Separate but equal: the historical roots of the current US protests

The protests we see today in the United States, the anger, the toppling of statues that exalt the historical oppressor; everything is more than justified. Español

democracia Abierta Daniela Sánchez
18 June 2020, 9.35pm
Colored-only water fountain
JT Vintage/Zuma Press/PA Images

On June 12, Rayshard Brooks was killed by a white police officer at a Wendys’ parking lot, the American chain restaurant. George Floyd was killed on May 25 when the knee of the white police officer arresting him suffocated him against the asphalt. Breonna Taylor was killed on March 13 while she was sleeping and white police officers broke into her apartment. On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery was killed by a white man while jogging in his neighborhood. Stephon Clark was killed in his grandmother's backyard in 2018 by a white cop who fired more than 20 shots at him, thinking he had a gun; Stephon had his cell phone in hand. In 2014, Eric Garner was killed by a white policeman who was choking him and did not release him, despite Garner pleading for air. In 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old boy who was shot multiple times by a white police officer in the middle of a street in Ferguson, Missouri, was also killed for not walking on the sidewalk. And the list goes on.

George Floyd’s murder was not an isolated incident, it added to this chilling statistic: the rate of fatal police shootings among black Americans between 2015 and June 2020 stood at 30 per million of the population, while for white Americans, the rate stood at 12 per million. The social outrage generated by the 8-minute, 46-second video of a white cop holding his knee against Floyd's neck, killing him, comes as no surprise. But it is important to understand that the protests, which have taken place throughout the country, are not only against police brutality, but also, and especially, against institutionalized and systemic racism that allows cases like those of Floyd, Brooks, Taylor, Arbery, Clark, Garner, Brown and many more, to occur and remain, for the most part, unpunished.

Why does systemic and institutionalized racism exist in the United States?

The United States is a country that had slavery within its original core. Although it was formally abolished in 1865 with the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which released around 3 million slaves at the time, slavery took other forms, much more diffuse but persistent.

The South, or what was known as The Confederacy at the time, was reluctant to leave the practice aside and accept those who were formerly its slaves, as equals. This resistance brought into existence what are known as "Jim Crow Laws": a set of laws that institutionalized racism under the idea of ​​"separate but equal" and that perpetuated the inequality that existed under slavery. These laws denied blacks the right to vote, the right to access certain jobs, neighborhoods, education, among many other rights.

The first of the Jim Crow Laws were the "Black Codes": codes that instructed blacks where and how much they could work, trying to maintain a form of covert slavery. As many black communities migrated to the cities in search of better living conditions, resistance increased and, along with it, the rules that segregated and discriminated against blacks: bathrooms, restaurants, parks, buses, water fountains, schools, hospitals, only for blacks, or for whites. The penalties for not complying with these laws were equally degrading, from lynchings and police brutality, to totally disproportionate prison sentences.

The resistance of black communities to this discrimination did not wait either, and since 1889 historical figures who have become icons of black resistance arose, such as Ida B. Wells, who resisted changing trains. She was forcibly removed and although she won the lawsuit, it was later reversed. The summer of 1919, known as the "red summer" for the number of protests against these measures, resulted in authorities - white - accusing the black community of wanting to conspire against the United States.

Years of discrimination and mistreatment based on these laws resulted in the institutionalization and systematization of racism in the United States, which, in turn, became structural. Blacks had fewer opportunities to access quality education, fewer opportunities for social mobility, fewer opportunities for decent jobs, fewer opportunities to live in affluent neighborhoods, and all these were denied by law. Likewise, these laws began to shape the American subconscious, where blacks were simply seen as inferior.

Matters began to change with the arrival of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s and 1950s, with prominent figures such as Martin Luther King Jr or Malcolm X. In addition, lawsuits that reached the Supreme Court, such as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, where the father of a girl asked that his daughter have access to the education provided by the whites-only school, managed to get segregation practices decreed as unconstitutional.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, ending segregation. In 1965 and 1968, the Voters Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, respectively, were signed, ending other forms of discrimination. Or at least that was the intention.

What consequences has racism brought?

A 2013 study shows how in places where slavery was highest, there is less social mobility.

The New York Times

Similarly, housing discrimination still exists, and is very aggressive: real estate agents do not sell houses to black families in predominantly white neighborhoods, because the black family in that community would devalue the area. This denial also translates into denial of quality-education opportunities and denial of access to health services.

Another example is the death rate linked to pregnancies of black women when compared to white women: Black women are 3 times more likely to die than white women. And this is not only due to the lack of access to decent and quality health services, but also to racial stereotypes, where a black woman’s pain is not taken seriously.

And finally, there is the issue of police brutality and of the United States’ criminal justice system. Michelle Alexander calls this phenomenon The New Jim Crow, alluding to the existence of a system that discriminates against blacks solely because of the color of their skin. Since the beginning of the War on Drugs, launched by President Richard Nixon, the prison population of the United States has grown from 300,000 to more than 2 million people, and the majority are black people. However, “The highest arrest and incarceration rates for these communities do not reflect the increased prevalence of drug use, but rather the focus of law enforcement in urban areas, low-income communities. and communities of color." For every 100,000 residents who are checked by the police due to drugs-related incidents, 879 black people are arrested while only 332 white people are arrested. And once arrested, black people receive longer sentences than white people, for the same crime.

In addition, we have already seen that for every 30 black people killed by a police officer, only 12 whites have the same fate. The United States criminal and police systems are biased against black communities.

Why is this happening? Because, for centuries, a system persisted where whites received all the privileges by law, and dismantling that system requires more than some Acts decreed 50 years ago. It requires an ethical and cultural revolution. If we take an athletic race as an analogy, a white person has been running, almost without obstacles, since the 1800s, while a black person started running in 1865 and with obstacles, such as the Jim Crow laws or the inequality and discrimination that persist today. It was never, nor will it be for now, an equal level playing field.

With all this in mind, the protests we see today in the United States, the anger, the toppling of statues that exalt the historical oppressor; everything is more than justified. And white people, once and for all, should sit down to listen and understand what black people have to say, in order to fairly begin to straighten out the path that has been set against them from the beginning.

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