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The other pandemic: Systemic racism, xenophobia and hate on a global scale

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Ever since the killing of George Floyd, a middle-aged African-American man, by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020, America had witnessed a wave of anger and protests followed by horrendous police brutalities that unmasked the nation’s long-overlooked police violence. Since then, issues like systemic racism, the impoverishment of African-American communities, and the disproportionate killings of African-Americans in the hands of the police occupied the U.S media narratives (the global news) and political discourse in a crucial election year.

The killing of George Floyd in a gruesome manner which is emblematic of the disproportionate treatment by police of Africa-Americans ignited a long-simmering anger. On May 7 2020, a video footage had emerged of the Killing of Ahmed Aubrey, a young black man in Georgia, as he was jogging in a neighbourhood by a retired police officer and his son. He was ‘mistaken’ as a fleeing burglar. The association of African-Americans with crimes, calling the police on them and their disproportionate treatments in the hands of police that leads to deaths and injury reflects a social culture predicated on systemic racism.

Know that protests have engulfed the US and solidarity anti-racism protests spreading all over the world, can protests and riots bring racial injustice, xenophobia and hatred into an end? In a post-pandemic world being gripped by a looming economic crisis, rising unemployment numbers and a rising right-wing populist-nationalist politics, protest and riots are not the only panacea. A world-wide effort that challenges mistreatments of human bodies and dignity, which are enshrined in national and institutional policies can stem out the systemic culture of racism and hate faced by African-Americans, domestic workers and construction labourers in the Middle-East, Muslims in India and China, and migrants in detention centres around Europe.

Systemic racism and the impoverishment of African-Americans

Race is a critical flashpoint in American social and political imagination. Racial superiority has played a significant role in the foundation of America. In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014) author and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz observes how violence motivated by racial superiority and theological providence for material prosperity wipe-out the indigenous Native Americans. Moreover, in America’s original sin (2015) theologian and political activist Jim Wallis laments how the American society is still haunted by the history of slavery, the lynching of African-Americans, and 20th century Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation and systemic racism.

At the foundation of the disproportionate police mistreatments of African-Americans is a culture of violence. Turkey’s TRT World and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Journalists and news reporters, among others, have witnessed and ‘tasted’ a portion of that violence. In addition to police violence, African-Americans encounter a justice system and courts that have also equally disproportionately incarcerated Africa-American men and young boys. The mass incarcerations of African-Americans have dented a blow to the economy, education, psychology, and social mobility of African-American communities and families. More critically, most of these incarcerated men and women lose their political rights to vote and being elected, hence locking them away indefinitely from political participation. In many states, this has rendered African-Americans politically disenfranchised.

Economic impoverishment has also gripped African-American communities and households in the suburban neighbourhoods all over the country. African-Americans have the lowest high school and university graduation levels; lowest income, wealth, and wages growths in America; they are condemned to, as the Guardian put it: ‘‘to inferior health, housing and economic conditions’’. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the dire social and economic conditions of the African-Americans with disproportionate high infections, spread, and casualty. The protests that currently rock American cities have at their roots long-held grievances that go beyond systemic racism.

Although protests and riots are periodic outbursts of anger in the face of systemic racism and injustice, the economic, social, and political impoverishment of African-Americans needs equally systemic reformations and radical changes in policing culture and the justice system. Clearly, President Donald Trump and the Republicans do not seem ready to initiate such massive reforms; Joe Biden and the Democratic establishment that winnowed all African-American candidates in the primaries equally do not seem well prepared for such critical undertakings. Nevertheless, with such protests and riots shaking America to its core, and the out-pouring of a massive global solidarity, America will never be the same in post-COVID-19 – I hope so.

Racism on a global scale

While global news has been captivated by the protests and riots in the U.S and solidarity marches across the world, let us not forget that racism, sexism, hate and xenophobia are persistent global pandemics. Unfortunately, all over the world people of colour, ethnic and religious minorities, women and girls, migrants and refugees face and encounter explicit and implicit structural social oppressions and violations on a daily basis.

For instance, 2020 has been the worst year for domestic workers in the Middle-East with numerous violent incidents capturing national news in Lebanon, Jordan and other Gulf Arab nations. The brutal physical abuse and killing of Faustina Tay, a Ghanian national, in Lebanon represent and encapsulate the larger violence and racism female domestic workers face in the Middle-East. These women work in a contractual framework so-called Kafala system which grants employers total control over them. Given the poor economic conditions of their home countries, these women are lured into exaggerated employment promises and their labours perpetually exploited. More crucially, studies have documented that they occasionally face sexual, physical, and psychological violations that have pushed many to the brink of suicide and sometimes harming others. Similar predicaments are faced by construction workers in the region.

The epitome of racism is captured in the sufferings and violations of migrants and refugees seeking safe heavens face in the developed world. Trump’s travel ban on Muslims and the caging and imprisonment of young South-American children and women in the country’s southern borders reflect an incessant and vibrant racism in centres of power and political influence. Moreover, the European Union efforts to curb migrations have dehumanized migrants and reduced them to expendable souls and bodies. Migrant treatments in the hands of Greek, Italian and Spanish border guards have become normalized global news trends. Hence, while we protest in solidarity with protestors in America, lets us all remember that racism and hate are global phenomena and that they usually occur in our neighbourhoods, cities, and countries than we imagine.

Of course, all lives matter

The recent protests have re-ignited political and racial discourses, or ‘culture wars’ as right-wing pundits frame them, in the social media. Twitter trended with hash-tags like #BlackLivesMatter and #WeCantBreath since the protest erupted. Although these slogans have emerged from specific contexts and conditions and do have a nuanced objective, that is, to bring awareness of the disproportionate police violence and force faced by African-Americans, they have been re-framed as pseudo-racist slogans that are imbued only with the interest of black people in mind. This is insincere, cynical, and misanthropic Alt-right neo-Nazi discourse tactic that aims to undermine and reject the existence of systemic racism and hate prevalent in our modern societies. In a world, where African-Americans are facing deadly and injurious disproportionate police brutalities, slogans like #AllLivesMatter are just unfaithful distractions and diversions. Of course, all human lives matter no matter race, gender, religion, economic status, and lifestyle. But under these historical conjunctures and socio-political circumstances that disproportionately devalue and endanger black peoples’ lives, I say, #BlackLivesMatter.

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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