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The US Supreme Court Thinks Racism Is Dead. What Planet Do They Live On?

No sooner had the court pronounced racism dead than its skeleton emerged from cupboards galore and started doing the can-can on primetime.

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Since neither Deen nor Zimmerman have been convicted of anything, it should be emphasised that for now they are both innocent. Nonetheless, the allegations and the debates they have provoked provide salient illustrations of the supreme court's folly. I will concentrate on just two.

First, facts that are 40 years old are still facts, and 40 years is not a long period of time when dealing with a centuries-old problem. Apartheid, whether in the US or elsewhere, is a recent phenomenon. Its direct beneficiaries and victims are still alive. Roughly one in five Americans were born after the voting rights act was passed. Deen, who was raised in the deep south, was married that year.

On the rare occasions when my six-year-old son asks questions about the civil rights era, I can point him to his grandparents, who lived through it into adulthood. Nor are its defenders part of some bygone age. Even as the lofty eulogies are prepared for an ailing Nelson Mandela we should not forget that former US vice-president Dick Cheney branded him the leader of a terrorist group in 1986 and the year before his release David Cameron went on a sanctions-busting trip paid for by pro-apartheid lobbyists.

Second, segregation has a legacy – not least because it was so recent. Quashing racist laws does not eliminate racism, only its explicit and codified enforcement. The past has consequences that directly impact the present. History does not just stop because a memory is inconvenient.

The gap between black and white unemployment in the US is roughly the same as it was in 1963; the gap in median income is the same as it was in 1975. Zimmerman did not invent his impressions of Martin out of thin air. They emerge from centuries of demonisation and dehumanisation in which black men, by their very existence, are understood as a threat.

In 2005 Gordon Brown trumpeted the values of "tolerance, liberty and civic duty" exported by the British empire; last month the government settled with thousands of Kenyans tortured under colonial rule.

The speed at which some people seek to flee the past seems to have a direct relationship to their desire to distort it and to live in denial about the present. Power has many parents, but the brutality required to acquire it is an orphan.

Gary Younge is an author, broadcaster and award-winning columnist for the Guardian, based in Chicago. He also writes a monthly column for The Nation magazine and is the Alfred Knobler Fellow for The Nation Institute.


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