14 June 2020

The George Floyd Protests

"Why are all rich people white?" That question came out of nowhere from an African-born teenager visiting my house years ago. "It's complicated," I said.

A majority of people in America want to see racial harmony. People want life outcomes to be based on the content of one's character and not the color of their skin. However, the life outcomes of black citizens in the United States tend to fare worse than those of its white citizens. The roots of this problem are not simple or easy to fix.

Watching the George Floyd protests I have been surprised at the positive response from the masses of white people. This week my company held a townhall phone meeting just to let people share their thoughts on race in America for an hour and a half. It was full of spontaneous personal testimonies and calls for empathy, awareness, justice, and inclusion. It was attended by 1,000 people, about a third of the company. 

The current conversation about race feels different than anything I've experienced in my life, and I think some positive change will come of it. I want to share some thoughts on this moment and I hope to cut through some of the meme-fueled anger and get into the nuance that doesn't fit onto protester signs. 

Shoghi Effendi

By far the best commentary I've read on race in America comes from Shoghi Effendi, who led the Baha'i Faith from 1921-1957 and wrote about the situation in America in 1938:

A tremendous effort is required by both races if their outlook, their manners, and conduct are to reflect, in this darkened age, the spirit and teachings of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh. Casting away once and for all the fallacious doctrine of racial superiority, with all its attendant evils, confusion, and miseries, and welcoming and encouraging the intermixture of races, and tearing down the barriers that now divide them, they should each endeavor, day and night, to fulfill their particular responsibilities in the common task which so urgently faces them...
Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds. Let the Negroes, through a corresponding effort on their part, show by every means in their power the warmth of their response, their readiness to forget the past, and their ability to wipe out every trace of suspicion that may still linger in their hearts and minds. Let neither think that the solution of so vast a problem is a matter that exclusively concerns the other. Let neither think that such a problem can either easily or immediately be resolved.

Those excerpts from Advent of Divine Justice succinctly capture the attitudes needed to resolve the quite difficult situation Americans found themselves in the 1930s, and it rings just as true today. 

Joy DeGruy

Joy DeGruy
The other commentary I've found quite useful is a book by Joy DeGruy: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. She is an African American Baha'i from Los Angeles who did her PhD thesis on racism, violence, and American slavery (and happens to be a friend). Her book does a great job of providing historical context, personal anecdotes, and most importantly, demonstrating how slavery and a century of legal racial discrimination left generational trauma on black families that continues today. It helped me understand why the problem of racial disparities is complicated and can't be solved overnight. 

Clearly some of the poorer outcomes experienced by African Americans come from lack of opportunity and unfair discrimination in housing, loans, jobs, policing, sentencing, etc. That is a real problem that needs to be rooted out whenever possible, but by its nature can't be fixed through laws. It manifests in personal interaction, sometimes unconsciously, so each one of us needs to overcome our biases and actually create an opposing positive bias. To compensate, every white person should be doubly kind, forgiving, generous, and patient with any African American. 

What Joy's book also brought out is the generational trauma that has been passed down to children who didn't personally experience slavery or segregation. For example, under legal slavery blacks were beaten, raped, or killed with impunity. The 13th Amendment left a loophole that allowed southern states to lease prisoners as slaves, so in practice slavery continued until the 1920s. Prisoners were worked to death and families separated. Black communities were still terrorized. An intense poverty was the reality of all but a few black families. 

At the point that the trauma were removed, would those families end up with equivalent life outcomes within a generation? Of course not. It would take several generations to recover, and then only if the stumbling blocks were removed from their path. 

Legal segregation continued until the 1960s. Did the external trauma end in the 1960s?

It's complicated

Unfair discrimination has continued to this day in access to loans, housing, and jobs. These are well documented but one example stands out and has been repeated in many studies: a resume with a 'black' sounding name gets about 10% call backs, and the exact same resume with 'white' sounding names gets about 25% call backs. Unlike the Civil Rights reforms, these problems are nearly impossible to fix through laws, so they will fester until the culture changes. It's a lower level of trauma, but it hasn't ended.

The other place that unfair discrimination appears is in policing and sentencing. Black people make up about 12% of the US population, yet they make up 20% of people killed by police, and a well documented bias exists in juries and judges during sentencing. Police spend the day making snap judgments about people they interact with. Everybody does that, but police are using it to evaluate the danger to themselves and others, and any bias that perceives black people as more dangerous will manifest in blacks being pulled over more, checked for drugs more, and detained more aggressively. People tend to be more comfortable and trusting of people that are more like themselves, so a white police officer might generally have more peaceful interactions with white suspects than the black kind. 

The perception bias also means that white people are more likely to call the police on black people. Someone at my work shared that his black father once moved to a new house and was sitting in the living room. A white lady in the neighborhood saw him and assumed that he had broken in because she thought a black man wouldn't be able to afford the neighborhood. The police crashed the door in with their guns drawn on him.

Black lives matter

When Michael Brown was shot by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri, I was already conscious of the rising movement for racial equality and the many examples of bias in policing. I investigated the case in earnest after the grand jury announcement was made. I was really disappointed, not because the officer was acquitted, but because the public and media had turned into a mob and were so eager to demand reform that they latched on to Brown's friend, who lied on camera. The friend told a story of an innocent young kid minding his own business when a police officer shot him with his hands up. What actually came out in court, where it matters, was a story of Michael Brown and his friend having just robbed a store, walking around with the loot visible, when an officer approached them. Brown was high enough to be hallucinating when he rushed the officer before he could exit his vehicle and started punching him in the face. With both of them fumbling for the gun, the officer shot Brown in the hand, which made him run away. When the officer pursued him, Brown turned and walked toward him, looking like he was ready to attack again. After several warnings and while backing up, he shot Brown dead. 

The movement that was primed and ready to make needed changes in police interactions with black Americans latched on to one particular case as an example to inspire change. People called it a murder. The problem was, the case they chose to make an example was the wrong case, it was built on the lies of Brown's accomplice and not the 60 other witnesses who convinced a jury that included 3 black members to acquit the officer. A similar story could be told of Eric Garner in New York whose death gained attention. 

The right or wrongness of the movement's founding case really matters because it is trying to change culture. The cases being magnified are anecdotal, magnifying a case of injustice to demand fair treatment in all areas of society. A large number of white people ignored the entire Black Lives Matter movement and saw it as extreme or political because its founding claim of injustice turned out to not hold up under scrutiny and the protesters appeared to not understand policing.

Any death is tragic, but the tragedy in the case of Michael Brown was not the day he died, it was a life that led him to make the choices he made that day. The failure of society that day was behind the scenes, decades in the making. Federal investigations into the city of Ferguson and its police force found the systemic injustice that everyone knew was there. 

About 30% of Ferguson was of African descent, and as with many other black communities, they were on average more poor and less educated than their white neighbors. The police department was not there to uplift the downtrodden; the Ferguson police priorities were being set by the finance department. Investigators dug up emails from the city basically telling the police, "We need more revenue, send officers out on patrol." Those officers would then find the easiest targets in the black parts of town, looking for minor infractions.

According to a 2015 report by the Department of Justice, 

This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. Ferguson’s own data establish clear racial disparities that adversely impact African Americans. The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities. Over time, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices have sown deep mistrust between parts of the community and the police department, undermining law enforcement legitimacy among African Americans in particular.

I'm no expert, but I would guess this description fits many towns across the United States. The trauma has not ended. 

George Floyd

The case of George Floyd was different. Floyd appears to have been wrongly accused of using a counterfeit bill (while drunk). The police were called in and they were quick to arrest him. He put up some minor resistance by going limp and tried not to get in the police car. That's it. The officers pinned him down with a knee on the neck and he died while pleading for his life.

I believe George Floyd's death will change culture. Police across the country are supporting the movement. The masses of white people are turning their attention to the plight of black communities and becoming aware of unfair discrimination in policing. There is an expectation that the experience of the last 50 years needs to change, and the trauma needs to be removed. 

There seems to be widespread agreement that Floyd's case was unjust, but there is a question that those-who-lean-white-nationalist will definitely notice: Where is the racism? For context, police arrest about 10 million people a year in the United States, and about 1,000 a year die from police interactions, with about 20% of those killed being black. The narrative that there is an epidemic of racist cops running around with an intent to murder black people is just plainly untrue. In the case of George Floyd, there is nothing indicating racial discrimination other than the fact that Floyd was black and the others were white and asian. I have two responses to this. 

First, accidental death is such a big deal, and police are given so much benefit of the doubt when someone dies, that cases such as Floyd's that are obviously excessive force should be tried and prosecuted regardless of the race considerations. Second, though there was nothing explicitly racist in Floyd's case, there were three places I can see where things escalated quickly, and those things tend to happen more to black people. They were when the store owner claimed he used a counterfeit bill, when the police were quick to detain him, and when the police used excessive force on him because he was resisting arrest. This is being used as an anecdotal case that represents a systemic problem of these kinds of escalations happening more often and more severely to black people, and that's what the protests are actually about. 

On the other hand, some protesters are so ignorant of the facts that some are demanding an end to police altogether, or that police should never kill anyone under any circumstances, or that police should just leave people alone if they don't want to be arrested. Many people are calling it a murder. Those police officers knew they were being filmed and obviously did not believe they were killing Floyd. Those extreme views are also dangerous because they turn rational people away from the movement and into the arms of law-and-order politicians who are not sympathetic to the needs of people of color. 

Final thought from a privileged rich white guy

I benefited immensely from grandparents and great-grandparents who were well-educated, had access to jobs, and were raised by their parents. A fellow black American could have had his grandfather (who himself lacked a stable family) unjustly thrown in prison for a bogus crime, and raised in deep poverty by a single mother who lacked a high school education. That same person is more likely to have interactions with police because of the color of his skin. Even when the trauma is entirely removed, there still needs to be healing and equity. Even if you didn't personally own slaves, we are all living with the remnants of slavery. If you're playing a game of monopoly and the 3 white players get to go around the board twice before the black player joins, they can't just say, "the rules are equal," and carry on. But in the real world, you can't just start the game over. There is no easy solution, but white and black people both have different roles to play. 

This context is really important. Any reform has to take into account both the state of deprivation that black Americans have been digging out of since the 1960s and the continued hinderances to their development that are brought on by a privileged white class that has been largely indifferent to their suffering. Once a level playing field is developed and the trauma is mostly removed, then black communities will still need some positive bias, extra money for schools, affirmative action in jobs and housing, a better voice in the media, and much more. With the removal of trauma and a compensating hand, black families might achieve parity of outcomes relative to the population within a few generations. 

The goal

1 comment:

  1. you never answer the question... why are all white people rich?