George Floyd managed to survive the coronavirus pandemic that’s killing Black people at alarmingly high rates, only to be felled by the even more deadly virus of white supremacy.
Dozens of US cities are experiencing a scale of protests, clashes between police and demonstrators, and National Guard deployment not seen since the “long hot summers” of racial discontent and crisis that characterized much of the 1960s. We are witnessing a level of national civil unrest that recalls the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, when 125 cities exploded in protest and violence. From peaceful demonstrations to clashes between protesters and Secret Service agents outside the White House, a national racial crisis is unfurling before our eyes.
The horrific death captured on video of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer, since fired, who held his knee on Floyd’s neck last week has sparked national protests that have, in some instances, evolved into open political rebellion contoured by violent skirmishes between police and demonstrators and the destruction of property. Racial unrest gripping major cities against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic reflects the contemporary magnitude of racial injustice.
The inhumanity of Floyd’s death heaped further indignity on Black communities suffering disproportionately from the brutal effects of the pandemic. Black folk have been diagnosed with, and died from, COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates. The killing of Floyd represents a national tragedy that should be turned into a generational opportunity.
Black death at the hands of the police is not new. Black Lives Matter protests erupted in 2014, turning a hashtag commemorating the mounting number of Blacks killed, assaulted, or brutalized by the police and displayed in social media, into a social movement that combined the nonviolent civil disobedience of the civil rights era with Black Power’s structural critique of white supremacy and racism.
BLM activists argued that America’s criminal justice system represents a gateway to panoramic systems of racial and economic oppression. These roots go back to Reconstruction, an era that spawned dueling visions of interracial democracy and the resumption of white supremacy. Convict lease systems inaugurated racial profiling in America, with arrests, detainments, fines, and incarceration of Black men and women for quality of life crimes such as loitering. Local municipalities leased out these “convicts” to private employers who frequently worked them to death.
The criminalization of Black communities took on new, both subtle and grotesque, depths in the early 20th century. George Floyd’s excruciating death, captured on nearly nine minutes of video, resembles spectacles of racial lynching that ended the lives of thousands of Black men between 1880-1930, a period that paralleled Jim Crow’s national takeover.
The Civil Rights Movement’s heroic period — between the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation case in 1954 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 — represents a high point in efforts to achieve racial justice in America. Despite the passage of watershed civil rights legislation, Black communities erupted between 1963 and 1968 in hundreds of civil disturbances, urban rebellions, and protests against police brutality, racial segregation, and poverty. Malcolm X, a former convict turned political activist who spent his teenage years in Roxbury and served 76 months in three Massachusetts prisons, railed against the criminal justice system as a national representative of the Nation of Islam. Martin Luther King Jr., frequently arrested for his civil rights activism, decried police brutality experienced by peaceful demonstrators in Selma, Ala., in 1965 and elsewhere.
The Black Panthers, the most iconic revolutionary group from the 1960s, identified police brutality in Black communities as part of a sprawling pattern of racial injustice. The Panthers remain best remembered for their provocative rhetoric and armed self-defense patrols. But the group’s social programs — ranging from free breakfast for children to health clinics, legal aid, and drug rehabilitation — reimagined Black neighborhoods as communities worthy of care instead of being targeted by racist policies that led to punishment, incarceration, and death.
By the 1980s, President Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious War on Poverty had, within less than two decades, shifted to a War on Crime that specifically targeted the Black community. During the 1980s and 1990s, as violence, crime, and poverty raged against the backdrop of the crack cocaine explosion, both Democrats and Republicans competed with each other over “law and order” public policies designed to incarcerate “drug dealers,” “thugs,” and “super-predators” that served as a thinly-veiled code word for Blacks. President Ronald Reagan’s tough on crime rhetoric and policies begat George H.W. Bush’s use of Willie Horton in an ad that played on racism and fear and Bill Clinton’s crime and welfare “reforms” that further criminalized Black communities and made it virtually impossible for prisoners to successfully reenter society after release by blocking avenues to employment, education, and housing.
The eruption of the BLM movement during Barack Obama’s second term, America’s first Black president, illustrates how deeply entrenched the issues related to Floyd’s death are. Donald J. Trump’s open embrace of white supremacists — from the 2017 demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., that left one woman dead to the recent anti-government militias that marched to the Michigan State House in defiance of shelter-in-place orders armed with semiautomatic weapons — has fanned the flames of racial intolerance and police violence against Black communities.
The good news is that the nation can end this cycle of racist policies that have invariably led to Black misery, death, and rebellion. The multiracial character of the demonstrations taking place around the nation attests to the growing realization of white, Latinx, Asian, and indigenous peoples that the struggle for Black dignity and citizenship encompasses and impacts their own individual stories as well.
Dismantling systems of racial oppression begins by acknowledging the way in which an unequal justice system impacts social welfare, education, housing, and employment in a way that amplifies a racial caste system rooted in racial slavery. The nation needs fewer police and more investments in racially segregated and economically impoverished communities whose suffering has only increased due to the coronavirus pandemic. Rooting out racist policies that marginalize, impoverish, punish, and exploit Black people will bring us closer to achieving our country, but will not be enough. The explicit promotion of racial justice in America requires the implementation of policies and investments that acknowledge the depth and breadth of national inequities that will continue to periodically erupt until we eradicate white supremacy once and for all.
Peniel E. Joseph is professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas Austin and author of "The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.“