very good people", but called the multiracial Minneapolis protesters as "thugs". "When the looting starts, the shooting starts," he tweeted with reference to an infamous phrase from an era of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Twitter, which has been the greatest beneficiary of the president’s tweet diplomacy, objected to the tweet for "glorifying violence".
The irony of the whole situation is that it was not long ago that a black Nobel Laureate president was in the White House for two successful terms just before the present incumbent. The first black president was a symbolic victory for the black people of the US and the underdogs everywhere. But Barack Obama did not want to come across to the public as a black president. It was as if he was trying to position himself as a neutral arbiter in racial matters, though one sensed his preference was for not intervening at all. But it was clear as time went on, that he was passionate about improving race relations. He spoke out more passionately and more intimately.
Telling reporters that his son would have looked like Trayvon Martin, the unarmed high school student shot dead in Florida by a neighbourhood watch coordinator, was a big change. At the time of the funeral of a black preacher slain, along with eight other worshippers, by a white supremacist, he spoke with a cadence that echoed Martin Luther King Jr.
Obama wanted to be a transformational president not only in race relations, but also in medicare, nuclear policy, relations with Cuba and Iran. Trump ended all these hopes and became the symbol of a “whitelash” against Obama.
Obama was fond of paraphrasing Martin Luther King's famed line that the arc of history bends towards justice, but it veered off into an altogether different direction. In the final days of the Obama presidency, the more accurate descriptor of race relations is a “fault-line” - the most angry fault-line in US politics. The world had expected seismic changes from Obama.
The presidency that began atop a mountain, ended in something of a valley.
It is not surprising that the race relations deteriorated, as other matters, during the Trump presidency. The US had already become a divided nation even before the pandemic arrived, but Trump wished everything away to prove his invincibility. The cry that “I can’t breathe” comes not just from a suffocated African American, but also from patients without ventilators and the economy, while Trump fiddles away into the distant horizon.
The protests have reverberated in many countries either in the form of statements by leaders or sympathetic protests. In India, there has not been any reaction either from the government or from any political/human rights groups. We seem to be in a different world, oblivious to the gathering clouds.
(The author is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora)