By Prof Paul Tiyambe Zeleza
The public execution of George Floyd, with its casual performance of suffocating and snuffing life out of the black body became a frightful spectral presence on the minds of tens of millions of people in the United States and around the world. It captured with terrifying clarity the utter depravity and degradation of a black life that validated the humanistic and historic demands of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The spontaneous demonstrations that erupted across every state and hundreds of cities and towns in the United States, including some with small black populations and even among those infamous for harbouring white supremacy movements and militias, quickly turned into the nation’s largest and most widespread protest movement against systemic racism since the 1960s, and some claim in American history. It brought both the country and the Trump shambolic presidency to an inflection point.
The uprising over Floyd’s murder derived its fiery multiracial and multigenerational rage from the coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately devastated the lives and livelihoods of black and poor people. It tapped into the surplus time and energies of people seeking release from the isolating suffocations of anti-Covid-19 lockdowns. It also benefited from the inept and provocative responses of racist politicians and police forces. Further, it was catalysed by the persistent struggles of long-standing activists and social movements.
However, revolutionary moments generate complex and contradictory futures in which progress is often checkmated by reversals, underscoring the fact that history is a dialectical process. The racist backlash against Obama that led to Trump’s election seems to have succeeded in creating an anti-racist backlash. The Floyd moment in which the Black Lives Matter movement is gaining traction in the US and around the world will not be an exception. Progress will be made in chipping away at some of the practices, symbols, and performances of anti-black racism, but the fundamental structures of white supremacy are likely to survive and mutate.
In the Shadows of 1968
The American uprising of 2020 shares some parallels and connections to the uprising of 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King. The script of 1968 remains, notwithstanding some progress, in so far as the protests sprang from the deep well of institutionalized racism, economic inequality, social despair, political disenfranchisement, and the dehumanizing terrors of police brutality and constant denigration of blackness in the national imaginary.
The road to 2020 was paved with the legacies of 1968. As Peniel Joseph, a renowned African American historian writes in The Washington Post, “The flames that engulfed large portions of America during the 1960s helped to extinguish the promise of the Great Society by turning the War on Poverty into a dehumanizing war against poor black communities. America has, in the ensuing five decades, deployed state of the art technology to criminalize, surveil, arrest, incarcerate, segregate and punish black communities. Floyd’s death represents the culmination of these political and policy decisions to choose punishment over empathy, to fund prisons over education and housing and to promote fear of black bodies over racial justice.”
The America of King’s dream of racial equality and social justice not only remained deferred, but was actively sabotaged by the courts, politicians, and business. The landmark legislative achievements of the civil rights movements, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 wilted as the prison industrial complex, deepening socioeconomic inequalities, and social despair among the poor both black and white exploded.
Since 1968, there have been periodic eruptions of protests, most memorably the 1992 Los Angeles uprising following the acquittal of four police officers charged with the widely publicized beating of Rodney King, and the 2014 uprising that began after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a police officer. After each uprising, police, judicial and other reforms were announced, but they largely gathered dust as the protests faded into memory until the next eruption elsewhere.
Only history will tell if the 2020 uprising is different, a transformative watershed in the long history of protests against systemic racism and police brutality. Some are doubtful, others more hopeful.
Those who doubt that the Floyd protests represent an inflection point worry about the challenges of sustaining the momentum of protest, dynamic grassroots organizing and cohesive leadership and unity around a clear set of goals, as well as the powers of state suppression and repression in the reactionary name of ‘law and order.’ Further, hyper partisanship is more glaring today than ever facilitated by political polarization and media fragmentation that make reconciliation difficult.
Those who are more hopeful about the positive impact of the uprising point to the nationwide scale of the protests, the ubiquity of video images of police brutality, and the fact that the protests are occurring in the face of a pandemic and mass unemployment that have disproportionately ravaged people of colour. Moreover, the presence of an outrageously racist, divisive and authoritarian-minded president has increasingly alienated moderate whites.
Many believe the expansive geography of the protests portends its historical significance. In the 1960s, “most protests were held in major cities and on college campuses — and most Americans saw them on the television news.” The 2020 uprising is different. “National media focuses on the big demonstrations and protest policing in major cities, but they have not picked up on a different phenomenon that may have major long-term consequences for politics. Protests over racism and #BlackLivesMatter are spreading across the country — including in small towns with deeply conservative politics.” Altogether, according to some counts, the Floyd protests occurred in 1,280 places.
If current polls are to be believed as harbingers of the future possibilities for transformation, according to The New York Times “support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years, according to data from Civiqs, an online survey research firm. By a 28-point margin, Civiqs finds that a majority of American voters support the movement, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.”
However, given the history of the United States, doubts remain whether this moment represents a defining turning point. The road towards racial equality and justice will continue to be bumpy because what is at stake is the entire system of racial capitalism that reproduces white supremacy, not just its manifestations evident in heinous practices such as police brutality.
What is certain is that the terrain of American race relations is shifting. Floyd’s death has spearheaded the country’s largest and broadest anti-racist movement and made Black Lives Matter an acceptable slogan not the dreaded and derided radical idea it once was. Behind the movement’s new found traction lies six long years of tireless work by its activists.
In the trails of Slavery
The modern world was created by the triangular slave trade between Africa, Europe, and the Americas. These continents have been linked ever since by the historical geographies and political economies of exploitation and struggle. The US uprising inspired worldwide protests. This reflected the ubiquity of both America as a superpower with an outsize presence in the global imagination and almost universal anti-black racism born out of the Atlantic slave trade that created the modern world.
The protests tapped into growing recognition in many western countries that racism is a problem. According to The Economist, “The share of Americans who see racial discrimination in their country as a big problem has risen from 51% in January 2015 to 76% now. A YouGov poll last week found that 52% of Britons think British society is fairly or very racist, a big rise from similar polls in the past. In 2018, 77% of the French thought France needed to fight racism, up from 59% in 2002. Pew Research found last year that in most countries healthy majorities welcome racial diversity.”
The unprecedented scale of the protests in the US provoked confrontations between the obdurate and callous Trump administration and city mayors and state governors around the country. It produced iconic moments and images. Most graphically, in an act of political pornography and vandalism, there was the picture of Trump awkwardly holding a bible in front of a church after the National Guard using teargas and rubber bullets had forcibly cleared peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Square. The mayor of Washington responded by painting and ceremonially naming two blocks of the street to the White House Black Lives Matter Plaza. The newly extended perimeter from the White House was turned into an exuberant makeshift exhibition of resistance art, posters, and graffiti.
Trump’s overreaction triggered a powerful backlash. Widely condemned for accompanying the president to his ill-fated photo-op, the Defence Secretary and Chief of Staff apologized. Several former military leaders expressed disgust and alarm. John Allen, former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, warned: “The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.”
Other retired military leaders sought to depoliticize their beloved Pentagon from the clutches of the aspiring draft-dodging autocrat. They included John Mattis who served as Trump’s own Defence Secretary, and Colin Powell a former Chief of Staff and Secretary of State, who accused Trump of unprecedented divisiveness. The Pentagon promised to review the conduct of the National Guard against the protests. Former presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama expressed their misgivings, and some Republican politicians nervously tried to distance themselves from a president who increasingly looked like a deranged dictator in the mould of the despots he clearly admires and envies.
Before long, anti-racist struggles and protests spread to countries with their own troubled histories of anti-black racism, from Canada to Brazil in the Americas, the former colonial powers of Europe, and the outposts of European settler colonialism in Australasia. Electrifying images were beamed on television stations and social media around the world. A sample can be seen in The Atlantic’s “Images from a Worldwide Protest Movement.”
In each country and city where the Floyd protests took place parallels were drawn with local histories of anti-black racism, social injustice, exclusion and marginalization. The demonstrations and marches were organized by local groups of the Black Lives Matter movement, political and civil society activists, and local groups that had long fought against all forms of exclusion and discrimination. The protests often took place in front of US embassies, national parliaments, public squares, as well as in front of detested statues and monuments to slavery, imperialism and colonialism, and along major thoroughfares.
American diplomats found it galling for the US to be the target of human rights protests around the world as the specious cocoon of democratic exceptionalism spectacularly burst. The New York Times observed, “Diplomats Struggle to Defend Democracy Abroad Amid Crises at Home…. In private conversations and social media posts… [they] expressed outrage after the killing of George Floyd and President Trump’s push to send the military to quell demonstrations. Diplomats say that the violence has undercut their criticisms of foreign autocrats and called into question the moral authority the United States tries to project as it promotes democracy and demands civil liberties and freedoms across the world.”
The protests in the United States and around the world focused on a broadly similar range of targets. First, law enforcement agencies that uphold the system of racial capitalism that marginalizes and disempowers black people. Second, the symbols of white supremacy embodied in the public commemorations that honour the perpetrators of enslavement, colonization, and plunder. Third, private institutions, organizations, and corporations that tolerate and reproduce racial inequalities.
Ironically, it was in Africa where protests over Floyd’s death were relatively muted. To be sure, there were some demonstrations often involving dozens or hundreds of people in several countries such as Ghana (Accra), Kenya (Nairobi), Liberia (Monrovia), Nigeria (Abuja), Senegal (Dakar), South Africa (Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria), Tunisia (Tunis), and Uganda (Kampala). More extensive and powerful expressions of solidarity were vented in petitions by activists, intellectuals, and artists (I participated in one called “We Cannot Remain Silent”), and especially on social media according to Nana Osei-Opare writing in The Washington Times. This intriguing phenomenon reflects three complex factors.
First, in spite of Pan-Africanist rhetoric among African leaders and intellectuals it reflects an enduring disconnect between Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. It is borne out of limited engagements that ordinarily would emanate through the educational system and other forms of positive mutual exposure. Instead, there is an overexposure to negative stereotypes in the media that often traffic Eurocentric constructs and tropes on both sides of the other’s ‘civilizational’ lack. More deeply, the unknowing of the diaspora, the wilful ignorance of its tribulations, elides Africa’s complicity in the very creation of the Atlantic diasporas through the slave trade.
Second, is the ambivalent postcolonial mindset rooted in the colonial denial of African humanity and historicity. It is a mis-cognition that simultaneously breeds resentment of the empire and craving of its prowess. This generates a strange desire to be embraced and absorbed into the empire’s imagined superiority and advancement enveloped in whiteness that the colonized strives for, but like Sisyphus is destined never to attain, thereby inducing a state of perpetual self-doubt and self-denial. This fosters both envy of the diaspora ensconced in the heart empire and blindness to its plight, a slippery disposition that engenders a deficit of sympathy and often slides into blaming the victim.
Third, there is what I would call the shortage of surplus political capital for solidarity, the dispositions to accommodate transnational diaspora struggles. Surplus capital can be externalized for better or ill as evident in the impetus for new imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Save for their elites, many African communities in their protean daily lives, now made infinitely worse by the coronavirus pandemic, are fettered by debilitating economic, political, and social conditions and perpetual struggles against often autocratic regimes or illiberal democracies whose law enforcement agencies have retained the deformities of colonial state violence and repression.
Reclaiming Public Memory
The monuments that have become the focus of public protests, accompanied by demands for more accurate, holistic and inclusive historical representations, are part of the struggles for liberating highly sanitized and racialized public spaces and memories. The protesters seek to insert African-descended peoples and their unwanted presence but invaluable contributions in the national and regional histories of EuroAmerica.
The removal and desecration of racist monuments offer a powerful rebuke against the brazen glorification of imperial and colonial conquests, exploitation, and oppression. These acts of iconographic liberation strike at the wilful production of ignorance and limited understanding about the unsavoury histories that made EuroAmerica, which are routinely reproduced through the educational system, popular histories, and films and television. They have been targeted for decades as offensive symbols and reminders of slavery and racial oppression.
The conversations forced by the assault on racist monuments provoke much-needed historical reckoning and accounting for the persistent racial inequalities, injustices, and hierarchies bequeathed by enslavement, colonialism, and empire. They help dismember contemporary constructions of belonging and citizenship, of who constitutes and can enjoy the rights of the social and political community of the nation-state in Europe and the settler societies of the Americas and Australasia.
In the US the removal of the statues and symbols of the renegade losers of the civil war who fought to retain slavery has intensified and reached the hallowed halls of Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged the removal of 11 statues representing Confederate leaders and soldiers, noting that the “statues pay homage to hate, not heritage.” The Pentagon announced its willingness to rename military bases associated with Confederate figures, a move that was endorsed by the Republican-controlled Senate despite Trump’s expressed opposition.
In Britain, protesters toppled the statues of slave traders including Edward Colston in Bristol, and Robert Milligan in London. City councils under the Labour Party led by the capital, London, announced their intention to set up commissions to review sculptures, buildings and street names associated with slavers, while Conservative councils came under increased pressure to do the same. Activists hoped the toppling of the public memorialization of the symbols of slavery and colonialism would force the country to confront the sordid historical injustices that had shaped it.
In Belgium the statue of King Leopold II of Belgium, the architect of one of the worst genocides of the 20th century that decimated 10 million people in the Congo, was removed in Antwerp. In Spain debate was rekindled for the removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona, which some councillors had voted for in 2016, for its glorification of the conquest of the Americas and for its replacement by a memorial of those who resisted imperialism and the oppression and segregation of the indigenous people and enslaved Africans and their descendants.
The removal of the statues of slave traders and imperialists in Europe is a homage to the unfinished project of decolonization that began after World War II. The struggle over historical memory, constructions, and emblems is about the legacies of the past that disfigure the present and threaten to burden the future if reckoning and resolution continue to be postponed. The refusal to deal with the past and its stifling shadows on contemporary society is infantile and an ingrained part of the repertoire of anti-black racism in the Americas, Europe, and elsewhere. Removing statues is of course a symbolic act, but symbols matter. As Eusebius McKaiser reminds us, “We know from South Africa that toppling statues is no silver bullet – but it’s a start.”
Thus, at stake in the political and discursive struggles over the statues is collective public denial or willingness to reckon honestly with the complicated and messy histories and persistent legacies of slavery and empire, to dismantle false national mythologies and self-righteous delusions that breed shameless hypocrisies and perpetuate human rights abuses. Many of the contested statues were created decades or even centuries after the individuals or events their creators sought to glorify (in the US the Confederate monuments were created as part of the revisionist romanticization of the ‘Lost Cause’). This underscores the fact that they were built to augment the arsenal of selective political constructs in the ignominious service of white supremacy.
The struggles to reclaim public spaces and historical memory from the accretion of generations of racist practices and ideologies is leading powerful institutions and individuals to embrace performative anti-racist activism that does not cost them much but serves to burnish their brands. The growing traction of the Black Lives Matter movement in public opinion has raised the opportunity costs of casual anti-black racism as a majority of Americans have increasingly come to believe that racism is a problem in the US.
This moment has ironically been facilitated by Trump’s presidency, which is characterized by unabashed racism, dizzying incompetence, authoritarian impulses, and perpetual chaos. Trump has succeeded in accelerating the erosion of conservatism he was elected to protect from the country’s changing demographics and liberal drift. Thus, the Trump administration, which emerged out of a racist backlash against the Obama presidency, has helped both to reinforce and upend systemic racism and white supremacy.
Trump simultaneously brought racism out of the post-civil rights closet and made racism increasingly embarrassing to so-called middle America of moderate whites and unacceptable to younger white Americans more exposed to multiracial experiences and expectations, not least because of the symbolic possibilities of the Obama presidency notwithstanding all its limitations. The national uprising has been remarkably multiracial, far more than the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. It has been dominated by young people as revolutionary moments and moments tend to be.
A poll published on 9 June, 2020 found that “nearly two-thirds of Americans, including 57% of whites, are ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ concerned about systemic racism.” It is this shift in public opinion that makes performative support for anti-racism more imperative for more constituencies and actors in the public and private sphere from corporations to the media, sports and academe. The New York Times puts it pithily, “From Cosmetics to NASCAR, Calls for Racial Justice Are Spreading. What started as a renewed push for police reform has now touched seemingly every aspect of American life.”
Racist behaviours and statements that would previously have been ignored increasingly threatened the careers and social standing of their perpetrators as the opprobrium for anti-black racism rose. It became a season of apologies from media personalities, sports figures, university professors, publishers, and film directors for offensive statements they made in the past or following Floyd’s horrific killing.
Public imagination was especially captured by the apologies and affirmations of Black Lives Matter by sports figures. The NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated, “We the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people.” He went on to stress, “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.” Confronted by criticism that he did not mention Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who popularized kneeling during the national anthem as a form of protest against police brutality, he later did so and appealed for Kaepernick’s reinstatement. NASCAR, especially popular among Southern whites, announced the banning at its events of Confederate flags, a despised symbol among African Americans, which it had discouraged since 2015 to no avail.
For their part, “more than 300 leading stage artists signed a letter decrying racial inequality in the world of ‘White American theatre.’” Some musicians converted to the new anti-racist tune. “Lady Antebellum, the Grammy-winning country music trio behind one of the highest-selling country songs of all time, is dropping the “antebellum” from its name.” The cinematic arts also saw the light. Television shows, such as Cops, and films, such as Gone with the Wind, that glorify police violence and elide the brutalities of slavery were terminated or removed from streaming. However, critics maintained censoring old films and TV shows was not enough; what mattered was employing more people of colour in the industry.
Restiveness among technology companies also became evident. The announcement by IBM and Amazon that they were withdrawing their face recognition technology from being used by police forces in racial profiling and mass surveillance was widely hailed in some quarters. In the meantime, “More than 200 Microsoft employees have signed a letter calling on the company to stop supplying software to law enforcement agencies; to support efforts to defund the Seattle Police Department; and to join a call for the mayor of Seattle, Jenny Durkan, to resign. The signers are a tiny fraction of Microsoft’s more than 140,000 employees. But the letter is another sign of increasing activism by employees at major technology companies on a range of political issues, which executives have been forced to address — if only to explain why they would not comply with workers’ requests.”
Clearly, as silence on race increasingly ceased to be an option, American companies and institutions fell over each over to proclaim their support for Black Lives Matter. Anti-racism suddenly became a badge of honour for companies eager to burnish their brands under America’s emerging new normal. Corporate America proudly wore its newly acquired conscience on its malleable sleeves.
The flood of corporate anti-racist statements were often accompanied by donations to venerable civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, Urban League, and National Action Network, and other groups fighting racial inequality. They also made vague promises to promote diversity and inclusion in their own companies without spelling out meaningful enforcement mechanisms. The donations tended to be largely token, but some were sizable. For example, SoftBank allocated $100 million to invest in minority entrepreneurs, while “PayPal, Apple and YouTube collectively pledged $730 million to racial justice and equity efforts.” When the Estée Lauder, the cosmetics giant, raised its donation from $1 million to $5 million when its initial offer was derived by employees who compared it unfavourably to Mr. Lauder’s far more generous donations to Trump.
While welcoming pledges by corporations to engage in anti-discrimination efforts and programs to support black businesses and communities, many black corporate leaders and civil rights activists remained sceptical as noted in a long article in The New York Times, entitled ‘Corporate America Has Failed Black America.’ They urged the need to tie executive pay to diversity metrics, which a few companies such as Microsoft, Intel and Johnson & Johnson had embraced.
By and large, critics of corporate America were not impressed by their performative anti-racism. They bemoaned the glaring gap between their fluffy anti-racist rhetoric and the reality of entrenched racist practices in most American companies. Some of the advice given to companies by their cheerleaders exacted little costs. One corporate sympathizer urged them to expand their relationships with historically black colleges and universities, advertise more openly, create diverse interview panels at all levels, provide extensive sensitive training for all employees, and set the tone for inclusion at the top.
The Economist contended, “Good intentions of bosses aside, untangling the problem of race and corporate America requires addressing four questions. First, what is the evidence that blacks are disadvantaged in the workplace? Second, how much is business to blame rather than society as a whole? Third, do any such disadvantages impact how businesses perform? And finally, what if anything can business do to improve matters?”
Its answer to all four questions underscored the prevalence of systemic racism and black under-representation throughout American business. It concludes, “Experts recommend creating a diversity strategy specifically for black employees, implementing clear and consistent standards for promotion and securing a firm commitment from the top to overcome bias among middle managers…. That points to the importance of metrics and measurement.”
The rhetorical anti-racist bandwagon grew with breath-taking speed that confounded many people. Unhinged white conservatives bemoaned the trend and redoubled their virulent attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement and denounced the protesters as rioters and even domestic terrorists. Anguished white liberals shed their silence and commiserated with each other about racism and inundated their black colleagues with outpourings of sympathy, support and queries, which some blacks welcomed and others disdained. The latter resented the added burden of cleansing white consciences.
Trouble in the Ivory Tower
Colleges and universities were embroiled in the sprawling national crisis, although closures of campuses in response to the coronavirus pandemic saved them from protests on their own campuses and in university towns. Linda Ellis warns in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 12, 2020), “For Colleges, Protests Over Racism May Put Everything On the Line.” She predicts the reckoning will come once colleges and universities reopen and as students return to campuses, already energized by the national uprising triggered by Floyd’s horrific killing.
Many universities issued statements expressing sympathy, pain, even support for Black Lives Matter. Predictably, the statements vary in length, depth and breadth. Many were formulaic and fluffy, written by communication departments afraid of antagonizing powerful donors, state lawmakers, and alumni. They invoke the role of the university as a positive force in society, forgetting the fact that American universities and education in general have been integral to the production and reproduction of the structures and ideologies of systemic racism.
As numerous studies have shown, building on Craig Steven Wilder’s ground-breaking Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, many of the renowned Ivy League universities were founded by or with resources from slave owners and slave traders. Over the generations, the ideologies and practices of anti-black racism have been concocted, refined and sanctified in the academy. Black history, contributions, concerns, interests and experiences are routinely excluded and devalorized in the American academy.
Taming Law Enforcement
A key demand of the protesters has been the urgent need to address systemic police brutality, racial bias, misconduct, and unaccountability. The evidence of racism in the criminal justice system is overwhelming as an exhaustive list of studies in The Washington Post shows. As if to prove the Black Lives Matter movement right, the police reacted to the demonstrators with excessive force and brutality that resulted in 11 deaths and nearly 10,000 arrests within a fortnight. This galvanized the protest movement even further. The public and elected leaders could no longer ignore police behaving as an invading army and the armour of police untouchability began to crack.
To be sure, there were occasional scenes of police officers kneeling in solidarity with the protesters. Some African American police chiefs, who are always caught between their racial identity and police fraternity, shared their agonies, dilemmas, challenges, and frustrations of trying to change their departments from within and reconcile their personal and professional, private and public lives.
Police Departments across the country came under pressure to review their policies and practices as public agitation for comprehensive police reform mounted. City councils, state assemblies, and Congress were forced to begin enacting long-standing demands and legislation banning grievous repressive practices and promoting police reform. For some more radical measures were needed, and they adopted the slogan “Defund the Police.” The Centre for Community Change Action framed the much-needed restructuring in terms of redistribution for reconstruction, taking funds from law enforcement to improve health care, education, and other social services and opportunities in communities of colour.
In the House of Representatives Democrats unveiled the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 whose provisions included requiring police to use body and dashboard cameras, restricting the transfer of military equipment to police, prohibiting chokeholds and unannounced raids through the issuance of no-knock warrants, enhancing police accountability by restricting the application of the qualified immunity doctrine that makes it difficult to prosecute law enforcement personnel, establishing a federal registry of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary actions, granting power to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to issue subpoenas to police departments with a pattern and practice of bias or misconduct, and requiring state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding to adopt anti-discrimination policies and training programs.
Republicans were caught flat footed. The New York Times noted, “Having long fashioned themselves as the party of law and order, Republicans have been startled by the speed and extent to which public opinion has shifted under their feet in recent days after the killings of unarmed black Americans by the police and the protests that have followed. The abrupt turn has placed them on the defensive.” They charged the only black Republican Senator, Tim Scott, to draft their own bill on police reform.
On 17 June, 2020, they “unveiled a policing reform bill that would discourage, but not ban, tactics such as chokeholds and no-knock warrants, offering a competing approach to legislation being advanced by House Democrats that includes more directives from Washington. The Republican proposal, which Senate leaders said would be considered on the floor next week, veers away from mandating certain policing practices, as the Democratic plan does…. Prospects for reaching common ground in the coming weeks remain unclear.” The stage was set for a legislative brawl between the two parties, whose outcome was unpredictable.
Under mounting pressure, the previous day President Trump issued an executive order. He offered tepid “support for curtailing police abuses while reiterating a hard line on law and order,” reported The Wall Street Journal. The order “has three main components: establishing an independent credentialing process to spur departments to adopt the most modern use-of-force practices; creation of a database to track abusive officers that can be shared among different departments; and placing social service workers to accompany officers on nonviolent response calls to deal with issues such as drug addiction and homelessness. Chokeholds would be banned under the recommended standards, Mr. Trump said, unless an officer’s life is at risk.”
Within two weeks of the national uprising following Floyd’s death, several states and cities had enacted legislation to reform the police services along some of the lines of the Democratic bill in Congress. The New York state assembly passed a bill allowing felony charges to be brought to police using chokehold or similar restraint, and for the release of disciplinary records for individual police officers, firefighters or corrections officers without their written consent. The governor ordered all police departments to develop and get approvals for reform plans by April 1, 2021 to remain eligible for state funding, while the mayor of New York City announced plans to shift some funds from the police department’s $6 billion budget to other services.
Los Angeles cut funding by $150 million from its police department. In Seattle, the mayor promised to invest $100 million in the Seattle Black Commission for community-driven programs for black youths and adults. The Minneapolis City Council voted overwhelmingly to abolish the police department. In Louisville, Kentucky, the City Council unanimously passed “Breonna’s Law” that banned the use of ‘no-knock’ warrants, named after Breonna Taylor who was killed in her own home. In Washington, DC the City Council also banned the use of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse protesters.
Some critics maintain focusing on the police is not enough. In the words of Charles Blow, “But, these bills, if they pass as conceived, would basically punish the system’s soldiers without altering the system itself. These bills would make the officers the fall guy for their bad behaviour while doing little to condemn or even address the savagery and voraciousness of the system that required their service. This country has established a system of supreme inequity, with racial inequity being a primary form, and used the police to protect the wealth that the system generated for some and to control the outrages and outbursts of those opposed to it and oppressed by it. We need more than performative symbols of solidarity. We need more than narrow, chaste legislation.”
The slogan “Defund the Police” turned into a battle cry for the supporters and opponents of comprehensive police reform. For its proponents this is a demand for a fundamental reimagining and restructuring of American law enforcement from its roots in the systemic racism and white supremacy of slave patrols that evolved into the gendarmes of Jim Crow and subsequent crackdowns on black protests and the highly racialized “War on Drugs.”
The critics argue that the nearly $100 billion spent on law enforcement could be used, to quote Paige Fernandez, the Policing Policy Advisor of the American Liberties Union, writing in Cosmopolitan, to fund “more helpful services like job training, counselling, and violence-prevention programs…. Funnelling so many resources into law enforcement instead of education, affordable housing, and accessible health care has caused significant harm to communities.”
The author reminds her readers, “Much of the work police do is merely engage in the daily harassment of Black communities for minor crimes or crimes of poverty that shouldn’t be criminalized in the first place. Consider this: Out of the 10.3 million arrests made per year, only 5 percent are for the most serious offenses, including murder, rape, and aggravated assault. These are the ones that truly threaten public safety…. That means that police spend the most resources going after minor incidents that actually don’t threaten everyday life but do lead to mass criminalization and incarceration.”
Transforming Racial Capitalism
The struggle to eradicate systemic racism and white supremacy has to transcend police reform and electoral politics. After all, racial bias, violence, and inequality have persisted under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, including Obama’s own, and under black leaders in state assemblies and black mayors in cities. Thus, for young African Americans who have grown up in cities and a country with thousands of black elected officials compared to the 1960s, the promises of electoral politics do not carry the same transformative appeal.
As in Africa following decolonization, achieving political representation, a worthy goal in itself, is inadequate for the herculean task of fundamentally changing the structures of economic and political power and systemic racism in the United States. The younger generations demand, and are seeking to build, a new black and national politics of accountability and transformation.
Fundamental change requires a much broader and bolder vision and an expansive and inclusive politics. It has to transcend the paralyzing dogmas of neo-liberalism and encompass transforming the multiple structural pillars and cultural dynamics of racial capitalism, as well as building new multiracial and class coalitions and alliances. There is no shortage of blueprints for a different future from America’s radical thinkers and activists committed to building a future envisaged in Martin Luther King’s dream of a ‘beloved community’ based on the pillars of economic and social justice free from poverty, discrimination, and violence.
For some economic justice also entails reparations, an issue that is gaining some traction. The data on what America owes African Americans is damning. In her book, The Colour of Money, Mehrsa Baradaran offers a bleak assessment of the racial wealth gap and the limits of community self-help. She shows that in 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the black community owned 0.5% of the country’s wealth. More than 150 years later this rose to a paltry 1%! In a recent interview, she argues, America has repeatedly violated its promises of equal protection, equality and equality to African Americans. To quote her, “I teach contract law,” she states, “When you break a contract, you pay damages. We’ve broken the contract with Black America…. We embedded racism into policy. And how do you get that out? How do you fix that? I think reparations is the only answer… And I think a process of reparations should involve truth and reconciliation. We have the funds. We saw this with the coronavirus. Over a weekend, the Fed infused trillions of dollars into the repo markets and into the economy. We don’t have limits of resources. We have limits of empathy and imagination.”
The need for white involvement in the anti-racist movement is well understood. No less critical is building strong multiracial alliances among America’s racial minorities, who collectively will in a couple of decades become the county’s majority. Each minority group has its own complex history and positioning in the country’s racial hierarchy and political economy. Particularly divisive has been the model minority myth applied to Asians, which some Asian Americans have embraced and internalized. It was constructed and serves to distance them from African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
Differentiation and distanciation from African Americans is the ritual of passage to Americanization by every migrant group in the United States. Successive waves of Europeans from Irish, Italian, Slavic, and Jewish backgrounds were initially not considered white, but were eventually absorbed into whiteness, a process that often entailed socialization into American racism. Asians whose migration to the United States increased following changes in migration law due to the civil rights movement have revelled in being called a model minority. Even immigrant Latin Americans and Africans seek dubious solace in their foreignness, in not being African American until they are brutalized by systemic racism and white supremacy. The 2020 uprising has brought a lot of soul searching for every racial group in the United States in terms of where they stand in the country’s enduring racial quagmire.
The uprising has also forced many whites to accept that silence is complicity and to confess their ignorance about the depths of American racism. David Axelrod, the chief strategist for President Obama’s campaigns and senior advisor in the Obama White House, puts it poignantly in The Washington Post, “I thought I understood issues of race. I was wrong.” He goes on to state, “Despite my work, I was too often oblivious — or at least inattentive — to the everyday mistreatment of people of colour, including friends and colleagues, in ways large and small. Although I was reporting on the issues of police brutality and unequal justice as a journalist, I didn’t experience it. My kids didn’t experience it. And I never really engaged my black friends and colleagues about their own experiences. I never asked, so far as I can remember, about their own interactions with police or their fears for their children.”
It is worth quoting Axelrod’s conclusion: “A lot of white Americans thought they understood. But the underlying legacy of racism still remains. The laws that were passed were hard-won and important, but they didn’t eliminate deeply ingrained biases and layers of discriminatory practices and policies that mock the ideal of equality. The election of a black president was a watershed event in our history that struck at the heart of the racist creed. But it didn’t end racism. In fact, it provoked a backlash that empowered a racist demagogue and new policies meant to further embed structural barriers to full citizenship for black Americans.”
An often ignored site for the anti-racist struggle is the role of organized labour. In the US trade unions have declined precipitously. In the last four decades union membership fell by half from 20.1% of workers in 1983 (17.7 million) to 10.3% in 2019 (14.6 million). This helped reduce the capacity of the working class to organize against capital in the first instance, and to build multiracial coalitions and mobilize against the economic, political, and social system of racial capitalism. Deprived or divorced from collective class organization and struggle, working people have been demobilized by capital and the political class. To be sure, in the United States the configurations of capital, labour, and politics have always been fractionalized, not least by the sheer scale of the demographics and ideologies of race.
The importance of transracial solidarity for working people is essential because the struggle is not just against racism, or just against capitalism living in splendid isolation from each other, but against both in their articulation as racial capitalism. Race, class, gender and other social inscriptions are not competitive but complimentary categories of social and political identity and practice. They constitute interlocking structural, political, and representational processes that under racial capitalism reflect and reproduce deformed institutions and pathological social relations. The African American scholar and public intellectual, Kimberlé Crenshaw, calls this intersectionality, which offers more nuanced and complex analyses of systemic racism and white supremacy than the binaries of race and class and the isolated categories of race, class, and gender.
The concept of racial capitalism captures the interlocking nature of the capitalist system, patriarchy, and white supremacy. As Michael Dawson succinctly argues, each of these three systems of domination, not only have “their own internal logics, which include sources of resistance.” This means “victories against one system of domination have the potential, too often unrealized, to undermine the other.” In its development racial capitalism undergoes historical shifts as the regimes of articulation of its constituent parts change. The question that arises with the 2020 national uprising is the extent to which it has pried open the contradictions between the three systems of domination.
What is at stake goes beyond the reform of America’s law enforcement agencies and performative anti-racism. It is about the transformation of racial capitalism. Given the enormous stakes involved, and the depth and breadth of the economic, political, social and racial structures of domination the struggle will be long and hard indeed. But the 2020 uprising has opened new doors of possibility.
Vice Chancellor at United States International University – Africae Court under Article 163(3) of the Constitution – and – in the matter of Section 21(2) of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution – and- in the matter of the Interim Independent Electoral Commission As the Applicant – S.C. Const. App 2/11 opined that where a government or State organ requests an Opinion, it is to be supposed that such an organ would abide by that opinion.
“The Opinion is sought to clarify a doubt and to enable it to act in accordance with the law. If the applicant were not to be bound in this way, then it would be seeking an Opinion merely in the hope that the Court would endorse its position. Otherwise, the applicant would consider itself free to disregard the opinion. This cannot be right. Such an advisory opinion is binding as much as any other decision of the Supreme Court.” (