Racial Equality and Justice
This essay discusses racial equality and justice in the United States within the context of the events in the spring and summer of 2020. On May 25, 2020 George Floyd was killed while in police custody. The killing was videotaped and showed a non-resisting Floyd suffocated by an officer kneeling on his neck. Neither the officer who killed Floyd nor any of his fellow officers was arrested following Floydâ€™s death. This kicked off a series of protests in the United States, which brought the lingering racial inequality that plagues the country into the spotlight. In this essay, we investigate racial equality and justice. We discuss George Floyd, the protests surrounding his death, riots in Minneapolis, the role that Antifa played in the protests, the role of Black Lives Matter, the death of Breonna Taylor, the concept of defunding the police, the celebration of Juneteenth, and the removal and destruction of Confederate monuments.
The United States is a country full of dichotomies when it comes to racial equality and justice. These dichotomies should come as no surprise given that the country was built on the idea of freedom but also through the labor of slaves. Ever since the countryâ€™s origins, there has been a tension between its treatment of the white majority and its treatment of minorities. While being the land of opportunity for many, the United States has a history of denying those same opportunities to different minority groups, with Native Americans and African Americans being the most frequently targeted of those minority groups. The mistreatment of African Americans can be traced to the United Statesâ€™ dependence on slave labor to build its economic prosperity and, as the world began to turn away from legalized slavery, a very rigid race-based caste system began to develop in the United States to support its continued use of slavery.
Though slavery would become illegal throughout most of the world in the late 1800s and would be formally abolished in the entire United States with the passage of the 13th Amendment on January 13, 1865 (Senate, nd), the vestiges of slavery and the institutionalized racism that it helped create continue to plague the United States in many ways, including the significant racial disparities in the treatment of African Americans by law enforcement and other aspects of the criminal justice system. These racial disparities do not mean that every law enforcement officer or other actor in the criminal justice system displays a conscious or intentional bias towards African Americans, though some certainly do. Instead, they often mean that people are influenced by unconscious bias to view African Americans, especially African American males, as more dangerous than an objective review of circumstances would suggest that they are. Together with conscious bias, the result is that at every point in the criminal justice system where an official has the ability to exercise discretion, African Americans are more likely to receive harsher treatment than any other racial group (The Sentencing Project, 2018). This means that if an African American and a white American commit the same crime, the African American is more likely to be arrested for the crime, more likely to be charged with a crime, likely to be charged with a higher-level offense, more likely to be convicted of the crime, and more likely to receive a greater sentence for that crime. The effect of all of these differences is cumulative and often results in an African American defendant receiving a lengthy felony prison sentence for the exact same crime that results in no charges for a white defendant. It also contributes to other injustices in the criminal justice system, such as wrongful convictions and an increased risk of police brutality.
Statistics on police brutality and race are tricky because there are no national reporting requirements for police brutality or for race in officer involved violence incidents. This means that most evidence is incomplete and it seems fair to assume that the same type of bias that leads to discrimination would also lead to underreporting of violence by officers in the worst areas. However, the data supports the idea that African American males are more than 2.5 times likely to be killed by police officers than white males and that the race of the officer is also important because white officers are five times as likely to discharge their weapons in African American neighborhoods than black officers (Peeples, 2020). The effect of this bias can seem difficult to understand until it is personalized.
On May 25, 2020 Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin detained George Floyd because Floyd was accused of attempting to pass a counterfeit bill. Floyd was unarmed and was not accused of a violent or dangerous crime. Nevertheless, Chauvin knelt with his knee on Floydâ€™s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, despite pleas from Floyd that he could not breathe and despite several bystanders attempting to get Chauvin to stop. Chauvin continued to assault Floyd, even though it was clear he was killing him, and three other officers- Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng, and Tou Thao, made no effort to assist the victim, and, in fact, even provided assistance to Floyd in the killing. Initially, the officers and the Minneapolis Police Department alleged that Floyd was resisting arrest, but evidence from multiple videos of the scene show Floyd being mostly compliant with the arrest, not being violent with officers, and certainly not resisting arrest at the time that Chauvin is killing him. The four officers involved in his death were eventually terminated from their jobs and are currently charged with murder.
Protests and Riots in Minneapolis
However, it is important to note that, despite there being video evidence of Chauvin killing a man in his custody, he was neither immediately terminated from his job nor immediately arrested and charged with murder. People began to protest in Minneapolis on May 26, the day after Floydâ€™s murder. While those protests have been characterized as violent, and some did turn into violent clashes with police that included arson, looting, and violence. In fact, the Minneapolis riots would go on to become the most violent racial riots since the Los Angeles riots in 1992. However, while much has been made of the violence of those riots, the reality is that in Minneapolis and elsewhere around the nation, the protests that sprang up against police brutality were mainly peaceful. While Chauvin was fired on May 26, it took four days for Chauvin to be charged with murder. However, while police response to the murder may have been slow, the community of Minneapolis has made positive changes in response to the protests. â€œThe University of Minnesota, the city school board and the parks department have cut ties with the policeâ€ (Barker and Furber, 2020). In addition, the city decided to completely dismantle the police department because of what is seen as entrenched racism and rebuild local law enforcement.
In the days following Floydâ€™s murder, protests against police brutality against African Americans, as well as other forms of institutionalized racism spread throughout the United States. The majority of these protests were peaceful, though some were not. Police response to the protests varied dramatically by city, with some local police departments responding to peaceful protestors with tear gas, rubber bullets, and more acts of police brutality. In other cities, officers marched with protestors and stood in solidarity against police violence. Many protestors were described as being members of Antifa, with members of President Trumpâ€™s administration describing them as members of a terrorist organization that was targeting the United States. Rumors swirled that Antifa was going into the suburbs and targeting white people for murder and other acts of violent crime. This fear-mongering was completely unfounded. Antifa simply stands for anti-fascist and there are many people including a number of small groups, some anarchist and some not, that give themselves that label. Antifa has no centralized leadership or group, though there may be local groups that give themselves that label. Most importantly, though there was violence at some of the protests, none of that violence has been linked to any anti-fascist group (Kenney and Clarke, 2020).
Black Lives Matter
Another group that was accused of violence and promoting racial division in the protests following Floydâ€™s death is Black Lives Matter. Inspired by the murder of a young African American male Trayvon Martin by self-styled vigilante George Zimmerman, Black Lives Matter began as a way to highlight the systemic devaluation of black life in the United States and around the globe. According to Black Lives Matter, their â€œintention from the very beginning was to connect Black people from all over the world who have a shared desire for justice to act together in their communitiesâ€ (Black Lives Matter, 2020). In many locations, Black Lives Matter helped organize local protests. However, the existence of the group is considered controversial by many who consider the proclamation that black lives matter to be a statement of black superiority, but that is not supported by the groupâ€™s own stated claims or by any actions that they have taken.
In the wake of the protests about George Floydâ€™s murder, other police killings of black people have come under scrutiny. One of those killings was the shooting of Breonna Taylor, an African American woman, who was killed in her own home. On March 13, 2020 the Louisville Metro Police Department executed a no-knock search warrant entered Taylorâ€™s apartment. Taylorâ€™s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, believed the police were intruders and shot at them. The officers shot at Taylor, hitting her eight times and killing her. Taylorâ€™s home was included in the search warrant because an ex-boyfriend of her was under criminal investigation. Walker had a license for a gun and the police did not identify themselves before he shot at them. The initial police report stated that Taylor had no injuries, even though she had been shot to death, and that the police had not used any force to enter her apartment, even though they had used a battering ram. Walker was initially charged for shooting at the officers, but the 911 call he made at the time of the incident supports his claims that he shot at what he believed was an intruder. Charges against Walker have been dismissed, but no charges have been filed against the officers who killed Taylor.
Defunding the Police
While some people maintain that police violence is the result of a few bad apples, others suggest that police culture is toxic. This has led for people to call for defunding the police. Critics of the idea suggest that it means removing all funding from local law enforcement agencies, which would result in it being impossible for officers to do their jobs. However, defunding the police really means diverting some of the funds that currently go to law enforcement agencies and using them in other, more appropriate, branches of the government. At this time, police officers are often called to act like social workers, mental health crises workers, and child protective services. Diverting funds so that other social service agencies could be properly funded may reduce citizen interactions with police and protect the most vulnerable members of the community.
One of the results of the protests has been to bring greater attention to African American history and the legacy of racism in the United States. This led to nationwide recognition of Juneteenth, a holiday that has historically been observed by the African American community along the Texas Gulf Coast region. Although the Emancipation Proclamation theoretically freed some of the countryâ€™s slaves in 1862, it actually had no practical impact on those still held in slavery in the South. Even after the passage of the 13th Amendment and the conclusion of the Civil War in April of 1865, slaves were still held in bondage in the South. Finally, on June 19, 1865 slaves in Galveston, Texas finally received their freedom. The date has been celebrated as Juneteenth since then, but the holiday gained national attention and recognition in the aftermath of the protests over George Floydâ€™s murder.
Removal and Destruction of Confederate Monuments
Another result of the protests has been that many Southern states and cities have taken a harder look at the statutes and monuments they have celebrating leaders of the Confederacy and Confederate war heroes. Long protected as â€œhistory,â€ more people are becoming aware that these monuments, much like the widespread usage of the Confederate flag, were not historically honoring the dead, but part of a concerted effort to continue themes of racism and oppression throughout the South. Protestors destroyed and/or removed some of the monuments, while others have been removed by their governments. The State of Mississippi removed the Confederate flag from its state flag and organizations such as Nascar banned the Confederate flag at their events. While these changes may seem to be only symbolic, they are the first steps to bring the United States into line with other countries, such as Germany, where racial minorities have been legally kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. In Germany, while the history of what the Nazis did is very well known, there are no statutes honoring Hitler or any of his officers.
It would be optimistic to suggest that racism in the United States is going to be conquered in the near future, even with the public outrage over the murders of Floyd and Taylor. However, it is becoming very clear that the majority of people in the U.S. find systemic racism and how it impacts African Americans, especially in the criminal justice system, problematic. The resulting push for change may create a wave of social change to rival what was seen from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
Barker, Kim and Furber, Matt. â€œBail Is at Least $1 Million for Ex-Officer Accused of Killing George Floyd.â€ The New York Times. 8 June 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/08/us/derek-chauvin-court.html. Accessed 14 July 2020.
Black Lives Matter. â€œWhat We Believe.â€ Black Lives Matter. 2020. https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/. Accessed 14 July 2020.
Kenney, Michael and Clark, Colin. â€œWhat Antifa Is, What It Isnâ€™t, and Why It Matters.â€ War on
the Rocks. 23 June 2020. https://warontherocks.com/2020/06/what-antifa-is-what-it-isnt-and-why-it-matters/. Accessed 14 July 2020.
Peeples, Lynne. â€œWhat the Data Say About Police Brutality and Racial Violence- and Which
Reforms Might Work.â€ Nature. 19 June 2020. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01846-z. Accessed 14 July 2020.
The Sentencing Project. â€œReport of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Special
Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance: Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System.â€ The Sentencing Project. March 2018. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/un-report-on-racial-disparities/. Accessed 14 July 2020.
United States Senate. â€œSenate Passes the 13th Amendment.â€ Senate Historical Office. ND. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Senate_Passes_the_Thirteenth_Amendment.htm#:~:text=The%202012%20film%20Lincoln%20told,Representatives%20on%20January%2031%2C%201865. Accessed 14 July 2020.
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