It has been a harrowing couple of weeks since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020 sent shockwaves around the world, and outraged everyone with a hint of decency, humanity, and empathy.
It came on the heels of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, while out for a jog, another appalling act of mindless violence.
These deadly tragedies, and the videos of African American men being unfairly targeted and threatened from Central Park to a Minnesota office gym in the same week alone, betray a deeply ingrained institutional and societal racism in the US, that for decades painted men of colour, even children of colour, as a ‘danger’.
These cases are a stark reminder, and only the tip of the iceberg, of the inherent institutional racism that still permeates US society, even in seemingly liberal bastions and in business, and how insidiously that racism can express itself, and how persistent it has become.
There is an overwhelming number of studies in the US that highlight an ingrained racial disparity, including the 2019 study out of Rutgers University’s School of Criminal Justice, titled ‘Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race-ethnicity, and sex’, showing that black people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white people, using verified data on police killings from 2013 to 2018. In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, the city’s own data shows that police use force against black people seven times the rate of white people.
The protests currently unfolding in the US are devastating, but also bring the timeless words of Martin Luther King Jr. alive and, sadly, over half a century after his assassination those words have lost none of their relevance or urgency:
And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.
I am also reminded of the poignant words of James Baldwin talking about ‘progress’ when it comes to eliminating racism in the United States, back in the 80s:
And this moment from one of Jane Elliott’s groundbreaking lectures:
As a white middle-aged man in Australia, I will never truly know the life experiences of a person of colour in the United States, or of an indigenous Australian.
However, both as a tacit beneficiary of the system of racial inequality, and as a person of privilege, I must acknowledge the existence of the problem, and also that this is not a uniquely American problem – Australia has its own serious issues to address when it comes to racial injustices, and disparity.
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody looked into 99 deaths, between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989.
In its 1991 Final Report, the Commission had made 339 recommendations, with the vast majority of those recommendations remaining unimplemented.
Since then, there has been at least a further 432 indigenous deaths in custody, with not a single conviction for those deaths.
Meanwhile our Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s poorly chosen words on 1 June 2020 in response to the protests in the US highlighted our ignorance of these matters at the highest political levels:
As upsetting that the murder that took place [is] – I just think to myself how wonderful a country Australia is. There is no need to import things happening in other countries here.
Indeed, we don’t need to import institutional racism from the US to Australia, since we have our own institutional racism and police brutality problems right here at home.
I don’t have to be a man or a woman; a conservative or a liberal; an American or a global citizen; black or white; gay or straight; I only have to be human to know and understand that #BlackLivesMatter.
Sadly, we have witnessed some respond to these protests with the problematic and tone-deaf ‘All Lives Matter’ slogan.
Even graciously and optimistically presuming the slogan was started, and is used by some, with good intions, due to its usage it has become closely associated with racism and American white supremacism since, so perhaps it is no wonder it is yelled mostly by faceless social media profiles, and shameless racists in the streets …
Also, ‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t mean that other lives don’t matter, just like ‘Save the Rainforest’ doesn’t mean that all other forests can burn …
Anyone who chooses to misinterpret ‘Black Lives Matter’ in such a manner is clearly obtuse and obstinate at a minimum, and also becomes part of the grievous social problem of racism. And whether that racism is rooted in mere ignorance or malicious race hate, becomes practically irrelevant because, regardless of its source, it further entrenches social inequalities.
People also tend to overlook the subtlest cultural clues and harmful narratives that deeply affect those disadvantaged by race and socioeconomics …
For example, that narrative starts with America generally being described as the home of the brave, and the land of the free and opportunities.
Closer to home, Australia, the ‘lucky country’, often insists that it is an egalitarian society, with many arguing that institutional racism is not a serious issue at all, and it is a matter raised only by ‘trouble makers’.
But that kind of language in itself puts the blame and an impossible onus on the poor, the disadvantaged, and people of colour for finding themselves in the position they are.
After all, if we all live in the land of opportunities, or the ‘lucky country’ where egalitarianism rules and racism doesn’t exist or, if it does, it’s really not systemic, or even a problem, people of colour and the socioeconomically disadvantaged can only blame themselves for their ‘problems’.
However, the practical realities of a world following on from centuries of institutional racism and social injustice can be practically impossible to escape. It’s like a vortex that pulls its victims under …
The rags to riches success stories are mere exceptions, not the norm.
The unbalanced crime statistics, the over-representation in the criminal justice system , the disproportionate deaths in custody, the unequal health outcomes, the extreme socioeconomic disparity, the negative lived experiences, protests and riots, don’t happen in a vacuum they are all the consequences and symptoms of society’s ills, whether we are willing to acknowledge those ills or not.
Denial, while a powerful and protective emotion for those who deploy it, is incredibly damaging to society, and it is not a viable long-term response, because it only leads to far larger and more entrenched problems.
Fixing society’s ills is a whole of society responsibility, but a particularly pressing responsibility for those with the privilege and power to affect long-term structural reforms.
And, sadly, you can’t simply ‘dominate’, police, and arrest your way out of centuries old fundamental problems, including institutional racism, systemic injustice and, in the US a culture of violence, that permeate society like cancer …