Racism, Violence, and Polarization in the United States
Violence and racism are part of every society, including the U.S. The fundamental difference is that the U.S. is an open society. These conflicts are visible to the whole world
Spanish – Rodney King was chased for miles and stopped at the side of the highway. He was driving drunk and at high speed. Arrested and abused by the police, King ended up in a hospital with three surgeries. The video of the incident, recorded from a nearby window, appeared two days later on all the television stations in the country. Four police officers ended up in court.
The event occurred in March 1991. The trial concluded on 29 April 1992 with the acquittal of the accused. Racial violence twice: there was not a single African-American on the jury. The protest led to a riot that was only brought under control when the California National Guard, an Army infantry division and a Marine division intervened, and after a month of looting, arson, and 63 deaths.
The “LA riots.” Dozens of similar episodes have occurred since then, just as so many others had happened before. That revolt, nearly three decades ago, definitely changed public deliberation on race relations. It was not enough, however, to interrupt a pattern of racially biased police violence. The case of George Floyd, who was less fortunate than Rodney King, is part of this problem.
Beyond the different, more or less explicit ways in which they are manifested, violence and racism are part of every society, including the United States. The fundamental difference is that the United States is an open society. These conflicts are visible to the whole world.
Justin Trudeau kneels in homage to Floyd, but he should also do so because of the violence suffered by indigenous women and girls, “racism and misogyny are woven into the fabric of Canadian society, structural violence hidden for generations.” The latter, according to a report published by the state itself, which speaks of “genocide,” to cite one example.
The violence is related to the asymmetries arising from the process of defining rights- in this case, between different racial groups. Expanding rights “empowers,” we often say. That is, it empowers the beneficiaries of such expansion, by definition, by reallocating material, and/or symbolic resources. Therefore, it is contingent on, and hence, a source of conflict, as is the case with any political dispute.
The history of the construction of citizenry is a perennial expansion and contraction of rights over time. It is never a linear history, much less an aseptic one. It is a conflicting, contradictory, and often traumatic process. Hence, violence.
In the United States, it is impossible not to trace such trauma back to that kind of “original conflict.” Take the following as a parable. When General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, signed the surrender on April 9, 1865, it was indeed a half-assed, temporary surrender. The occupation of the Confederate South by federal troops – Reconstruction – ended in 1877 with the return of sovereign powers to the states.
This started the era of segregation, Jim Crow. The process of expanding rights was truncated as formerly enslaved people emancipated by President Lincoln’s Executive Order of 1862 were left in a state of partial citizenship. Only 87 years later, through legislation in 1964 and 1965, did they become citizens with full civil and political rights.
Racism is also an institution, consider this as another example. In the state of Virginia, which is on the border of the nation’s capital, marriage was defined as “the right of a man and a woman of the same race to marry” until 1968. Interracial marriage was illegal. It was seen as a threat to human nature.
The above is a historical context. In these protests today, it is important to analyze some triggers that served as fuel. Social outrage cannot be dissociated from the tensions produced by the pandemic. Namely: the health care crisis, the disease, and its uncertainty, the death toll, the oppressive confinement, its side effects, including domestic violence, the recession, and unemployment; 38 million at the peak of May, literally overnight.
This also builds on the sustained growth in inequality since the 1980s and the dramatic decline in upward social mobility. For example, university tuition costs have increased by about 10% every year for three decades, six points above inflation. Education is no longer a guarantee of employment; it only ensures a tough debt to pay for an entire generation of young people. Social frustration is important. The American dream is not what it once was.
These young people, some of them with vague “anarchist” ideas- as seen in the featured photo of this column, the “A” painted on the front of the Treasury Department- became part of the protests, co-opted them in some places, and caused indiscriminate looting and ransacking in several places. Vandalism distorts and contaminates a legitimate claim. For certain political operators who have infiltrated the protest, the objective is not racial justice but the destabilization of the country’s institutions.
This also builds on the sustained growth in inequality since the 1980s and the dramatic decline in upward social mobility. For example, university tuition costs have increased by about 10% every year for three decades, six points above inflation. Education is no longer a guarantee of employment; it only ensures a tough debt to pay for an entire generation of young people. Social frustration is important, the American dream is not like it was then.
Violence also exacerbates polarization. Trump is always accused of promoting such polarization, but Trump is an effect of it, not its cause. This trend predates his entry into politics in 2015. Polarization is a consequence of conflicts associated with growing inequality, a rapidly changing economy with quick winners and losers, and a democratic system that represents fewer people and passes worse laws.
Much of this has to do with a real cartel-the two-party system-which discreetly distributes the design of the electoral systems in the states and consolidates fiefdoms where power never changes hands. Hence, the presidential election is always limited to the outcome of four or five swing states and the seat retention rate is comparable to those of China and Cuba.
Trump is the beneficiary of all this, not the author. His counter-political discourse is precisely the intuition that allowed him to capitalize on these deep institutional dysfunctions.
Coronavirus, job recovery, racial violence, it’s all part of the election campaign for each other. Some on the “left”, with quotation marks, seem to understand that campaign in terms of exacerbating racial polarization now. It is a recipe for more conflict and probably, more violence.
Come November, it could also end up being the recipe for Donald Trump’s re-election. Simple demographics are enough to predict the election result based on the vote of a white, non-urban, conservative, and now-frightened adult. And that, therefore, he would go out and vote in higher proportions than the historical averages of voter participation.