I visited the United States in the summer of 2006. Thank you, Union Bank of India. My dreams are certainly not mine alone as long as you are there. It was a great trip. I met my cousins after a fairly long time, visited loads of places in California apart from an unforgettable trip to Vegas and the Grand Canyon and had a whale of a time. It was also my first direct contact with America and American Culture (is that an oxymoron?) and the experience was insightful.
There was a particular road trip where we went to some of the lesser known scenic places in California- Monterey, Pismo Beach and Hearst Castle (of the Citizen Kane fame for movie aficionados). One of the best things about this trip was the drive. Mountains on one side and the Atlantic on the other- how much better could it get? That night, we went out for dinner at a Mexican place. Ordered what we believed was an authentic Mexican meal- tortillas, enchiladas, quesadillas- the works. The restaurant was a smallish place- the complete seating area was smaller than my room. There were some youngsters sitting at the table next to ours. As we placed our orders and waited for the food to arrive, one of them said, “Oh my God, Indians. Let’s go,” or something to that effect and they walked off. The whole experience left a decidedly sour taste in my mouth and I’m not castigating the food here.
Before anyone dismisses this as a one-off case, a canard or a misunderstanding, let me substantiate. I have lots of relatives living in the US. Many of them have been there for decades now. Yet, barring a very small number, all of them have one thing in common- their social circle comprises only Indians or Asians. They work alongside Caucasians at their offices, study with them at schools but when it comes to social interaction, the whites are conspicuous by their absence. However, you’d be hard pressed to get anyone living in the States to admit that they are victims of racism, that they are treated as repugnant beings, at some level or the other. Perhaps they choose to turn a blind eye, perhaps they look at the bright side- racism in the US is much much lesser than that in the UK or Europe. And it is decreasing, although vestiges of it remain, as movies like Crash point out, or as my own humble experience seems to suggest.
So far, when I’ve talked of racism, I’ve been referring to the behaviour meted out to Indians or Asians. This is only the tip of the iceberg. The African-Americans get a far more invective deal. Their history in the New World is a long sad saga of misery, iniquity and pain. Brought from Africa to be sold as slaves. Made to toil on plantations under inhuman conditions. Ferocious mastiffs used to capture and/or kill runaways. ‘Masters’ a thousand times more feral than the aforementioned mastiffs- floggings and rapes being the norm rather than the exception. Thomas Jefferson, the so-called champion of slave-rights, wrote about slavery, “We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other”. Regarding marriage between blacks and whites, he contended that "The amalgamation of whites with blacks produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character, can innocently consent."
The American Civil War was fought because half the United States felt that slavery must not only be not stopped, it must also be allowed to spread, and tried to justify these pestilential principles as by shrouding them in a metaphorical cloak of the ‘Cause’. This was followed by the Klu Klux Klan and the Jim Crow laws. Slavery ended in 1865 but it took a hundred years for the Civil Rights act to be passed in 1964. And even to this day, subtle reminders turn up to show us that while racism is no longer overt, it is also not non-existent. Blacks still live in ghettoes, Harlem being the most infamous. The quintessential black, thanks to Hollywood, is a rap-loving, overeating, promiscuous basketball buff. Interracial couplings in sitcoms and movies are few and far between. A Will Smith or a Denzel Washington is always paired with a Thandie Newton. In real-life, such couples are practically non-existent. None of the friends in FRIENDS is a Black, in fact the entire ten seasons feature only a smattering of Black characters.
Such was the image in my mind when the US went to vote for Elections 2008. Even when the Democrat elections were going on, I was confident that this would be the election to decide who would lose the White House- the US was not ready for the president to be anyone but a Caucasian male. Despite optimistic exit polls, my view remained staunch- the racist bias would show its hand on the D-Day. Thankfully, I have been proved wrong. American society seems to have matured at last. While anti-incumbency and McCain’s rhetoric might have ensured that any democrat would have been victorious, the margin by which Barack Hussein Obama II won the top office speaks volumes about the changing Yankee populace.
From “I have a dream” to “Yes. We Can”, the journey has been long, and to many, scarcely believable, but one hopes that it has reached its destination. One hopes that the elevation of the son of a Kenyan immigrant to the office of the most powerful man in the world is a significant step in the eradication of that turpitude called racism. One hopes, and one hopes ardently, that this is the dawn of a new era- when not just colour but all other human walls of caste, creed, sex and religion are shattered and humans are viewed as a monistic entity.