Conventional wisdom tells us lynchings in the US are a historical phenomenon. George Floyd’s murder graphically demonstrates they are not.
For many, the word ‘lynching’ conjures up images of an angry mob throwing a rope over a branch and hastily dispatching its victim before the authorities can intervene. But as anyone who has taken more than a cursory glance at the history of white US ‘mob justice’ will know, lynchings in post-slavery/Reconstruction America were anything but. They were protracted, brutal affairs overwhelmingly committed against black men as calculated acts of intimidation and fear.
What happened to George Floyd was nothing less than a public lynching. Unfortunately, the list of similarities does not end there.
Like countless lynching victims before him, George Floyd’s death occurred in full public view.
Like countless lynching victims before him, George Floyd’s death was captured on film
Like countless lynching victims before him, George Floyd pleaded with his executioners: for water, for air, for mercy.
Like countless lynchers before, murder suspect Derek Chauvin looks calmly into the lens of the camera, with the self-assurance of someone who has done this before and will do it again, with impunity.
Like countless lynchers before, Derek Chauvin was surrounded by those who believe they too are above the law.
And just like the communities the victims back then came from, few have any faith lasting justice will ever be forthcoming.
Of course, there will be those who insist this is an exaggeration. An over-dramatisation of what actually happened. That tracing a thread from the US’s bloody past of conquest, genocide, slavery, and state sanctioned Jim Crow discrimination, through to present day deaths in police custody, mass incarceration and systemic socio-economic discrimination and segregation, is unfair. That it fails to consider the ‘arc of progress’; of the civil rights movement and the first ever African American President.
In one respect they are right. From such a low and brutal historical bar, ‘progress’ of the kind mentioned has indeed been made. Unfortunately, ‘arcs of progress’ are rarely one-way streets. Sometimes they regress. And that ultimately is the reality of the post-civil-rights era we now inhabit.
There is no single point of regression but arguably a key turning point can be traced back to Ronald Reagan’s presidency. It was here US law enforcement militarisation began in earnest, with its specialist weapons and hard-line policing.
Under Bush Snr the pace quickened when, as historian Pankaj Mishra described, ‘the removal of all restraints on American global power were realised’ and with it the ‘old legal and moral barriers were dismantled at home’.
In other words, US political elites no longer needed to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the mainly black and brown developing world. The Soviet Union’s defeat removed the necessity of an ideological duel that required the ending of Jim Crow and the embracing of black civil rights. For how do you convince people of colour across the developing world that your system of political-economy is superior to that of your Soviet opponents? A creed, that no matter how flawed in retrospect, claimed to represent ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘equality for all’? In contrast your own system was busy brutalising, ‘red-lining’ and segregating the very people you were trying to win over abroad? Black civil rights and the ‘war on poverty’ was therefore the price the US’s ruling elites had to pay to compete for global superiority.
But that changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now workers across the western world faced a resurgent free-market capitalism, attacking hard won social protections, won in the post-war period. But for black workers there was an extra sting in the tail of this regression. Anti-racist progress was also being driven back too. As working-class terms and conditions came under attack, racism provided far too valuable a tool for elites that required a divided working class: Mexicans, Muslims, blacks, immigration — these were the cause of declining living standards, not the rapacious greed of the 1%. Backed by right-wing media and centuries of ingrained racism, the dog whistles and worse were dusted down.
This complete reversal of the ‘war on poverty’ welfare programmes and erosion of workers’ rights was always going to fall disproportionately hard on Black America. Just as millions were beginning to haul themselves up, the rug was once again being pulled from underneath them. Affirmative action withered under conservative onslaught. Federal and state programmes to improve housing, education were slashed.
But by the mid 1990s it wasn’t just the US right that was busy regressing the ‘arc of progress’ when it came to race justice. Now liberal America joined the throng, declaring a post-racist society and deregulating financial and labour markets yet further. It was to this backdrop President Clinton dismantled ‘welfare as we know it’ and the notion of the ‘deserving and undeserving poor’ was introduced. But if there are those who no longer deserve welfare support, the question surely arises as to what you do with this ‘undeserving’ contingent?
The answer soon became apparent: a burgeoning and profitable prison industrial complex. In 1970 there were 300,000 prisoners in the US. By 2001 that had expanded to 2.1 million — the majority black, brown and poor. To be sure Clinton didn’t just inherit Republican policies of harsh policing and punishment — he expanded on them, introducing in 1994 the most draconian crime bill in US history.
Under Bush Jnr, the regression continued. His administrations’ response to Hurricane Katrina laid bare once again the systemic structural racism at the heart of US society. Old style Jim Crow segregation had been abolished to now be replaced by sharply defined zones of prosperity and destitution. Like Covid-19, a disease that of itself isn’t racist yet nonetheless highlights perfectly the disease of racism, Katrina shone a spotlight on deep US structural racism. Whether living in poorer, more flood prone housing or shot dead as ‘looters’ whilst attempting to survive amidst a shocking paucity of state and federal aid, African Americans fared badly.
With Obama that was all meant to change. As one critical observer noted, the first African American president, “Embodied neoliberal chic at its most seductive. Obama managed to restore the self-image of American elites in politics, business and the media that had been much battered during the final years of the Bush presidency. It was in effect the updated narrative of American exceptionalism.” But this was an exceptionalism that was becoming an increasingly hard sell after almost a decade of foreign aggression and torture in the name of the ‘war on terror’. A war which had fallen disproportionately on people of colour.
And yet even under Obama drone killings reached an all-time high. Libya was decimated. Yemen and Somalia despoiled. Whilst mass deportations, that even Trump has been unable to match, took place on his watch. Meanwhile domestic economic policy was dominated by austerity, ruining the lives of millions, especially African Americans, already struggling after decades of neoliberal deregulation and civil-rights regression.
And so, we come full-circle to Trump, George Floyd and all the other countless acts of violence, murder and economic racial injustice that is now hardwired deep into US society. When seen in the context of post-civil-rights history, Trump’s election and the elites he represents, makes much more sense. Although he has played on the underlying hatreds that having an African American in the Whitehouse brought to the fore in US society, he is simply one in a long line of US administrations that have played their part in the social, economic and racist mess the US is now in.
Like any society, including our own, where the accumulation of wealth and power has been inextricably linked to the notion of racial hierarchies, structural racism will run deep. Whether George Floyd’s ‘lynching’, COVID-19 and BME deaths or toxic debates on immigration that have at their core a racist world view — acknowledging the existence and origins of this pernicious and malign force, is surely the first step we must take to defeat it.