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Natalia Travkina

PhD in Politics, Center for Domestic Policy Research at RAS Institute for the U.S. and Canadian Studies, RIAC Expert

The murder of African American George Floyd on May 25 sparked a wave of mass riots that gradually spread from Minnesota, MN, across the entire United States to over 350 cities, including Washington, DC. The events put the United States on the brink of the worst racial political crisis since the tumultuous 1960s, when such riots swept through all major U.S. cities.

The current unrest, with governors in 23 states being forced to call in the National Guard, make one recall the events of 50 years ago, in particular, the bloody events of 1968 that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, as well as riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The tension and resentment are exacerbated by the fact that ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus epidemic and the economic crisis.

In recent years, particularly during the presidency of Barack Obama, American researchers tried to prove that U.S. society is slowly but surely changing its public notions about racism and its manifestations in both public and everyday life. However, the main point of their argument has essentially boiled down to verbal gymnastics that can be summed up as “if we don’t talk about it, then it doesn’t exist.”

Race relations changed drastically when Donald Trump came to power. “Under President Donald Trump, we have the same type of violence that America has always had, but now we have, at best, an indifferent federal government, and at worst a racist president,” writes Barrett Holmes Pitner, a Washington-based African-American journalist, for the BBC. “Due to this change, more white Americans are emboldened to re-employ black codes.” A Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2019 showed that at least 65 per cent of respondents believed that it was now possible in Donald Trump’s America to express racist sentiments and opinions openly.

There is no doubt that, as in 1968, the race riots of this election year will have a powerful, maybe even defining influence on the electoral campaign and its outcome.

Hundreds of years of attempts to eradicate racism and its ugliest manifestations in the United States have not led to the emergence of an effective means of harmonizing inter-ethnic relations. Even today, the problem of race relations in America is like a dormant volcano that can wake up at any moment and spew powerful flows of boiling lava, devouring everything in its path.


The murder of African American George Floyd on May 25 sparked a wave of mass riots that gradually spread from Minnesota, MN, across the entire United States to over 350 cities, including Washington, DC. The events put the United States on the brink of the worst racial political crisis since the tumultuous 1960s, when such riots swept through all major U.S. cities.

The current unrest, with governors in 23 states being forced to call in the National Guard, make one recall the events of 50 years ago, in particular, the bloody events of 1968 that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, as well as riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The tension and resentment are exacerbated by the fact that ethnic minorities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus epidemic and the economic crisis.

There is no doubt that, as in 1968, the race riots of this election year will have a powerful, maybe even defining influence on the electoral campaign and its outcome.

“Without Obama there Would be no Trump”

This starkly pithy phrase uttered during the 2016 presidential campaign belongs to Nell Irvin Painter, an African American Professor of History at Princeton. It clearly defines the Donald Trump phenomenon and perhaps even Trumpism as an ideology of our time that is primarily a “product of racism and a reaction to the exacerbated race relations in today’s American society.” Throughout his entire presidential tenure, the 45th President of the United States has positioned himself as “anti-Obama,” having essentially engaged exclusively in dismantling his predecessor’s legacy, including in terms of foreign policy and U.S.–Russia relations. Donald Trump’s “dislike” for the first black President even took on satirical and grotesque forms. According to reliable sources from Trump’s own entourage, the new President had Obama’s portrait removed from the White House when he took up residence there, claiming that the painting would “spy on him” and hear his every word. It would seem that Trump thought the first black President of the United States possessed “shaman-like superpowers,” a notion that was no doubt influenced by the racist ideas of white Americans about the role of heathen cults in the life of African Americans (how else could Barack Hussein Obama have become President of the United States?!)

However, paradoxically, Trump’s racial bias played a certain positive role in U.S. political discourse. To give one example, Merriam-Webster, publisher of America’s most trusted dictionary and encyclopedia, officially announced that Trump’s openly racist speeches and tweets in July 2019 had led to a sharp spike in people looking up its entry on “racism”. The dictionary defines “racism” as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race,” a “doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles,” a “a political or social system founded on racism,” and “racial prejudice or discrimination.”

Nearly 40 years ago, the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Philosophy gave a similar definition of racism, stating that it is a totality of concepts founded on “the ideas of physical and mental inequality of human races and on the belief that racial differences have a defining impact on a society’s history and culture. All varieties of racism are characterized by misanthropic ideas of the original division of human beings into superior and inferior races; the former are allegedly the bearers of civilizational forces and are meant for supremacy and the latter are incapable of producing and even assimilating high culture and are doomed to be exploited.” [1]

In recent years, particularly during the presidency of Barack Obama, American researchers tried to prove that U.S. society is slowly but surely changing its public notions about racism and its manifestations in both public and everyday life. However, the main point of their argument has essentially boiled down to verbal gymnastics that can be summed up as “no concept, no problem.”

Academic and Everyday Understandings of Racism

In the late 1990s, the Democratic Clinton administration undertook a timid attempt to eradicate racism from American public life. This attempt was somewhat similar to the War on Poverty launched in the mid-1960s by the Democratic Lyndon B. Johnson administration. Following the United States’ “victory” in the Cold War, it seemed that the time had come to put an end to many shameful phenomena in American public life, with racism certainly heading the list. In 1997, the Clinton administration launched its widely publicized Initiative on Race, intended to transform the fight against racism and racial bias into the key priority of U.S. domestic policy.

The fight against racism demanded above all else an action plan based on sound research. The administration turned to scholars and researchers at the National Academy of Sciences, and its members drew up a system of recommendations that was made public in 2001, that is, after the Clinton administration had been replaced with the Republican George W. Bush administration. However, the Bush administration adhered to a rather contrary philosophy based on “compassionate conservatism” toward the “insulted and injured” of American society.

“Not eradicate,” but “empathize”: that is maybe the fundamental difference between the Democratic and Republican approaches to America’s racial problems, a difference that stemmed from their historical experience of combating slavery and racism in the United States. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Republicans led by Abraham Lincoln emancipated the black population of the United States, despite the armed opposition of the Democratic South that strove hard to enshrine racial segregation in American society. During the subsequent political evolution of the United States, the two parties switched roles, perhaps not in small part due to the fact that hundreds of years of bitter experience had convinced the politicians of both parties that in the specific American circumstances, freedom from slavery does not cancel out racial segregation, and the latter might sometimes be the best refuge for black people.

The authors of the two-volume National Academy of Sciences report (over 1000 pages in total) “reassured” the political elites of the United States that they were in no way responsible for slavery and the racial segregation that had been very nearly “legitimized” in another version of the U.S. Constitution. On the contrary: the young American republic had inherited it as a “legacy” of the first European settlers in North America, that is, from 250 years before the emergence of the United States in 1776. The American scholars wrote just that in their report: “Racial caste in this land is more than twice as old as the nation itself. It began with the campaigns of displacement, killing, and subjugation of native peoples by European settlers, and then expanded to the chattel slavery of imported Africans. Because the roots of American prejudice and racism are some 250 years deeper than the bedrock of our constitutional ideals, it would be yet another form of hubris to believe that the legacy can be undone in a mere generation or two, and the wounds healed.” [2]

Essentially, this text meant that over the 250 years of the existence of the European colonies in the United States, their population failed to eradicate racism in North America; consequently, this hardly can be done in the near future, for instance, over the course of the 21st century. And if this is the case, then it requires “homeopathic” rather than “surgical” means of resolving the racism problem. And such means were found!

“Race” and “racism” were proclaimed to be unscientific categories and consequently were classified as “a social category based on the identification of (1) a physical marker transmitted through reproduction and (2) individual, group, and cultural attributes associated with that marker.” [3] This florid language was required solely to formulate a simple yet crucial recommendation, and that was to forbid the use of the term “racism,” since it engenders “bitterness and polarization, not a spirit of pragmatic reasonableness in confronting our difficult problems.” [4] Subsequently, the United States did try, as much as it could, to tread that path. Those embroiled in the fight against racism transformed the category of “racism” into a target in the American cultural war of annihilation and attempted to cast it as the ultimate “toxic definition” that would be roughly similar to the label “paedophile” today or “communist” in the 1940s–1950s [5].

The attempt to solve the racism problem by manipulating its terminological meanings appeared to finally start bearing fruit during Barack Obama’s presidency. Having elected their first black president, many Americans believed that progress may finally be made in improving race relations. Injustices towards black Americans were constantly covered in the media, which itself became a decisive factor in the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Race relations changed drastically when Donald Trump came to power. “Under President Donald Trump, we have the same type of violence that America has always had, but now we have, at best, an indifferent federal government, and at worst a racist president,” writes Barrett Holmes Pitner, a Washington-based African-American journalist, for the BBC. “Due to this change, more white Americans are emboldened to re-employ black codes.” A Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2019 showed that at least 65 per cent of respondents believed that it was now possible in Donald Trump’s America to express racist sentiments and opinions openly.

“The Insulted and the Injured”

Racism has taken root in American society today. There are large-scale socioeconomic differences between the larger part of American society and the black population, and these differences are passed down from generation to generation. We should keep in mind that there are approximately 48 million African Americans living in the United States. According to official U.S. statistics for the relatively prosperous 2018, African American households had the lowest annual income in the United States at 41,400, which is one third less than the average income of all U.S. households (at USD 63,200) and more than 40 per cent less than the average income of white households [6].

Income discrimination is a big reason for large-scale poverty among African Americans both as a whole and in comparison to other ethnic groups. In 2018, nearly 21 per cent of the entire U.S. black population, or approximately 9 million people, were living below the poverty line, compared to 12 per cent of the entire population, or roughly 38.1 million [7].

The income gap stems from the earnings gap (wages and salaries). In 2018, African Americans in the United States earned 27.5 per cent less than their white counterparts on average. It is worth noting here that this gap has been growing steadily throughout the 21st century, from 21.8 per cent in 2000 to 23.5 per cent in 2007. The wage gap is closely tied to unemployment figures, which were twice the U.S. average among African Americans, even when the labour market was good. In the first quarter of 2019, unemployment in the United States was 4.1 per cent, while unemployment among African Americans was 7.1 per cent (with a record low of 3.7 per cent among the white population).

The widening pay gap directly explains the enormous difference in accumulated property (personal wealth) between white people and African Americans. In 2016, the average white family had a net worth of USD 171,000 (without accounting for debt), while the average African American family had personal assets worth only USD 17,200. These statistics on the socio-economic situation of the black population firmly convince the overwhelming majority of African Americans that there is an almost unscalable “great social wall” between them and the rest of American society.

Racism as a form of Socializing the African American Youth

Young African Americans become accustomed to racial discrimination and having their rights infringed upon from an early age. And it starts as early as middle school. Currently, black Americans make up approximately 15 per cent of all middle school students. However, black schoolchildren make up around 35 per cent of all students who have to repeat a grade and account for 36 per cent of all expulsions. During their middle school years, no less than 16 per cent of African American children are subjected to racially motivated humiliation and violence, which has an extremely adverse impact on both their psychological state and their mental development. In New York, African Americans and Latinx account for 88 per cent of all “stop-and-frisk” instances, compared to 10 per cent among the white population.

Everyday racism in the United States takes on different forms. Tellingly, when filling in personal data forms for job applications or other purposes, forms with white-sounding names received 50 percent more call-backs than those with black-sounding names.

“Repressive” Racism

African American protests provoked by deliberate or accidental killings of black people by law enforcement cannot be understood unless we grasp the overall “presumption of guilt” concerning black Americans that reigns in the United States. For instance, the police fatally shot white people (who make up 60 per cent of the U.S. population) in just 37 per cent of cases when the use of a firearm was required, compared to 24 per cent in cases involving black people (who make up 13.4 per cent of the population. In other words, a black American is three times more likely to be fatally shot by law enforcement than a white American.

Relative levels of drug use among white and black Americans are approximately even. However, in 2018, a total of 750 black Americans per 100,000 were arrested for possession, compared to 350 persons per 100,000 for white people.

Consequently, the percentage of black Americans among the U.S. jail population is five times greater than the percentage of white Americans: 1000 African Americans per 100,000 compared to 200 white Americans per 100,000. Average sentences passed on black Americans are 20 per cent longer than sentences passed on white criminals, which is also conducive to the relatively larger number of African Americans in American jails.

“The Last Straw”: The Deadly Cost of the Coronavirus

It would seem that African Americans finally reached the end of their tether and took to the streets across the country starting on May 25, 2020, when (incomplete) data coronavirus mortality among black Americans was published. The coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in January 2020, claiming approximately 100,000 American lives by late May, and 26.3 per cent of them black. That is, over a quarter of all coronavirus deaths were black people. However, during that period, mortality among black Americans was the highest among all racial and ethnic groups, and in the United States as a whole. By late May, coronavirus mortality among black Americans was 55 deaths per 100,000, while mortality among white Americans was 2.4 times less (23 deaths per 100,000). The “insulted and injured” syndrome was aggravated by the feeling of practical defencelessness in the face of a deadly threat hanging over America.

Hundreds of years of attempts to eradicate racism and its ugliest manifestations in the United States have not led to the emergence of an effective means of harmonizing inter-ethnic relations. Even today, the problem of race relations in America is like a dormant volcano that can wake up at any moment and spew powerful flows of boiling lava, devouring everything in its path.

1. The Encyclopedic Dictionary of Philosophy. Moscow: Sovetskaya Entsiklopedia, 1983, p. 565.

2. Smelser N., Wilson W., and Mitchell F. (eds). America Becoming. Racial Trends and Their Consequences. Vol. I. Washington, 2001, p. viii.

3. Ibid., p. 3.

4. Ibid., p. 257.

5. McWhorter J. Racist Is a Tough Little Word. The definition has grown and shifted over time. - “The Atlantic”, July 24, 2019 // http://www.theatlantic.com › racism-concept-change. The wages gap is closely linked with the unemployment figures as well.

6. U.S. Census Bureau. Income and Poverty in the United States: 2018. September 2019. Washington, 2019, p. 5.

7. Ibid., pp. 12–13, 15.


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