Racial tensions have simmered in the background throughout America’s history, with protests like those currently taking place an example of the furnace finally bursting, as it has done periodically in the past. But when talking about America’s racial history, there is the risk of thinking about it in binaries; in a way that oversimplifies the reality.
Not a case of Black Vs White
Whether it is in defining the ‘sides’ of the racial tension (black vs white), or in the images we see of police facing off against protesters (the authorities vs the people), this narrative is not only inaccurate but hinders our understanding of police brutality and racial violence in America.
In describing the current protests that have swept across the United States, many talk of the exasperation of black Americans, the murder of George Floyd being the ‘final straw’; but the racism and violence in America should not be viewed as merely a case of cause and effect.
Even attempts to highlight the suffering endured by African Americans fall victim to the dichotomous interpretation of America’s racial history. For example, social media has been the virtual picket line of this current wave of protests, and the tone of the activism online is revealing. Posts talk about being ‘allies’ against racism; there are explanations for the need for the fight against racism to not be ‘black vs white’, but ‘everyone vs racists’; a viral video showed white neighbours kneeling and ‘apologising’ to their black neighbours for the racism they’ve endured; and even police officers have been filmed taking a knee alongside protesters.
Entertainment is not immune either. Shows and movies, often based on true stories, aim to depict the black experience in America in a hard-hitting and unpolished way. But in doing this, do they gloss over the caveats and nuances? Take Netflix’s ‘When They See Us’, based on the Central Park Five. Aside from the blinding injustice and glaring racism, the familiar motif of the oppressed fighting a losing battle against the powerful resonated with many — except Linda Fairstein, the real-life lead prosecutor who oversaw the wrongful conviction of the five suspects. Whilst she no doubt has her own reasons for objecting to the portrayal of her in the show, it raises an important point: is the depiction of America’s racial past too focussed on creating a narrative of the evil oppressor crushing the helpless black victim?
What is troubling about all of these gestures is that they again suggest that racism and the accompanying violence is a battle of two sides, and that progress is achieved by people on the wrong side switching over. The talk of ‘allies’ and enemies is too generic. The more complex reality must be acknowledged not just to be factually correct, but because the complexities themselves contributed to and exacerbated America’s violent and racist past.
Looking back is also important in order to ascertain where the disconnect between the past and present started to emerge. When did America’s racial past start to be viewed in such an ‘us vs them’ way? When we consider racism in America, nobody will be frowned upon for immediately thinking of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and, opposing, the KKK. If we wanted to attempt to show greater depth of knowledge, perhaps we would stretch to Malcolm X. This is in no way ‘wrong’. Theses are key figures, and there is a reason Martin Luther King Jr.’s words are being invoked not only now, but always. However, the selective nature of our memory means that we still see racism in America quite literally as black and white. Whilst I won’t outline, word for word, the racial history of America, I want to give some examples to try and explain not only how we arrived at this current cycle of police brutality followed by understandable outrage, but how the forgotten aspects of America’s racial history have also led us to this point.
Perhaps an unexpected and seemingly unrelated starting point, but something I believe is overlooked and under- researched is the role of black slaves in the abolition movement. But even more than this, the (attempt at) cooperation between blacks and whites in the abolition movement.
Abolition of slavery by no means meant the end of black people’s suffering in America. But, it was a key step, and even in the fight for emancipation, the first signs of the unequal power dynamics between black and white are apparent. When looking into the contribution of black slaves to the abolition movement, it is telling that many books can’t, or don’t, name the people of colour involved. The intellectual side of the abolition movement — the magazines, societies and journals — were also the ‘white’ side. But were they?
Firstly, let us us acknowledge this perhaps obvious, but nonetheless overlooked fact. White people were involved in helping campaign for black emancipation. In fact, they were in some ways leading the way. The complication comes from the fact that the contribution of white activists overshadows the crucial role of black activists and even former slaves. The historian, Herbert Aptheker, divides the white abolitionists into two groups; the ‘chauvinistic writers’ who see abolitionists as ‘fanatics’, and the proponents from a more ‘liberal, humanitarian angle’ who see abolitionists as ‘admirable’. But, Aptheker still declares that both groups fail to appreciate fully the role of black people in freeing themselves.
How is this relevant? Well, just from this small snippet emerges the complication in the relationship between whites and blacks who do cooperate in the battle for freedom. The core purpose is lost, or diluted, as it gets caught up in the white psychodrama and the intellectual debates and disagreements that blacks cannot afford to indulge in. However, that’s not to say that the thinking was left to the white activists. Whilst white participants argued over semantics, black abolitionists took a pragmatic approach, looking beyond the country’s borders, and to international opinion as a vehicle for change. In fact, black participants were engaging in anti-slavery activities long before the intellectual bubbles were set up by white activists.
Harriet Tubman was a key black abolitionist, rescuing slaves using the Underground Railroad. Yet some, like Aptheker, argue that she and other black activists are overlooked in favour of more ‘obscure’ white abolitionists. How does this all relate to America’s racial past on a macrocosmic scale, and what are the similarities between this period of America’s history and today? As I said at the start, the ‘us vs them’ mentality when evaluating today’s protests, as well as America’s relationship with racism in general, is problematic. The cooperation in the abolitionist movement dispels the idea of clear-cut sides, and puts to rest the idea that black and white people were and are two separate monoliths, making the present shows of unity between white and black protestors less profound.
I’m somewhat surprised it has to be stated, but there has always been white support for black people’s causes. However, the caveat is that this support has had the tendency, and still does, of taking centre stage, pushing the black fight for freedom to the periphery.
Just look at the shape and substance of the protests taking place across America right now. A distinctive feature of them is not just how widespread they are (many compare them to the 1960’s race riots), but also (maybe as a result of their geographical reach) the multicultural make-up of the protesters. Many are, perhaps prematurely, declaring this wave of protests as a defining moment in history. But, just as the shiny front of white support drowned out black activists in the abolition movement, the show of solidarity today is blurring the fact that unarmed Louisville resident David McAtee was shot dead by law enforcement at one of the current protests; or that 22-year-old James Scurlock was shot by a white bar owner in Omaha — the bar owner will not be charged as it was apparently ‘self-defence’.
Perhaps it is ironic that just as black activists were overlooked in the abolition movement, black protestors today are being advised to wear non-identifiable clothing and cover their faces, whilst those sharing footage of protests online are encouraged to protect the identities of black protestors in particular. Whilst the motives may be different, there are parallels between the two periods — throughout their struggle, black people have been active, but invisible.
George Floyd and police brutality
Whether it is ironic, or tragic, or expected, that during protests for freedom black people continue to be oppressed and brutalised, let’s not forget the ‘trigger’ for this current unrest: the murder of George Floyd. People across the globe are united in their condemnation of this act of police brutality; a term that is now engrained in the consciousness of many Americans. But again, I would advocate a nuanced approach to the issue of police violence, and the position of the police in general. In this issue too, the red herring that is a dual perspective, causes distortions in reality. The first thing to establish is that of course every police officer in America is not a racist. Not every police officer is so violent and callous in their civic duty, but equally, the tragedy of George Floyd’s death is not just a case of a ‘few bad apples’. It is systemic, and historical, and a symptom of the foundations America was built on.
Whilst Black Americans have faced injustices in every aspect of their lives throughout history, it is arguable always the unfairness in relation to law enforcement and the judicial system that has caused the most resentment and anger. Whilst the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed black people from slavery, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended segregation, the justice system has always been an enduring and all-encompassing weapon of oppression. From the greatly increased chance of being stopped by police, to the disproportionate amount of black people incarcerated, law enforcement is a constant threat hanging over black Americans. But how did it arrive at the point of suffocating an unarmed man for nine minutes?
Immediately, and understandably, thoughts turn to the Jim Crow Laws, another sign that black citizens were free in name only. In some sense, the Jim Crow laws — a separate set of laws for black people — established the double standard in policing that has existed up until now. Those who broke these laws were subjected to appalling violence at the hands of the police. Crucially, there was no accountability. Law enforcement personnel could murder and assault with impunity.
Arguably, the violence goes back even further than this. It runs all the way back to the days of so-called ‘slave patrols’ — it’s as appalling as it sounds. Even before police forces were established, these groups of white citizens resembling vigilantes were given the power to enforce the rules surrounding slavery, with the ability to cripple slave uprisings and punish slaves as they saw fit. When police forces were eventually formed, they were white, and male.
It would be reasonable to suggest that there was some continuity between the slave patrols and the early police forces, not just in terms of the individuals serving in both, but the mentality, which was to crush disorder and upheaval, rather than uphold the law. This is a crucial distinction. We see the police as serving the purpose of maintaining law and order. But from their conception, the function of American police forces was to uphold order more than the law, and black people were much more likely to be associated with disorder. This is unsurprising, as black people were for a long time (officially) subservient to their white masters, so of course any show of disobedience was seen as chaotic and put down in the strongest possible way.
This mentality is imprinted on the psyche of police and law enforcement across the country. But more importantly, it is also an institutional attitude than an individual flaw in thinking — hence why footage of police kneeling or standing with protesters is not so shocking. Police are individuals with their own principles, and whilst there is definitely overlap between their personal beliefs and their actions, it is the collective body that is problematic and the mindset that comes with the uniform.
So, as well as the obvious racial discrimination embedded in the fabric of America’s national identity, the brutality of the police towards black people is also a unique issue related to the history of law and order in the US. The 2014 Ferguson protests are evidence of the indignation that is stirred, not just because of police brutality, but also the lack of accountability (a jury did not indict the police officer responsible for shooting Michael Brown). Just as the slave patrols were free to do as they pleased, the free will of the police is enduring, and the result of police actions going unchecked for centuries is, unfortunately, the murder of George Floyd.
America’s proud self-proclaimed title as ‘land of the free’ has a fatal flaw — it doesn’t acknowledge that unfettered freedom inevitably leads to infringements on the freedoms of others. With the police, this freedom extends even further when coupled with the power they hold. Combined with the country’s deep-rooted racism, it’s sadly not surprising that black Americans lose out.