This is part 1 of a condensed version of episode 4 from our podcast series on racism. The focus is on racism in the US today. Now, it is often stated that racism is “worse” in the US than here in the UK. I do not like the use of the word worse because it implies that a country is, in turn, ‘better’ on racism. But, you’re either racist or you’re anti-racist, there’s no in between. This distinction makes many in the UK feel like we’re not a racist nation, which fits in with the classic British trope of wilful ignorance, limiting progress towards true racial equality. I feel that “more extreme” is a suitable phrase to use, so just something for us all to ponder moving forward.

To frame the following piece, it’s crucial to briefly acknowledge the Civil Rights Movement, and how closely it links with events of the present day. We always like to distance the past from today, talking of bygone eras where societal values diverge from our own moral compass, but we’re talking about the 1960s here, which is in many of our parents’ lifetimes. The Voting Rights Act, one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever enacted in the US, prohibited racial discrimination in voting. This was signed into law in 1965, only 55 years ago. Progress has been made of course, but not as much as we like to think.

So, let’s analyse the concept of freedom, so firmly entrenched in the American psyche. Freedom is central to Americans’ sense of themselves as individuals and as a nation. Americans continue to debate contemporary issues in the political landscape through ideas of freedom. Indeed, freedom remains, as it has always been, an evolving concept, its boundaries never fixed or final. It simply cannot be taken for granted, and its preservation requires eternal vigilance, especially in times of crisis, which we are now.

Freedom was a core component of liberalism that developed in late 18th century, challenging the pervasive Republican view of liberty at that time. The leading philosopher of liberty was John Locke, whose ideas were born a century before. Locke spoke of liberty as a universal (or natural) right. The area of his work that is noteworthy here regards the government, which was formed by a mutual agreement among equals, termed a “social contract”, violation of which destroyed the legitimacy of authority.

Lockean ideas of individual rights, the consent of the governed and the right to rebellion against unjust or oppressive governments were the foundation of the US Declaration of Independence on July 2nd, 1776. The document enduring impact came from a line in the second paragraph, which states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that are among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. Where Jefferson mentions ‘unalienable rights’, he meant rights so basic, so rooted in human nature itself (what Locke called the state of nature) that no government could take them away. Jefferson then went on to write that government derives its powers from the “consent of the governed”. When a government threatens its subjects natural rights, the people have the authority to “alter or abolish it”. Thus, the Declaration of Independence can be viewed as an assertion of the right to revolution.

It is vital that you contemplate this examination when reading part 2 of this piece, where the focus will be on Donald Trump and the reactions to peaceful protests in the US. Freedom is often advocated in the US, but freedom is far from the reality for many citizens.

Is it a smokescreen whilst this government fan the flames of division?