The last words of George Floyd’s as former Officer Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department murdered Floyd by putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes are bone chilling.
“I can’t breathe.”
The era of slavery and Jim Crow was defined by social and legal structures that were inherently racist towards people of color, most notably African Americans. We look back on that era with disgust, reproach and shame. Yet the very idea of these social and legal structures being no longer existent is simply false. Institutionalized racism, while seen as a vestigial organ of our past, remains just simply in another form.
Whether you would like to believe it or not, the fact of the matter remains that one in three black males growing up in America today will see the inside of a jail cell, according to the Sentencing Project.
Black people consistently receive longer sentences and crueler punishments than their white counterparts for the exact same crime, according to the University of Michigan Law School.
A black person is four times more likely to get stopped by the police than a white person, according to The Guardian. And despite the fact that white people are more likely to deal drugs, black people are more likely to get arrested for it, according to The Washington Post.
While we have made progress since the days of slavery, it simply isn’t enough.
The names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and the thousands of others of people killed by police whose names will never see the light serve as a testament to the idea that racism in America has just taken another form.
The blue uniform, which is supposed to symbolize protection, safety and trust, now represents murder, terror and oppression to many marginalized communities across the United States because of officers like Chauvin.
Now, the police are not solely to blame. In fact, the police have been trained to treat the symptoms of injustice that policymakers and those in positions of authority choose to ignore.
Rather than focusing resources on improving education, access to healthcare and the number of decent-paying jobs specifically in communities of color, the police are trained to arrest the people who are committing crimes largely because that’s the only choice they have to sustain and support themselves. The War on Drugs, whose foundation is largely credited to Richard Nixon, is a driving factor in the many injustices we see in our criminal justice system today.
The three strikes law, mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the disparities we see in crack vs cocaine sentencing are all just “legal” methods by which people of color are subjected to second-class citizenship for the rest of their lives.
For example, a University of Michigan Law School study found that all other factors being equal, black offenders were 75% more likely to face a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence than a white offender who committed the same crime.
Mandatory minimums are legal statutes and sentences that courts are required to give to a person convicted of a certain crime. This essentially disregards any circumstances or external factors surrounding the crime, thereby creating the potential for people to be sentenced to a longer time than they truly deserve.
Following the murder of George Floyd, we now see protests, riots and looting taking place all across the country. Many are quick to denounce and condone these acts of retaliation and many, including our President, have labeled these rioters as “thugs.” While it is perfectly reasonable to assume that there are people among these looters who are simply taking advantage of the situation, we all must step back and take a look at why these protests are occurring in the first place.
John Locke, an Enlightenment thinker who we attribute many aspects of our American democracy to, expanded on the idea of a social contract. This social contract essentially stated that members of society give up their rights and certain liberties in exchange for the government’s protection.
However, some might protest and even riot as a last recourse, the ultimate act of hopelessness and distrust of a government that is intended to protect them. This social contract is not a one way street by any means. We all have a responsibility as citizens of this democracy to uphold our side of the deal, but the government must as well.
Now, more than ever, is the time to unite. This issue is complex and there are many approaches to reach the same goal. Rather than taking one side and posting it on social media, take this time to reflect and try to learn and grow from others. Don’t hate or attack other people who share beliefs different from your own, because, in the end, I think we can all agree to a certain extent that these incidents are unjust.
Please don’t turn a blind eye to these serious issues; take the time to educate yourself by watching a documentary, reading a book or engaging in a civil discussion with others. And most importantly, please don’t lose hope. In the words of Bryan Stevenson, “injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.”