Minneapolis, violence and post-racial America


Start Magazine conversation with Mario Del Pero, professor of International History and History of US Foreign Policy at the Institut d’études politiques / SciencesPo in Paris, and author of the book Libertà e Impero. The United States and the World (Laterza)

The events of Minneapolis and the subsequent explosion of violence in the squares of America have torn the veil on a truth that was probably only hidden under the carpet: the racial question.

African Americans in revolt over the violent death of a black man by a police officer, however, represents a deja vu in the States: unacceptable episodes both in their frequency and in their ability to bring to light the still unhealed wounds of a country that practiced segregation just half a century ago.

The suspicion is therefore that the Minneapolis accident is anything but the birth of the case, but instead is the indicator of a social situation that needs long and in-depth reflection.

Reflection carried out with the help of an Italian scholar who knows America like few others and teaches its history at the Institut d’études politiques / SciencesPo in Paris: Mario Del Pero.

In this conversation with Start Magazine, Professor Del Pero explains why that of post-racial America was only a temporary illusion – closely associated with the figure of the first African-American president in history – and why the so-called racial relations overseas they are still complex matter to decipher and even more to handle in a political key.

Professor, it has not been long since it was fashionable to call America a post-racial society. After the scenes of these days, one cannot help but consider that definition a great deception, or rather a pious illusion that prevented us from seeing the ash that brooded under the carpet.

The idea that America had become post-racial and even post-ideological is the daughter of the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Obama embodied all its virtues: African American, centrist, liberal not too leftist, eager to recompose and cure the thousand American wounds. In hindsight, we can only call it an illusion, in the sense that the racial line – which is a brand that is ab origin in American history – it was still there and just waiting to explode. As for the post-ideological we don’t talk about it: America is experiencing a phase of extreme political, cultural and ideological polarization. It is the long legacy of the great cultural wars of the last half century, which have created two political fronts or two impermeable basins to each other. Electoral mobility no longer exists: 90% of the voters vote for the candidate of the same party when he goes to the ballot box whatever the office to be elected. So ideological and racial polarization have always been there and indeed with Obama they literally exploded.

What do you mean?

The rift that already existed between white and black society explodes because a minority but not marginal fringe of white America, tendentially male and elderly, not only has not accepted a black president in the White House, but has mounted a virulent delegitimization campaign that has even American citizenship was questioned. It is on this anger that Donald Trump will then build his electoral fortune.

What are the problems that make American police forces prone to such acts – not the first time among other things that videos like Minneapolis are circulating – which then unleash hell?

Although the Minneapolis episode is not an isolated one, one must avoid indicting the American police as a whole by claiming that it expresses institutional violence of its own. Police forces, which are governed at municipal level, have indeed shown a remarkable ability to reform and bring some questionable practices under control. That said, it is necessary to highlight some elements that make the work of agents very particular. First of all, they operate in a context of extreme danger and violence, and consequently tend to respond disproportionately to this danger. Secondly, the police force operates within a heritage, which is that of the zero tolerance policies implemented in the 1980s to deal with uncontrolled crime rates. And those were policies designed precisely to deploy violence, which ended up affecting and affects even more young people and members of minorities, who are considered the most dangerous people in a culture that favors the racial profiling.

But he himself stressed that over time there have been mea culpa and second thoughts within the police force, often prompted by sensational episodes.

That’s right. Numerous measures have been introduced to prevent the recurrence of the violence that has cyclically arisen over the years. Do you think that now about 95% of agents have the obligation to wear a switched on camera while on duty in order to document their activity and in particular compliance with the rules of engagement. The federal government then introduced a series of procedures in different districts related to control and monitoring that paid off.

In the US, for about half a century, so-called “affirmative action” policies have been developed and tested to encourage the social and economic inclusion of minorities, and the panorama of diversity in America has actually changed at least since the times of a popular Secretary of State. African American like Colin Powell. What do you think about it?

There has been progress, this is undoubted, and they are also measurable. Take the classic indicator that has often been used to denounce the persistence of forms of racial discrimination even in a formally and legally post-segregated society such as the United States: the black population in prisons. Although it remains overrepresented, it has dropped by a third since 2006. It happened in the context of a generalized decrease in the numbers of the prison population, but with an even more marked trend in the case of African Americans. Another indicator of progress is the increase in the number of African Americans that completes a cycle of university studies, which has almost doubled since the 1960s. Affirmative action programs have therefore worked, this is indisputable, leading to processes of desegregation in various public institutions, the most important of which is the army, where there are many African Americans today – and Powell’s example is certainly the most fitting – who make top careers.

What is certain is that a piece of America, perhaps a minority but certainly not inconsistent, does not seem to digest this transformation.

It is true, and the situation has even worsened with the economic crisis of 2007/8, the long wave of which we are still experiencing. That was a crisis that massively affected, even more than the weaker classes, that intermediate social and income segment where a white America with medium-low education levels is overrepresented. Americans who may have been heavily in debt for the house, and suddenly they have become impoverished. It was this situation that generated a wave of ebb, which came out more or less ten years ago with the movement of the so-called Tea Party, which directed its discontent towards the so-called “Undeserving” citizens living on public subsidies and welfare programs. It did not take long for the racial charge to overlap with the political accusation, with African Americans who ended up being considered as blockades of parasites. Therefore, as many have observed, this is the rebellion of a piece of white America that dreams of returning to the 1950s. Trump did not invent it, he simply limited himself to riding it.


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