The Divided States of America – An in-depth look into racial injustices in the US

The Divided States of America – An in-depth look into racial injustices in the US

May 25, 2020. Minneapolis. George Floyd. “Please, please, please, I can’t breathe.” July 17, 2014. New York. Eric Garner. “I can’t breathe.” Two of many incidents in which black men were desperately pleading for their life. Two of many incidents that display perpetually brewing racial tensions within US society manifested in the discriminatory treatment of ethnic minorities by police forces, particularly African-Americans.

In light of the recent upheavals in the US due to accumulating racial injustices, socio-economic disadvantages, cultural fault lines within US society and a lack of faith in their democracy, American citizens will have to ask themselves the fundamental question that political scientist Samuel P. Huntington already posed in 2004: “Who are we?”. A crucial question that “[e]very state has to […] answer. That answer, its cultural identity, defines the state’s place in world politics, its friends, and its enemies.”

The clash of civilizations is not only perceived on a global scale, as argued by Huntington in July 1993, but has now turned inwards taking place within the US. Racial divides, the partisan divide and different political ideologies as well as economic inequalities indicate that a United States of America that makes no distinction between “a liberal America and a conservative America [or] a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America”, as envisioned by Obama, no longer reflects contemporary developments.

Contrary to Obama’s understanding, this article is going to argue that the United States are, at best, formally united as current trends increasingly draw the picture of a Divided States of America. Furthermore, this article is going to identify and assess structural racism against black Americans and its products, such as racial profiling, which aims to express cultural domination and solidify predominant power structures. Why? Because we often speak about racism incorrectly, as pointed out by German journalist Alice Hasters. While we tend to focus on societal dimensions of racism, we often underestimate the long-term ramifications of structural, institutional racism which is equally multifaceted and complex.

Structural discrimination in the labor market

Unequal access to education and continuous residential segregation have led to unequal opportunities on the job market and profound income inequalities. A Brookings report (2019) found that, following the financial crisis in 2008, the average annual unemployment rate for black workers reached 16 percent, compared to 12.5 and 8.7 percent for Hispanics and Whites. The black unemployment rate is typically about twice as high as the rate for whites as black workers have a much higher risk of losing their job and according to the Financial Times this number continues to rise. Additionally, the current COVID-19 pandemic, labelled as the “racial wound” of the US by The Guardian, has exposed the vulnerability of black Americans who – with a death toll three times higher than that recorded among the white population – suffer disproportionately from the pandemic. Across the US, African Americans have died at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 20.7 for whites and 22.9 for Latinos. Subsequently, more than 20,000 African Americans have died from the disease.

This discrepancy can be mainly attributed to higher poverty and essential tasks at the frontline, including jobs in warehouses or public transportation. Mitchell Moss, an urban studies professor, has linked the pandemic-related loss of millions of jobs with Floyd’s death. The Minnesota incident has amplified the already existing “[…] anger and economic pain, and it’s all coming out [now]”, he ascertained. Hence, the current death rates are a further evidence of staggering racial divides and polarization in the US.

Discrimination in the criminal justice system

Bearing in mind economic disparities, the (mis)representation of African-Americans as underprivileged and marginalized people is, unfortunately, often associated with a criminal and gangster-like attitude. This image, therefore, spurs an arbitrary and more resolute procedure by police officers. Floyd who became another victim of police brutality after being accused of using a counterfeited 20-dollar note perfectly exemplifies this.

Consequently, one must acknowledge that even protective authorities, like police departments, are an element of institutional racism in the US. A 2015 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) study concluded that black residents of Minneapolis were “8.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for a low-level offence”. In addition, African-Americans are also disproportionately affected by police violence. Despite representing only 13 percent of the US population, black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be killed by the police.

Therefore, raising awareness on racial disparities in the criminal justice system is essential to understand the effects racism has on black Americans. As Perry Moriearty, a law professor, reveals: “It often feels like a remote relationship, an us and them relationship”. A statement that is further expounded by political sociologist Barrington Moore. He explains why state authorities are repressing African-Americans: Since the state is claiming the monopoly of the legitimate use of force, those in power want to retain the capability of organizing society and transform that power relation into cultural domination. Serving as a pretext to contain disturbances, repressive measures by predominantly white policemen are intensified against largely peaceful African-Americans.

The call for justice

This puts the ongoing protests in perspective while accentuating the complex relationship between power and violence that political theorist Hannah Arendt examined in her essay On Violence (1970). “Violence”, Arendt writes, “appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power.”

In the case of Floyd’s murder, he was forcefully held down by four police officers, while one of them arbitrarily kneeled on his neck for almost nine minutes causing his death. “You can watch the slow motion destruction of this guy’s life,” said Christopher Hayes, professor for urban history, adding that the scene “[…] has […] all the trappings of an old time lynching.” Consequently, this has an enormous symbolic power as it serves as an identification point for black Americans who repeatedly are confronted with unjustified criminalization due to the color of their skin. The image of the police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck does not only expose the vulnerability of Floyd but also reflects still existing power relations in the US due to an imbalanced social construction.

With reference to Arendt the overly excessive use of force has reversed the power relations, as she concludes: “Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.” Therefore, the incident in Minneapolis can be interpreted as a singular moment in American history in which the “powerlessness of the powerful” is exemplified. Simultaneously, their power is being transferred to ethnic minorities who are using their platform as a beacon of opportunity to promote change. Tired of being judged by the color of their skin, these communities strive for being judged by the content of their character instead, as envisioned by Martin Luther King. They not only demand equal treatment but also meaningful opportunities, resources (education, healthcare, jobs), influence and adequate representation. They want their voices to be heard. By using their freedom of expression, they are becoming the voice of the voiceless. Hence, the current Black Lives Matter movement is causing a “’crisis in the affairs of the ruling order.’”

In consequence, we need to substantially rethink the concept of power and finally acknowledge the complex forms of racism, particularly in companies or state authorities. Joseph Nye, a political scientist, asks the important question: Do Morals Matter? On the one side, the protests show that morals and values such as human rights, dignity, freedom, and equality are as important as never before in a time of peril. In Empty Throne (2018), the political scientists Daalder and Lindsay, one the other side, argue that America’s abdication from global leadership entails a moral decay. This perception is reignited by New York Times-columnist Thomas Friedman’s question regarding America’s absent moral leadership: “Where can we find the leadership needed to calm this situation, deal with its underlying causes and at least get us through the 2020 election?” This dilemma of ethical governance is complemented by the necessity to redefine the national identity mentioned at the beginning. The fragility of US leadership and society is accurately illustrated by Lesley Goldwasser’s analogy: “You Americans kick around your country like it’s a football. But it’s not a football. It’s a Fabergé egg. You can break it.”

Conclusion

In conclusion, as Fulbrighters with US experience, we are deeply concerned about the course of developments in the country. In the face of a perilous health crisis and ahead of crucial Presidential elections taking place this fall, ethnic minorities are still experiencing systematic racism. The country that ironically declares itself as a land of opportunity, where diverse ethnicities live together in peace and strive for liberty, is apparently not treating every citizen equally. The American Dream which proclaims the idea of freedom and prosperity for all will not become a reality as long as societal structures continue to uphold inequalities, as revealed by single incidents like in Minneapolis and New York. The current demand for justice is the inevitable outcome of the insufficient protection of ethnic minorities by the federal government and local authorities. As long as this demand for justice is not met, people will keep on chanting “I can’t breathe!” which will leave the US – a self-proclaimed moral and global leader – divided. German philosopher Hegel believed that “[w]e learn from history that we do not learn from history.” However, the imminent global movement is a step in the right direction which in retrospect could prove to be a turning point in history.

 

 

Bibliography

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Majd studied History, Political Science and Sociology at the University of Potsdam, scholarship holder of the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes, scholarship holder of the Deutschlandstiftung Integration, participant in the 2020 GEH DEINEN WEG Program, Fulbright alumnus, editor at the foreign policy journal WeltTrends and responsible for the book department, publisher of the publication series WeltTrends im Gespräch and IFAIR member. His new book: El-Safadi, Majd (Hrsg.): WeltTrends im Gespräch. Parag Khanna und Herfried Münkler über Weltpolitik. WeltTrends, Potsdam 2020. || Mohammad studied History, Political Science and Sociology at the University of Potsdam and is now pursuing a degree in International Relations and Security at the University of Westminster, scholarship holder of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, Fulbright alumnus, MIRAI Program alumnus and START-Stiftung alumnus.