Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or The Institute on Assets and Social Policy.
I write as Director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy to express my deep and abiding solidarity with those standing up, speaking out, and fighting back against police brutality, systemic racism, white supremacy, and deep-seated anti-Blackness.
COVID-19 ripped away a thin veneer of structural racism
This is a deeply painful and dangerous moment in our country. The righteous anger and pain expressed through protests are valid reactions to longstanding and far-reaching forms of racial injustice that are enshrined in policy. These actions are a necessary and justified reaction to state-sponsored violence against Black Americans to maintain massive social injustice and unchecked power. This latest violence is a foundational problem that is rooted in our nation’s centuries-old history of enslavement, racial discrimination, intimidation, and oppression. Normal was the problem.
The last months have been difficult for all of us. COVID-19 ripped away a thin veneer of structural racism, exposing how segregated living and working conditions led to racially disparate infection rates and the utter failure of a market-oriented health regime that creates classes of health care while ignoring preventive measures. Condolences are not enough for the murders of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the many others killed at the hands and boots of law enforcement, just as they are not enough for the unhuman spectacle of children in cages awaiting deportation. This too is not new. The names of those who became recognizably public in my lifetime alone stretch back to the Watts conflict in 1965, Detroit in 1968, the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Rodney King, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, the dozens of names that reach public attention, and the hundreds that never do. The protests since George Floyd’s murder are long overdue. They are drawing a clear boundary against militarized police oppression as a tool to keep communities of color in line. Racism is at the core of COVID’s epidemiology just as is at the core of violence and oppression.
To disrupt these systems of oppression, we need transformative housing justice, school reforms and integration
When we experience injustices like these, we should be upset. There will be more police brutality and killing as Trump’s call for dominance and military intervention provides further license for the police, military, and vigilantes. We should protest. We should organize. We should demand accountability from police departments when they violate the law. This is what social change looks like. Never in my lifetime has racial justice advanced because of the kind-hearted actions of wealthy white men in power. If we want racial justice, we must demand it.
Policing is just one component of our society’s web of systemic oppression. Patriarchy. White supremacy. Exploitative capitalism. These are specific systems of oppression that cut across social policy sectors and populations and produce the exact injustices we are witnessing today. To disrupt these systems of oppression, we need transformative housing justice, school reforms and integration, good job opportunities, redirected public resources, and healthy neighborhoods. These conditions structured George Floyd and four Minneapolis police officers into the same space and time with deadly results.
My encounters with police and authorities have been different. My white privilege protected me from a false drug arrest as a 17-year old while someone not looking like me or from a prosperous family would have been far likelier to end up with a criminal arrest scarring them for the rest of their lives. My white privilege surely protected me from a Federal Grand Jury deliberating whether to indict me for refusing induction to the US Army during Vietnam. And there is more. This affirms my understanding that privilege and oppression are two sides of the same coin.
As a white American, I felt the indignity of a false arrest as police smirked at my story; I have felt police batons and vividly recall tear gas that chokes. However, I can only imagine knees to the neck, the stress of having to be on alert every minute, every day, and bullets that extinguish lives. I have spent my professional life trying to understand the deep sources of inequality and racism that require so much denial, patrolling, incarceration, and violence to maintain it. I have spent decades trying to develop revealing research and policies and programs to address it. I have partnered strategically with advocates and leaders of color to craft research in service to racial justice. The pain and suffering we feel today is yet another stinging wakeup call and a tragedy for our society. We need time to digest the heinous acts that have brought pain and suffering to all who cherish social justice. Time we do not have. We need time to engage with allies about why we have made so little progress. What can we do better? How? These are provocative questions. Again, I feel the luxury of time is not one we have right now. The urgency of now requires different approaches, bolder imagination, and standing fast for reparative justice.
A new narrative
We need to burn new narrative images into everyday consciousness: Militarized police with up-to-date technology and weapons while health care workers resort to trash bags for protection from a deadly pandemic. The privilege of choosing Zoom backgrounds for our fully paid remote work while others are forced to choose between risky work or losing their incomes. These stories need telling and re-telling. The narrative image of a white woman, Amy Cooper, reporting that a Black man is threatening her and activating a police response that could have easily led to yet another tragedy like George Floyd’s. The counter-story is a row of unnamed young white folks putting themselves in harm’s way to shield Black protestors from oncoming police. Those of us with privilege in many forms can use it to provide space, opportunity, resources. Leading understands when to follow. Our bodies. Our brains. Our wallets. Our solidarity.
The protests prompted by the murder of George Floyd are a courageous and inspiring mobilization against an unjust system. The campaign is winning legal victories and while there is a larger system to change, today (4 June) feels like progress and a better day.
I wish the actions on the streets across America would lead the way to justice. We know how to mobilize, how to surrender temporarily our constructed sense of individualism for collective action. We are not nearly as good about understanding what it takes to organize for the power necessary for long-term, reparative, and sustaining social justice. Understanding the difference between mobilizing and organizing, how much more difficult and necessary organizing for power and change is, and supporting the research, policy work, community engagement, partnerships, and advocacy to help make this possible—these are my priorities moving forward.
It is an honor to share this solidarity with the IASP Team.
Please take care, stay safe, and practice solidarity.
[This statement is from my heart and does not represent the views of Brandeis University, the Heller School for Social Policy or IASP].