Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

US race relations: why it will take more than hashtags to end racism

Exhibits in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture show that the struggle against racism is not over.
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography. Alan Karchmer / NMAAHC 
Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography. Alan Karchmer / NMAAHC 

Last month, two more black American men were gunned down in the United States in daylight. Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was driving home from a college class in music appreciation when his car broke down. The police approached him but, as helicopter footage revealed, he was then shot dead by officer Betty Shelby as he walked back to his car, away from the police with his hands in the air.

Days later, Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, was killed at a housing complex. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said he was armed. Witnesses, however, said he was just sitting in his car, reading a book while waiting for his son to get off the school bus. Regardless of whether Scott was visibly in possession of a firearm, North Carolina is an “open carry” state, so he was not breaking the law.

The stories of Scott and Crutcher are tragically all too common and they form part of a longer narrative in the modern-day US. In fact, up to 100 unarmed black men, women and children were killed by police in 2015, according to Mapping Police Violence, a US research and activism project.

Despite this number, 90 per cent of these cases resulted in no criminal charges. Although Scott’s case is still under investigation, Shelby has been charged with felony manslaughter, to which she pleaded not guilty.

While exchanges on social media over the forthcoming presidential election have reached new toxic lows, Twitter and other platforms have been useful for black activists who are working to put a stop to this injustice – from social media activist Shaun King to Ohio state senator Nina Turner.

Beyond the online realm, the grassroots campaign group Black Lives Matter has been leading this “new civil rights” movement, or as some commentators have dubbed it, the “second Civil Rights Movement”.

The group has sparked a new flame in people inspired to express their anger and frustration by taking action. How? By joining groups such as Campaign Zero, a platform that works with government to implement policy solutions that change the way police serve communities, or through participating in public demonstrations of outrage – from the recent protests in Charlotte, North Carolina, to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the US national anthem, an action that continues to gain momentum both in professional and non-professional sports.

The opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture in September came just days after the deaths of Scott and Crutcher. The concept for the 400,000 square-foot museum on the National Mall in Washington DC was first established in 2003 while George W Bush was president.

During his presidency, Bush appointed Colin Powell as secretary of state, the first African-American to hold that position, while Condoleezza Rice became the first female African-American secretary of state. The Bush administration’s botched response to the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 however, did little to improve relations with the black community. It might come as a surprise to learn then, that four years earlier, after decades of museum community wrangling over its mission, collection and location, it was President Bush who signed legislation to establish a 23-member bipartisan commission to make the museum a reality. Today, its exhibition space offers a detailed and unvarnished view of African-American life, history and culture, for everyone. That the African-American narrative is also an American narrative is what the museum’s creators hope to convey to visitors – a sentiment taken from the Langston Hughes poem, I, Too. Along with a number of artefacts, including a Black Lives T-shirt, an exhibition titled A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond is also open to the public. Here, African-American activism is explored, from the 1960s Civil Rights era through to the election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The museum highlights the long journey of black Americans from slavery and oppression to notional equality before the law. It also highlights the fact that in 2016 the black community should not be alone in the fight to end institutional racism. White America needs to step up and do its part. This means listening to the concerns of African Americans. But also speaking out – be it against seemingly “harmless” day-to-day micro-aggressions or full-on discrimination on the streets and online.

Many have filmed police officers engaging with black citizens in a discriminatory way, sharing their videos on social media. Citizens of every colour also have a duty to write to elected officials demanding that they hold the same officers accountable for their actions. Posting #BlackLivesMatter is a nice gesture but hashtags are not enough.

Ashley Lane is assistant features editor of magazines at The National.

Updated: October 13, 2016 04:00 AM

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