It's hard to think of the death of George Floyd as an isolated instance when looking at how seamlessly it fits into the long history of systemic and institutionalized racism in the United States.
While this is a daily reality for the African American community, many white Americans are perhaps unaware of the long history of discriminatory policies and racist behavior that disproportionately affects people of color. In order to historically contextualize the long-standing racism that is so pervasive in American society, one must first understand post-Civil War America.
Placed within the longer history of racial violence, the recent death of George Floyd is no longer an isolated anomaly, but rather another example of the long-standing institutionalized racism established in the 19th century that continues to galvanize American society through the present.
After the end of the Civil War in 1865, and with the Southern states once again part of the United States, Southern Democrats proceeded to resist any attempt at integrating emancipated slaves into their America. For white Southerners, the end of slavery did not mean any inherent change in their social structure. This was demonstrated most clearly with the South’s overwhelming repudiation of the Freedmen's Bureau (1865-1872), a government agency that was established by Congress to help millions of former black slaves in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Freedmen's Bureau’s goal of integrating freed slaves into American society was met with so much resistance that President Ulysses S. Grant even considered annexing the Dominican Republic to send all African Americans there. Additionally, Black Codes greatly hampered African Americans freedoms by forcing them into labor contracts with white owners. Choosing not to do so would land them in jail, thereby forfeiting their rights as freed men of color.
Racial tensions were further exacerbated by the formation of the secret social fraternity known as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in Tennessee during that same time. As this organization grew in popularity through the 19th and later 20th century, their uniforms concealed their identity, providing them with anonymity and the perfect opportunity to commit unimaginable and wide-spread atrocities against people of color, or anyone else they deemed inferior or moral deviants. The KKK quickly became a paramilitary white supremacist force, threatening the lives of African Americans. In some cases, Klansmen removed their masks, committing these atrocities in broad daylight, as there were no enforceable repercussions against racial violence. They were subsequently deemed a terror organization, prompting the Grant administration to pass the Enforcement Act of 1871 (also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act) in an attempt to curtail the further spread of racial violence. This attempt was short-lived, as the violence continued to break out across the South as other paramilitary groups like The White League and Red Shirts emerged. The Klan resurfaced in full force during the Woodrow Wilson administration (1913-21), and with the 1915 premier of “The Birth of a Nation,” a silent epic drama film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and demonized African Americans.
With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the “Redemption of the South” put Southern Democrats at the helm of policy making across the U.S. South once again. This “redemption” served to reunite the South in their attempt at undermining equality, and Southern policy makers wasted no time legislating and enacting discriminatory policies intended to limit Black participation in the political process. Many of these policies and subsequent Jim Crow laws—laws legislated by white southerners at the end of the Reconstruction Period designed to encode racial segregation—served to disproportionately disenfranchise people of color by keeping white and black people separate from one another and endow a sense of inferiority amongst African Americans that reverberated for generations.
Enshrining segregation into law in 1896, the court case Plessy v. Ferguson declared that segregation in public spaces was constitutional as long as both spaces were equal in quality (i.e. separate but equal). Not only were African Americans unable to sit next to whites or use the same facilities, but voter suppression laws and mob-enacted lynching were utilized to rob African Americans of their voice and keep them from acting out. The Brown v. The Board of Education court case in 1952-54 would make segregation in public schools unconstitutional. With Jim Crow laws being enforced until 1965, it was arguably the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that brought about a small measure of social reform. These social reforms, however, did little to ameliorate the abject poverty and mitigate the socioeconomic misery plaguing the African American community.
The plight of the African American community was eloquently articulated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His diatribes and sermons condemned the racist policies in America that subordinate people of color and the exploitative capitalist economic model of the United State that locks Black people into a perpetual cycle of poverty. In a speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Board in 1967, King decried the “evils of capitalism” as being “as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.” King saw that the poverty engrained in many communities was the result of decades of racist policies and sought direct government action and relief to rectify these issues. This is evidenced in the Poor People's March he was working on at the time of his death on April 4, 1968.
The struggle for equal rights would continue for decades to come. On March 3, 1991 Rodney King, a black man, was brutally beaten with batons for 15 minutes by the Los Angeles Police Department. King had been on parole for robbery, and fled and resisted arrest in a high-speed chase. Once apprehended, King was met with a disproportionate level of force. Nevertheless, the perpetrators were acquitted and went unpunished. The indiscriminate and unnecessary beating of Rodney King, along with the lack of justice for his perpetrators, set off a series of riots in 1992 that rocked the nation. However, instead of the national discourse and the media focusing on systemic racism, the attention was directed towards the riots, thereby effectively silencing Black voices and quelling Black agency.
For the African American community, there seems to be no permissible way to effectively express their grievances, even nonviolently. Colin Kaepernick and the NFL players who stood in solidarity with him provide a more recent case in point. His nonviolent protest to the national anthem in 2016, an anthem that for him embodies a legacy of slavery, institutionalized racism, and white dominance, was met with harsh criticism by the press and those who felt threatened by him exercising his right to free speech. While white Southerners continue to brandish the confederate flag as a mark of national pride, Kaepernick was ostracized and alienated, as his peaceful protest was considered un-American and unpatriotic. Reframing this peaceful protest as an attack on national identity (i.e. the flag) is indicative of the unfettered power of white elite knowledge production and their ability to control the national narrative.
Echoes of 19th century Klan terrorism rang eerily similar with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a young African American male who was executed in broad daylight on February 23, 2020 in Glynn County, Georgia by two individuals with white supremacist proclivities. While there have been innumerable examples of unthinkable atrocities committed against the African American community at the hands of radicalized white supremacists since 1865, Americans are now faced with another tragic race-related event: the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd’s unjustifiable murder is yet another example of the long-standing racism and cultural domination that is so intricately sewn into the fabric of American society.
How can we move beyond the galvanizing racism and hatred that is so ubiquitous in American society? While the Black community once again mourns the loss of one of its members due to police brutality, this should also be a call to action for white Americans to educate themselves of the long history of oppression, subordination, and discrimination against minorities; to stand in solidarity with the African American community; and to demand a better America for all. An America that eschews the centuries-long policies of racial domination and subordination. An America that rejects the exploitative economic model that Martin Luther King Jr. described as “socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for everyone else.” An America that embraces diversity. And finally, an America that prioritizes racial equality and punishes racial injustice. That would undoubtedly make America great—not “again,” but for the first time in its history.
Jason Old is a history Ph.D. student at the University of South Florida. His main areas of interests are 20th century US history, U.S.-Latin American relations, and Modern Latin American history.
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