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Gary Younge
Don't take the blue pill

As the trial of 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen begins today, the US will have to decide which pill it wants to swallow. Killen is charged with murdering three young civil rights workers - James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner - more than 40 years ago in the small town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. He will be tried by his peers but judged by history. He will be one of a slew of ageing white men that has been paraded down history's perp walk of shame - complete with orange jumpsuits and handcuffs - in recent times. Since 1989, 23 murders have been re-examined in the south resulting in 27 arrests, 21 convictions, two acquittals and one mistrial, according to Mark Potok of the Intelligence Project, a branch of the Southern Poverty Law Centre based in Montgomery, Alabama.

Take the blue pill and the story ends with the cases of these men and the vile acts of which they are accused. The ramifications of their guilt or innocence do not resonate beyond their own borders. Act as if the past has no legacy and the present has no consequences, and you really can believe whatever you want to believe. Take the red pill and you are forced to recognise that now is not its own abstract point in time - it is shaped by what has gone before, and will shape what comes after. The rabbit hole of America's racist history goes deep. Follow it far enough and it will take you from death row all the way to the voting booths of Florida.

The trials should, of course, be welcomed on their own terms. Beyond the importance to the families of those who died and the communities in which the murders took place, they have a broader symbolic significance. They show that the struggle for justice, while long and arduous, can bear fruit in the most barren soil. They also show that these young men, along with the scores of others who perished for the same cause, did not die in vain.

But while symbols are important, they should not be mistaken for substance. These crimes were rarely systematic - the individuals who carried them out and the manner in which they carried them out were far too crude for that. But they were systemic. They were born from a system of segregation that worked to preserve white privilege in the face of a concerted, progressive onslaught - a system in which the white community had to collude in order for it to function.

While the scale and nature of those privileges may have changed, the privileges themselves still exist. The work of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner is not yet done. In a state where African-Americans comprise 36% of the population, they make up 75% of prisoners. In a state that is already poor, black people are poorer still. According to the census, Mississippi has the fourth-lowest median income in the US; the per capita income of black Mississippians is 51% that of their white counterparts.

However, some people would like to use these trials to draw a line under the past and move on, shifting the burden of racist history from the institutional to the individual and travelling light, without the baggage of its legacy. So long as the likes of Killen are held up as the poster boys of this time and place, they will succeed - distorting our understanding of what happened then and also what is happening now.

"Race is not an issue now for younger people," says Jim Prince, the editor of the Neshoba Democrat. "Today, if you're willing to work hard and be honest then you're able to succeed. There is equal opportunity in Philadelphia." If Prince is right, then the poverty, low levels of educational achievement, unemployment and high prison rates among blacks, not just in Philadelphia but elsewhere in the state and the country, can only be explained by black people's genetic inability or inherent unwillingness to seize those opportunities.

Such selective amnesia is not confined to the south or to segregation. The war on terror is being fought with convenient disregard for the fact that the terrorists the US is fighting today it armed only yesterday, and that among its allies today are vicious dictators that it will undoubtedly attack tomorrow. Nor is it confined to the US. The whole debate around debt relief in the UK takes place as though Britain had no responsibility for the state that Africa is in today. Those who lambast Africa for its rampant corruption and poor governance forget that most of these dictators have been knowingly propped up by the west. They lecture Africa on the need for democracy apparently unaware that the continent only got a shot at democracy once Europeans left.

Those who deride Make Poverty History and other activists for their naivety in trying to challenge inequalities bequeathed from the past are in need of a new slogan for a new wristband: Make History Impoverished. For the trouble is not that this sense of collective historical identity does not exist - Britons and Americans have no trouble saying "We beat the Germans and the Japanese" when referring to the second world war. It's that they apply it only selectively. Nobody says, "We backed death squads", "We lynched children", or "We tortured Kenyans" - even though these happened more recently.

The target here is not individual guilt - there are therapists for that - but a collective reckoning with the past that would help make sense of the present. Like everyone else, African-Americans, Africans and Arabs must naturally take responsibility for their own actions. But to pretend that their choices are not shaped and limited by the past is not just dishonest; it leads ineluctably to the racist conclusion that Arabs can't handle democracy, black Americans are inveterate criminals and Africans just can't cut it in the modern world.

"I am born with a past," writes Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue. "And to try to cut myself off from that past is to deform my present relationships."

Which brings us back to the courthouse in Philadelphia, Mississippi. For even as trials such as this seek to cure one symptom of racist infection, the virus mutates into an even more hardy strain. Killen may end up behind bars, but the logic and the system that produced him and made him infamous stills remain free. The blue pill may be sugar-coated, making it easier to swallow. But boy, can it make you sick.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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