As we try to come to terms with the harrowing image of George Floyd’s inhuman murder, it is time to understand where racism in the West comes from, and where it is headed with a 21st Century movement for justice founded by black women like Black Lives Matter.
A history of inhuman justifications
In the 17th Century, British colonizers had passed laws excluding blacks (then referred to as ‘Negroes’) from normal protections given by the government to other citizens.
On the fourth of July 1776, white America gained freedom, black America was still its slave. Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the famous ‘All men are created equal’ proclamation, and his co-founding fathers George Washington and Abraham Clarke were all slave-holders.
Even after slavery ended, other forms of discrimination such segregation, denial of voting rights, and racist killings persisted, which led to the Civil Rights movement in the 1900s. A lot of violent and non-violent protests from the 1940s resulted in subsequent laws which assured black Americans equal voting rights, employment opportunities, housing opportunities, etc.
The law isn’t racist but its upholders are
Discrimination is always institutionally powered, and Goerge Floyd’s death is just a reminder. Police brutality began as early as the 1700s, when slave states had ‘slave patrols’ to check slave revolts and escapes.They were in force until slavery was outlawed in 1863. They evolved into police departments which were tasked with controlling the newly freed black slaves. Today, black people make up just 13% of the USA's population, but are 2.5 times as likely as whites to get killed by the police.
As poet Rudy Francisco said in a 2015 poem, “Being black in America is realizing that there’s a thin line between a traffic stop and a cemetery.” Between 2013 (the birth of the Black Lives Matter Movement) and 2019, around 42 per million black people were killed in police shootings, which was higher than any other race. Even beyond racial incidents, the police enjoy an unreasonable amount of immunity in the USA. Between 2013 and 2019, 99% of police killings resulted in no charges.
From I Have A Dream To Black Lives Matter
50 years after Martin Luther King’s inspirational speech, three black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi started the Black Lives Matter movement. It was triggered by the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had killed unarmed 17-year old black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida under the pretext of self-defence. However, in principle, it is about a lot more. It is about finding a seat at the table for black people.
In the past 7 years, the movement has seen a lot of upheavals. Firstly, the reign of Angela Corey, Florida state attorney who failed to convict Zimmerman, ended. It also helped in leading the University of Missouri president Timothy Wolfe to resign over his failure to curb racism on campus. The roots of the radical Democratic call for abolition of the infamous Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are also in the BLM’s protests in support of black immigrants. Apart from such local victories, they have gathered a coalition of over 50 racial justice organisations amongst themselves and have multiple decentralized chapters all over the country.
In 2020, amidst what are the biggest protests since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the guilty police officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with murder, while the onlooking policemen were charged with aiding and abetting it with a swiftness that hasn’t been seen in similar cases before. Whether Chauvin will be convicted is to be seen.
Every Movement Has Its Enemies
Like any other movement, BLM has also had internal as well as external conflicts. The one major internal conflict is its lack of representative leadership. It’s a movement that has prided itself on having no ultimate leader. However, the challenges within the community and the movement itself call for a uniting voice. Most of these challenges stem from one ideological divide. A good part of the members want to abstain from working within the systems of policy reform, electoral politics, and law enforcement. Then there is the other part which wants to actively engage with leaders and officials to make things happen. The former doesn’t just want to stop at police reforms, but also wants to fight for oppression and killing of black transpeople and black queers. Alicia Garza, herself queer, has remarked that progressive unity cannot be pushed for at the cost of understanding differences in experiences of oppression.This kind of radically and truly inclusive reform doesn’t seem to be on any party’s mind at the moment.
Then, of course, there are the external enemies. And I am not just talking about the racist government or president. A 2017 study showed that 87% of black Americans felt black people face a lot of discrimination. Only 49% of white Americans felt the same. A lot of these are ‘All Lives Matter’ criers, classic White victimhood proponents. They are the racial equivalents of ‘Not All Men’ opposers of the feminist movement. They have lost the very point of the movement, which is to uplift a neglected class in order to achieve true equality, and that the other class is already up there so unnecessarily upvoting them only pushes the discriminated further down.
What matters today
Today, the founders of the BLM movement want a defunding of the police system, or a reduction in spending on law enforcement along with diversion of funds to public service, healthcare, and other necessary avenues. They are in support of protestors coming out during a pandemic which is disproportionately affecting black Americans more than the Whites, while the exhaustive history of unchecked oppression and violence makes it gut-wrenching to think of opposing their call.
The fact that #AllLivesMatter is almost as popular as #BlackLivesMatter today shows that change at the social mindset level is still yet to be seen. Defunding or not, there is definitely a need for sensitization of White people who claim to be colour-blind and have accepted internalised racism as a way of life. Perhaps the problem is that BLM has only been known to erupt on occasions of police brutality. Perhaps, its more radical side needs to be unleashed, albeit in a more systematic manner that lays solutions on the table for policymakers. Because unfortunately, they are not going to make the policies that black America needs on their own.
Snehal is Columnist at GGI.
She is a writer, poet, music aficionado, Oxford comma proponent, and a lot of other things. She also writes on personal finance for 'Qrius Creative Labs'. She has worked as a copywriter, content writer, scriptwriter, creative strategist, and direction assistant at multiple organisations in the past.
Snehal is a graduate from the Bachelor in Mass Media, Advertising from St.Xavier's College, Bombay.