America, America…

americanflag.jpgI’m going to be living in one of my favourite cities in the world, New York, for the next few months…It’s fascinating to be here. I find that America is full of paradox, particularly in regards to race.

On one hand, there is a very high rate of disenfranchisement evidenced for example by a disproportionately large number of African-Americans (males in particular) in the criminal justice system. On the other hand you have extremely successful and well-to-do African-Americans who have been able to thrive in spite of the system. Obviously Oprah Winfrey, as the first black billionaire is just one of them.

I find it fascinating that despite the horrors of slavery, segregation and civil and social inequality (which did not end that long ago and some would say still exists) there is an African American man running for president. And the great thing is he’s actually a contender in the race, with some chance of winning. Similarly you have people like Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice who have reached, and influenced, the very highest levels of American government.

I am not hard pressed to find successful African Americans in this city. All of my friends here are college-educated people with great opportunities, some doing the corporate thing, some doing the creative thing, but all striving to succeed, make something of themselves and buck stereotypes.

There are definitely negative images of African-Americans shown in the media here (rap videos etc) but at the same time this is where the family-orientated, feel-good Cosby show came from. I had never seen a black family like that until I saw the Cosby show! Presently you have American TV shows (e.g. My Wife and Kids, Everybody Hates Chris) which also depict happy, healthy and positive black families.

America is definitely more segregated in the sense that different racial groups tend to stick very closely together and do not mix on a social level. That is very different from my experience of living in London. However, there is a pride and solidarity amongst African-Americans I find here that I don’t find in the UK. People are proud to have relationships with each other, to have black families, to stick together. In the UK I find that many black people feel that in order to make it they must necessarily date someone of other race as some kind of symbol that they have assimilated.

I say all this because I was born and bred in the UK, which is apparently less segregated, less ‘racist’ (if you can quantify that) than the US yet I do not see many of the great things that I see and admire in America (from the African-American perspective).

I can only remember one black TV show in the UK. It was called Desmonds. (I do believe there may have been another one more recently, but I cannot recall it exactly). It was good but it definitely wasn’t the Cosby show!

The day a black man runs for prime minister in the UK and has a chance of winning, I will eat my socks. Seriously.

There are successful black people in the UK, don’t get me wrong (you can see my previous post on the New Nation’s Power List) but the truth is they are few and far between. They are not the norm. I won’t say they are the norm in America either, but at the same time it’s also not that unusual.

There are such massive contradictions in America, it really is interesting.

I wonder if the difference between the UK and the US is that Brand America promotes ‘The American Dream’ which is apparently available to all, regardless of race or ethnicity, and it is this great marketing tool which makes African-Americans feel that in spite of everything that has happened to them in the US they can still – and do – make it? Maybe it is knowing about the inalienable right of everyman to have ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ that leads to this?

The UK and the US are different in many ways, including historically, so a direct comparison is not possible. There is also a much smaller number of black people in the UK. Maybe it’s that in the UK, most people of colour here are immigrants and have therefore had to – as many immigrants do – start from the very bottom. African and Caribbean immigrants here maybe have had less time to work their way up than in the US. However, African Americans have had to do this too. In fact, their position is arguably even more disadvantaged than that of an immigrant to the UK who has come here of their own free will. Maybe it’s because England is still a very classist society? I don’t really know…

Anyway – just my observations! I will keep pondering that one… if you have any thoughts please let me know!

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2 thoughts on “America, America…

  1. As a born and bred American (not African-African), I want to say thank you for the insightful look into your reactions of racism in the United States; and also to mention that NYC is quite unlike the rest of the country as I’m sure London is to the UK, so generalizations about the country should not necessarily be made based solely on observations made in this great city. As a NYC’er I’d like to say – fuhgeddaboudit! – the only one who holds you back is yourself – if you begin believing that people are prejudiced against you, then they will be; but if you know that you are more than the color of your skin and act like it, people will respond to it.

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