“All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” So wrote Victor Hugo almost 200 years ago. We are now witnesses to a moment in history where a powerful idea has swept the country and the world.
Three weeks ago, four Minneapolis police officers snuffed out the life of a black man, George Floyd. After they had restrained Floyd, one of them put his knee on Floyd’s neck, put his full weight on it, and suffocated him. The other three officers did nothing to stop that murder. The entire event was captured on video and made public.
The response could not have been predicted. Remarkably, the protests were not about avenging his murder. They called for equity and justice, for reform. For the very most part, the protests were peaceful, even though radicals tried to turn them into street violence and looters seized the opportunity to ransack businesses.
Floyd’s death precipitated a revolution. Today, 22 days later, protests are still being held across the United States and have spread across the globe. The reforms the protesters are asking for are equity, for America finally to live up to the lofty words in our founding documents: “We the people, in order to … secure the blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our posterity…” They are asking for equal protection under the law and for an end to the practices and institutions that stand between them and those blessings. They are asking only for the same chance to prosper as every other American.
One of the bars to equality is systemic, or structural racism. It is important to understand that systemic racism does not mean that people have racist inclinations or are white supremacists. It means that our complex social, economic, and political institutions interact to disadvantage people of color. For example, redlining didn’t happen by accident. Until the 1950’s, the Federal Housing Authority lending guide expressly stated that blacks were “adverse influences” on property values, so people of color could not use FHA loans to move into the suburbs. Also, a white person couldn’t obtain an FHA loan to buy in a black neighborhood. Private lending institutions followed suit. Property taxes fund schools. Those redlined areas could not afford schools of comparable quality to the richer, whiter suburbs, leading to higher dropout rates and reduced employment opportunities for people living in them, reinforcing the cycle of poverty and blocked opportunity that persists to this day in many urban areas. The cumulative effects of these policies are passed from generation to generation.
The numbers tell of profoundly different, harsher treatment of black people in the judicial system. People of color make up less than a third of the population, but 56% of the prison population. Black women are incarcerated at twice the rate of white women. White and African Americans use illegal drugs at about the same rate, but the imprisonment rate for blacks is almost 600% greater than for whites.
Floyd’s death has made police violence a hot topic. The statistics make it clear why people of color are outraged: in 2019, black Americans were nearly 300% more likely to die from police than whites, and 150% more likely to be unarmed, according to statista.com. Calls for reforming police practice are coming from both political parties. Murderous practices like choke holds are on their way out. Calls for a national register of police offenders, training in implicit bias, and restructuring police forces will likely result in a nation-wide reassessment of the role police play in society. “Defund the police” is a really bad name for a really good idea. It’s certainly too much to ask cops to be marriage counselors, midwives, or referees in minor spats in addition to risking their lives to enforce the law. We need to return to police being “peace officers.”
All of these facts and factors are contributing to a sea change in attitude. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said, “We were wrong” to oppose peaceful protest of racism. Politicians across the spectrum, from renegade Republican Sen. Mitt Romney to the entire Democratic Party caucus have spoken out and demonstrated with African Americans calling for changes in police practice. NASCAR has banned Confederate flags at all their races and events, and several southern cities have removed statues of Confederate officers. Military bases named after Confederate generals may be renamed. These and similar acts across the country give hope that we are finally coming to grips with the wickedness of slavery and its reverberations.
George Floyd’s tragic death may serve as the catalyst for us once and for all to “proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.” And really mean it. It’s an idea whose time has come.
Mitch Edelman, vice chairperson of the Carroll County Democratic Central Committee, writes from Finksburg. His column appears every other Tuesday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.