By Abel Merawi
July 18, 2020 (Ezega.com) -- Walter McMillian is a hardworking black man from Atlanta, Georgia, USA, the land of freedom! Everyone in his community admired and respected his optimistic struggle to cope with the misery of life before the system put him in a death row. His only crime was adultery with a white woman named Karen. But in ‘white America’ this, a moral question is the worst crime that mostly ends in a lynching. The law was not satisfied with the mild punishment Walter could face for this crime. Thus, they accused him of murdering a white woman, by placing a deranged criminal as a witness. The witness did not even know Walter, he was only coerced by the sheriff and other law enforcers. Thus, they put him on a death row. It was only when Bryan Stevenson, a young African American law graduate from Harvard University, volunteered to be his lawyer and fought against the corrupt law that Walter gained his freedom after six years of incarceration. This is the crude summary of the case, among thousands, Bryan Stevenson presents in his 2014 book, ‘Just Mercy’. Reading this book, you are confronted with a painful reality about the life of black people and other minorities in the US.
The crime of Walter and others appeared in different guises, but their real crime was being ‘poor and black’. Walter expressed sadly, “Why are people like that? I mind my own business. I don’t hurt nobody. I try to do right, and no matter what I do, people come along, put me right back on death row.” The rest of the world has a distorted image of America thanks to the mainstream media and Hollywood movies. All over the world, people try to win DV or enter this ‘land of opportunity’ by any means available. While reading ‘Just Mercy,’ I was thankful for being born in Ethiopia, the land of the unconquered people. I wonder how many of us are grateful for the sacrifices our ancestors paid. I know I live in a poverty-stricken, ethnically divided and politically chaotic country, one where many citizens get jailed, tortured, and killed from time to time. But still, it was not a crime to be me – to be born black – and hate myself, to win the approval of whites.
African Americans were subject to segregation and mass incarceration and deprived of many of the benefits of citizenship. The issue of interracial marriage had been a great concern of former slave owners. In the 1860s, the word ‘miscegenation’ was introduced to cripple former slaves with fear and avoid race-mixing. The law also prohibited it using “anti-miscegenation statutes”. Bryan Stevenson states, “Hundreds of black men have been lynched for even unsubstantiated suggestions of such intimacy.” The 1982 Alabama highest court’s contempt was expressed upon claiming:
The evil tendency of the crime [of adultery or fornication] is greater when committed between persons of the two races.… Its result may be the amalgamation of the two races, producing a mongrel population and a degraded civilization, the prevention of which is dictated by a sound policy affecting the highest interests of society and government.
When we think of historical atrocities, we mostly think of the Holocaust and the millions of Jews who died in the concentration camps. We do not think of the millions who die from a system made to wipe them out. Czesław Miłosz, in his 1953 book called ‘The Captive Mind’ argues: “One month of terror and ten years of it are not the same. The element of time necessarily alters the quality of acts. A long period of terror demands an established apparatus and becomes a permanent institution.” In the case of African Americans, it is a terror that lasted more than 400 years. This means it is done systematically: the legislation, the court, the police, the people, the political leaders, and many others have to work in concord to enslave blacks and other minorities. In ‘The Souls of Black Folk’, W.E.B. Du Bois states, “America is not another word for the opportunity to all her sons.” It is this land of never-ending servitude the world accepts as the paragon of democracy.
Let’s consider another horror story. Imagine a child born poor and black, with a system waiting to label it criminal. Only at the innocent and gullible age of 13 or 14, this black child becomes a victim of the environment. The environment is the nation, the neighborhood, or even the family. This child commits some petty crime and the police will readily provide numerous false allegations to make sure this child ends in prison. Thanks to laws such as ‘three strikes and you are out,' a 13-year-old black kid will face life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Imagine how melancholic it is if your destiny is sealed by some silly mistake you made as a child! This is not done by a third world, authoritarian or communist country, but by the land of freedom – America. More importantly, this is not the fate of every American. This systematic injustice is committed by the state against blacks and minorities, but not on ‘innocent whites’. For example, a white-collar criminal can commit a fraud worth billions of dollars against average Americans or the state and get a few months of jail; some even get away free with the help of top-notch lawyers. As Stevenson argues, “we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”
The recent killing of Floyd is a manifestation of an American disease; a racial pandemic that troubled the nation for centuries. His death is not a single incident; through him speaks the suppressed voice of justice. It has been part of reality; it is deep-rooted in the American culture for generations. The police ‘randomly’ interrogates blacks for being ‘suspicious’. This has been a tradition since the Emancipation Proclamation. W.E.B. Du Bois shows how a black person had to carry a credential from a white man to prove innocence and maybe stopped by any white person on the street and be interrogated. He says, “If he fails to give a suitable answer, or seems too independent or “sassy,” he may be arrested or summarily driven away.” Now it is the police that vowed to protect only whites and does the interrogation for them. Things haven’t changed much!
Upon thinking about the appalling life of blacks in America, I draw the following simple narrative. Once upon a time, a capitalist crazed by money comes to a foreign land. The peaceful people of this far away land were killed, colonized and the rest were shipped off to forced labor camps – enslaved. For generations, these slaves experienced hardship and all sorts of atrocities. After centuries of servitude, they were told they have been freed by their oppressors. Little did they know, it was another form of slavery that awaited them, this time using the legal system. More than a century passed, deeming blacks as unfit for society, as criminals. The same society that lynched and made their lives a living hell, ironically, feared them as a violent race. In the 21st century, they have gained a semblance of freedom, as long as they conform to the rules and norms of their oppressors. This is America. Yet the world continues to look in awe at this land as an expression of freedom par excellence.
I find it improper to end this passage with such pessimism. The first step to finding solutions is recognizing the problem. The injustice being committed by the American system on African Americans is merely touched upon, and so I depart with a promise to return to this issue in the second part of this article. I also promise to suggest some solutions which I stumbled upon while reading the great works of some prominent figures. In the end, I think we should revisit the meaning of freedom and democracy with the aim of realizing some basic ideals to every person on the face of the earth.
Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for Ezega.com. He can be reached through this form.
Other articles by Abel Merawi:
Capitalism Becoming an Impediment to Morality
Ketman: Living in Disguise to Gain Acceptance
The System and the 'Criminal'
Trust as an Economic Force
Do You Trust the Government?
Our Online World
Fame Mistaken for Expertise
The Heavy Burden of Healthcare Workers
A Time to Reflect
The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!
History of Pandemics in Ethiopia
Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective
You Can Make a Difference
Rule of Law for a Free Society
The Origins of Law
Determinants of Market Value: Part II
Determinants of Market Value: Part I
Your life Matters Too
Manifestations of Artistic Expression
Achievements vs Natural Accidents
The Grip of Sacrifice
Injustice is Never Justifiable
Education Demands of the Future
Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future
The Shift From Racism to Culturism
Sacrificing Meaning for Power?
Culture and Market Forces
Seeking Cosmic Justice
National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations
Are We Truly Free?
Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy
Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group
The Value of Work
The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System
Intellectuals and the People
Where Are Our Pathfinders?
The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders
The Truth Behind Humanity
The Seven Virtues
The Seven Deadly Sins
What is the right thing to do?
Building National Identity
Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change
Living the Truth as a Human Being
Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others
The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them
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