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One bad cheque too many

Martin Luther King Jr said in 1963: “America has given the Black people a bad cheque, a cheque which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’." Six generations of egregious police violence later, the sentiment out of which those bad cheques were born could be shifting.

In the wake of egregious police violence, and in the midst of a global pandemic disproportionately killing Black Americans, the US is once again convulsing along the fault-line of race. 

Martin Luther King Jr’s most famous speech is also his most sanitised - it’s mainly known for soundbites taken from the hypnotic “I have a dream” riff at its conclusion. That part is catchy and inoffensive enough to feature as the soundtrack for car commercials. 

But it’s worth reading in full because the first part of the speech is far more pointed, and far less utopian and feel-good in nature. 

King builds his case around the metaphor of a bad cheque. Like all their compatriots, King contends, African-Americans were offered by the US Constitution and Bill of Rights the prospect of full citizenship, a promise renewed at the end of slavery with Reconstruction, only to be snuffed out by a century of Jim Crow laws, enforced segregation, red-lining and systematic police and other forms of officially-sanctioned violence.    

“Instead of honouring this sacred obligation,” King said in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, “America has given the Black people a bad cheque, a cheque which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds’." 

All this must confound Donald Trump, who latched on to the Floyd protests as a prime opportunity to cloak himself in "Law and Order" bravado and poorly-concealed racial animus.

Far too little has changed in the intervening six decades. Overtly racist laws have given way to mass incarceration under the guise of the brainless, failed war on drugs. Severe social and economic inequality persists. As anyone who has spent any time in the US can attest, Black-majority neighbourhoods are chronically impoverished; their schools run down to the point of dilapidation; quality healthcare non-existent. Police brutality and the unequal application of justice remain ever-present. 

And so, in the wake of egregious police violence, in the midst of a global pandemic disproportionately infecting and killing Black Americans, the United States is once again convulsing along the fault-line of race.

Were it not for the ubiquity of phone cameras, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police would have been buried without a trace. But the sheer brutality of the images have made the staggering cruelty impossible to ignore. Maybe it signals a shift in the US electorate as a whole, as optimists like Barack Obama seem to sense. 

The former President told an online gathering of the Obama Foundation last Wednesday: "There is a change in mindset that's taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better. And that is not a consequence of speeches by politicians ... that's a direct result of the activities and organising and mobilisation and engagement of so many young people". Obama noted levels of support for protesters on the ground and in opinion polls - including among White Americans - which he notes would have been unthinkable during previous periods of racial unrest. This shift in community sentiment could also explain the unusual speed and severity of charges brought by the Minnesota state Attorney-General against the four police officers involved in Floyd's killing. 

All this must confound Donald Trump, who latched on to the Floyd protests as a prime opportunity to cloak himself in "Law and Order" bravado and poorly-concealed racial animus. So far at least, the Richard Nixon playbook is failing Trump, who trails his Democratic rival Joe Biden by a steadily growing average of eight points in recent polling.

What’s more, even Republican control of the Senate looks seriously endangered as voter antipathy to Trump intensifies. If Democrats do manage to win the Upper Chamber, keep or expand their majority in the House of Representatives, and send Trump packing from the Oval Office, it will offer liberals and progressives a rare opportunity to reset course after four years - and for African-Americans, four centuries of horror. 

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