Recent polling indicates that an overwhelming number of Americans, close to 75%, support the protests, inspired by George Floyd’s murder, against racism and police brutality. This approval, polls reveal, stretches across party lines and racial lines.
The polls, of course, don’t reveal in any precise way the psychological dynamics at work in the American mentality that might account for what seems like a sudden shift toward acknowledging the reality and severity of racism in the United States and the gross devaluation of Black lives.
While Trump administration insiders such as Attorney General William Barr and Ben Carson, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, continue to deny the reality of systemic racism, the American majority seems no longer willing to buy this bill of goods.
It wasn’t long ago that too often too many American challenged the “Black Lives Matter” assertion with the assertion of “All Lives Matter,” a substitution that failed to recognize the particular ways Black lives, and the lives of people of color generally, have been specifically devalued in U.S. society.
Perhaps this American majority is beginning to consider that if we are going to achieve a society and political economy in which all lives matter we need to address the way “race” functions as one of many critical factors in the U.S. political economic system that devalue human life. We all gain from addressing the myriad ways our world works to discount people and justify their oppression.
In a recent appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Reverend William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, among other titles, spoke about the comprehensive politics of the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racist movements more generally in a way that explains why addressing racism as a social ill is central to addressing the inequities which the majority of Americans endure, such as lack of health insurance, poverty, lack of access to affordable housing, and more.
Garza stresses the need to recognize “the impact of racism on every system in our society,” and sees the recent and prolonged mass uprisings as presenting the opportunity “to redirect resources in our society to the places that need it the most.” She highlights the reality that America is entering another recession, making unemployment a pressing issue for all, and one disproportionately impacting African Americans experiencing 40% unemployment. Addressing racism by directing resources to deal with African American unemployment entails, by extension, addressing the issue of unemployment as it impacts all Americans.
She highlights that “our budgets do not reflect our morals.” In centering racism as key mechanism in U.S. culture and society that has prevented the nation from realizing political and social equality and economic justice, she is calling for the extension of these rights to all, for our budgets to realize our putative ideals of equality and equal justice so that “everybody in America has an opportunity to thrive.”
Reverend Barber underlines many of these points, emphasizing the danger of this moment lies in risk that we might focus the present call for justice too narrowly on police and criminal justice reform. The phrase “I can’t breathe,” he stressed, needs to be understood as “a shorthand for all the ways people can’t breathe,” for all the ways Americans are strangled, which invariably African Americans experience disproportionately in relation to the rest of the American population. He cites the fact that 700 people a day die from poverty in the U.S., a quarter of a million people per year, and that 61% of those living in poverty are African American. 80 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured when it comes to health care, which also has a “racialized impact.”
The suppression of the African American vote, Barber asserts, is obviously racist but also harms all Americans suffering, even if unevenly, from economic and social injustices as well. He explains that voter suppression leads to political leaders getting elected who then block the legislation that would provide health care for all Americans, implement criminal justice reform, address climate change, and more.
In short, he emphasized, “Everything racism and classism touches becomes a form of death, a form of strangulation, a form of suffocation of democracy.”
What Garza and Barber make clear is that eradicating racism and imbuing black lives and the lives of people of color with value extends equal value to all lives by eliminating the hierarchizing mechanisms that assign unequal values to the lives of Americans of all races and ethnicities.
Perhaps Americans are finally beginning to assimilate what Garza and Barber, among others, have been trying to get them to see, that racism prevents justice for all, that black lives have to matter for all lives to matter.
Poverty rates have increased under Trump’s leadership, impacting all Americans. Trump actively calls for lowering wages to make America more competitive and continues to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. His administration refuses to address the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately is killing people of color and which has done substantial economic damage to the majority of Americans. His administration refuses to account for how $500 billion from the recent stimulus package was distributed to corporations. Reports do indicate that corporations who have consistently dodged paying taxes received millions in relief. Meanwhile, he cages children, criminalizes, immigrants, and spews racist rhetoric that encourages mass racist shootings such as we saw at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and in El Paso.
What are we seeing here from Trump? That budgets do not seem to reflect our ideals and that he is certainly not redirecting resources “to places in our society that need it the most;” and that racism and classism are forms of death.
The antidote to Trumpism? Make Black lives matter and end racism.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.