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American Whitelash: America’s racist past, still so much part of its present, cannot be easily erased

Mainstream politics and media implicated in unwillingness ‘to call racism and bigotry by their rightful names’

A rally in Brooklyn, New York, to bring attention to racism that marginalises communities, specifically black people. File photograph: Michael M Santiago/Getty Images
American Whitelash The Resurgence of Violence in Our Time
Author: Wesley Lowery
ISBN-13: 978-0241517123
Publisher: Allen Lane
Guideline Price: £25

On the night of November 4th, 2008, my wife and I in London joined millions around the world glued to our television screens to watch Barack Obama in Chicago’s Grant Park acknowledging the cheers of the crowd as he became the first person of African descent to be elected US president.

In his rich mellifluous voice, which makes him one of the best public speakers of our time, he declared “that America is a place where all things are possible” and that, “the dream of our founders is alive in our time”. It may have taken 232 years after the founding of the republic but now both white and black Americans felt Obama’s election meant their country was on a new highway leading to that mythical shining city on the hill, the image Americans have of their country, with its bloody racist past definitely behind it.

Today, 15 years later with Donald Trump having hopes of returning to the White House in next year’s election, it is clear that the highway has turned out to be a cul-de-sac. By the end of the Obama presidency, the shining city on the hill had receded so far that a poll found 55 per cent of white Americans believed their country discriminated against them racially. Even Obama’s supporters were deeply divided. What Obama’s election had done, as Wesley Lowery shows in this brilliant book, was fan long-burning embers of white supremacy. This began within days of Obama’s election when Marcelo Lucero, a Mexican immigrant, was murdered by Jeff Conroy, a white youth in Long Island. Yet at his trial Conroy denied he was a racist, despite having a swastika tattoo on his thigh, his defence being he had black and brown friends and a Hispanic ex-girlfriend. This, as Lowery says, raises the question, “what is a racist, if not someone who commits a violent act of racism?”

A story that shows that there has always been a hollow ring to America’s claims that it welcomes the poor, tired, huddled masses of the world

This denial of racism by people with clear racist links is a recurring theme in this book and started almost as soon as Obama was elected. There was the “birther” controversy based on racist conspiracy theory that Obama had been born abroad and could not be president. Yet those who stirred it, including Trump, denied they were racist. They were following in the footsteps of many southern whites who to this day insist that the civil war was not about ending slavery in the south but state rights. In such a country the election of a man who is half white but classified as black could not, as Lowery says, “herald a new era in racial harmony”. America’s racist past, which is so much part of its present, cannot be that easily erased. Obama was bearing a burden he could not carry and Lowery’s thesis is that the violence after Obama got to the White House is a continuation of an old story.

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A story that shows that there has always been a hollow ring to America’s claims that it welcomes the poor, tired, huddled masses of the world. The 1924 Immigration Act banned most of Asia preferring northern and western Europe. A quarter of a century before that it was the Italians because, as the historian Manfred Berg has put it, “South Italians, in particular often had a dak complexion and shiny black hair, many Anglos questioned their membership in the ‘white race’. According to prevailing ideas of ‘racial purity’ their ambiguous skin colour signalled a sinister character and a proclivity for crime.” In March 1891 the lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans was welcomed by the New York Times and the Washington Post. Theodore Roosevelt, who would later be twice elected president, would describe how at a dinner in a New York restaurant “dago diplomats” brought up the lynching. “Personally, I think it rather a good thing, and said so.” Trump could claim that when he talks of building a wall to keep undesirable Mexicans out he is following in the footsteps of one of his great predecessors.

Italians did become white but that is because the Italian government broke off diplomatic relations, even then it took 130 years before the mayor of New Orleans issued an apology to the 11 Italians who had been lynched.

Mexico has no such power and, as Lowery says, with “elements” in the “mainstream politics and media”, “unwilling to call racism and bigotry by their rightful names”, the depressing conclusion is the era of Whitelash will continue.