The comment by the host Bill O’Reilly saying to the university professor that he looks like a coke dealer purely because of the colour of his skin may not surprise people who have had the pleasure to see his programme on a regular basis. Indeed the professor in question doesn’t seem surprised by the accusation. However, the flippant remark has all the racist undertones that are all too evident throughout large sections of the United States.
Although in some respects the United States has made great leaps forward in attempting to reach some adequate form of racial equality since the days of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, for many African-Americans this objective remains nothing more than a distant dream. The most accurate way to allude to this is by looking at the penal system and bearing in mind that there are more African-Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850. Equally shocking is the fact that as of 2004, there were more African-American males who were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870. It is also important to bear in mind that the number of people incarcerated in prisons in the United State has risen from 300,000 a few decades ago to 2 million today making them the country with the largest prison population in the world.
A reading of this would lead one to conclude that this is the result of an increase in crime rates, however, this increase doesn’t reflect crime rates as they have been relatively low for a number of years; Rather, it is imprisonment rates which have soared so substantially. By looking at drug offences which now account for around 2/3rds of the increase in federal prisons and more than half the increase in state prisons, the bigger picture can be seen. Despite studies consistently showing similar levels of drug use and drug dealing among white and black youths, the “war on drugs” is almost entirely fought against the black populations, often but not exclusively in poor urbanised areas. Arguments and accusations that drug use among African-Americans is more severe or dangerous is equally countered by the data. White youths, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts. The situation is so bad in some places that in certain states, 80-90% of all drugs offenders incarcerated are African-American despite the practically equal levels of drug use and drug dealing among black and white youths.
The comments by Bill O’Reilly although unsurprising to anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing his tirades before are a shocking sign of racist undertones at play in the United States from one of the most recognisable faces on American TV. Considering almost a quarter of African-Americans live below the poverty line, approximately the same figure as in 1968 while the child poverty rate for African- Americans is in fact higher than it was at that period, one can see that true progress is still a long way off.