Black Lives Matter: The Movement and its Roots
Apurbaa Sengupta and Tanistha Bhagawati
A 21st century manifestation of the decades-old systematic racial oppression has resurfaced in the United States with a hideous incident that resulted in the death of a 47 year old black man, George Floyd. The last couple of weeks have observed the US being painted with the words “Black Lives Matter” and streets occupied by masked protestors carrying placards to condemn the police atrocities and barbaric violence meted out to the historically marginalised black community. The major stimulus to the pre-existing Black Lives Matter movement was the death of George Floyd on 25th May, 2020 at the hands of a white police inspector, Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. Details from a transcript recorded from the viral footage reveal that the Black Man called out for his mother and children and repeated that he could not breathe for nearly twenty-seven times before inspector Chauvin suggested “...stop talking, stop yelling. It takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to talk.” The footage triggered widespread protests across various states in the US and has clearly emerged as one of the broadest protest movements not just in the country but also around the world. Thousands of protestors have taken to the streets to condemn the discrimination and raise their voices against police brutality. According to a latest poll conducted by Civis Analytics, almost 15 to 26 million people in the United States participated in the demonstrations and protests associated with the killing of George Floyd. In the next one and a half months, angry protestors have taken down statues and the police departments have announced reforms in various parts of the country.
Tracing the roots of the movement
The origin of the Black Lives Matter Movement traces back to 2013 when Alicia Garza, a Californian civil rights activist coined the phrase to condemn the high profile killing of a seventeen year old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida on the grounds that the black man looked ‘suspicious’. Since then, the organisation founded by three individuals—Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors has gained global momentum. 2014 onwards, many African American men also became victims to police brutality; these include Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Philando Castile and so on. In addition to this, reducing black women to police targets sparked off the “Say Her Name” movement that was instituted to draw attention to the killing of black women resulting from racist police atrocities such as Sandra Bland, Deborah Danner, Ataliana Jefferson and Breonna Taylor. The significance of the digital era manifested in the digital mobilisation of the movement with the spread of “#BlackLivesMatter” all over the internet. The social media movement has now transformed into a broader collective global movement wherein the overwhelming national reckoning has propelled a “tremendous sense of pride”.
How is it different this time?
George Floyd is not the first African American to have lost his life to a systematically oppressive system. Even before, highly publicised killings of the likes of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice or Eric Garner had sparked massive protests in the States. However, the difference lay in the fact that this time the protests were much more widespread. The suffering that the man had to go through in the final nine minutes of his life triggered an extraordinary public rage all over the world. In the aftermath of the brutal murder, the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ went trending on social media to garner public support. Demonstrators have taken to the streets from across all fifty states, Washington to DC to claim justice for black Americans. In the words of Mr. Wiggins, a federal worker and attendee of the 1963 March in Washington, “I was shocked to see so many white kids out here.” Another factor that drove such large-scale attention was the opposition to President Trump. Especially, the second day of protests witnessed a large swell in the number of protestors claiming “Not our President” and condemning the Police Department. What can be considered as a third factor is the deadly pandemic that has left thousands of Americans scooped into their houses with no scope of attending schools or colleges. This fuelled a majority of the lot to clamp down onto the streets in the midst of nearly two-month isolation. According to a poll, white protestors comprised 61 percent in New York, 65 percent in Washington and 53 percent in Los Angeles.
Why the Black Community is targeted- A summary
Racial and ethnic discrimination is commonplace in many sectors of the American life, the most predominant being education, employment sector, and healthcare coupled with a general disdain most minorities are met from within the society. African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and some sub-groups of Asian Americans occupy lower socioeconomic ranks, often with suboptimal or no level of education, low-paying jobs, little access to healthcare and trapped in poverty. The legitimisation of racial discrimination found its roots in historical oppression and legalised segregation, the traces of which have lasted till date. The American society is such that people believe that being white grants them more social privileges than those that will be available to their black and Hispanic counterparts.
While racial disparity towards minority groups is commonplace in the United States, discrimination towards the African American community is almost glaring, and worst still, almost normalised (racial slurs used to refer to the Black Community are used commonly even in popular culture which trivialises racial abuse). Survey witnesses that 56% candidates see being Black as a disadvantage with 25% confirming to the belief that it hurts their opportunity to get ahead in life. In comparison a smaller percentage (51%) see being Hispanic as a disadvantage whereas the popular opinion confirms that being an Asian neither helps nor hurts, a greater proportion saying it helps (34%) than it hurts (21%). The statistics can be used to make a fair conclusion that even in the existence of disparity, the African American community is more likely to be discriminated against.
While there can be many reasons to this, an observation is that it could be at the very root- Immigration. The Immigration Act of 1924 had restricted migration from Asia, Southern and eastern Europe which was changed after the Immigration and Nationality Act 1965 (Hart-Cellar Act) abolishing previous restrictions and allowing immigration which removed de facto discrimination against Asians and Southern and Eastern Europeans. The Hart-Cellar Act also created a seven-category preference system which would prioritise the relatives of US citizens and permanent legal residents and to professionals and individuals with specialised skills. Asians migrating to America for jobs, primarily in the IT sector were educated individuals who would contribute productively to the economy. It can, thus be easily inferred that Asian migrants were allowed because of their contribution. The African American community, however, was inducted into the American society as slaves, the lowest group in the social ladder, without rights and opportunities. They were treated with disdain as though they were not people but animals. The constant dehumanising pattern has subconsciously created in the minds of the people that the African American community is ‘lesser’ and continuous to carry forward that thought process. Division of labour on the basis of race has been predominant since the Civil War era, especially in Southern provinces where the racial division is used to justify the economic exploitation.
In the present context, Asian Americans have shown stark economic success as compared to African Americans and sometimes, even their white counterparts. A very common argument surrounding racial disdain picks Asian Americans as an example raising questions that if white privilege is indeed oppressive and Americans are hostile towards minorities then how it that the census figures show that Asian Americans out-earn everyone. In 2014, Conservative commentator Billy O’Rilley pointed out that the average Asian household income was 20% more than white household’s income on average while a larger number of African Americans are lavished in poverty or earned below average of the stipulated income. While the paradigm of racism towards Asian American has assumed a dangerous turn especially after the Covid-19 pandemic where ignorant and racist remarks are being made at Asians in general and the Chinese community living abroad, in particular, Asians living abroad are more likely to be treated with less suspicion when in public (assumed to be benign, law-abiding citizens), receive higher education, and jobs than their African American counterparts.
The Civil War ended more than two centuries ago and legal segregation a few decades, but the after-effects are undeniable even today. Until the Covid-19 pandemic, the United States recorded 109 months of uninterrupted job growth with a record 50-year lowest unemployment, however the African American community continues to bear the brunt of discrimination as a result of which they are hardly able to acquire jobs good enough to support themselves or their family, facing systematic barrier in career progression, in spite of being fully capable . The poverty trapped African Americans have little respite where they have to resort to low paying jobs with suboptimal conditions.
The death of George Floyd, while unfortunately not a single incident, has significantly shaken the Country to the core reigniting the much needed ‘Black Lives Matter’ to be able to reinstate a more sustainable system that is able to support and care equitably for all individuals. Inability to cope with domestic disorder might take a significant toll on its international order. What the United States is dealing with today, is a pandemic within another pandemic. The killing of George Floyd is perhaps another reminder to the US of its inherent institutional racism. This can be considered one of the greatest challenges and calls for some complacency from the US about systematic racism. Probably, discussions on racial injustices and prospective measures to prevent them will be the best way to show solidarity to the 47-year-old man.
In the words of columnist LZ Granderson from Los Angeles Times:
“To those of you who are tired of reading about racism, trust me when I say this—I am tired of writing about it.”
Apurbaa Sengupta is currently in her final year of pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University. She holds a keen interest in research, primarily in the fields of Foreign Policy, International Relations, Neighbourhood Studies and Diplomacy.
Tanistha Bhagawati is currently in her final year of pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the Department of International Relation, Jadavpur University. Her area of interest includes International Relations with an emphasis on international market and diplomacy.
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