A polarised America

Azza Radwan Sedky
Tuesday 7 Jun 2022

With mass shootings and racist killings apparently routine events in the US today, can Americans learn to live in peace with each other again, asks Azza Radwan Sedky


More than ever before, Americans are split in terms of vision and make up. In fact, the society at large is at odds with itself as people succumb to seething rage only to be followed by sentiments of bitterness and dread. How did the world’s most important global power see its citizens reach this level of animosity?

Americans are polarised. Their perspectives on many issues are poles apart. Racism, gun control, and abortion, to name only a few, are starkly controversial and contentious issues resulting in intertwined and substantial fury. This fury then morphs into mass shootings, protests, and various forms of defiance.

The US is far from being unique in having a troubled history of race relations, but the current situation is on a different scale altogether. Despite being considered one of the most racially diverse societies in the world, America today is facing turbulent times due to that same diversity. 

White supremacy may be the root of much of the systemic racism emerging in the US. It exists in mainstream politics and overflows onto the streets. Former president Donald Trump voiced his racism in his speeches and his actions, and he may have prompted the Capitol Hill riots in January 2020. 

George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was choked to death in 2020 while under police custody in the US. Then, between Floyd’s murder and the shooting that occurred in the predominantly black neighbourhood of Buffalo, New York, in 2022, hundreds of acts of racism left Americans in anguish and despair. They also left hundreds dead. 

The authorities in the US have tried to bring the country’s ethnic minorities to the forefront, putting them on a more even footing with the white majority to the extent that a black president was elected in 2009.

However, it seems that these moves have not gone far enough, for the racial barriers in the US remain as high as ever. Black Lives Matter, a political and social movement that seeks to highlight discrimination against blacks, has become one of the largest movements in the history of the US. After every incident in which police brutality and racially motivated violence occurs against blacks, massive protests follow.

In the meantime, rural whites in the US are sensing the change in demographics and believe they are no longer in control. They feel threatened by any empowerment provided to minorities and assume anti-white prejudice is on the rise. The frustration on both sides is spewing onto the streets of the US, which are filled with guns and hatred. 

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution states that “a well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This makes access to guns lawful and easily attainable in the US today. In fact, because of safety fears, gun ownership is even surging. According to the UK magazine the Economist, “gun-ownership in America is diversifying, because of safety fears… [and] concerns over safety lead more women and minorities to arm themselves.” 

Undoubtedly, this surge in gun ownership has led to an increase in the number of shootings in the US, which rose by 96.8 per cent between 2017 and 2021. Shootings on the streets, in small stores in small towns, at hospitals, and in schools and colleges are pervasive in America today. Only a few weeks ago, an 18-year-old youth shot 21 young children and two adult teachers at a school in Texas. Mass shootings in the US have become a recurring nightmare.

Politically, rifts are also widening in the US, and each presidential election increases the divisiveness further. According to the US polling organisation the Pew Research Centre, in 2021 52 per cent of Democrats held unfavourable views of Republicans, while 52 per cent of Republicans disliked Democrats. This reveals the level of hostility and friction amongst the citizens of the same country.

The catastrophe is that Democrats and Republicans in the US today not only do not think or act alike, but they are actually so far apart as far as ideologies and principles are concerned that a dysfunctional democracy now characterises the American landscape. The end result is that Americans distrust policy-makers and are angry at their leaders and at one another.

Republicans and Democrats remain at one another’s throats, each thinking of nothing less than destroying the validity and legitimacy of the other while ignoring what may be the good of the US itself. Hardly ever do they unite their forces or ignore their differences for the sake of the well-being of US citizens. 

Since the late 1970s, a perennial tug of war has also existed in the US over abortion and between pro-choice and pro-life advocates. But had the society not been imploding upon itself, there would not have been killings committed on this issue. In 2009, George Tiller, a physician from Kansas, was murdered by anti-abortion extremists. The war over the issue goes on today, as Republicans have sought to restrict abortion, while Democrats have sought to ease restrictions. 

Today, the US Supreme Court is about to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that allowed abortions in the US. Under rational circumstances, both sides would sit down and communicate to one another the reasons why they stand behind one or other point of view on the issue, but emotions and self-indulgence leave no room for negotiations or logical outcomes.

In the meantime, the world looks on horrified at the dysfunctions of American society and its bitter conflicts as the unbalance within the country threatens to challenge American global dominance. 

Can the Americans patch up their rifts and coexist with each other? They have been able to do so in the past, but today it looks like an ambitious desire. As fear and anger continue to manipulate the American public, peaceable coexistence looks unreachable. 

* The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.  

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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