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US election 2020: Why racism is still a problem for the world’s most powerful country

A person holds up a sign that reads 'Enough'

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The stories of police brutality and discrimination against African Americans this year are similar to those of 20 years ago, writes the BBC’s Clive Myrie. A new breed of civil rights activist is trying to bring about a reckoning with America’s racist past.

I remember my first US presidential election well. My first taste up close of the mechanics of the most powerful democracy on earth, grinding into gear to fulfill the promise of its people, that all their voices matter and will be heard. That ordinary people can control their own destiny.

The year was 1996 and those were relatively innocent times. Left and right, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative – they tended to try to work together to find the common ground upon which they could stand, rather than exploit and widen the fissures that might separate, in order to gain political advantage.

media captionClive Myrie goes to the crucial state of Arizona, where black votes could decide who wins

In those heady days, when co-operation was more often the norm than a rarity, there were clear understandings on the need to improve race relations. An understanding that America was still failing to uphold its own ideals. Can we truly say there is a clear understanding of that now? An appreciation of the inequality of American society when it comes to race and discrimination?

I’m hopeful we can still say that, but it took the brutal death of George Floyd to jolt Americans from a position of seeming complacency, where a president could feel confident enough to say that “there are very fine people on both sides” after anti-racism protesters clashed with a group of white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2017.

Why is racism still such a problem for the most powerful country on earth?

You’d think a Civil War might have been the last word on the issue. The slave holding states of the Old South did battle with the northern states in 1861, fighting for the right to extend slavery into the vast lands of the West as America grew. The South lost and President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves.

But the South was never admonished for having slaves in the first place. History quickly rewrote the Civil War as a “quarrel between brothers”.

Clive Myrie interviews a couple at President Barack Obama's inauguration on 20 January 2009

image captionClive Myrie reporting from the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009

For the North, what was vital was re-admitting the old Confederacy back into the bosom of the family. Racist views and bigotry – no problem, just don’t disturb the Union.

There was no attempt to change the hearts of Southern racists. In fact, as long as the Union remained intact, racists could act as they pleased. They could lynch, and loot and burn. They could murder and rape. They could threaten and intimidate. They could bully.

Hence the rise of segregation, the intimidation of black voters, indeed the denial of the right to vote for black people. And through it all, the mindset was left untroubled – the notion that white might is right, and black people should be treated as second-class citizens.

Of course, that mindset was embedded deep in many of the nation’s police forces, which grew out of groups set up to catch runaway blacks slaves as well as maintain law and order.

It’s the mindset that led President Woodrow Wilson, in office from 1913 to 1921, to oversee the re-segregation of multiple federal agencies. This is the same president who publicly backed the Ku Klux Klan.

It’s the mindset that at the turn of the 20th Century saw the vilification of black people as wide-eyed “happy negroes” content with their lot as poor share croppers and shoe shiners.

It’s the mindset that saw the erection of hundreds of Confederate statues of Southern civil war leaders, that are now the subject of controversy today. Men venerated as patriots, when they fought a war to break up the Union – men who should have been treated as traitors, not heroes.

Ah, I hear you cry. All that is ancient history, things have changed.

media captionClive Myrie looks at whether Trump’s promise to build a wall along the Mexico border will harm or help him

It is easy for white Americans to compartmentalise the past. To see the injustices of yesteryear as having no relevance to events today. African Americans don’t have that luxury. The past is the present, the racism is the same.

I know this because having reported from America for nearly a quarter of a century, I’m seeing the same stories of police brutality, discrimination in housing and jobs, and black voter suppression, as I saw back in Los Angeles in the 1990s.

Suspicious deaths in police custody followed by rudimentary inquiries, followed usually by the exoneration of the officers involved. It’s a pathetic cycle of indulgence that allows, even condones and encourages, bad behaviour.

There’s another example of the past being the present.

I’ve already mentioned my first US presidential election in 1996. It was a blowout for Bill Clinton against a hapless Bob Dole for the Republicans.

A big issue in the campaign was urban crime and the Clinton administration’s controversial 1994 Crime Bill that critics say increased mass incarceration and led to the disproportionate jailing of tens of thousands of black men. Joe Biden helped get that legislation on the books, and his involvement has come back to haunt him.

It’s meant some African Americans view the Democratic Party candidate suspiciously, despite his time serving eight years as vice-president to Barack Obama. And it’s part of the reason a minority of African American men say they’ll vote for Donald Trump in this election.

Polls suggest African Americans overwhelmingly back Democrats in elections. But in the 2016 race for the White House, many failed to show up at the polls for Hilary Clinton, choosing instead to stay at home, and thereby helping to hand Donald Trump the presidency.

I’ve been talking to a new breed of young, engaged African American civil rights activist, fired up to turn out the vote. People like Percy Christian in Phoenix, Arizona, arrested on a peaceful civil rights March and jailed for seven days.

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He says he’s committed to fighting for a better future for black people and will continue to take to the streets.

“I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I’m willing to put my life on the line to raise awareness about the issue that police brutality is real… that the system is set up and designed to hold a certain group of individuals back and that’s my people,” he told me.

Another activist, Jazlyn Geiger, who’s 21, told me that the fear of a bad encounter with the police lives in the mind of every African American.

“It makes me think my life can be taken at any given time, just because I have brown skin, because I’m black, because since I was a little girl I’ve seen the way black people in America are treated and all over the world. It’s a really unsettling state of mind to be in.”

These are the people multiplied by millions in this country, who could swing this election. Committed and determined to have their voice heard, so that the next election doesn’t have to go over the same old ground, when it comes to race.

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