I can’t pretend to fully understand what it is like to suffer racial discrimination. I haven’t walked in the shoes of those who have and don’t have the ability to do that. I’ve heard about it and I’ve worked to combat it and reduce health disparities for minority communities. And yet, I know I will never fully understand the experience of living in the United States as a person of color and all that entails. So, I’ll never know what George Floyd’s life was like, or the hurdles he had to overcome. But I do know that his senseless murder is an outrage and yet another byproduct of a racist and prejudiced system of justice and culture in the United States.
You see, I’m a white, middle-aged male. This system that we live in was crafted by people who look like me, for people that look like me. When I look around me and see all the wonderful people of color that I am lucky to know, that makes me feel “some kind of way”. I know “something” needs to be done. We hear it and say it all too often without really knowing what, specifically, needs to happen. I have some ideas, but I have no clue if they would work or if they would even get to the heart of the matter. One thing is for certain: the problem of white supremacy, systemic racism is endemic to our society and system and it’s only through broad changes from a wide network of stakeholders that we have a chance of moving the needle on this issue.
Understanding a bigger picture or obtaining a larger world view takes time. Sometimes, it doesn’t come easy. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable because it pushes at the boundaries of your preconceived beliefs and calls into question those very beliefs. I can’t possibly tell you all the ways that working in the Native Community in Minneapolis has changed my outlook. But, one of the things I learned very early on is to shut my mouth and open my ears. The wisdom to create solutions was already present there in those very communities. They only needed someone to listen and partners to help put solutions in place. But in some cases the problem wasn’t something the local Native community could fix …the problem was systemic racism and a culture that enables it.
Yes, I believe this is a real thing. Systemic racism, institutional racism and structural racism are all very similar terms. They are the concept that ideas of white superiority are captured in everyday thinking at a systems level. Rather than the one-on-one examples of racism, systemic racism encompasses how society operates. These systems can include laws and regulations, but also unquestioned social systems. Systemic racism persists in our schools, workplaces, hiring practices, court system, police forces, access, etc. What that means is that that power, resources and opportunity go to white people driven by policies written and enforced by white people, largely to the exclusion of people of color. Institutional racism is responsible for slavery, resettlement, Indian reservations, residential schools, internment camps, Jim Crow, etc
Here is a definition for “Structural Racism”:
“A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist.”-The Aspen Institute
Examples of Systemic Racism:
I understand that, despite these definitions, many will still not understand what systemic racism means and what it looks like in practice. Ok, let me provide some examples:
The first time the term appears is in a book from 1967 written by Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton: Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. They wrote:
“When a black family moves into a home in a white neighborhood and is stoned, burned or routed out, they are victims of an overt act of individual racism which most people will condemn. But it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks and discriminatory real estate agents. The society either pretends it does not know of this latter situation, or is in fact incapable of doing anything meaningful about it.”Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation
Here is an excellent article that provides 7 examples of systemic racism:
For even more real-world examples of systemic racism all you have to do is google those terms and you will find a litany of examples like the article above from Ben & Jerrys.
Big Picture, Individual Impact:
Understanding that systemic or institutional racism not only exists but that it denies equal opportunity is one thing. That’s comparable to acknowledging it’s existence on a larger systems level. Establishing connection between these global concepts and how that plays out for the people of color in our communities will develop understanding about the IMPACT of these systems. Institutional racism plays a significant role in the resulting health, wealth and education disparities prevalent in American society. Racism, among other connected and cumulative elements, drives these gaps through lack opportunity, access and ultimately, achievement..
That’s a hard pill for white people to swallow because it suggests they have had a leg-up in achieving their goals, since the systems in which they live were designed and controlled by people like them. That, to them, delegitimizes their accomplishments. Inevitably, out of fear or defensiveness, this opens the door to the “everyone has equal chances to succeed in America” arguments. I’m sure I don’t need to point out that these are not valid arguments.
“Bootstrappers” will tell you that this is America, the “land of the free” and everyone has an equal opportunity. That “people” just need to hike themselves up by their own bootstraps and anyone who doesn’t achieve the American dream is lazy or wants to “live off the dole”. It’s staggering just how many things are wrong with this statement. However every time I hear it, it feels like bullshit sent through a wood chipper at the velocity of a molecular supercollider. “Bootstrappers” are just looking for a way to rationalize their racially charged positions, privilege and greed. They are embracing an America that has never existed, except to white people. Not everyone has an equal opportunity. Not everyone has equal access to resources, education, healthy food, health care, positive role models, a livable wage, or safety. For some Americans, their dream isn’t to grow up to be someone great, it’s just the opportunity to grow up.
What happened to George Floyd was hideous. It was murder carried out in “living color” as NBC used to say. In broad daylight, on film, before the whole world to see was an example of institutional terrorism and the cruelty of the American system. It was unchecked police brutality in its purest form perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy. For God’s sake, he kneeled on the man’s neck for over 8 minutes. He suffocated him slowly with just his body weight.
I’m not sure I can put into words what I felt while watching that video. An incredible hollowness. Massive disillusionment. Terror when I think of people I know going through that. It’s like a video from some kind of authoritarian regime that is guilty of countless human rights violations. Any carefully-guarded illusions people may have about the reality of America were dispelled over 8 minutes of stark footage documenting the death of a citizen at the hands of an authority figure, high on power and aggression, and completely without any check on his behavior. Standing around him were 3 other officers that allowed it to happen …that protected his back while he knelt on George Floyd’s neck and squeezed the life out of him. I felt like that video was the last straw and Derek Chauvin’s knee to George Floyd’s throat was a boot on the neck of society. The fact that this act caused outrage and spurred reaction and protest should be a surprise to nobody.
The right to protest is the very embodiment of freedom of speech. The death of George Floyd was met with outrage across many communities and demographics. The actions of those four officers were so egregious as to leave little doubt in anyone’s mind about the absolute injustice of his death and the unchecked police brutality that caused it. The anger, passion and frustration sparked in communities drove the need to demonstrate….to take to the streets and say something. It was long past the time to reflect and action was demanded. I love the fact that so many have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate across the nation and the world. It was acknowledgement that this issue needs to be dealt with and there is no more sweeping it under the rug or just blaming a few people for what represents an overarching indictment of a system as a whole.
Some protests ended up with looting and burned out buildings. Many livelihoods were lost and much of the damage was permanent. I’m not in favor of violence in protests but I will quote Martin Luther King who said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” This, in no way, justifies the riots but helps to create understanding for those legitimate protestors that were driven to an undeniable need to break something. When you are oppressed by a system that actively works to prevent achievement, the frustration can build to the point of explosion.
Unfortunately some of those people were spurred on by outside agitators. Honestly, I’m not even sure what to call these people that came from outside our state for the express purpose of starting fires, burning buildings and fostering damage and looting. I know that most of our residents didn’t want to burn down their own neighborhoods. I’m sure there will be endless debate as to who these people were …if they were organized groups, or was it white supremacists or was it antifa or anarchists?
My inclination is to look for who benefits. Who benefits from large protests developing into large riots? The conclusion I draw is that by a protest developing into a destructive riot it stokes fear, taints the protestors so that they are seen as lawless radicals bent on mayhem and destruction – in other words, it subverts their entire point to demonstrating and gets people focusing on the damage and fires instead of their message. Delegitimizing the source of protest and by extension, the protestors, benefits, primarily one group: The right wing extremists who seek to have this authoritarian administration continue its agenda of white supremacy and dismantling of any protections afforded to people of color.
The unsavory result is that all the “Karens” (I use this term hesitantly – apologies to all people named Karen) in the middle of the country are clutching their pearls, longing for quieter times when they could go about their privileged lives without confronting the reality of their privilege. In the end, they end up voting for an authoritarian populist running on a “law and order” platform…just like Nixon did. So not much has changed since Stokely Carmichael wrote about the inability of society to do anything about it. I would add that there is also a level of unwillingness in society.
Another trend we noticed across the nation was a violent response from police that painted not just rioters but protestors with the same brush. There were countless episodes of police treating individuals with indifference or even cruelty and even cases of them rounding up elected officials and news crews by mistake. But moreover, the problem lay in the response. A peaceful protest can turn violent by the disproportionate use of force.
From the policing perspective the line of thinking goes “if we make a show of force that will act as a deterrent and defuse the situation.” That’s great …except it doesn’t work. Perhaps in a military example is may work because on both sides there is someone executing the calculus of risk vs reward. Not in a protest against injustice that has been created through the use of disproportionate force in the first place. That’s like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. That is what I would refer to as a massive pile of stupid.
Correspondingly, you can’t just show up at a riot and try to be everyone’s friend. That doesn’t work either. By that point, it’s too late. The groundwork needed to be done months before that. With work in communities and developing relationships and dialogs on a daily basis, there is a reasonable chance to get in front of situations like this. And that foresight and reactive approach is where our current system fails the community.
The first thing we saw from the political right was the effort to dismiss this and sweep it under the rug with the “bad apple” argument. This is where they suggest that this behavior is outside the norm, and is just the result of a “few bad apples” in the police system. No. Just…no. The bad apples argument does not fly. At all. Look at the number of people that have been killed! The recent history of deaths perpetuated by white officers on black victims is alone enough to counter this idiotic argument. George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Ahmad Arbery, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, all the way back to Emmett Till, and of course, Martin Luther King, jr. That’s the cliff’s notes version of a list. …it’s hundreds of names long. Each case being similar in that the victim did nothing to deserve death …yet, here we are. Sure, there are good cops, but that doesn’t change the fact that the system under which police forces operate in this country is fundamentally flawed and enables white supremacy. That system has to change.
What Does Progress Look Like?
Ok, I have gone on enough about what we are doing wrong. Where can we go from here? What can we do to make sure there is never another George Floyd? I think it starts with acknowledging that there is a problem on a system level. So let’s start there, here are a few solution suggestions:
- Establish a congressional-level commission to examine systemic and institutional racism and develop remedies. This commission needs to have the cooperation and power of congress to develop legislation and proffer changes to law, regulations, systems, programs …across the board. This commission must have representation from all demographics. This is certainly a sizable and cumbersome task, but a systems-wide panoramic view of elements that unfairly disadvantage communities of color will be required if you want to address the root problem.
- Inclusion. I want to make a stand-alone point about inclusion and the committee above. Everyone needs to be at the table. None of us has a broad-enough perspective. I also want to name it: Native Americans need to have a seat at the table here. They are the most under-represented demographic in our society. That needs to stop.
- Restructure approaches to policing. Let me spell this one out simply. I believe Community Oriented Policing is an admirable system that can make a difference. Put officers with cultural competence in the communities they serve and let them walk a beat daily. Let them get to know the community and the community get to know them. Give them an opportunity to build trust and establish rapport with the community. Right now, we operate under a centralized, reactive system. That doesn’t work – as we are seeing. London uses “Neighborhood teams” that work specific neighborhoods and only have a centralized force for rapid response to situations that are outside of the abilities of the Neighborhood teams. This is Community Oriented Policing. Similar strides have been taken in Dallas and other cities. Minneapolis can learn from this. The country can learn from this. While no solution is perfect, this one, at least, lets people develop relationships that don’t need to be adversarial with law enforcement.
- Police Accountability: Changing how we police communities isn’t enough. We need to have oversight and accountability mechanisms in place that are neutral and not going to allow police brutality cases to escape punishment. Decades of no constraint on officers has led to this situation where they feel they can act any way they please with no risk of censure. That needs to change.
- The Trump Administration. It would be admirable if the Trump administration could actually unite the country instead of just uniting white supremacists. I would prefer to see the office of the president call for healing and work to bring groups together to navigate a way forward that brings promise and hope to everyone. But hope isn’t in the lexicon of this administration. Very little is actually in the lexicon of this administration other than “hate” and “fear”. As much as I would prefer for the United States to proceed immediately with implementing solutions, I fear the truth is that nothing will or can move forward until Donald Trump is out of office. His insistence on authoritarian and racist policies bespeak his lack of character and utter unsuitability to be president of the United States. Vote him out so we can move our country forward.
My Final Thoughts:
We’re all human. We’re all horrified by this murder. What we do from here will dictate our legacy. Do we want to be the backwards, racist representative oligarchy? Or do we want to be a country that can honestly say “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” We have work to do if we are to become the vision of what we, once, may have been. But this time, let’s make that saying work for everyone.