2024, a bellwether year for the US - Hindustan Times
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2024, a bellwether year for the US

Mar 20, 2024 02:12 AM IST

The legacy of racial discrimination and inequality, deeply ingrained in Georgia’s history, continues to shape perceptions among minority communities.

We’re sitting inside an old house in Sweet Auburn in downtown Atlanta where the park ranger, a middle-aged white woman in the National Park Service uniform of dark and light olive green, is giving us a screen tour of Dr Martin Luther King Junior’s family house. The house is next door but is undergoing restoration and is slated to remain shut for a few months. So we’re doing the next best thing i.e. looking at its pictures on a TV screen. The house is impressive. “It had heating, a bathtub and a garage… all the amenities of its time,” she tells us in her slow and deliberate southern drawl. Sweet Auburn was in the words of civil rights activist of the 1950s John Wesley Dobbs the “richest street in the world” where African-Americans lived.

Visitors tour the grounds around The King Center on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in Atlanta, Georgia. (Tami Chappell/REUTERS) PREMIUM
Visitors tour the grounds around The King Center on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in Atlanta, Georgia. (Tami Chappell/REUTERS)

But Sweet Auburn is today mostly known for MLK Jr’s final resting place, which lies further down the road in a beautiful pool of cascading water, each step bearing a line from his speeches. The one that stayed with me was: “Until justice rolls down like water”. It is a poetic summation of Dr King’s struggle against the official segregation policy of many southern states.

As a first-timer in Atlanta, there were a few things on my checklist. The first of them happened to be the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park, which bears his and his wife Coretta Scott King’s graves, a museum, the church where he was pastor, his birth home and the Gandhi promenade to honour the Mahatma, whom Dr King admired a great deal for his non-violent freedom movement.

It is February, in a leap year, and it is Black History Month which means a month of celebrating the achievements of African Americans. Especially those who have helped expand the horizons of white Americans towards understanding the extent of damage years of institutionalised slavery, segregation and the rapaciously wicked ‘Jim Crow laws’ can do to the human spirit. Jim Crow was a pejorative term for a black man and the eponymous laws aimed at keeping a permanent lid on black self-esteem and aspirations. Till as late as 2020, when 46-year-old George Floyd was murdered in full public view by police officer Derek Chauvin, the world has seen images of this hateful racial legacy continue in surprising ways.

In a Pews Centre study titled Race in America 2019, 71% of its black population felt that race relations had worsened during the Trump Presidency. Donald Trump’s ambitious plans of building a wall on the Mexican border as well as his untrammelled amplification of far-right bigotry had helped him garner the support of many Americans. And by the looks of his current bid, it seems he will get a repeat term.

As the news of the mindless murder of Laken Riley, a nursing student, in nearby Athens (Georgia) spread, followed by the capture of a suspect, a Venezuelan immigrant, right-wing opinion-makers upped the ante. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp was quick to question the Biden administration’s laxity on illegal immigrants. Trump went a few steps further pronouncing “What Joe Biden has done on our border is a crime against humanity”.

The USA of today isn’t unlike many other developing countries that are struggling with contradictions: like extreme wealth and extreme poverty. In Atlanta’s downtown area, the homelessness is unmissable. Barely a few hundred metres from the famous Mercedes Benz Stadium I spot a row of camping tents, just off the main street. There are (mostly) black men at every street corner asking for a dime. You get asked for money on the subway trains too. I got asked many more times on the way to Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park than I would’ve had I been walking around Connaught Place.

Atlanta is often hailed as the cultural capital of the American South, and that it is. I had a wonderful cab drive listening to a podcast about Aretha Franklin’s music and its message of non-violence, especially at the height of the civil rights movement. Instances were cited about how nightclubs were picketed by white mobs in order to prevent Aretha from performing there. Although that sort of in-the-face discrimination may not be there today, there are remnants of it in different forms.

The election of Maynard Jackson (grandson of John Wesley Dobbs mentioned earlier) as Georgia and Atlanta’s first African-American mayor in 1973 marked a significant milestone in the city's history. It must be added here that other southern states like Louisiana, Tennessee, and South Carolina had had black mayors way back in the 1860s. Jackson’s mayorship signalled a shift towards greater representation and inclusion of black leaders in local government.

However, even to a cursory observer, there are very clear disparities in the quality of life between white and black communities. One of the primary reasons for homelessness in Atlanta (and elsewhere in the US) is the institutionalised racism in US housing policies.

One study conducted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that African Americans were disproportionately higher among individuals experiencing homelessness. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership looks at this issue. In her book Taylor, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton, calls it “predatory inclusion”.

After the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which aimed to end housing discrimination in America—often referred to as “redlining” where banks excluded black areas from housing loans. In her book, Taylor argues that the Act in fact helped realtors and mortgage lenders aggressively target black communities since its guarantees meant the government would pay lenders even in the case of foreclosures. So on the face of it, there was ample inclusion but the intent was to get low-income black buyers on board “because they were poor, desperate, and likely to fall behind on their payments”. So while buyers were evicted from their homes, the lenders got their payments in full.

Since 2024 is an election year there are also fears among the black electorate that they may not get their due representation. Race intersects politics in Georgia in many ways. The legacy of racial discrimination and inequality, deeply ingrained in the state's history, continues to shape perceptions and attitudes, particularly among minority communities.

The spectre of voter suppression looms large, as efforts to restrict access to the ballot affect minority communities the most. One of the most notable episodes of voter suppression occurred in the lead-up to the 2018 gubernatorial election, where then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp, also a candidate for Governor, faced accusations of employing tactics that disproportionately affected minority voters. Under Kemp's tenure, Georgia implemented policies such as voter roll purges, exact match requirements, and polling place closures, which critics argued impacted African-American and other minority communities.

However, the wheels of change are turning. Hugely successful black Atlantans like singers Kanye West, Ludacris, Usher, Lil Nas X, actor Chris Tucker, and director Spike Lee among others have delighted global audiences with their talent and their unique southern sensibility. Among them actor-director and now movie mogul Tyler Perry is a category in himself. In 2015, Perry bought Atlanta’s 330-acre former military base, Fort McPherson to turn it into film studios the likes of which the state had not seen before. Tyler Perry Studios is today the largest film production facility in the whole of the USA. In fact, his acquisition has kickstarted an exodus of the American film industry: from Los Angeles to Atlanta. Not to mention the fact that it has also made Tyler Perry the first African-American to have sole ownership of a major film production studio in the history of the United States. It is no mean achievement for Tyler, a native of Louisiana, to be able to reverse the race oppression of the deep South. He is in many ways, a living culmination of MLK Jr.’s favourite song: ‘We Shall Overcome’.

Dhiraj Singh is associate dean and director of Dadasaheb Phalke International Film School and department of Media and Communication at MIT World Peace University, Pune. The views expressed are personal

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