The reaction to Charles Ramsey's words to the media after he helped free three white women and a six-year old girl from a domestic prison shine a spotlight on the state of racism in the US
“Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms.... Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway.”
When part-time dishwasher Charles Ramsey uttered these words to TV reporters on May 6th he can hardly have predicted the massive global reaction they would provoke and how they would catapult him to the status of internet icon. Within hours of his appearance, a songified version of his interview on YouTube went viral and turned him into one of the most famous men on the planet.
The context of his remarks was the heroic role he had played in the release of three white women and a six-year old girl who had been imprisoned in horrific circumstances in Cleveland, Ohio for the best part of ten years. Along with some neighbours, Ramsey had responded to cries for help from one of the women who had managed to raise the alarm. His now iconic remarks describe the situation that confronted him when he forced open the door of the house where the captives were being held. The wider significance of Ramsey's words, however, relate to the spotlight they shine on the state of racism in the US. five years after the election of the country's first black President and the ushering in of what some commentators disingenuously described as the 'post-racial' era of American politics. Some observers on the left have responded to Ramsey as a beacon of hope in a society still perceived to be riven by racial tensions unresolved from the Jim Crow era of segregation that lasted from the end of the US civil war to the 1960s.
Eris Zion Venia Dyson, for example, praised Ramsey for shattering the stereotype of black American males constantly projected in the mainstream media:
“I write this letter with extreme gratefulness, because I know how this country has historically made a mockery of and torn down men like you. Black men who have been the fall guy, black men who are assumed guilty for wearing hoodies and having wallets that somehow get mistaken for guns. So we all know that you could have easily said that you would not put yourself in harm's way.”
Likewise, Guardian columnist Gary Younge was alert to the political connotations of Ramsey's overnight ascent to fame:
“As a dishwasher he's probably one of the 47% who Mitt Romney claimed "believe they are victims" and "entitled" to government support. A poll shortly before the election showed Republicans were far more likely than others to say black people supported Democrats because they were government dependents, "want something for nothing" or were on welfare. I have no idea who Ramsey voted for. As a former felon, there are many states where he could not vote at all.”
Younge is highlighting the astonishing statistic that 1 in 8 black males are disenfranchised due to restrictions on voting rights for felons-legislation that not coincidentally impacts disproportionately on black Americans.
Other pundits, however, were uneasy with the depiction of Ramsey in the media and actually considered the YouTube video to be insidiously guilty of promoting a caricature of black American culture. Alexander Cheezem is one blogger who has noted this double-edged aspect of the media's coverage of Ramsey:
“Yet because Ramsey is unrepentantly expressive in the manner of his community and peer group, and is not the typical white, middle class American who tends to dominate the Internet, videos of his account of the event, replete with colorful slang and vernacular and his own expressive flourishes, have become objects of mockery and ridicule on the web, with a nasty racist edge.”
New Jim Crow
Ramsey is a former felon who has experienced at first hand the racist judicial system that makes a mockery of claims that America has attained post-racial status. Michelle Alexander’s book, ‘The New Jim Crow’, has documented the notorious levels of institutionalised racism that characterise the incarceration policy of the US state. She notes that in this area particularly, the condition of black Americans has barely improved since the nadir of segregation in the nineteenth century:
"Today there is more African-Americans under correctional control in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. There are millions of African-Americans now cycling in and out of prisons and jails or under correctional control. In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives."
Other recent studies have confirmed this appalling picture with a statistical barrage that leaves no room for an alternative interpretation of the discriminatory nature of the American penal system. The non-white population of the US is about 30% but accounts for about 60% of its prisoners. 1 in every 15 black males is likely to be among that number compared to 1 in every 106 white males. 1 in 3 black males can expect to be imprisoned at some point in their lives. They are 3 times more likely to be frisked during a traffic pull-over than white motorists and 4 times more likely to experience violence during encounters with the police. Black offenders can expect to receive sentences 10% longer than their white counterparts and are also 20% more likely to get custodial sentences.
This grim litany of oppression can also be found in other aspects of contemporary American society. Black Americans represent 13% of the population but are 27% of those below the poverty line. Black unemployment is twice that of whites. The income gap between the two groups is at a record high. Black Americans are twice as likely to both lack access to healthcare and to have their homes repossessed.
As black Americans are disproportionately situated in the working class, they can only expect this problem to be exasperated by the impact of the Sequester public spending cuts presided over by the Obama administration. They represent 20% of the public sector workforce and therefore will bear the brunt of the $85 billion cuts in federal spending. Congresswoman Barbara Lee states:
“Federal budget cuts under sequestration would quickly mean cuts to federal, state and local public-sector jobs, which disproportionately employ women and African-Americans.”
The bizarre story of the Cleveland rescue took another twist a few days after Ramsey's 15 minutes of fame by the claim that it was actually a Latino man called Angel Cordero who had first freed the women. Cordero stated to a Spanish-speaking reporter that his inability to speak English meant the media ignored him and identified Ramsey as a more marketable story. At this point, it is difficult to disentangle the true sequence of events, but if Cordero is right it would be further evidence that black Americans are not alone as a discriminated ethnic group in US capitalism.
Latino Americans have now overtaken black Americans as the single largest ethnic minority in the US. Their rising demographic impact however has resulted in growing evidence that they are enduring levels of discrimination as bad, if not worse, than those experienced by black Americans. There are about 50 million Latino Americans but about 30% lack adequate healthcare. About 20% reported enduring workplace discrimination. The same proportion lives in a house with 5 or more people. About 6 million Latino children are born into poverty.
The most high profile debate concerning racism in contemporary US politics is the immigration row simmering away in Congress about the status of the country's 11 million illegal immigrants - most of who originate from the Latino community. For most of his first term, Obama’s only initiatives on this issue was to actually deport more 'illegals' than his predecessor (1.4 million people which was about 1.5 times more per month than George Bush) and to intensify the criminalisation of this group through the 'Secure Communities' programme which mandated local police to cross-reference information with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.
This group have also had to endure discriminatory legislation at state level, most infamously Arizona’s SB1070 law that mandates law enforcement officials to interrogate any person they regard with ‘reasonable suspicion’.
As the November election approached last year, however, Obama predictably changed his tune and remembered he needed to consolidate the Latino vote to secure re-election. In August 2012 he issued an executive order that smoothed the way for some immigrant youth to have their deportation deferred if they graduated or joined the military. Obama won 75% of the Hispanic vote in the subsequent election - 58% of who said they voted for him because of the executive order.
The last white election?
Obama also won a crushing 93% of the black vote last November. This provoked laughable claims from right-wing pundits that ‘the white establishment is the minority ‘. A significant proportion of that landslide, however, was based on fear of what the Republican axe-wielders would do to their communities, rather than any enthusiasm for the incumbent. A spokesman for the civil rights organisation, NAACP, commented on black voters' allergic reaction to Mitt Romney's campaign, "His budget was so stark and terrifying for many African Americans and working people of all colours that it made the choice clear."
Averting a public sector massacre by a Republican president has only marginally improved the outlook for the black and Latino working class in the US. Obama represents a mild amelioration of the predatory effects of US capitalism on the lives of all members of the American working class. US capitalism's historic strategy has always been to divide white, black and now Latino workers from finding common cause to threaten its hegemony.
Two weeks after the Cleveland rescue, black American communities will be celebrating Malcolm X Day (May 19th). The commemoration recalls one of the outstanding leaders of that community and a figure who also discerned the link between racism and capitalism in the US, a link that remains in place and explains the current notoriety of Charles Ramsey:
“Capitalism used to be like an eagle, but now it's more like a vulture. It used to be strong enough to go and suck anybody's blood whether they were strong or not. But now it has become more cowardly, like the vulture, and it can only suck the blood of the helpless.”