Black lives matter

Black lives matter

Black lives matter

When I visited New York in 1970 to cover the visit of the then Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi to the United Nations, I saw only a few black women in offices. There is a welcome change today as black men and women are seen in several walks of life. There is an inspiring theme written in many churches: black lives matter.

In keeping with this awareness, the Obama Administration has decided to bring out new dollar bills in the $5, $10 and $20 denominations. Explaining the decision, President Barack Obama said:

“The time has come where we pay homage to those who have fought for African Americans’ rights. What better way than to place them on American currency? The sole thing that most people want; so that whenever you are purchasing something with those bills, you can remember those who fought to make it possible for you to obtain the freedom and money you possess.”

The $20 dollar bill will show the face of Harriet Tubman, a great abolitionist, replacing that of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States. Tubman was a woman born in 1820 into slavery,but escaped and became a leading liberator of hundreds of slaves in the years leading up to the Civil War. She was recently selected by popular vote. The reverse of the note will show the White House and Jackson.

Tubman will be the first African-American to grace the front of a paper note. The person she replaces, Jackson, was actually the owner of hundreds of slaves, though a sanitised version of his past was put out! The new dollar bill will be a fitting celebration of the 100-year anniversary in 2020 of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in America. The final designs will be revealed in 2020 and the new bills will go into circulation later. This is the most significant overhaul of the American currency.

While Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton (who played a key role in the country’s banking system) will continue tograce the front of the $5 and $10 notes, respectively, the reverse will feature women and civil rights leaders. For example, the $5 bill will showcase historical moments in the Lincoln Memorial like Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech” in 1963. The $10 bill will show the leaders of the suffragette march of 1913.

The new symbolic recognition of the blacks comes in the wake of a rather disturbing report that today more African-American men are in jail than the total prison population in India and several countries. Though 1.4 million black youths are enrolled in higher educational institutions today, 7,45,000 are behind bars, not counting those on parole and probation. President Obama is naturally concerned. He said recently, “We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America.”

Talking of universities, I visited the University of Chicago’s famous Urbana-Champaign, home to more than 10,000 students from all over the world. There is unwritten discipline everywhere in observing traffic lanes and signs and no-litter habits. I found hardly anybody smoking. Only the young students in their bikes were a bit fast in their lanes! Happy faces and burst of laughter marked the serene atmosphere.

American universities are leading in innovation. Research in higher institutions like Harvard is well funded. The other day I read that an anonymous donor had given over a million dollars to the Business School of the University of Chicago. At lower levels, there is a problem of funding research and college education is still expensive even with loans.

The students do discuss politics and the ideas of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump, but the younger generation does not get eclipsed by politics. There is more light than heat in the discussions. Nor do they overuse cell phones or iPads. Indians do count and their leaders are quick to correct any negative remarks. Indian contributions to the intellectual life of America are acknowledged and encouraged by educational institutions and private R&D centres.

I wondered what explains the country’s place at the frontiers of science in many areas. Basically it is not even money though that is important butthe freedom to make mistakes and choose roads not travelled. Even the most ridiculous idea by today’s standards is not laughed at. That I think explains why it is possible to think out-of-the-box and hit new ideas that matter. For example, the latest gene-editing technology, which is emerging as the next revolution in biology, started with the work of two groups of researchers including one led by a young man of Chinese origin, but now practised in 3000 labs across the country. The technology, which makes it easier to edit the genome, has already drawn billions of dollars by way of venture capital, as its potential benefits are expected to be enormous in terms of better health and cures for some of the diseases, more crop yields, control of mosquitoes, etc. The Chinese experiment of the technique with human embryos has triggered a wave of concern calling for caution.

As one walks along the campuses and malls, one is struck by the proliferation of goods from China in almost all fields. The Chinese products are good and reasonably priced. What is remarkable is the passion for perfection that is evident in the exact measurements suited to the clients, be it in shoes or electronic components. Steve Jobs recognised this asset and chose the Chinese to make hundreds of components for his Apple products including its container. China has the world’s largest Internet users in the world - some 688 million as of December 2015. Microsoft has decided to set up its second R&D research centre outside the United States in Beijing. The new generation of computers will enable users to see, listen, speak and learn.

The Chinese are good at learning. For instance, they have just done a successful test run of their driverless car across the country covering 2,000 km, which included maintaining correct speed, adherence to traffic signals and proper routing.<\p>

Chinese goods find their way to a growing middle class in the United States. According to Pew Research Centre, the percentage of families earning middle-class incomes fell in nearly nine out of ten major metro areas across the United States between 2000 and 2014. The study defines middle-class households as those making between $4,200 to 125, 000 a year for a family of three in 2014. The decline in 100 metro areas (except New York, New Jersey and Newark) was more than four percentage points. In other words, there has been a steady increase in the income levels of the middle class, which would sustain a demand-driven consumer base for years to come. The Chinese have an assured market!

I wish I could say the same thing about the black population, who do play a role in sustaining the growth of the economy. It is quite encouraging to see their wonderful contributions to music and other cultural wealth of America. It is hoped that by the time the new dollar bills are in circulation, America would see a more inclusive economic liberation.

By Mohan Sundara Rajan

Edition: 15 June, 2016 - 14 July, 2016

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