Ask the Expert: A Tipping Point for Black Lives Matter?
By Brian Hiro
It would take a major story to bump from the top of the news cycle the deadliest global pandemic in a century.
That story happened on Memorial Day, when a white police officer from Minneapolis killed a Black man named George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, the brutal encounter captured on video and quickly beamed across the internet.
Almost instantly, protests broke out around the United States and the world, with masses of people gathering in the streets of big cities and small towns alike to rail against police brutality and racial injustice. One month later, the protests continue, marking the longest and most sustained action on this front since the civil rights era of the 1960s.
The terms that many Americans are just now awakening to – things like systemic racism, anti-racist, white privilege and “defund the police” – make up much of the life’s work of Sharon Elise. The longtime Cal State San Marcos sociology professor has spent decades teaching and researching such subjects as critical race theory, colonialism, inequality and white supremacy.
Perhaps more than anyone else on the CSUSM campus, Elise is best suited to put the ground-breaking events of the past few weeks into the proper social and historical perspective.
Question: Have you been surprised by the size and scope of the nationwide protests since the killing of George Floyd?
Sharon Elise: I have been pleasantly surprised that people are taking great risks during a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting Black and Native/Indigenous people to come into the streets to protest the police lynching of George Floyd. We watched him die on our television sets as a white police officer calculatedly pressed his knee onto the neck of George Floyd, aided by other police officers and despite protests of observers for close to nine agonizing minutes, until he was dead. It is important to note that these protests also call out other recent police attacks on Black people, including trans woman Toni McDade in Florida, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and attacks by white supremacists who hunted and murdered Ahmaud Arbery. The movement names white supremacy, systemic racism and anti-Black racism as roots of the problem. Video images, cast and recast, bring persistent white supremacy and its integral relation to policing into the public gaze, and a growing number of people of all races and ages and circumstances are demanding change now.
Yet it is not surprising because this protest is built upon years of organizing in the Black Lives Matter movement, which was founded by Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. The movement began first around the 2012 vigilante killing of Trayvon Martin and was further galvanized by the 2014 police lynching of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, dehumanized even in death as his body was left lying in the street for hours after his murder, and of Eric Garner, whose dying words, “I can’t breathe,” have become a rallying cry.
Q: A lot of people are saying that this time “feels different,” whether it’s the protests being sustained over a long period of time, the composition of the crowds, or polls showing greater support for Black Lives Matter. Does it feel different to you?
SE: Yes, the size is impressive, and the protests are persistent for almost a month now. It seems the protests are growing despite the militaristic response of police who have attacked protestors with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets. As the crowds grow and as people witness the multiracial composition of the protestors, the movement is attracting more attention and support, unfortunately fueled by the unabated police and white vigilante attacks that continue to murder and brutalize Black people. The movement is having an impact: No longer can Black people be shot down by police (or choked or any other means of murder) with impunity and silence. We follow the movement adage to “say their names” and demand justice and social change, and we are seeing results. A new “Breonna’s Law” was passed in Louisville banning the no-knock warrant, and the chokehold is banned now in San Diego and elsewhere in the country. Protests are influencing public opinion, as polls in 2014 showed 51% finding police killings to be “isolated incidents” while recent polls show 69% of those polled see these murders as indicative of a broad problem in policing.
The Black Lives Matter movement is also bringing other forms of change, as some of our California legislators referred to George Floyd or the protests as influencing them to pass AB 1460 as a way to “do the right thing,” to make an ethnic studies course a graduation requirement for all CSU students. This means all CSU students will take at least one class in an ethnic studies department or program (includes Africana/Black Studies, American Indian Studies, Chicanx/Latinx and Asian/Pacific Islander Studies) and, as one legislator said, it means they will have to learn about race and racism and about the experience, history and culture of racialized people in our society.
Q: Do you think the effects of COVID-19 and its disproportionate effect on people of color has played a role in the intensity of the protests?
SE: There is no research on this as yet, though it may well be in process, so I can only theorize that it may play a role since it is certainly the case that COVID-19 is not killing us randomly. Black people are disproportionately casualties of the pandemic. It is killing us more often, and when people say, “Oh, it is due to underlying conditions,” it must be understood that those underlying conditions were created by systemic racism, particularly the virulent racism that has beset Black people throughout our history here. That anti-Black racism dehumanizes us so that our lives do not matter, nor does the persistent poverty, poorly resourced schools, hypersegregation and poor access to health care that beset us. It is these things that lead to the high rates of hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and stress associated with poor chances of surviving COVID-19. We see the same thing in Native/Indigenous communities, which have similar relations with the police. So if you are paying attention to systemic racism, attacks resulting in Black death represent trauma on top of trauma in the midst of the pandemic, and that may well be driving people to protest. But they are not doing it just because they want to get out of the house after months of quarantine, like some of the quarantine protests we have seen.
Q: What do you see as the greatest importance of the Black Lives Matter movement?
SE: I love the refusal of the movement to settle for anything short of systemic change — to proclaim we are not looking for reforms, we are tired of waiting for justice! The movement is pushing all of us to be bold, to demand justice, to actually make Black lives matter, which requires us to address systemic racism, to call out white supremacy and anti-Black racism specifically. And it is effecting change as I noted earlier. The movement is influencing the public discourse: I have seldom heard phrases and concepts like “white supremacy,” “white fragility,” “anti-Black racism” and “systemic racism” in the public discourse, not just among movement activists but also legislators, city officials and even some police administrators. As part of this change in discourse, the movement has popularized police abolition as a legitimate stance.
The movement echoes many of the tactics of the civil rights movement — like direct, nonviolent confrontation — and in some ways is an extension of that and the Black Power movement. It is recreating a strong sense of community — the beloved community Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of where hierarchies and competitive individualism are discouraged in the ways people are relating and supporting each other. The movement is impacting the white supremacist culture that has allowed statues of slaveholders and heroes of the Confederacy to adorn our public parks and universities. The Pioneer and Pioneer Mother statues that I used to flip off as I walked the campus at the University of Oregon are standing no more. The Confederate flags are gone from NASCAR, and a Black driver has “Black Lives Matter” painted on his race car. Even the president now lives at 1600 Black Lives Matter Plaza.
Q: It seems that this time we’re seeing less of a backlash to the Black Lives Matter cause with people saying, “blue lives matter” and “all lives matter.” Do you agree with that, and why are those terms problematic?
SE: Unfortunately, there is a backlash both in the aforementioned militarism of the police responses at some protests and in isolated fits of white supremacist hate. Police stood by recently while whites painted a blue line over a Black Lives Matter street painting as a way of saying “blue lives matter.” With over 1,000 police killings annually and most of those being killings of Blacks, there is an obvious reason why we need to make Black lives matter. Nooses are being hung — one of the most egregious cases would be in Milwaukee, where there were six nooses with photos of Black people who were victims of police or vigilante violence, including Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. There are reports of hangings of Black people that have been labeled suicides but need to be fully investigated.
I have not heard or seen the “n-word” as frequently as I have in recent weeks, including some Zoom-bombing that seems often to include a mix of swastikas, the n-word and pornography to target anti-racism webinars and even private celebrations among Black people, including graduations and birthday parties. Some white people feel emboldened by their anger to either call the police on Black people (e.g., Amy Cooper and the birdwatcher in New York) or to curse and n-word Black people on the street as happened recently in San Diego. White individuals have driven their cars right into the midst of peaceful protesters in other incidents. These are flailing attempts to stem the overwhelming tide of protest against systemic racism, hopefully just the last gasp of a dying white supremacist culture. One can hope.
Q: The protests have mostly been peaceful since the first few days, but what do you think about the ones that turned into rioting? Is that counterproductive to the cause or an understandable manifestation of pent-up anger?
SE: We need to decode this question since it suggests more concern for property than for Black lives and because “rioting” to many people is racially coded as a Black thing. When I think of “rioting,” I think of Tulsa in 1921, I think of Rosewood in 1923, I think of the first decades of the 20th century when whites attacked Black bodies and Black communities, burning their property to the ground and killing off as many Black people as they could. What we have seen recently looks nothing like that, and violence has been primarily police against protestors. Moreover, there are reports of white supremacist infiltration to try to instigate violence. It is the movement’s goal to practice nonviolent protest, and I do not consider looting from businesses a form of violence in the face of historic violence against Black bodies.
In a recent show, Trevor Noah proclaimed that Black people are being looted from their bodies (killed) and we should be more concerned with the looting of bodies than the looting of property. Perhaps it is also a protest against global racialized capitalism and the enduring poverty that some have been consigned to. Noah argues, quite sociologically, that there is no reason why we should expect people who have been shut out of the social contract to honor that social contract, that agreement that we will follow the norms and values of society in return for what society provides us. If society, for multiple generations, has shut some whole groups of people out of benefiting from the distribution of power, status and material resources, why should they honor the social contract? If we want people to adhere, there has to be a sense that they will share in the social benefits that have been so inequitably distributed. As long as “the game is rigged,” there will be players who do not play by the rules. Meanwhile, elites get away with breaking the rules, corporations are allowed to loot the people, and the government stands by the side of elites and corporations.
Q: What do you think of the “defund the police” cause? How important is that, and what would it look like to you?
SE: Calls to defund and demilitarize the police are related to the police and prison abolitionist movement. A move to begin this process by defunding policing and prisons and closing detention centers is significant for those of us in education who saw our public higher education budgets depleted as funds were diverted to a build-up of policing and prisons in what scholars describe as a carceral state, a “prison industrial complex” in a period that writer Michelle Alexander describes as “the New Jim Crow” because of its disproportionate impact on Black and Latinx people. The schools attended by poor Black and Latinx students are “pipelines to prison” or, as activist Angela Davis describes them, “prep schools for prison.” There, children encounter police and punishment regimes that result in racialized penalties for their clothing and culture, and ultimately disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of Black and Latinx youth, effectively pushing them out of school in too many cases.
Money moved from education to policing and imprisonment as California schools went “from first to worst.” The California Faculty Association, which represents the 29,000 faculty in the CSU, released a report, “Equity, Interrupted,” that found as the student bodies in the CSU went from white to brown, the funding grew lighter. Tuitions rose and students became reliant on loans, not grants as grant funding declined. At the same time, as we learn in Davis’ book, “Are Prisons Obsolete?” California doubled the number of prisons. In the ’90s, California added 12 new prisons and only three new CSU campuses and one new UC. These educational institutions spend millions on policing while failing to meet the standards for mental health resources for their students. The standard is one counselor per 1,000 students; in fact, some CSUs have one counselor per 3,000-5,000 students. Meanwhile, there has been a failure to provide adequate instructional resources for students, and then administrators wonder why students don’t graduate in four years.
There are multiple reasons to defund the police: We need to stop using “law and order” solutions to social problems that would be better addressed with mental health counseling and funding for housing, health and education. This requires a shift in our thinking so that we move from policing, which frankly emerged historically from the policing, capture and control of enslaved Africans. This requires radical social and cultural change, putting people before property and creating systems of community care and accountability.
Q: How would you define “anti-racist,” and what are ways that people can work toward that?
SE: Anti-racism is a concept that contests the notion that racism is individual prejudice. Racism is systemic in our society. It is based on white supremacy where, as activist Peggy McIntosh argued, white people can count on cashing in on their whiteness; one where, as scholar Cheryl Harris says, whiteness is form of property that they can invest in and draw from, while being racialized as people of color, we can only count on accumulating disadvantage. We have all been impacted by white supremacy and have learned the dominant racial narratives that explain the poor footing that Black, Native/Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander peoples have in society by referencing their cultures instead of the system of white advantage that is historic and enduring. Racial narratives suggest that people of color could get ahead if only they would just behave and operate like white people. But of course that is not true. Even when Cherokee people spoke English, engaged farming, had written language and schools, and tried to make peace, they were removed.
Racism is not about the cultures of people of color and not about our looks; it is tied to capitalism and it is about getting our labor (free or cheap) and stealing our lands so that white people can have better resources and keeping power in white hands so that this arrangement is secured — that is the “American way.” It is not possible to be non-racist; we are mired in a racial system, and if we are not actively learning to identify and contest white supremacist culture in our institutions, policies and practices, we are reproducing that white supremacist system. Anti-racism is an active engagement against white supremacy, noticing the whiteness at the top of our organizations, noticing the predominance of whiteness among the faculty, noticing how white things/people/culture are given greater value, and refusing to normalize that. Anti-racism means acknowledging we need a power shift so that people of color can be valued, so Black lives can matter, so we people of color can have a major voice in our social arrangements. It is not just about “diversity” given that, for some people, a room is diverse when there are all white people and one Black person and one Latinx person whose voices are ignored. Racism functions best in silence; it must be called out and interrupted whether it is policy, a practice or a social interaction.
Q: What would you like to see happen next, both at CSUSM and nationally?
SE: At CSUSM, we have too few faculty, staff and administrators of color, so even if the majority/white group is well-intentioned, as they may be, they are making decisions that impact a student body which is primarily working-class Latino and other students of color, and too often those decisions do not reflect their values and needs. Black people, Pacific Islanders and Native/American Indian people are severely underrepresented in the student body and among faculty, staff and administration. White people tend to predominate on every single hiring committee for every single kind of position, and that tends to reproduce whiteness. White administrators, staff and faculty need to educate themselves to be anti-racist and need to center anti-racism and social justice in their work or they cannot lead fairly and effectively. Faculty and staff of color seldom are evaluated/reviewed by people who understand our experiences, especially experiences of racism and are often uncomfortable talking about it. Some white faculty and administrators seem to have a hard time even saying “race” or “racism,” so there is real room for education there.
We need to be clear about racism, especially anti-Black racism, which cuts across all groups. We need a clear strategy for targeted hires and targeted programming to support students, staff and faculty of color. We have a tiny ethnic studies program with only one tenure-track faculty line assigned to it — we need a department of ethnic studies (San Francisco State has a whole College of Ethnic Studies!) and we need to grow that curriculum and hire more faculty to deliver it. We should follow the lead of San Diego State, which has a targeted hiring program and is engaging cluster hires — such an approach to hiring Black and other faculty of color would assure that they’re not an isolated individual in a sea of whiteness in their academic unit. We need a larger team of tenure-track mental health counselors that reflect our student body, and each group needs representation among that team. We need a plan to convert lecturer faculty to permanent positions to stabilize instruction and to fairly compensate these educational workers. We need to defund and demilitarize the police — they look like a SWAT team, they have racially profiled some of my colleagues and students, and they do not foster a welcoming environment. We need a cultural shift just to notice these issues.
Nationally, we need a retreat from law-and-order approaches to social and interpersonal issues. Invest in the people, not corporations, policing and prisons. We need to provide free health care and mental health care, free education, putting people over property and profits, and giving all people a living wage that allows them to overcome housing and food insecurity so they don’t have to work two poorly paid jobs to pay rent, and benefits to support workers who are caretaking and parenting. We need a culture of compassion for each other and a culture of care for our planet if it is to sustain us. I favor abolition of policing as we know it, and abolition of the prisons that are caging most Black and Latinx people. We need a path to citizenship for immigrants. We need a reconciliation, apology, atonement and reparations for the injustices meted out to people of color for hundreds of years. We need real change, not just reform. But in the short run, we need to look at legislative policies that bring back affirmative action to redress the racism and sexism of the system and push for a national program as well. We need national programs for mail-in voting, and we need to restore the vote for people who have served time in prison. We need to restructure our taxes so that we can reallocate resources away from corporations and the one percent, and we need a body of legislators that truly represents the needs of the people.
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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