Yes, finally. After living in the great and mighty United States of America for eight months, I am shocked by a cultural phenomenon in this country. I now have an answer for everyone back home who refuses to believe that the US is more similar to Pakistan than we think.
In November 2008, the monumental victory of Barack Obama as President of the United States moved me to tears because I believed it to be the triumph of justice and the human spirit. I heard his victory speech on YouTube, and thought, “wow, these people [Americans] have finally moved past the racism that plagued them until just 40 years ago!”.
Six years later, I land in Chicago, home to Obama and one of the largest African-American populations in the US. I am excited to be here, especially the South Side of Chicago that is largely populated by Black Americans, and see the interaction between the two races. Color-based racism isn’t really a part of political or intellectual debate in Pakistan. Borrowing from the Americans, most of us are generally “brown” and believe we descended from the same race, the Aryans. However, Pakistanis are not completely color-blind and there is definitely an obsession with white skin, for instance calling the West Indian cricket team kaali andhi (“Black Thunder”). But as far as active racial discrimination against dark-skinned people is concerned, that’s not really a problem in Pakistan the way it was/is in the United States.
As a student at one of the most elite universities in the US where racism really is a thing of the past, I continued to feel about America’s racist history the same way I did back home. In the land of opportunity, what color you are has stopped mattering, to the extent that even soaring income inequality impacts poor White families and Black families the same way. I was of the view that this kind of backward thinking about race now existed only in the minds of desis who seemed to believe that every Black man was out to rob them and every Black woman was having a child out of wedlock.
Then I came across this astonishing article in The Atlantic, which claimed that racial segregation seems to have returned to high schools in the US. According to the article, Black students across southern US – states that were made to end black slavery through the American Civil War – now attend majority-black schools at levels not seen in four decades. This was a very uncomfortable thought for me.
But what truly shocked me was when I started reading a fascinating book called “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. The book asserts that to this day, when even the rich and the powerful have to pay the price for being racist, the US Justice System continues to discriminate against Black Americans. It shows how the practice mass incarceration disproportionately impacts Black Americans, effectively relegating them to “second-class” citizens by denying them the very rights that were supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
It was only then that I realized how complicated and pervasive the issue of race continues to be in the US. Although Barack Obama’s victory has been a sign of change and hope for Black Americans in the US, it appears to have done little for them in terms of acceptance. Obama, with all his “White privileges”, is easy for the White elite to consider as one of their own. For them, it is easy to forget that Barack Obama is a Black man because he is extremely intelligent, delightfully articulate, and a lawyer educated at Harvard University.
My view on race in the United States has completely changed. There is still racial friction, and it’s not just in the hearts and minds of people from states that were historically brutal to Black Americans but also in the American systems, particularly justice system. It’s hidden and covert, but very effective nonetheless. The “triumph over race” isn’t yet complete.