How will the US bring about real change against racism?
Institutions and not just attitudes need to be challenged for there to be meaningful reform
Protesters march in Minneapolis during a demonstration against police brutality and racism. Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images
Ralph Ellison’s landmark novel Invisible Man (1952) begins with the unnamed protagonist reflecting on his experience as an African American: “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” He lives in a forgotten basement somewhere in New York city, in a building rented only to whites, sequestered from view but deliberately illuminated by 1,369 filament bulbs, with power siphoned from the Monopolated Light & Power Company.
The predicament signalled by this character’s condition – at once invisible yet highly visible – still resonates in the United States. The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25th, face down on the street with the knee of Derek Chauvin on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, would in all likelihood have attracted little notice outside the city without it being captured by phone cameras of observers. The footage, and his pleas that he could not breathe, have spurred an extraordinary series of protests and demonstrations, making the application of lethal force in a routine arrest transparent to the country.
The powerful light shone by this incident has in turn brought other fatal encounters between black people and the police back to the forefront of public attention, like the killing of Eric Garner in a police chokehold on July 17th, 2014, in Staten Island, New York; the death in police custody of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, on April 12th, 2015; the shooting of Philando Castile in suburban St Paul, Minnesota, on July 6th, 2016; or more recent episodes such as the death of Atatiana Jefferson in October last year (in Fort Worth, Texas) and the hail of bullets that killed Breonna Taylor in her apartment on March 13th in Louisville, Kentucky.
If the scale and regularity of these crimes against African Americans can no longer be denied by white America, how will the country confront this history and bring about change? There are two aspects to this question – a change of attitude and a change of institutions.
In relation to attitudes, some shift of thinking is already apparent. Despite attempts by the US president Donald Trump to demonise and intimidate protesters, the streets have not emptied and the ranks of demonstrators have been joined by a racial cross-section of the public recognising the legitimacy of efforts to call attention to injustice.
The surprising decision of the National Football League to reverse its position on players “taking a knee” during the national anthem smacks of hypocrisy but it nonetheless indicates awareness by the commissioner, Roger Goodell, of his inability to stop this form of protest when the season begins (according to current plans) in September. He acknowledged that “we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and /[NOW] encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest”, in a league replete with African Americans. Trump has responded with typical outrage via Twitter.
While Democratic politicians have offered expected support for the cause espoused by protestors, some Republican voices joining calls for change give some hope for a wider shift of understanding. Senator Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate for president, joined a Black Lives Matter march with Christian church leaders in Washington, DC, on June 7th. More significant, due to the language he used, was the statement released by former president George W Bush on June 2nd which not only condemned the “brutal suffocation” of Floyd and the harassment of African Americans, but asked how we can end “systemic racism in our society”. Some in his party have acknowledged particular injustices and abuses, but few if any have shown a willingness to regard them as more than incidental (in a television interview June 7th the attorney general Bill Barr opined, “I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist”).
We are witnessing a new level of visibility of police misconduct, but will this be enough?
Bush’s comment draws attention to the need to address institutions and not just attitudes. The most radical proposals have advocated abolishing or defunding the police in various communities in favour of a different strategy for ensuring public safety and achieving a more just society. Whether these can gain traction more generally remains to be seen, but the move in Minneapolis to dismantle the police force on the basis that it cannot be reformed is a remarkable development.
Other responses to policing take the form of legislation at the federal level. Democrats have proposed a “National Police Misconduct Registry” and a codified set of standards on the use of force across the country. Romney has called for a softer, bipartisan alternative. Long-standing efforts (going back for more than a century) to make lynching a federal crime have garnered wide support in the house and senate, but the Bill written by the three African American senators – Democrats Corey Booker and Kamala Harris, and Republican Tim Scott – is being blocked by (white) Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
On Tuesday, Trump signed an executive order on policing, including a restriction on chokeholds. But as the New York Times reported, “the order will have little immediate impact, and does not address calls from activists and protesters nationwide for broader action and a new focus on racism”.
Institutional changes would address the mass incarceration of black people, sentencing disparities between white and black people convicted of the same crime, and punitive voting disenfranchisement of felons which disproportionately affects the African American community.
For genuine progress to take place, there is little doubt that Trump must be voted out of office in November. The man who traded on questioning Barack Obama’s birth certificate; who, as president, referred to “fine people on both sides” when describing both the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, defending statues honouring Confederate “heroes”, and their counter-demonstrating opponents; and, in the early stages of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, allowed demonstrators to be removed from Lafayette Park in Washington to make way for a photo opportunity, is not the person to lead the country through a period in which a new imagination of racial justice and race relations is required.
But it would be naive to think that the election of Joe Biden could alter the landscape decisively even if (as yet may happen) he chooses a female African-American running mate to join him on the ticket. Proof is available from the presidency of Obama, who elevated black self-esteem but also raised expectations of transformation that withered in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore and many other places in the face of fatal police assaults against black people.
We are only at the start of a long engagement. The summer will be punctuated by protests, and every time a black person dies at the hands of the police new flare-ups and potential violence will ensue, as witnessed on the weekend with the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks outside a Wendy’s restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia. Here the event was caught by surveillance cameras, police body cameras, dashboard cameras and bystanders. We are witnessing a new level of visibility of police misconduct, but will this be enough?
Ellison closes his novel with the narrator proposing to leave his place of hiding, convinced about the social and political role he has to play. His prior invisibility meant that he was a disembodied voice, without substance. “What else” could I do, he says, “but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through”?
Daniel Carey is director of the Moore Institute at NUI Galway and a vice-president of the Royal Irish Academy