Source: Creative Commons, picture credited to Johnny Silvercloud, 2015.
My mother still has the newspaper front page from November 2008, celebrating Barack Obama’s first victory in the US Presidential election. “This is a historic day”, she told me. Back then, living in Italy, I did not fully grasp why his victory was so important. For me, it had always been a possibility that an African American could be US President. Sure, I was aware that it had been harder for him than for others, and it was special for me to see Obama in that role, but not so revolutionary as my mom’s excitement implied. It was not until I flew to the US for the first time, years later, that I finally understood. It is also then that I realised my white privilege. Consciously or unconsciously, people treat you differently if you are white, perhaps with less suspicion, while the respect that every person should enjoy is mostly reserved to white individuals.
In Baltimore, white people and Black people did not seem to mingle much. White people feared to go to some areas – I was warned to not go here and there, especially not on foot, and Black people were equally scared to be in certain places. I had never seen such poverty and division in such a rich and powerful country. To this day, I have never experienced the abandonment in city centres as I have seen it in the US, from East to West. A saddening and unbelievable lack of care. A lack of serious community-building or efforts to create harmony. Not to mention the implicit bias towards Black people in hospitals which determines the quality of care provided to the patient. Added to this is the lack of proper investment in Black communities, which makes it harder to access healthcare facilities and good quality education for those living in the neighbourhood, an issue that the current pandemic has tragically made even more evident.
Now, as much as then, there is a presumption that Black people are more likely to commit crimes and white people are more likely to be victims. Such an assumption is based on racial profiling, that results in Black and Brown people being more likely to be searched by the police than the white population, and to be more jailed for crimes white people usually get away with, such as drugs-related offences. Today, people of colour make up 67% of the jailed population, with one Black man out of three likely to end up in jail during his lifetime, versus 1/17 chances of a white man.
If crime occupies the minds of voters and politicians (some of whom jail individuals in for-profit prisons) at the same time, there is not much investigation around the roots of it. In other words, there seems to be no interest in tackling the causes that generally generate crime, i.e. lack of opportunities, abuse, addiction, homelessness. As highlighted in the statement by Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, on average, Black and Brown people earn less, suffer from higher unemployment rates than white and have a harder time owning a house. Black people make, on average, 73 cents for every dollar made by white Americans. But what is most shocking is the gap in wealth accumulation, where according to the Federal Reserve, a white household’s capacity to accumulate wealth is six times that of a Black household.
The causes of this disparity have to be traced back in time and has a lot to do with the housing segregation in the US. Housing segregation did not happen by accident, but it was rather supported and enforced by government policies and practices to ensure a homogeneous race landscape, such as redlining. Richard Rothstein, from the Economic Policy Institute, claims the Federal Housing Administration had a racially explicit bias when it came to selling homes; certain homes were legally forbidden to be sold or rented to African Americans, regardless of their income. Those homes, federally subsidised, were easily sold to whites and, over time, increased their economic value, enriching the families owning them. African Americans could not accumulate that same wealth and were commonly refused loans to put down deposits and rejected for mortgages. The results of these policies are that now African Americans wealth is more or less 10% of white wealth. This implies, also considering COVID-19 crisis which is disproportionately impacting non-white communities in the US, that it would take more than 200 years for African Americans to catch up to whites.
All of this is especially troubling when we consider that where you live influences the services you have access to – from educational facilities to health care providers. The poorer the neighourhood, the worse the educational outcomes and health care one has access to. Segregation is a problem, as the UN Special Rapporteur on racial discrimination Doudou Diène noted in 2008. Beyond the immediate practical limits and injustice of segregation, the way the entire system is structured makes it harder for people to change their own life circumstances once they live in poorer areas of the city and find it almost impossible to interact with different, richer communities. While as Tatum (2007) highlights, the next generation of white students will likely have less school contact with People of Colour than their predecessors did. This contributes to creating an environment where different communities do not know each other (unless through mediated means) with hostility and stereotypes replacing trust.
Of course, this is not just a US one. Italy, my home country, is not immune to racism and I have witnessed episodes there. Yet I was overwhelmed by the daily microaggressions in the USA. Beyond clear and evident aggression, institutional and non-institutional, both verbal and physical, all of the above renders clear how racism influences and is perpetuated by the tone of everyday interactions interwoven with allusions and prejudices. Systemic racism is so rooted in the land of the free as to influence personal relations, over and above how state institutions treat minorities. If you are Black and you walk in a predominantly white neighborhood, somebody might call the police. If you enter a cafe, somebody may call the police saying they fear for their life, and the police will show up and possibly escort you out. Indeed, as Orelus aptly highlights, Black and Brown people suffer from generalisation, “if a Black or Brown person commits a crime, it is often assumed that all of Black or Brown people are violent”. This, needless to say, does not happen to white people and might probably help explain the number of times white people call the police on minorities.
How do people convince the police to attend when there is clearly no criminality or threat? An incident in which a white woman called the police on a Black birdwatcher in New York City typifies this issue. A video of the incident sees her telling the 911 operator: “there is a man, African-American… I am being threatened”. The woman was aware that the police would intervene precisely because she mentioned the man’s ethnicity. Being African-American alone constitutes a reason to send a patrol. In America, this is the norm. By highlighting the man’s race, the woman is in effect saying: “Your life is worth less than mine”.
Unfortunately, in today’s America, this opinion continues to enjoy a great deal of support. Minneapolis and other major US cities are experiencing mass protests following the murder of George Floyd by a policeman. This is only the latest extrajudicial execution of a Black person in the US, but since it was recorded and broadcast around the world, we cannot pretend anymore that we did not see it, or create narratives that excuse it. All of this violence, in a country that claims to uphold human rights and export democracy worldwide, is not even shocking anymore, but rather tragic and needs to end. Racism is endemic in both law and policy, as Freedom House highlight, the law does not guarantee equal treatment to different segments of the population.
In their 2016 country report on the USA, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent noted that “a systemic ideology of racism ensuring the domination of one group over another continues to impact negatively on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today”. Moreover, the Working Group lamented the “lack of an official national system to track killings committed by law enforcement officials” together with a “low number of cases where police officers have been held accountable for these crimes, despite the evidence”. It is four years since their report highlighted that “impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency”. Nothing seems to have changed.
Pervasive, nationwide racism affects the way that state benefits are allocated, and the way communities are served. In 2017, the UN Rapporteur on Poverty witnessed the following:
In Alabama, I saw various houses in rural areas that were surrounded by cesspools of sewage that flowed out of broken or non-existent septic systems. The State Health Department had no idea of how many households exist in these conditions, despite the grave health consequences. Nor did they have any plan to find out, or devise a plan to do something about it. But since the great majority of White folks live in the cities, which are well served by government-built and maintained sewerage systems, and most of the rural folks in areas like Lowndes County, are Black, the problem doesn’t appear on the political or governmental radar screen.
The lack of accountability in these situations does not merely expose failures in the rule of law, it is worrisome because it sends the message that the value of Black lives is low. The lack of serious investigations into murders, and the lack of attention to community problems, signals to the population that both violence and indifference are acceptable. This constitutes harm in itself. It harms people in their daily life, making them feel less valued as citizens, and generates fear and lack of trust towards law enforcement functions.
What the newspapers report is just the tip of the iceberg. The tragic stories of people who die in custody may make the news for a couple of days, or maybe longer when followed by protests, but they are then forgotten by many. And yet, racism remains pervasive even after these extreme episodes and it affects how people perceive others and themselves. These violent instances of police brutality, profiling and discrimination are possible in a society that discriminates in more subtle ways; ways that do not amount to prosecutable violations, but that determine the way a certain group is perceived and perceives itself. After the lights have been switched off, people continue suffering discrimination, abuses and prejudice at all levels, in all interactions. Racism is more visible when institutions target you as a member of a minority, but can be equally harmful in personal and private interactions, or when it manifests in the lack thereof. It is harmful when people assume you are a worker in a store rather than a customer, when they show surprise that you are a medical doctor, that you were able to enter an Ivy League university for your academic achievements rather than your sporting ability. It is vital to tackle this way of looking at others in order for a radical and persistent change to happen, not simply to avoid pointless deaths or unfair incarcerations, but to counter a biased perception that deeply influences people’s daily lives.
Behind the veil of political correctness, racism left unaddressed has continued infecting institutional and personal interactions, while unfounded biases keep negatively impacting all sections of society, even the most liberal. Along with outright hostility and name-calling, indifference towards Black people, a sense of them not belonging, and their not being believed, are ever-present. Testimonial injustice, as defined by Miranda Fricker “occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word”. This usually happens because of the identity of a person, that is, their skin color, which adds injustice onto injustice, with the additional injury that this type of inequality is very difficult to take before a legal court, despite the harm it causes. All of this makes evident that it is not about police violence alone, but rather about the culture that renders police violence an issue.
The police killings and protests of 2020 have given momentum to the BLM movement and Black communities to put forward their demands. This moment seems to be the right one for radical, lasting change to happen. Surely, it is not enough to march, nor enough that Black and Brown people are vocal about their requests. There is an urgent need for restructuring the way power is shared and resources, from education to medical care, are distributed, and also, there is a need to rethink the way people are seen and perceived. An important institutional change is needed, and police and judiciary reforms are welcomed in this context. The decision of the City of Minneapolis to defund the police and rethink the way cities can be maintained safely, will hopefully inspire others to follow the same path. Nonetheless, there is an even deeper change that is needed, one that requires white people to rethink their own place in society, their own privileges and the way these have shaped their way of looking at others. It will be painful and shameful, but it is the necessary step towards an equitable society. If white people want to be allies, they have to start listening to the demands of Black and Brown people, and realise they are part of the problem and need to do something about it.
Elettra Repetto is a doctoral student at CEU, Wien, where she is specialising in Political Theory and Human Rights. Her dissertation focuses on transnational disobedience, but her research interests include global justice, climate change, migration. Besides her academic work, she collaborates with meltingpot, an Italian website focusing on migration. Follow her work @_ElektraR