By Mohamed Harees –
George Floyd yelled ‘I can’t breathe’ and was begging for his life, when the white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin looking calm and devoid of pity continued to keep his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes until he sadly departed from the so-called land of the ‘free’. ‘The banality of evil incarnate’, as LA Times writer Kareem A. Jabbar called it. The other Policemen too did not help this man begging for his life; this becoming accomplices and partners in this dastardly crime. Upon public outcries, days later Derek was arrested, charged with 3rd degree murder (not 1st degree). His murder evoked painful memories of the 2014 murder of Eric Garner who also underwent similar trauma in the hands of the Police. As George Clooney said, there is no vaccine for racism pandemic!
What happened to Floyd wasn’t however an isolated incident The fragility of blackness hangs over all over America, with the fence meant to guard the crop eating them- meaning the raw bias of the Police force by acting as the racist perpetrators instead of being protectors of citizen’s rights. Black lives never mattered there. Recently as close as in February, Ahmaud Arbery was out jogging when he was fatally shot by two white men in Georgia while in March, Breonna Taylor was fatally shot during a police drug raid in her Kentucky apartment; drugs were never found. And then last month, a black boy was thrown to the ground and repeatedly punched by a police officer in Rancho Cordova, a city in the Sacramento metro area. And just last week, a Louisiana police officer was fired for commenting on a Facebook post that it was unfortunate more black people didn’t die from the coronavirus.
As the Mayor of Minneapolis himself said in the aftermath: “Being a Black man in America should not be a death sentence.” This is what millions of Americans think. And tens of thousands have taken to the streets to make the point. People came out in greater numbers on the streets as protests rippled across the country as they expressed their indignation by shutting down highways, sleeping on the streets handcuffed and marching with fury, lighting fireworks, and setting buildings and cars on fire. Of course, frustration turned into vandalism and theft. However it is easier to find fault with such so-called acts of damage. But the reality has been that Covid has been affecting BME communities disproportionately and for too long the Black Americans have been at the butt end of institutional racism inherent in public institutions, education, the justice system and employment. Thus, lacking perspective is disgusting to say the least. Like what the crackpot Trump is displaying, by asking why so many black people are in the streets, acting with such fury and rage shouting “Hands up, don’t shoot” and “I can’t breathe” as they marched through cities!
Trump expectedly has been making the present explosive situation worse off by the minute. Far from calling for peace, his tweet about demonstrators outside the White House was atrocious: “Big crowd, professionally organised, but nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs and the most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been badly hurt, at least.”. This stupidity prompted Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo in an interview with CNN to boldly tell Trump,’ if you don’t have something constructive to say, keep your month shut’. Interestingly, looking at rioting and looting with squint eyes, there appears to be double standards too. In 2003, then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfield at the Pentagon commenting about the behavior of his American troops after the Iraqi invasion, said ‘US forces should not be blamed for the lawlessness and looting in Baghdad as it is a natural consequences of the transition from a dictatorship to a free country. Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. For suddenly the biggest problem in the world to be looting is really notable’. (UPI.com). Isn’t sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander as well?
These types of protests against police brutality erupting across the US over the past few days, leading actually should have led to tough classroom conversations about race, racism, and police violence. And this savagely cruel or depraved behaviour should also serve as another teachable moment not only for the US but the world outside too. However, honestly, all are tired of such teachable moments because it seems like nothing is ever learned. As Aldous Huxley says, “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”
It was Trump, the symbol of white Supremacy in the US who exploited the baser instincts in the minds of marginalized communities through criminalizing blackness and demonization of the ‘other’- the Mexicans,.the Muslims etc etc ; through racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia to come to power. He had his knee on the neck of democracy, being a product of the American political, judicial, financial and social systems, which are all infected by white supremacy. He was of course continuing the legacy of slavery of Blacks for almost 250 years with an increased tempo. Despite a break in this evil legacy due the Civil Rights Movement, and an election of a black President, shamelessly this legacy continues to-date with the disenfranchisement of black and nonwhite communities remaining the American way.
With America hypocritically preaching about liberty, freedom, equality and human rights to the outside world, in home territory however the reality is just the opposite, with white people being socialized to abhor and fear blackness and ‘otherness’, and to view racism as an individual prejudice and not a systemic constraint. Otis R. Taylor Jr. in an article on 01/06/20 in Los Angeles Times quotes, Matthew Kincaid, the founder of Overcoming Racism, an organization that provides racism and equity training in schools, saying ‘that not teaching about racism is part of the problem. “It is a deliberate act to uphold and maintain the structure of white supremacy”. But just teaching about racism alone isn’t enough, because policies written to disadvantage people of color, like voting rights legislation and gerrymandering, are still on the books. Racism is systemic, systematic, and nowhere near gone. White America must step up not just for peace, but for justice.
Many white Americans cannot however admit that racism remains an inherent societal problem and state structures are in dire need of reform to achieve equal treatment for the citizens they purport to serve. This inability of so much of white America to come to terms with its own privilege and empathize with minorities’ experiences is the single largest roadblock to progress and reconciliation. Those who are part of the problem must be part of the solution. People of colour cannot single-handedly change a system that is inherently skewed against them; nor should they be forced to try. If there is to be progress toward eliminating prejudice and racial violence, white Americans must stop being complacent about systemic racism.The underling need before a solution to racism can be implemented, is that the existence of racism must be widely acknowledged.
Institutional racism is when racial discrimination is established as normal behaviour within organisations that make up society. In other words, it’s so ingrained, it becomes completely commonplace – and it can be hard to even spot it. More than 25years ago, the sociologist David Mason (1982) warned that the term ‘institutional racism’ would forever be a political slogan lacking in analytical rigour until it could be more precisely conceptualised, theorised and subjected to empirical investigation. Institutional racism is however more than an academic construct. Racism casts long shadows into the past and the future.
Even byond the borders of US, there is not much consolation. Institutional racism is still a major problem in the western world. Today, most EU Member States have hate crime laws. However, it seems very difficult to enforce these laws in a context of deeply rooted institutional racism found in the authorities receiving the reports of these crimes. The police attitude towards racialised and targeted communities has created significant distrust and sometimes very tense relationships, which results in variations regarding the data collected by the institutions and those collected by civil society organisations. The correct recording of a hate crime is a crucial step towards effectively investigating hate crimes. However, evidence suggests that the police do not take reports of racist crime seriously or they do not believe victims of racially motivated crimes. The police have the power to declare what is and what is not a racist crime to be investigated, thus leaving the victim to be silenced if their definition or declaration of the ‘racist’ element is not shared with the police.
Institutional racism has been commonplace in the UK. The post-Brexit, post- Covid British society for example, is also a potential tinderbox. It is a real experience in the lives of countless British nationals belonging to Black and Minority Ethnic groups. Black people have been an integral part of this country’s history for over 1,700 years. Black people in Britain have long suffered disproportionately at the hands of the state. The claim that policing practice in the UK is institutionally racist was widely accepted after the Macpherson Report at the end of last century. The report included the idea that there may be widespread ‘unwitting prejudice’ that lead to racially discriminatory practice. The tensions between the Black community and the police in Britain go back to the 1980s and the Brixton riots. Black people suffer disproportionately from the police use of force. In an article by Dianne Abbott, Black Ex-Minister and MP, to Huffington Post, she says ‘in recent times, the use of tasers has been controversial, because the police seem to use them more frequently on black people. We are more likely to be sent to prison and disproportionately represented in the prison population’. Even at the highest levels of government, there is racism too with PM Boris being accused of Islamophobia in many of his writings; so is his Tory party. The UK Home Office was also accused of racism following the Windrush scandal – when black people who came to Britain as children were wrongly told they were here illegally and deported or threatened with deportation. Even the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy in 2017 smacked of racism too.
Most of those people think racism exists only in the West and see themselves as victims. It’s time they examined their own attitudes towards minority communities. Racism is a constant and cruel reality in Sri Lanka too. We have seen the resurgence of ultra-right/ religious movements expressing racial, religious, national or ethnic hatred. We have also heard political voices from the highest echelons of power which echo and even actively advocate racism, majoritarianism, demonizing and scapegoating minority and vulnerable groups. Many writers have argued that the rise and institutionalisation of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in post-independent Sri Lanka bear much responsibility for today’s ethnic conflicts between the majority Sinhalese state and the minorities. Ironically, the competition among the Sinhala ruling classes, for acquiring state resources and political capital, has turned nationalism into the ruling ideology and the state ideology of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka therefore saw violent attacks motivated by State sponsored racism, and related intolerance, alongside persistent and profound discrimination against numerous groups, which led to their marginalization, exclusion and diminished participation in society. 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, Aluthgama, Digana and Post- Easter anti Muslim violence resulted from government inaction and impunity. Still the culprits of the Easter tragedy including the top notches of the previous government and those who benefitted from the tragedy politically have escaped investigation and punishment, while the Muslim community is still being unfairly tar-brushed as a terror prone community. There appear to be a significant increase in anti-Muslim hatred and tolerance of the rogue media anti-Muslim bias while State- sanctioned discrimination continues unabated- for example forced cremation of Muslim COVID bodies, Tackling this cancer requires political will and effective law enforcement. Also. the activism in America against systemic racism and injustice is a powerful lesson to all.
Racism shows up in all aspects of our lives and society: in interpersonal communication, through discriminatory policies and practices, in biased language, and in our laws and institutions (e.g., education, media, employment, government and the criminal justice system). When bias goes unchecked, it becomes “normalized” and contributes to a pattern of accepting discrimination, hate and injustice in society. We can only hope politicians learn the right lessons from the current American situation.