Has COVID-19 opened people’s hearts to the necessity of systemic change?
Emory University professor Carol Anderson argues that police brutality and lynchings are only the highly visible forms of racist violence that need to be opposed. There are much more prevalent and insidious forms of harm that Black people face, in what she identifies as “bureaucratic violence” (Anderson 2016). This results from discriminatory “separate and unequal” policies and laws that disproportionately negatively impact communities of color (see also Jabali 2020). Bureaucratic violence can be seen in voter suppression, redlining, mortgage and banking discrimination, underfunded public education, location of toxic industries in Black neighbourhoods, and the militarization of police who have a foundational history of anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence. Neoliberal austerity is an umbrella form of bureaucratic violence, that everywhere in the world shifts public funds from social services—thereby increasing poverty and social problems—into bloated budgets for militarized law enforcement to deal with the inevitable consequences of deepening inequality and impoverishment. Bureaucratic violence entrenches social inequality.
A close examination of wealth in the U.S. finds evidence of staggering racial disparities. At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016. Gaps in wealth between Black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception. The Black-white wealth gap reflects a society that has not and does not afford equality of opportunity to all its citizens. (McIntosh et al 2020)
In her decades of civil rights activism, Coretta Scott King was also vocal in connecting “poverty and policy neglect to systemic social violence.’ … ‘Neglecting school children is violence. Punishing a mother and her family is violence … Ignoring medical needs is violence. Contempt for poverty is violence. Even the lack of will power to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.’” (quoted in Theoharis 2018)
Perhaps it is due to the pandemic-related economic crisis, involving growing, glaring inequality and the diminishment of life-chances for tens of millions of people, that the blinders have been removed from so many (especially white) peoples’ eyes. Almost everyone on earth is being made more vulnerable than they have ever been before. It is under these conditions that so many who have been silent in the past in the face of police brutality are now no longer willing or able to ignore such injustices as those seen and heard in the video of the killing of George Floyd.
“The persistence of seemingly state-sanctioned racist violence has become intolerable, evidenced by the fact that millions of people of every race, age, and nationality are pouring onto the street in the midst of a pandemic.”
The persistence of seemingly state-sanctioned racist violence has become intolerable, evidenced by the fact that millions of people of every race, age, and nationality are pouring onto the street in the midst of a pandemic. They no longer see police brutality as someone else’s problem, but as a grave insult to their own consciences, a grievous harm to humanity, and a deep corrosion of the very basis of democracy and freedom. Marking a major shift in public opinion, a June ABC News poll showed that 74% of Americans think George Floyd’s death reflects a broader issue of racial injustice. This is an astonishing 30-point increase from similar polls conducted in the past six years, after other high-profile police killings of Black people, which also led to outpourings of protest, such as in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown’s extrajudicial killing, and the founding of the social movement, Black Lives Matter. Importantly, the poll’s findings reflect the opinions of a majority across demographics, including Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Democrats, Republicans and Independents (Karson). Systemic problems require systemic answers, not piecemeal reforms. This is as true with health pandemics as it is with systemic racism.
Leigh Brownhill is a scholar focused on social movements and popular struggles for decolonization, ‘recommoning,’ and economic, social, and ecological justice. At Athabasca University, she teaches two online courses: SOCI 378/CMNS 385, Rebel with a Cause: Social Movements in History and Popular Culture, and SOCI 450, Environmental Sociology.