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Lindsay Razaq: Fear and loathing in USA as racial tensions bubble to the surface

Protesters in California (David McNew/Getty Images)
Protesters in California (David McNew/Getty Images)

WHO knew there could be so many shades of autumn?

Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, is picture-postcard beautiful this time of year.

A broad, tree-lined street with “old money”, late 19th-century mansions on either side, it’s the stuff of glossy guidebooks.

The road is also renowned for its imposing statues of civil war generals, a reminder that Richmond was capital of the confederacy.

Alongside them is tennis ace and activist Arthur Ashe, the first and only black man to win Wimbledon, unveiled in 1996.

Dr Erin Burke Brown, of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), says the decision to place him on the avenue was controversial.

Some residents complained about the lack of connection between the Richmond-born athlete and the confederate leaders, she explains.

An effigy was ultimately constructed, but only after a fight and he’s significantly smaller than his neighbours.

Twenty years on and it seems racial tension still bubbles just below the surface here.

One black taxi driver describes encountering racism at least once every day.

And the VCU students – in echoes of post-EU referendum Britain – are concerned hate crime is on the rise, aggravated by the 2016 presidential race.

There have also been incidents of racist, Islamophobic and homophobic graffiti at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

In one horrific episode, a female Muslim student was recently the victim of a death threat.

Another disturbing thing – in a hangover from the Jim Crow era – is that felons are banned from voting, even after they have served their punishment, which might only be a fine for personal drug possession.

As a result, one in five African Americans of voting age is denied the right to vote in Virginia.

They can put together a case, but it is up to the state’s governor to decide whether rights are restored.

Black people are disproportionately affected, amid claims the system is still aimed at neutralising their vote.

Some 600 miles north-west is Detroit, Michigan, a city that is 83% black, with a population of about 300,000 American Muslims.

The scenery is different of course, but the social undertones are similar.

On the streets of Motor City, the birthplace of Motown, many people are fearful about the prejudice they say Trump’s campaign has unleashed.

Their main worry is that white supremacists among the president elect’s supporters will feel emboldened to confront people of colour now their guy is in the White House.

One night at a Trump rally in Detroit suburb Sterling Heights – or Sterling Whites as I’m told it’s nicknamed – is plenty proof such anxiety is not unfounded.

The feverish, frenzied ‘build a wall’ chanting by thousands of adults and – most troublingly – young children left me shocked and utterly depressed.

In hindsight, it should have been a big indication of a Trump win, that the US was headed for “Brexit plus” as the billionaire businessman put it.

But one after the other academics and professional pundits (I believe Michael Gove called them experts) in Washington DC had insisted with confidence – arrogance even – that Hillary Clinton would win.

Trump’s path to victory under the electoral college system was too unlikely, they said.

Famous last words. After this summer, I should have known better.


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They spoke about the disconnect between those in and outside the capital’s Beltway (akin to our M25) and the anti-establishmentarianism that helped Trump secure the Republican ticket.

But they failed to predict that very same sentiment would carry him over the finish line.

Had I been blindfolded, I might have thought they were talking about the UK, although there I think the similarities end.

And yet, I was lulled into a false sense of security, only to again experience that creeping feeling of disbelief on election night, as in the early hours of June 24.

Distraught Democrats at the glitzy MGM Grand Hotel party in Detroit watched in shock as state by state, the US map gradually filled in red.

Michigan, which hadn’t voted for a Republican presidential nominee since 1988, was among those that flipped.

Trump supporters’ motivation to ‘get their country back’ shouldn’t be under-played.

In search of Scottish Americans, I visited a bar at a shopping precinct on the outskirts of Richmond.

I was surprised at the grievance of some punters, albeit far from all, that the advancement of non-whites was somehow taking away what was rightfully theirs.

Suzanne Cleage, Detroit chairwoman of the League of Women Voters, says the mood “feels like the 1960s all over again”.

But she also questions whether institutional racism ever really went away.

She reels off several examples – black people not being served in a shop, or tailed by police for driving around a community where they ‘don’t belong’.

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, agrees the prejudices, while exacerbated by the Trump campaign, are deep-seated issues at the very heart of American society.

From that perspective, he says it shouldn’t be a “panic moment”, although accepts immigrants, especially from the south Asian and Arab world, are understandably more nervous.

Kevin Hardy, deputy news editor at the Detroit News, notes the ongoing presence of these social issues, but doesn’t think Trump voters in the Rustbelt – which proved a key battleground – were necessarily motivated by wanting to “reset the clock on social progress”.

Instead he argues it came down to three things – frustration at “aggressive” farming regulations by the Democratic administration, a loss of manufacturing jobs and moves by Clinton’s party to switch to cleaner energy at the expense of coal mining.

Trump was able to tap into these concerns, while offering a simple pledge to “drain the swamp” of the “corrupt” elites.

Whatever the reasons, America woke up a Disunited States on November 9.

Like the Scottish nationalists’ renewed momentum post-Brexit, Californians wasted no time in calling for secession in a movement being dubbed “Calexit” or “Califrexit”.

So Trump now faces the task of bringing the nation back together, no small undertaking, especially by the very person blamed for exploiting existing divisions.

Because even if the bruising campaign wounds can be healed over time, entrenched attitudes are harder to shift.

These cannot be legislated away, only reshaped through educational and cultural reform.

Perhaps the Virginia cabbie puts it best. All you can do is hope the next generation knows and does better.