“African slavery lacked two elements that made American slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred, with that relentless clarity based on colour, where white was master, black was slave.” Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States.
This week race has yet again dominated American politics and society. Over 150 years after the civil war and the end of slavery, 56 years after the passing of Civil Rights legislation, racial conflict and hatred remains an ugly scar on the country.
On 25 May 2020 George Floyd was murdered in custody by the Minneapolis Police. The cause of death was four police officers restraining Floyd for eight minutes and forty six seconds, kneeling on him to restrain him and eventually suffocating him to death. Floyd’s last words to the police restraining him were “I can’t breathe“, which has now become the rallying cry for protest movements throughout the world.
From 2013 to present US police have killed 7,666 people. Despite making up only 13% of the US population, black people are two and a half times more likely than white Americans to be killed by the police. This map published by Aljazeera shows the states where Black people are most disproportionately killed by police in the United States.
The Black Lives Matter campaign was founded after the 2013 death of Trayvon Martin in police custody. Months later the officer responsible for Martin’s death was acquitted, as so often is the case with black deaths in custody in the US. Over the last 6 years this campaign has done much to highlight police killing of black people in the US, and has fought for those officers responsible to be brought to justice. This movement has continued to grow and raise awareness of this serious issue.
Large scale protests against black deaths in custody and more broadly against the way black people are treated by law enforcement in the US have been happening for years. In 1992 the city of Los Angeles erupted into riots after officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King were acquitted. During these riots the US Marines were sent into LA to try and restore law and order.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, large protests have turned out both in the US and throughout the world to condemn the Murder of George Floyd and the racism that fuelled this act of hate. Many of these protests have turned violent resulted in mass arrests and destruction of property, including police precincts. This violence has been condemned, and many have bemoaned the fact that people haven’t engaged in peaceful protesting. The below meme highlights why things have in fact turned violent:
President Trump has taken a strong stance against protesters. In a tweet in response to the protest Trump quoted 1960’s Miami Police Chief Walter E. Headley who in response to the civil rights movement said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Twitter placed a warning on Trump’s Tweet claiming it was hate speech, to which Trump has hit back saying his free speech has been stifled.
Trump has threatened to use the military to stop riots throughout the US. This week Trump used tear gas, rubber bullets and flash bangs to move protesters in Washington DC. Having cleared the protesters out of the way, he posed outside a church in DC holding a bible while talking to media. This act has been widely condemned by Christians and other faith leaders as opportunistic and disrespectful.
Trump has been consistently appalling on race relations. When running for President in 2016 he refused to condemn the Klu Klux Klan whose leaders had endorsed him for president. In August 2017, President Trump infamously said there was “fault on both sides” in Charlottesville when a woman was killed protesting against white supremacists. It would be easy to turn the heat on Trump, and he has certainly fanned the flames of racial division as President. But this problem goes much deeper.
Since European settlement of the Americas, racial violence and white supremacy has been a common feature. From the clearing of indigenous people of their lands, to taking African slaves to America to work the fields for white farmers, The United States has been built on the idea that White Europeans are superior and that their lives matter more. The civil war may have ended slavery, the civil rights movement may have changed the legal framework ending segregation in Southern States, but the idea that White people’s lives matter more has survived into the 21st century.
The United States claims to be a democracy. In a democracy, all citizens who pay taxes should be given the right to vote. Yet despite this in recent years there has been a trend of voter suppression in the US, and this has been targeted at America’s African American Community. One state that is now moving towards greater voter suppression, is the state of Minnesota in which the city of Minneapolis is situated. This is another example of how black people, and in particular working class black people are not given the same rights as white people in the United States. When black peoples voices are silenced in the democratic system, inevitably white privilege and white supremacy will go unchecked within the justice system.
Racism is not inevitable, and people are not born to hate others due to their skin colour or ethnic origin. White supremacy is a disease that has infected the United States since European colonisation of the region since the 15th century. It is a disease that sadly is not isolated to the United States, but has taken a particularly strong hold since Spanish and later British colonisation of the continent. Columnist for The Guardian Afua Hirsch has this week written an insightful article on the origins of this racist thinking which is well worth reading. The mistaken and dangerous idea that certain people are more intelligent or superior based on their racial origins has been long since dis-proven, yet this thinking persists. When a country has in the very bedrock of its foundations the ingrained idea of white supremacy, change has proved to be slow and difficult. But it doesn’t need to be.
One crucial way of challenging racism, both in the US and throughout the world, is to listen to the voices of those who have suffered at the hands of racism. We need to listen to the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and understand the systematic racial prejudice that exists within the US police and justice systems. We also need to listen to those who have experienced racism, prejudice or have suffered from the actions or in-actions of those who are ignorant to how white privileged works. And finally, we need to stand with those whose voices and votes are being suppressed by white supremacists within the US political system. Black lives matter and we need to stand with those who are fighting for this. We all will be better off when the scourge of racial violence and institutional white supremacy is gone forever.