A CELEBRATION of the five decades of the music of Ella Fitzgerald was shown on television last weekend. It was a glorious, uplifting reminder of the incomparable phrasing of the greatest jazz singer of the 20th century. But the shadow of racism fell across the joy.
In one scene, early on, the police in the United States were seen assaulting a group of black people with a powerful waterjet. It was a grim prefiguring of the scenes from the US today, in which heavily armoured police are brutally dispersing crowds demonstrating at the callous on-camera killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white policeman. Ninety years on, and nothing has changed.
Online, the next day, Pentecost Sunday, our priest gave a sermon that imagined a triptych. In the first panel was the Tower of Babel, where language caused confusion and bred suspicion. The second showed how, at Whitsun, language brought unity and insight. The third panel, he suggested, was the one that we are painting today of our contemporary world.
The mass was in English, but the songs were in Ibo and ki-Swahili. That is one part of our painting. But, in another, President Trump was using tear gas, rubber bullets, and baton sticks to clear his path to a church, before which he posed holding a Bible, as though it were an object to swear on rather than a message to take to heart. It was the kind of scene which makes the religious dystopia imagined by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale seem suddenly not so far-fetched.
Mr Floyd was in Minnesota, where he died, as part of a church work programme in which he hoped to gain a licence to drive a heavy-goods vehicle while being, in the American parlance, “discipled”. He had been sent there by his pastor at the Resurrection Project in Houston, where Floyd was “loved, admired, and served as a father figure to guys in this community”, his pastor, the Revd Patrick Ngwolo, said.
Mr Floyd’s death, Mr Ngwolo said, was “an inflection point”, after which “we either master racism, or allow it to master us.” The blood of an innocent victim cried out for vengeance, but also spoke of the possibility of redemption. It was for us to choose which it would be.
An angry protester on the street echoed that dichotomy more bleakly. “For half a century, we have tried Martin Luther King’s way of peace — and it has not worked,” he raged. “It is time to try the way of Malcolm X.” Violence, as Dr King observed, is the language of the unheard.
We should not make the mistake of reassuring ourselves that the grotesque cartoon politics of the US do not obtain here. In our own land, black people are ten times more likely to be stopped and searched than whites. They are three times more likely to be excluded from school. They have the highest unemployment rate of all ethnic groups. They are dying of Covid-19 in disproportionately high numbers (News, 15 May).
Public Health England this week published a report that confirms this. Indeed, it shows that people of Bangladeshi ethnicity are twice as likely as people of white British ethnicity to die from the virus. So, what are the Government and the rest of us going to do about it?