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There is something governing American society more foundational than the Constitution: racism.
As a nation founded on the bases of liberty and individual freedom, America has a long history of usurpations against Black people. For decades, the United States protected the institution of slavery simply because it was the backbone of the South’s lucrative slave-economy. However, even after abolition, the United States instituted laws to continue the suppression of people of color (POC), especially Black individuals. By 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson established the “separate but equal” doctrine ushering in a new era of Jim Crow becoming a symbol of de jure segregation. White-only and “Colored” facilities were the norms for 48 years until de jure, “according to the law,” segregation was officially overturned with the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
So why does this matter?
Indeed, with the overture of civil rights, racism may seem like a vestige of the past; however, this is far from what today’s reality portrays.
On May 25, Derek Chauvin, a White Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, an African-American man after kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. In a video captured by passersby, Floyd clearly said that he was unable to breathe shortly before falling into a state of unconsciousness. Police detained Floyd after a nearby deli filed a police report accusing him of using a counterfeit 20 dollar bill.
Floyd posed virtually no threat: he was unarmed and compliant in the presence of four law enforcement officers; however, he was still murdered. On the surface, this is simply another case of police brutality; but at its core, this follows a trend of Black lives being unjustly stripped away at the hands of police. To illustrate, despite making up only 13 percent of the population, Black people are being killed by law enforcement at a disproportionately higher rate than any other ethnic group in America. This is not racism on an individual level, but a systemic one.
Simply put, systemic racism is racism perpetuated by society’s political and social institutions to uphold racial inequality and preserve social barriers based on race. While our government has overturned overt discriminatory laws and abolished slavery, it does not erase the discrimination that is entrenched in our nation’s institutions nor does it dissolve the racist culture and attitudes embedded in our country since its founding.
In his 19 years of service, Chauvin had 18 complaints against him, receiving only a letter of reprimand in two, but facing no consequences in the others. In addition, Chauvin actually worked with Floyd as security to a nearby nightclub for almost seventeen years. With Chauvin’s history of violence and his long-term affiliation with Floyd, his motives are questionable, if not malicious.
No doubt, Floyd’s murderer was a racist, but his death and the countless unreported cases of police brutality on POC are a testament to the American justice system's failure to protect its people.
Just this year, police searched the home of Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman, which led to her being shot nine times—she was unarmed. In 2014, a White officer profiled Michael Brown, a Black teenager, which led to him being fatally shot as he attempted to escape—he was unarmed and the officer faced no criminal charges. In 2015, 36% of all unarmed victims killed by police were Black. There are absolutely zero justifications for an armed and trained police officer to murder an unarmed civilian. When law enforcement abuse their positions of power, and that abuse disproportionately targets Black people and POC, it reinforces a culture of white supremacy. Moreover, by failing to seek redress for these injustices, our government imposes the idea that our law enforcement is above the law, rather than upholding it.
The message set then is this: preserving the social culture of white supremacy takes precedence over delivering due justice to Black and Brown individuals. As a direct consequence of Floyd’s death, a series of protests have erupted across the nation known as the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a group that originated in 2013 following the fatal shooting of Treyvon Martin. After appearing in all 50 states, the protests unequivocally show that we are united in this cause—something foundational to the inner workings of our democracy. However, this should be expected: after all, this is not a political movement but a moral one. There should be no debate on whether “Black lives matter,” yet it’s a topic met with significant backlash from conservatives, particularly our very own president. Unfortunately, because of the looting—which has erupted from people taking advantage of the protests—small businesses are being destroyed. However, when riots receive more criticism than police brutality, it perfectly encapsulates why white supremacy has lingered in our country's institutions for so long.
Furthermore, it is seriously disingenuous to blame Floyd’s death on the protestors. In a police briefing, LAPD Chief Michael Moore stated that “[Floyd’s] death is on the [looters’] hands, as much as it is on those officers.” While Moore retracted his statement shortly after, by solely condemning these incidences of looting, he illustrates detractors’ ignorance regarding protestors' inevitable need to resort to rioting.
The Black community has peacefully protested against systemic racism for decades. Yet, when Martin Luther King Jr., the face of the Civil Rights Movement, was assassinated in his home, it forever ingrained the idea that even through peaceful means, Black people are viewed as dangerous to the state when they incite change. It's easy to say that looting is unjustifiable. But when peaceful protestors are forced to resort to rioting and looting after hundreds of years of blatant and covert racism by society and the government, the looting says more about government ignorance than civil unrest.
In our democracy, it is our right as Americans to dissent and speak out; however, depending on who is rallying, and specifically, the color of their skin, some protests face fewer consequences than others. Months ago amidst the mandated lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19, protests consisting largely of White people emerged and were met with virtually no pushback by law enforcement. Protestors without masks surrounded government buildings with guns, despite explicitly violating the state’s lockdown requirements. On the other hand, when peaceful demonstrations of mostly POC arose to demand justice for Floyd, they were met with tear gas and resistance.
As President Trump would describe it: the former are “very responsible” people and the latter consists of “thugs.” Even more sinister, Trump has gone so far as to say “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” effectively inciting violence against his own citizens. The hypocrisy is clear and evidence enough that the government will continue to defend white supremacy, even if its own citizens are at risk because of it.
As a nation that was founded to combat tyranny, it is a sad state of affairs when the people’s cries for equality and justice are met with deaf ears. To silence the country's well-meaning protestors through violent demonstrations of teargas and open fire is to completely disregard a constitutional basis from the establishment of this very country: the First Amendment. Even in the face of adversity, it is the continued passion of the protestors that makes these movements revolutionary.
Only after protests across the globe took place were the three other officers present at the scene finally arrested and Chauvin charged with second-degree murder. More than likely, if Floyd’s death did not make national headlines, his murderers would have never been reprimanded and this case would have been swept under the rug just like so many others.
In order to begin dismantling the culture of white supremacy, it starts with addressing the anti-blackness in non-Black communities. Racist ideas that were engraved in every community are the cultural byproduct of a systemically racist society. For too long, our country has normalized anti-blackness, making it increasingly difficult for oppressed peoples to unite as one; however, as minorities, the common goal is to dismantle the institutions and systems that have kept us down for centuries.
Our country has a racist history—there’s no denying that. But, it is high time we recognize the sheer influence that governing articles such as the Jim Crow laws and other racist institutions such as slavery from centuries past carry through today. Erasing a law does not erase the systemic racism and hatred that it brought upon this country, to begin with.
Instead of settling with abolishing racist practices, our country must continue to be proactive in uplifting the people that it has oppressed for centuries. The blatant racism that minorities, especially Black individuals still face today clearly demonstrates the fact that oppression does not fade away the minute that written laws do; Floyd’s murder is a testament to this.