America's opportunityWednesday, July 01, 2020
The daily and nightly scenes of protest on the streets of America following the horrific murder of a black man, 46-year-old George Floyd, by Minneapolis police is invariably reported by the news networks as “America in crisis”. True, but I also see it as America's opportunity.
To provide context, I quote 19th century French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville. After travelling the length and breadth of America, in 1839 he published Democracy in America, in which he made this memorable observation: “America is great because America is good. When America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
On the matter of slavery, de Tocqueville observed: “I do not think it is for me, a foreigner, to indicate to the United States the time, the measures, or the men by whom slavery shall be abolished. Still, as the preserving enemy of despotism everywhere, I am pained and astonished by the fact that the freest people in the world is, at the present time, almost the only one among civilised and Christian nations which yet maintain personal servitude. An old and sincere friend of America, I am uneasy at seeing slavery retard her progress, tarnish her glory, and point out beforehand to all her enemies the spot where they are to strike. I hope to see the day when the law will grant equal civil liberty to all inhabitants of the same empire, as God accords the freedom of the will, without distinction, to dwellers upon Earth.”
In assessing America's success towards being the better angels of its nature (using the eloquent words and quotable quote of the 16th US President Abraham Lincoln), some signal achievements are sometimes overlooked. One of these is the First Amendment to the US Constitution of 1791 guaranteeing the civil liberties of all Americans. It would take another 173 years for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act banning employment discrimination on the basis of race. The positive impact of these and other efforts on race relations and the economy are unmistakable.
If black Americans were part of a separate country they would today, by some estimates, constitute the 12th richest nation on the planet. America elected its first black president to the White House to serve two terms. There are great universities and other institutions across America founded and operated by black people. Over 100 of America's cities have black mayors. Without blacks, America's dominance of the multi-trillion-dollar global sports industry would be in doubt. The current surgeon general of the United States is a young black man. The president of the American Medical Association is, too, a young black woman.
Laws have been enacted and racial minorities have made the most of the resulting freedoms. But institutionalised racism stands in the path of ultimate progress. The median household income for white Americans is US$90,000 per annum compared to US$59,000 for black households. Blacks are 40 per cent less likely than whites to own their homes. A home in a black neighbourhood is valued almost 30 per cent less than it would if that same home was in a white neighbourhood, robbing blacks of close to $50 billion in equity. The black unemployment rate is almost double that of white people. Although blacks make up only about 13 per cent of the US population, in some cities about 70 per cent of the lives lost to the novel coronavirus pandemic are black people, due to relatively inferior health care, working conditions, housing, and diet.
America is far from the ideal envisioned by de Tocqueville. But America remains the land of promise, while offering the greatest possibility of dreams becoming reality for racial minorities.
Donald Tapia is the embodiment of the American dream. Some may wonder why he, a Republican and hand-picked appointee of President Donald Trump to serve as America's ambassador to Jamaica, would find common cause with peaceful protesters; joining them when they congregated outside the United States embassy at Liguanea. His life's story is one told by countless numbers of people across the racial spectrum.
In his own words, “I am the American dream who made it from the slums of Detroit to Paradise Valley.” From hawking newspapers as a child, a one-bedroom flat shared with his mother and sister, and an absentee father, by dint of hard work and some luck along the way he rose to become chairman and chief executive officer of the largest Hispanic-owned business in Arizona, Electrical Surplus Sales Company (ESSCO).
Although a conservative, Ambassador Tapia has moderate social leanings. Maybe because of the tough path he trod to success, he is a philanthropist of no mean order; giving to various causes. One of these is Saint Leo University in Florida, where he established the US$ 12-million Donald Tapia School of Business. Dr Owen Roach, associate professor, who I mentored in Trench Town, is one of many Jamaicans excelling at Saint Leo.
Consider how great America will be when all of its citizens have a level playing field on which to achieve and contribute to their fullest potential; when an aspiring black or brown youngster can, like Barack Obama, become president; or like Donald Tapia, a leading business mogul, with nothing but one's ability, desire, and work ethic standing in the way?
Taking the foot of oppression and racism off the necks of those “yearning to breathe free”, the promise inscribed on the Statue of Liberty is both the challenge and opportunity I see for America.
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