Opinion: Addressing Racial Injustice Is in the Interest of All Americans, Says Neil Cooper, Ph.D., Director of the School of Peace and Conflict Studies

Note: The following essay was crafted by Neil Cooper, Ph.D., director of Kent State University's School of Peace and Conflict Studies. The school evolved from the Center for Peaceful Change, which was established in 1971 as a “living memorial” to the students killed by the Ohio National Guard during a student protest against the Vietnam War on May 4, 1970.  

 

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This is America: a mash-up of a Childish Gambino video, echoes from the civil rights era and images from a failed state. A mixture of righteous anger, peaceful protest, violence, looting, curfews, troops at the White House and tear gas on the streets; a president, blinkered and bunkered; a president with an unopened bible, a photo-op and a law ‘n order knee-jerk in place of a moral compass and a plan; a country both bereft of leadership and with a million alternative leaders rising up to demand change; a country on fire in the middle of a health crisis, a jobs crisis and now a social crisis. This is America – and in many respects, this really looks like American carnage.

 

However, one of the lessons, both from other countries and from history is that civil disturbances of the kind we have witnessed since the murder of George Floyd also represent moments of opportunity for societies - historical inflection points capable of producing progressive social change. The challenge is to ensure such moments are grasped so they produce such change rather than a backlash that perpetuates the status quo. Of course, civil disturbances and even riots are sometimes perpetrated by those defending systems of injustice.

 

In the U.S., for example, the earliest race riots (e.g. the draft riots during the Civil War) were perpetrated by white Americans on black communities. In other cases, civil protest either does not lead to notable change (e.g. the 2011 riots in the U.K., also sparked by concerns about police racism) or lead states to introduce more effective instruments of repression (e.g. Tiananmen Square and the protests in Hong Kong). In still other instances, protests that initially look like a failure may contribute to longer-term trends bringing change - the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Polish solidarity movement of the 1980s are all part of a timeline culminating in popular protests in 1989 that ended communist regimes across Europe.

 

Finally, there are moments when protest and unrest capture the mood and momentum of the times and leads to progressive change, the civil rights movement in the U.S. being the most obvious example. Exactly how the events of the last week turn out is a question that will only be definitively answered by historians, and even then, no doubt, with varied judgments. However, it is worth noting the evidence that non-violent protest (and the majority of protestors have been non-violent) are frequently effective in achieving their objectives.[1]

 

The question for now is: how can America ensure this moment is captured in such a way that it falls into that category of social protest that brings peace with social justice, rather than continuation of an (un)civil order resting on inequality, discrimination and precarity? A first step is to recognize that civil disorder (even when it involves property destruction) is generally understood by perpetrators as a political act aimed at addressing injustice. To be sure, it can also attract camp followers who simply view social breakdown as an opportunity to continue criminal enterprise by other means. However, it is also the case that grievance and economic opportunity are not necessarily mutually exclusive drivers of protest, particularly in a context where some 40 million Americans have now filed for unemployment. Moreover, many politicians and commentators prefer to focus on images of crime and looting precisely because it de-legitimizes protest and civil disobedience. As Ranieri[2] has observed: "if there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being, you begin by not seeing him as the bearer of signs of politicality, by not understanding what he says, by not hearing what issues from his mouth as discourse." 

 

The focus on crime and looting also functions to downplay the intentionality underpinning the actions of protestors. Part of the logic of civil unrest – and particularly non-violent protest - is that activists deliberately engage in acts designed to demonstrate the violence, authoritarianism and anti-democratic tendencies inherent in domestic institutions. This is part of a long tradition that includes the suffragettes in America and Britain, Gandhi in India and the civil rights movement in the US. Politicians who only talk of insurrection and troops on the streets should be careful what they wish for - this is precisely the face of the state that demonstrators want to highlight to their compatriots to undermine its claim to legitimacy.

 

A second factor determining the impact of the current protest is the extent to which protestors can translate the energy of the moment into something more durable. This is not inevitable, but not impossible either. Protestors always want to transform society, but protest firstly transforms the protestor themselves, changing not only their values and identities but also their goals, skills and networks.[3] No doubt many of the people on the streets have already experienced these changes through participation in other protests. For others, it will be the first time they have taken to the streets. Either way, the impact of the current protest will be a function of the learning processes undertaken by protestors and their ability to transform a cathartic eruption of anger into a sustainable movement for social change.

 

Thirdly, it is also important not to apply the myth of American exceptionalism to the phenomenon of the contemporary riot. The disturbances in America are also part of a resurgence of civil unrest around the world. This includes (to name just a few examples) the Arab Spring, the protests in Hong Kong, the yellow vest movement in France, protests in Lebanon initially sparked by a tax on WhatsApp calls; and riots in Chile occasioned by a rise in metro ticket prices. The roots of these movements are invariably locally specific, and the politics they give rise to is equally varied, some progressive, some reactionary. Nevertheless, there is clearly something in the air around the world – and it is not just the whiff of tear gas. These societal eruptions may have features that are sui generis but they are also mimetic, both in modes of protest and the deeper global trends they are a reaction to: rising inequality, job insecurity, societal polarization, political corruption, environmental destruction, the erosion of welfare support mechanisms and the breakdown of trust between state and society, or at least certain sections of society – and all that was before the advent of the coronavirus.

 

If American citizens are to turn this moment of crisis and breakdown into a starting point for renewal, they must not only learn from other movements around the world but recognise that efforts to construct a better America cannot proceed in isolation. One dimension of this is reflected in the way U.S. protests about the death of George Floyd have inspired similar protests around the world, protests that function both as an expression of solidarity and a recognition that institutionalized racism is a shared experience that crosses borders. It is also the case that real change will need to be grounded in an acknowledgement that reform in America will also require action to transform the mechanisms of global governance, dominant modes of international political economy and global militarism, not to mention global health systems. This may seem disconnected from the murder of a black American on the streets of Minneapolis, but this is akin to suggesting slavery in America was disconnected from the international economy of cotton. Likewise, police racism in Minneapolis is just one part of an interconnected global system of economy, governance and security that entrenches local inequalities, exacerbates the politics of division and requires militarized policing to maintain order in countries across the world. Without reform at the international level, there will always be blowback on main street, another global crisis looming over the horizon and a securitized political economy that leaves American citizens at the mercy of racist policing.

 

Fourthly, a key insight from the literature on peace and conflict studies is that the resolution of conflict rarely succeeds if only the problem of direct violence is addressed. Rather, there is a need to also address the problem of structural violence (the way particular economic and social structures prevent individuals or specific communities from realizing their true potential). Thus, the 8 minutes and 46 seconds it took for police to murder one American citizen has resonated precisely because the image of that knee and that casual hand in the pocket so effectively symbolized the lived experience of the criminal justice system for people of color, and particularly African Americans. As Solomon has noted, African Americans represent 13% of the U.S. population, yet comprise 40% of those incarcerated. They are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts, and young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot by a law enforcement officer than their white counterparts.[4]

 

However, the workings of the criminal justice system represent just one dimension of a series of inter-connected and multi-sectoral inequalities in the job market, in health provision and health outcomes, in education, and in political representation. To take just one example of structural violence in the U.S.: median family wealth for non-Hispanic whites is 10 times that of Hispanics and 12 times more than that of African Americans.[5] Of course, the idea that such structural inequalities exist and need to be addressed is not rocket science. Rather, the discussion about them has attained the status of a political cliché rolled out at moments of racial tension but only rarely producing meaningful change.

 

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, the definition of political delusion on race in America is NOT doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Thus, identifying the need to address the actual and structural violence faced by people of color may not be rocket science, but actually doing something about it is certainly akin to rocket engineering  - slow, costly, requiring long-term commitment and a holistic approach to the problem. Indeed, a further insight from the field is that absent holistic economic and social change, even well-intentioned and much-needed efforts at police reform can simply end up making the state more effective in maintaining order without justice.

 

A further lesson from peace and conflict research is that identification of the problems faced by disadvantaged communities and the solutions to them is best done by those self-same communities. Once again, the insight that peace and social justice must proceed through local ownership should not be a remarkable one, but the experience of local communities being told what needs to be done to ‘fix them’ is a depressingly recurring theme. The same goes for the simulation of local empowerment that occurs when community groups desperate for cash are pushed to deliver programs that accord not with local needs but with the competing priorities of different funders. Proper local ownership proceeds from long-term commitment to, and funding of, diverse local groups committed to representing different sections of the community.

 

Any attempt to transform current systems of injustice will therefore need to place local people, local communities and local groups at the center of those processes of change. Not just as agents of programs devised elsewhere but as active participants in the identification of problems, the development of solutions and the implementation of change on the ground. This is not to suggest that leadership in the centers of government is unimportant. Indeed, part of the context informing the current protests is the perception that Washington has not only failed to address the problem of racial injustice but has been complicit in creating a permissive environment for it to flourish. In the short-term, it is difficult to see how this might change. However, one consequence of people exercising bottom-up power is that they can also transform the operations of top-down power, not least by producing new leaders for change.

 

A final point to note is that action to address racial injustice is in the interest of all Americans. In part, this is because large majorities have a shared commitment to common values of justice and equality. It actually matters to many that the difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest 1% of Americans is 10.1 years for women and 14.6 years for men.[6] More instrumentally, however, as Wilkinson and Pickett have demonstrated in their ground-breaking book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, addressing inequality increases wellbeing and quality of life for all. Not only are levels of trust between members of the public greater in more equal societies but they also have better outcomes across a range of measures – crime, health, mental health, illegal drug use, homicide rates etc. Of course, the problems of militarized policing, poor welfare safety nets, high prison incarceration rates, gun violence and job insecurity disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities, but they also impact on everyone. The protestors on the streets of America instinctively know this, as illustrated by their very diversity. It is not only African Americans on the streets but Americans of all races, ages and religions. And in their very diversity they embody an alternative version of America, an America marked by bonds of solidarity and community between people, an America committed to social justice for all and an America where there is perennial hope for renewal.

 

This is also America – and it is certainly an America worth coming out onto the streets to strive for.  

 

 


[1] E Chenoweth and M.J Stephan, Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict,  New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011.

[2] Jacques Ranciére, ‘Ten Theses on Politics’, Theory and Event, Vol. 5, Issue 3, 2001.

[3] Peter Levine, ‘Habermas with a Whiff of Teargas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism’, Journal of Public Deliberation, Vol. 14, No. 2, p. 10

[5]  Samuel L Dickman, David U Himmelstein and Steffie Woolhandler, ‘America: Equity and Equality in Health 1’, Lancet, 389, 2017 p. 1432

[6] Ibid., p. 1431

POSTED: Friday, June 5, 2020 - 3:59pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, June 9, 2020 - 11:53am
WRITTEN BY:
Neil Cooper