Eight minutes and 46 seconds. That’s how long it took for George Floyd’s life to drain from his body as Derek Chauvin, a policeman sworn to serve and protect, pressed a knee bearing his full body weight onto George’s vulnerable neck. It is an uncomfortably short time, if you’d like to demonstrate life’s fragility. But it’s also an uncomfortably long time, if you are to imagine yourself pressing your very own knee to another person’s neck, until they die. I usually try to keep my ejos concise, because I want to hold your interest (I know I don’t always succeed, and I hope that’s OK). But I want you all to watch a video. No, not the video taken by 17 year old Darnella Frazier documenting Chauvin killing Floyd, though do I think that all white people need to watch it. The video below is of a black screen with a timer on it. The length of the video is 8’46”.
I would really appreciate each and every one of you finding a mere 8’46” of your day to sit with this video and, in the time it takes you to watch it, from beginning to end, to think about how long it took for George Floyd to die. To try to conjure exactly how horrific an ordeal that poor man endured, as he was murdered on the street, like an animal. For nothing. How terrifying his last moments must have been, as, his life slipping away, he called out for his dead mother. Try, maybe, to even imagine what was going through Chauvin’s mind. If you can. And if it’s not too much, try reading out George Floyd’s dying words, as you count down each second to his last breath.
I don’t think it’s possible to address the problem of racism, in America or the rest of the world, without first acknowledging that it exists and then, even more importantly, very carefully examining its origins and structure. Knowing how we got here is imperative, if we are to move forward, even if that makes us uncomfortable. Especially if it makes us uncomfortable.
The protests that have recently erupted in the United States are against long standing, institutional racial injustice. George Floyd may have been the catalyst of the most influential wave of the Black Lives Matter movement to date, but he is not the reason it has exploded the way that it has. His death was just the latest in a long and bloody history of violence against Black Americans by their own government and people.
Why are white people in America so afraid of Black people? Why do they feel such aversion and superiority and hostility towards them? Why does the colour of someone’s skin matter so much? We are not born racist. We are not born bigoted against each other. We are taught to be that way. And even if you were raised in an environment that celebrated equality, you are still surrounded by an infrastructure that does not. Did you know that the invention, and scientific classification, of biological race was established by Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s. This guy just decided to classify human beings into races based on where they were from, and what he personally thought of them. And so Europeaus was classified as being “acute, inventive, gentle and governed by laws”. And Asiaticus was “yellow, melancholic, and ruled by opinion”. Very scientific, right? This asshole, influenced as he was by the opinions and prejudices of his time, categorised Africanus as “crafty, indolent, negligent, governed by caprice or the will of their masters”. This actually became a scientific definition, folks. With zero evidential justification, this man influenced the thinking of an entire scientific community, as well as the community at large. Motherfucker has a lot to answer for. His theory that race defines genetic diversity has been scientifically disproven over and over again. But still, the damage was done. And the concept of race continues to do damage today.
The United States was founded on racism and the enslavement of Black people. It’s absolutely sickening that white men gallavanted to the African continent and gave themselves the right to drag human beings from their homes, and make them their slaves. Their property. Their chattel. Their goods. Such a disregard for human life is incomprehensible to me, and it should be to everyone but for some reason there are some who still don’t see anything wrong with it, and perhaps there are some who just don’t want to think about it at all. Which to me, amounts to the same thing. According to some estimates, up to 65 million African lives were lost in the brutal trans-Atlantic slave trade which fomented the birth of capitalism at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Let the magnitude of that number sink in. Write it down, if you need to. Up to 65,000,000 human lives. For what? Status. Profit. Money. Power. These Black lives were considered a fair exchange for such things. These Black lives did not matter. And we’re just talking about the ones that died on the way. Let’s chat about the ones that were transported for slave labour to the Americas, as far back as 1619. That’s 401 years ago. These events are a blight, a stain, not just on American history, but on human history, a bloody spot that can never be washed off, no matter how hard some of us may scrub.
So, blackface minstrel shows were all the rage in the early 19th century, depicting Black people as unkempt, lazy, uneducated, superstitious, spineless and criminal. The segregation codes known as Jim Crow laws were actually named after a famous blackface minstrel character. These characters were always played by white actors, usually lowly, working class Irishmen who took the job to feel superior to Black people. Kind of like, if I can debase and degrade you, then you are beneath me. It’s not me on the bottom, it’s someone else. President LBJ said “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best coloured man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you”.
W. E. B. Du Bois, Black activist and scholar also pointed out that poor white people would rather join the KKK than identify with poor Black people, “because it associated them with the masters”. And the masters, the white supremacists lapped that shit up. They may have created the system, but the structure was bolstered by poor white Americans who didn’t realise then, as they appear to not realise now, that they are nothing but pawns in a game they have no fucking idea about. These are the people who attend Donald Trump’s MAGA rallies.
Race riots are not a new thing in America. Over 101 years ago, in 1919, there were more than 25 race riots across the United States during a period referred to as the Red Summer. About 380,000 battle-hardened African American veterans who had just returned from war were targeted and brutalised, in a systematic attack led by returned white servicemen. Instead of society being grateful for their service, the Black veterans were perceived as threats, and attacked by angry mobs. During a six month period there were 97 recorded lynchings across America. African Americans fought back. Hundreds of people died and over a thousand Black families were left homeless. Even though slavery had been abolished years earlier, life for a Black person down south was untenable, and at the end of 1919, after all the riots, Black people migrated north en masse to seek better economic and educational opportunities.
In 1954, school segregation was deemed unconstitutional in the landmark Supreme Course case Brown vs Board of Education. Three years later, school segregation continued to occur, enabled by state and local politicians. In an historic turning point, nine teenage students in Little Rock, Arkansas, who had been prevented from attending school because of the colour of their skin, were escorted onto school premises by the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Outside the school a mob of angry white assholes protested, chanting, “Two, four, six, eight. We ain’t gonna integrate”, their mouths contorted by hate into ugly gashes and recorded for posterity.
The 50s and 60s saw the birth of the momentous civil rights movement, with Black people finally saying ENOUGH, and standing up against the injustices. It inspired several consequential law changes which were “supposed to” bring an end to centuries of inequality.
In 1964, the Civil Rights Act signed by LBJ was “supposed to” outlaw discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin. A year later, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was “supposed to” outlaw racial discrimination in voting (and, I’m sorry, but I don’t even have the energy to address how much of a problem voter suppression still is today). In 1968, the Fair Housing Act (actually an expansion of the Civil Rights Act) was signed, prohibiting the refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to anyone based on their race, colour, disability, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin. The act, strongly supported by Martin Luther King Jr., but originally blocked by Congress, was signed during the riots in the week following his assassination. A year before he was murdered, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. As long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again”.
He was not wrong.
Race is, and always has been, a sociopolitical construct. We have never been divided by colour. Never. We’ve been divided by greed and the pursuit of power and control. Colour was just a way in which white slave owners could justify their ownership of other human beings. Black people being regarded as biologically inferior made it OK to treat them as less than human. John C. Calhoun, the vice president of the United States from 1825 to 1832, went one step further in his rationalisations of slavery. He actually had the fucking nerve to say, “Never before has the Black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilised and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.” How’s that for fucked in the head. But you know what? Black and brown people are the same race as white people (and it shocks me to my core that I even need to write those words down). When we talk about systemic and institutionalised racism, what that means is that people of colour are categorised as less than, or inferior to, white people in order to prop up the system of codified oppression that is necessary for capitalism and industry to thrive. Andre Henry, writer, musician and self-proclaimed trouble maker, writes in an article, “Black death was chosen as the fuel for our economic engine, beginning with the Slave Trade”. If you want to get an education, do yourself a favour and check out his blog for more insightful commentary.
In my next ejo I’ll outline what I think our responsibilities are as white people, and also provide a few other sources for you to read up about what you can do to help the movement. I hope you’re interested. Hit me up, if you want to know more.