In the spring of 2020, as the novel coronavirus pandemic swept into the United States from Europe and Asia, a disturbing pattern emerged: African Americans were twice as likely to become infected with the virus, and die from COVID-19, than whites — evidence, experts say, of longstanding racial, economic and health disparities, hidden in plain sight.
Months later, as the pandemic death count spiraled, George Floyd died face-down on a Minneapolis street, a white police officer pressing his knee on the Black man’s neck. A bystander’s video of the killing ignited fierce protests nationwide, demanding justice for Floyd and spurring an overdue reckoning on race.
Yet in January, a mob of far-right extremists, white supremacists and backers of former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington in a deadly riot, bent on overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election, by violence if necessary. Some in the mob sported MAGA gear; others wore neo-Nazi paraphernalia and waved Confederate flags.
If the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama was to have ushered in a unified, “post-racial America,” then events of the past 13 months confirm that, when it comes to race, the U.S. is still a house divided against itself. Some 156 years after the Confederate Army surrendered to Union forces at Appomattox to end the Civil War, a nation that stands as a global beacon of freedom and liberty is unable to atone for its “original sin” of slavery.
Additionally, while the vast majority of U.S. survey respondents say diversity is important for society, less than 48% of Americans agreed with the statement, “My country treats everyone equally,” a lower proportion than the 54% of the 17,000 global respondents who agreed with the statement.
Since March 1877, when Congress approved The Great Compromise — a political deal to resolve a disputed election that awarded Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency, removed federal troops from the South and gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan — the United States has been locked in a near-perpetual cycle of racial advancement and white backlash, experts say.
The African American civil rights movement in the South, for example, was often met with violence, including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Pushing back on Supreme Court rulings banning segregation in housing, education and public facilities, whites in some communities closed pools, shut down schools and fled to the suburbs. After Black voters in Georgia and elsewhere turned out in large numbers to help defeat Trump in the 2020 election, more than a dozen Republican-controlled state legislatures drafted laws stiffening voting requirements.
A central reason for the backlash, experts say, lies in the country’s unwillingness to fully confront its enslavement of Black Americans, acknowledge that the “peculiar institution” helped build its wealth or dismantle white supremacy, a cornerstone of its social order.
“America is a fundamentally racist society and it is an indelible part of this country,” says Kyle T. Mays, assistant professor in African American Studies and American Indian Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. “From prison…