What Black Lives Matter Really Means

Josephine Kinlan

                      art by Sol Skelton

When Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd was murdered earlier this year, his neck under the knee of white police officer Derek Chauvin, a fire sparked in the hearts of citizens in states all around the nation. The act of police brutality - specifically racially-motivated police brutality - was suddenly the headline of every news channel and the focus of every human rights platform. What is clear to anyone who watches the video of Floyd crying, “I can’t breathe” under Chauvin’s knee - and then passing out - is that Floyd was a victim of unnecessary force. Chauvin’s freedom to commit murder because of his police status brings up some serious questions about what limitations should be placed on police officers, and how they are trained. Even more infuriating is how none of the three other officers at the event did anything to intervene - something that might have returned Floyd to his now widowed wife and fatherless 6-year old daughter.

Despite most people’s shock in bearing witness to Floyd’s death, his was just one of the countless tragedies committed by police officers every year against unarmed civilians. What is more, the majority of civilians targeted are disproportionately Black and Brown. Racist police brutality is a plaguing reality that many citizens of America just recently opened their eyes to, in the wake of Floyd’s death. A movement of racial justice has been the final signal that Americans will not tolerate such a system any longer. The cries of “Black Lives Matter!” and “Defund the Police” which one hears in the streets are only tips of the iceberg when it comes to the complex system of racial discrimination that still bedevils an America with a false belief that racism is behind us.

 

Racism is rooted in our nation’s history. Even before slavery, there was a social construct known as “the white man’s burden,” existent in European nations: it was a paternalistic - yet inherently racist - view, that those not of European descent were uncivilized, childish, and needing of assistance - hence the presence of the white man. This idea was culturally diffused into the Americas during colonization. 

In the Americas, this view supported the attacks and tensions with native peoples, exemplified most prominently in Christopher Columbus’ genocide of the Tainos, and the forced conversions of natives to Christianity. But this construct of white benevolence developed into something more. The groups migrating from Britain, to make up the Northern colonies, were very motivated by the belief that God was guiding their way - and so their subjugation and offense towards Natives was justified because they felt that the Natives were in the way of God’s mission. In the Central Americas and South, Spanish conquistadors were given numbers of natives who served their needs through a labor system called the encomienda system. All throughout the Americas, natives were subjugated, attacked, and used by Europeans, motivated by a newfound sense of white superiority. Most likely, seeing these groups subjugated also reinforced and normalized the ideal of their inferiority and of European supremacy, thus setting the stage for racism within the nation’s economy, in the near future.

The encomienda system was one of the first forms of systemic racial oppression, and it proved to be a big contributor to the economy in the Americas - but when native populations started dying off due to the spread of diseases, Americans were left wondering how they would reconstruct their labor force. Enter: African slaves. African chiefs received goods from Europe in exchange for the slaves, who were initially criminals of war - but as demand increased, raids were led to capture young Africans and usher them into the slave trade (6). The arrival of new labor in the Americas was further justified by the belief in the will of God (6), and the already established normalization of subjugating people of color (in the encomienda system). The labor systems in place during these developmental years was the foundation of colonial successes, and thus became a founding piece of the stability of this country, once united.

The post-abolition era brought new forms of systematic forced labor. Initially, emancipated black peoples were starting to experience positive social mobility and securing an upward-moving class of their own. An eminent example is Seneca Village, a flourishing neighborhood in New York that existed in what is now Central Park. Seneca Village held the first Black middle class of New York and was a sign that a new, prosperous era for the Black community was on the rise. In the South, some Black people were even elected into Congress in states with high Black populations. This all suggested an exciting, new Black prosperity in America. But these advances were sudden and drastic for whites who were not used to being on the same playing field and grounds as Black citizens; their upward positions in society frightened white people, who were accustomed to a social hierarchy in which they remained on top and Black people remained on the bottom. Legislation followed these fears, re-subjugating the up and coming Black working class. For Seneca Falls, the visions of prosperity were crushed after just 32 years, in which eminent domain - or the ability of the government to displace the people on land for public use - regulated Seneca Village to the construction of Central Park. Thus, Black peoples were once again diverted to the lowest of the social hierarchy, subsequently displaced and concentrated into neighborhoods with the only incomes they could afford. These became known as ghettos. Meanwhile, emancipated Black peoples - and the plantation owners they left - searched for new jobs - few of which were available. Most jobs favored landowners in this society, as those of white descent had greater autonomy and representation when it came to the law. Thus, one of the most open opportunities for freed Black people to find jobs was in the lands of the landowners they had just left - from this reality sprouted sharecropping, peonage, and other forms of labor (7). Black and white people looking for work would be assigned land from landowners, on which they would work to receive payment - these were sharecroppers. It was initially idolized as a solution to the lack of work now in the colonies. But sharecroppers were vulnerable to debts if they did not supply sufficient work, and many landowners were unforgiving, often abusing their power - a practice culturally passed down through the behavior of slave masters (7). Once these debts surmounted and became impossible to pay off, sharecroppers could be ushered into peonage - or debt servitude. Often argued as “slavery by another name”, those in debt servitude suffered similar physical treatments to slaves when laboring to pay off their debts, and were forced to work without pay, because their labor was the payment for their debts (2)(7). 

What is important to note here, is that these methods of labor were not racially enforced. There was no written declaration that Black people received different treatments than white people, nor that they were to be subservient in these laws. Instead, the lack of labor, coupled with the new institutions, set the stage for keeping the majority of Black people hegemonized. This is a significant turning point in the impact of legislation because it indicates that there was now not a need to have laws that outrightly stated Black people’s subservience or inferiority to the white population. Instead, multiple realities across different socioeconomic spectrums - specifically the lack of jobs for Black people, the lack of labor for landowners, and the surmounting debts that developed through sharecropping - secured the maintenance of Black people in the lower class. 

In the same way that the normalization of slavery maintained a social construct of white superiority, the concentrations of black people in struggling neighborhoods, sharecropping lands, and peonage institutions maintained a sense of their “threat” to society, and their believed inequality to white people. Their lower positions in society were preserved through generations, as their families owned little property to pass to their children. In the development of our America, property was one of the keys to ensuring that future generations had resources and stability. Throughout our racist history, Black people have seldom been granted that right. This is one of the reasons that in our modern-day, Black and Brown people struggle the most in our society for the same basic rights and resources that people take for granted - this is what is meant by systemic racism. Historical systems of racist oppression established the grounds for the struggles minorities face in our society today.

Shortly after the emancipation of the enslaved peoples came the Jim Crow Era, another form of outright racist oppression, different only in the absence of forced physical labor. Jim Crow was more of a social development as opposed to a laboral one: the laws defined racial distinctions within civil matters - like where Blacks and whites could use the bathroom, or sit on a bus - not distinctions of the working class based on race, as slavery was. Instead of being forced by a system to provide labor, they were now forced by a system to act subservient to whites. In this era, Black people were denied access to basic human rights and targeted heavily by law enforcement. Lynchings, mob attacks, and murders ensued while local law enforcement turned a blind eye. But when those of color broke the law - which remained stricter for them than their white counterparts - law enforcement officers committed horrendous acts of brutality. Officers were also rarely checked on their accounts and were thus able to fabricate or exaggerate the reasons for their brutality. One well-known example is Isaac Woodard, a 26-year-old black Army veteran who was beaten by police officers after a small dispute with a bus driver, in February of 1946. The bus driver had alerted police officers at a rest stop, but when trying to account for his side of the story, he was struck with a nightstick by the officer handling him, and then driven to a jail and beaten by the police chief to a point of blindness - all for a dispute, not even a crime (3). He was charged with disorderly conduct, and police claimed he was intoxicated, despite witnesses stating that he had not been drinking (3). Woodward’s story is an example of how a police officer’s freedom to enforce the law at their discretion was the key to maintaining police brutality in the era of Jim Crow.

Even beyond Jim Crow, police officers have been allowed to act overaggressively against civilians without receiving due consequences. A prime example is the beating of Rodney King in 1991. Motorist Rodney King had led the police on a car chase and was accused of driving under the influence; once cornered, King was ordered out of his car, and then violently battered by four police officers for 15 minutes straight (10). Other officers on the sidelines watched and commented on the violence, which left King with broken bones, teeth, skull fractures, and permanent brain damage (10). It was clear to any observer of the video that King’s treatment was savage and unjust - but the four officers were acquitted. Just hours later, riots erupted, and continued throughout the following years, demanding an end to police brutality.

And much is still the same today. In fact, the videos of George Floyd and Rodney King are very similar. We do not live under an era of Jim Crow, nor of lawful segregation. But - like the forms of labor that followed slavery, which were exempt from targeting races - our current laws and institutions of law enforcement work together to target lower classes of people, primarily Black and Brown citizens. Moreover, the inability to essentially prove racial bias in police actions - since proving racial bias without someone outrightly claiming it is quite difficult, because it becomes much more about subtleties and tendencies - produces a lack of concrete foundation to indicate racism within police institutions. This is one of the main reasons that groups advocating for an end to racial bias within policing are often ridiculed and/or struggle to enact effective change. The lack in concretion of what they hope to achieve, and how they hope to achieve it, leaves them grasping for something more tangible that the white majority would understand. But the fact is, systemic inequality is intangible - we must start recognizing it in this way if we hope to identify it in our society.

 

As a result of all of the different systematic oppressions that have been waged on Black and Brown communities throughout our nation’s history, they struggle the most economically and socially. The concentration of Black people in certain lower-income neighborhoods, which was previously explained as a result of our nation’s post-abolition era, has made these communities more vulnerable to displacement. Those in lower-income communities rarely have a defense against public housing projects that claim they are for “the greater good”, and are thus even more at risk. With displacement comes a loss of jobs, a struggle to maintain a family or oneself, and a multitude of other issues and new obstacles to be overcome. These difficulties make Black and Brown civilians more prone to turn to less ideal methods of making money: drugs and crime. In this way, the history of our nation has planted the seed that allows for the funneling of Black and Brown individuals into lives of crime - this is why it is essentially not “their fault,” a common argument against whether or not racial disparities in drug use and drug law exists.

What many do not understand about the painted picture our nation sets, of Black and Brown perpetrators of drugs and crime, is that these depictions are the result of a system that has taken form from other systems of oppression - what is to say this one is any different? Yes, we have come a long way, but trends rarely just stop. It is important to address this when reviewing our current system of mass incarceration, which many argue is our country’s third form of systemic racial oppression.

America holds a mere 5 percent of the world’s population, but its prison system holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners (4). African Americans constitute around 13 percent of the American population, but a whopping 40 percent of those incarcerated (4). This percentage is quite evidently disproportionate. African Americans also make up 28 percent of all arrests and 42 percent of all persons on death row - more disproportionate data (4). African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are also all more likely to be arrested and sentenced to jail or prison, in comparison to white Americans (4). One could look at these numbers and assume that minorities are more likely to commit certain crimes because of their circumstances - as was just explained - but those difficulties cannot account for the drastic-ness in disproportionality that these statistics indicate. 

Our system of mass incarceration makes it even more so unequal. To have such high populations in prisons when those minorities constitute such low percentages of the overall population, cannot just be derived from the realities of crime. The main reason that these disproportions exist is because of heavier police presence in lower-income neighborhoods, something that took effect during Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in which he emphasized a need to combat the War on Drugs. 

The War on Drugs was an initiative taken by the Reagan administration to combat the growth of drugs, through a dramatic increase of prison sentences for drug offenses - minor and major. But the drug problem that justified this action was exaggerated - it was more of a campaigning effort to hyperfocus the public’s eye on one issue to garner support for Reagan’s campaign, and to reestablish a racial hierarchy through systems of enaction. This racial intention was a devious one: the idea we see in our heads of drug users is typically someone of color, as societal influences, like media and rhetoric exposed to us throughout childhood, have made it so. Thus, declaring a War on Drugs meant more than combatting the drugs - it meant combatting the communities and the peoples that were most stereotypically tied with drug use, which were Black and Brown minorities. The chosen approach to this “drug problem” also suggests that it was a cover for racial targeting: rather than implementing programs to combat drug addiction through humanizing drug users and giving them easy access to services of rehabilitation, the United States government focused on bashing drug users in hopes to eradicate drug effects. Basically, the overexaggerated problem of drugs was used as a defense to increase drug sentences for citizens and police presence in Black and Brown communities, as their images were most closely tied with the use and abuse of drugs. The existence of a heavier police presence in Black and Brown majority neighborhoods maintains a belief that Black and Brown people are a threat to society, and that they must be watched over more closely than white people. This belief is then even more enforced, in the same way that slavery furtherly enforced belief in racism, and that the economic disparity of Black and white neighborhoods, furtherly enforced a belief in natural inequality: the higher police presence obviously resulted in greater detection of crime. Thus, the stereotype of Black and Brown communities being hotspots for crime and drug use was further secured! This cyclical nature of these systems is one of the other products of systemic racial oppression that is so detrimental to efforts to reconstruct our society in a more equitable way. These stereotypes exist from the reinforcements that racist laws create, which are not rooted in reality but still produce stereotypes that appear natural. In retrospect, concerning the actual success of the War on Drugs, the increase in severity of punishment has proven to actually contribute to more drug overdose and crime (5). This not only leads to more arrests in these neighborhoods - which contribute to the disproportionate statistic - but it also neglects to address those in wealthy white neighborhoods who commit the same exact acts, since police presence is much less strict in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods - a concrete example of systematic white privilege.

 

The few points touched on in this article addresses a multitude of oppressions that contribute to racial injustice in America - and yet there is still so much more to be said and accounted for, so much more than can be summarized in a magazine article. What I hope to leave you with is new knowledge, but also an understanding that the disparity in our world is the product of a history and a system rooted in injustice. It is the product of the intertwining of individual laws, with the history that set Black and Brown communities back in progressiveness, with the reinforcements that these systems of oppressions create, with the lack of ability to claim that racial bias is real. It is the product of a nation that has treated one group of people consistently worse than the rest and forced them to work twice as hard to receive equitable autonomy, power, and justice. 

This is what it means to say “Black Lives Matter”: because in a world where the systems maintaining our society, are also the systems oppressing the most disadvantaged in our society, we must be reminded that these lives matter. The lives who receive the harshest from systemic oppression - matter. The lives of those murdered and beaten by police officers who believe that their position gives them to power to abuse - matter. The lives of those displaced from their homes and stable jobs because they lived in a lower-income area as a product of systematic economical oppression - they matter. And the lives of those in prisons - locked up for minor drug offenses, awaiting a trial that has not taken place for months, or staring at a blank wall, innocent but still incarcerated - they matter. These are the Black lives we speak of. 

Any black life could be one of these lives, due to the disparities and disproportions we live in. Black lives are too often short-changed by these institutions of oppression in our society, which should make us question, how many Black lives have been stunted from their potential? How many Black lives have simply not been provided with adequate resources to succeed? How many Black lives were pivoted from paths of success due to minor drug offenses treated as heinous by police, or disputes in school that branded them as a bad kid for the rest of their future? How many Black lives have suffered? The number is incalculable because we will never know. What George Floyd, Eric Garner, Rayshard Brooks, Daniel Prude, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Alton Sterling, Freddy Gray, and countless others hold in common, is that their lives were treated as indispensable - invaluable. For individuals like Sterling, Taylor, and Clark, who were eating ice cream, sleeping, and holding a cell phone when they were shot at (9) - they did not get the privilege of normalcy in life that a non-Black person would have. For individuals like Freddy Gray, who was arrested and then tossed around in a police car with his limbs shackled until his spine was practically severed and he died (9) - the life he lived was not viewed by others as contingent - which all lives are. For individuals like Alton Sterling and Eric Garner, the simplest acts of selling cigarettes or CDs led to police questioning (9), and ultimately their life was deemed invaluable by those officers, who murdered without thought to their families or friends or even more so their existence as a human being.

This is what it means to say “Black Lives Matter.” Until our society recognizes that these Black lives matter, that all Black lives matter - no matter how pretty or plain, no matter how rich or poor, and no matter how invested in drugs or not - all lives cannot matter. It is as simple as that.

 

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Resources:

  1. https://www.britannica.com/event/Jim-Crow-law 

  2. https://bento.cdn.pbs.org/hostedbento-prod/filer_public/SBAN/Images/Classrooms/Slavery%20by%20Another%20Name%20History%20Background_Final.pdf 

  3. https://theconversation.com/the-police-beating-that-opened-americas-eyes-to-jim-crows-brutality-53932 

  4. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/black-to-the-future/tolerance-for-violence/ 

  5. https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/four-decades-counting-continued-failure-war-drugs 

  6. https://www2.potsdam.edu/mausdc/class/495/2002/slavetrade.html 

  7. http://pbs.bento.storage.s3.amazonaws.com/hostedbento-prod/filer_public/SBAN/Images/Classrooms/Forced%20Labor%20Then%20and%20Now_final.pdf 

  8. https://theelegantclassygentleman.com/2019/02/04/the-tragedy-of-seneca-village-middle-class-afro-american-owned-community-destroyed-to-build-central-park/#:~:text=This%20thriving%20African%2DAmerican%20village,evicted%20and%20the%20Village%20destroyed 

  9. https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2020/know-their-names/index.html