Reckoning with Racism: 21st Century
“When the silhouettes start to crumble and the ones meant to protect seem indistinguishable from the perpetrator, the society incurs a loss in the form of a common man.”
For those living under the rocks, on May 25, 2020, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, after a convenience store employee called 911 and informed the police that Mr. Floyd had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Seventeen minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Mr. Floyd was unconscious and pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, an officer named Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. George Floyd isn’t the first person of color to be executed in such heinous fashion and sadly he wouldn’t be the last either. In fact, in the previous year alone, 57,375 Years of Life Were Lost to Police violence, a toll greater than accidental gun deaths. Police brutality or police violence is legally defined as a civil rights violation where officers exercise undue or excessive force against a subject. Although the definition suffices in elucidating the crime, what it conceals is the chilling nonchalance alongside the sense of complete indifference. The root of such crime is the fit of rage experienced by the perpetrator which is, more often than not a consequence of the element of racism that exists within the perpetrator.
Soon after the incident, footage from various sources was uploaded to the internet. These videos didn’t only unmask the disdain for someone’s life that one could observe in the eyes of the perpetrator but also clocked hundreds of thousands of hours in watch time. An alarming number of videos displaying police brutality are uploaded on the internet each day. What distinguished Mr. Floyd’s video was the fact that it one came right after a series of police killings. The water was already at the brink and this incident leads to it tipping over. What followed was unprecedented but inspiring. Even in such grave times of a pandemic, people flooded the streets to exhibit their discontent. The protests were not only about George Floyd and police brutality, but they were also about the systemic racism that prevails in the system. A majority of social media users too raised their voice against the “the banality of evil”, that is racism that still resides amongst us. At this point, just about a month has passed since the incident and the temperature seems to be lowering down. This isn’t a welcome move as change is deemed to be the need of the hour.
It would be fair to say that, as liberalism has progressed amongst the modern societies, racism has toned down in intensity, but believing that racism doesn’t require constant attention should be considered naïve. One has to keep in mind that “A kinder, gentler, and more diverse war is still a war”. The most evident form of racism that presides amongst us is disguised so well that most people fail to recognize it. It is termed as systemic racism. Systemic racism is a form of racism that is embedded as a normal practice within society or an organization. It includes the policies and practices entrenched in established institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of designated groups. It can lead to issues such as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among other issues.
To gain a deeper insight on systematic racism we do need to dig deeper into the history of racism. A wide and deep literature has explored these innate biases in the 40 or so years since they were first discussed. Several avenues of research are probing the origins of what many psychologists call ingroup love and outgroup hate. Contrary to popular belief, the conventional wisdom that hate and ignorance breed racist policies has been proven to be inaccurate. In fact, it is referred to as one of the myths.
Arguably, one of the most racist policies of any era was the one that allowed whites in this country to call black people property — chattel slavery. Many people connect the origins of racism to slavery without knowing much about that history. Daina Ramey Berry, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, lays out four major myths of slavery — including the idea that it happened for a very short while to have a major impact on the modern society. Considering that most Americans are only two to three generations away from slavery, one can come up to the conclusion that while it does play a significant role, it cannot be considered as the root of all causes. American University historian Ibram Kendi has traced the history of racist ideas back to the European societies that largely populated most nations. In an essay based on his award-winning book “Stamped from the Beginning”, Mr. Kendi writes: “Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas to justify the racist policies of their era.”
The crux of the matter is that the theories do enough to point out that racism is not restricted to a minimalistic population but was consciously inducted into the society in pursuit of dominance. This lays the grounds for systemic racism which implies that people of color are unconsciously subjected to exclusion which may create a divide in the society. The subject of systemic racism is where many people fail to understand or take the initiative to understand.
For example, an African-American scholar named, Kevin O’Neal Cokley who studies the experiences of black college students exclaimed that “The unfortunate reality is that black Americans experience subtle and overt discrimination from preschool all the way to college”. He pointed out that Black men are also underrepresented in college, yet they are almost three times as likely to be suspended than white boys”
Many argue that the current position that a person holds in society is a reflection of his hard work. They try to delegitimize the subject of systemic racism on the grounds of accountability Following the 2008 election of Obama, many Americans naively believed that we lived in a post-racial society. Many thought that if Obama could take the highest office in America, then another Black kid raised by a single parent could too. The argument to “follow in Obama’s footsteps” and “just work hard” is founded upon the belief in the American Dream. However, comparing a Black person to another Black person to draw conclusions about the race as a whole is fundamentally misguided. The argument that many Black Americans should follow in Obama’s footsteps fails to acknowledge how much of success is determined by the quality of schooling, access to resources, privilege, and skin color. To fully understand systemic racism, one must compare a Black person to a white person with the same credentials. When analyzing the effect of race on the job market, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that individuals with white-sounding names had a higher chance of receiving a callback compared to individuals with ethnic names. Not only does research indicate that blackness is a barrier, but that whiteness is advantageous. In a world where whiteness is represented as the highest beauty standard and linked with perception of intelligence, white supremacy exists. The term “white supremacist” is defined “as a person who believes that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white person should have control over people of other races.” This is not meant to discredit the achievements of many white individuals, nor suggest that their lives haven’t been hard. However, they must acknowledge that their skin color never puts them at a disadvantage. Another argument suggests that Black Americans deserve heavy policing. The term ‘Black-on-Black’ crime is not only a distraction from police brutality, but it is discriminatory. According to the 2018 FBI crime report, 88.9% of Black homicides were committed by Black people and 80.8% of white homicides were committed by white people. Thus, people are more likely to be killed by someone of the same race regardless of whether they are Black or white. Thereby most arguments against systemic racism are rooted in ignorance reflect a lack of understanding of the system.
Now more than ever, it is important to address the counterarguments against systemic racism to promote systemic change. Tension and suspicion between groups — whether based on racial, ethnic, religious, or some other difference — fuel much of the world’s violence. From the enduring feuds of the Middle East and Northern Ireland to the vicious raids of South Sudan, to the gang warfare that plagues American cities, even to bullying in schools and skirmishes between fans of rival sports teams, much of the conflict we see today erupts because “we” are pitted against “them.” A systemic change before the situation leads to a point of no return is the need of the hour.
To bring about this change, the first step would be to accept that systemic racism does exist in every society and is an inherent trait that is induced into humans. Oftentimes, many people state that a “few bad apples don’t reflect the entire system. This is a defensive response to the growing backlash. It is important to note that systemic racism is not about the individual. Systemic racism is about racist policies and practices in place, not the individual.
One reason racism persists in contemporary times is that racist idea are passed down from one generation to the next. Hence, educating the youngest generation seems indispensable to initiate the change. Although a slow process, Education brings about the ability to create a new society with new beliefs if values are inculcated very early on. Even Psychologist Marjorie Rhodes looks at the importance of how adults speak to children.
Many people consider people of color to be outsiders to their community. A thought process that is completely misguided. The researchers argue this trend is past the tipping point. “Despite the initial importance of migration, racial and ethnic diversity is now self-sustaining,” they write. “Minority groups will soon be maintained by ‘natural increase,’ when births exceed deaths, rather than by new immigration.”
While it is pivotal to promote change, raising voice against the current injustice, may it be in the form of systemic racism or police brutality, is indispensable to society. A cycle has formed, brutal acts and killings are carried out, and we witness outrage, protests, commissions, recommendations, promises are made, yet we continue in our old ways. It is important to recognize that persistent, and conscious efforts are required to bring about a change. Consistency is key and it cannot be achieved by a sudden outburst followed by a quick cool-down. One must recognize that stepping up in the face of injustice is not vigilantism, it is humanity.
One can ponder along the lines, “How can we heal a society that is divided along with race, class, and political lines?” Martin Luther King Jr suggested that a message of love could bring our fractured nation together for love is a key part of creating communities that work for everyone and not just a few at the expense of the many. The essence of the whole issue summarized in such an alluring manner.
We have been trying to invite change for so long and we haven’t been receiving any RSVPs. It is said that whether it’s forced or invited, change is inevitable. Hence, it is time for us to enforce the changes and we need to begin with transforming ourselves.
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