Us and them politics

A riveting sequence towards the end of Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary ‘13th’ intercuts scenes of racial violence from the 1960s with a recording of Donald Trump speaking at a rally – shortly after he has been heckled by an African American protester. “In the good old days, this doesn’t happen,” he says, “because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily.” He continues: “I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”

DuVernay elucidates Trump’s subtext with archival footage of black Americans being kicked, punched and spat on as they attempt – with extraordinary grace and dignity – to integrate public spaces, such as restaurants and diners, in the American South. At a press screening for the New York Film festival, she told reporters that montage was there because “we need to remember this moment. It gives us context to this moment that we’re in, looking through a lens of race and culture.”

The sequence underscores the useful vagueness of  ‘us’ and ‘them’ – a common dog whistle for Trump’s base – whenever American racists appeal to the happy days before the Civil Rights Act. Trump’s infamous full page ad in the Daily News – calling for the death penalty in the case of five black youths falsely accused of raping a jogger in Central Park – resonates with similar connotations. The ad’s hectoring headline (‘Bring Back the Death Penalty. Bring Back Our Police’) leads into a call for the return of the neighbourhood cop to “keep us safe from those who would prey on innocent lives to fulfill some distorted inner need.” It continues, “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.” It ends: “Let our politicians give back our police department’s power to keep us safe. Unshackle them from the constant chaos of “police brutality” which every petty criminal hurls immediately at an officer who has just risked his or her life to save another. We must cease our continuous pandering to the criminal population of this City.”

The convictions in the Central Park Rape case – based on coerced admissions that were completely false – were vacated in 2002  after a convicted murderer confessed to the rape and DNA evidence confirmed his guilt. By then the five teens had spent several years in prison. In 2014 New York settled a US$41m suit that they brought against the city for racial discrimination and malicious prosecution. Yet little has been done to alter the underlying assumptions that led to their prosecution. Trump’s text, particularly its thinly veiled racial contempt, is as much part of the zeitgeist today as it was nearly thirty years ago.

Equally retrograde assumptions have surfaced in the Windrush scandal in the UK. The May government’s shambolic efforts to cover up its contempt for West Indian immigrants bears comparison with the rampant structural racism on the other side of the Atlantic. In a trenchant comment, Guardian journalist Gary Younge compares the British response to the Windrush disclosures –  that “British citizens [were denied] jobs, healthcare, benefits, pensions, housing and liberty, if they could not provide up to four pieces of documentary evidence” for each year of residence in the UK – to the tragic efforts of the parents of murdered black children in the US try “to impress on you that their children were not gang members, even when you don’t ask.”

Rather than apologize for a xenophobic ‘hostile environment’ policy that was designed to unsettle immigrant communities while she was Home Secretary, Younge notes that Theresa May is “simply conceding that the Home Office has been hostile to the wrong people.” May and her colleagues clearly assumed that “the woes of a few elderly black people born in the Caribbean could not prick the nation’s conscience” and seem genuinely surprised at the backlash. Younge correctly argues that the scandal speaks to wider tensions within Britain, specifically those which produced laws “designed to turn every Briton – doctor, landlord or teacher – into a border guard, and every migrant, whether they have a right to be here or not, into a suspect.” Wisely, he concludes that beyond granting citizenship to the Windrush immigrants who clearly deserve it, the UK’s best compensation to them would be “learning the lessons of the past 70 years rather than repeating the mistakes.”

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