Why America Can’t Escape Its Racist Roots

America continues to ignoring the lasting effects of slavery.

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The killing of George Floyd, who died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled into his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest, has spurred a wave of rage, anguish, and protests across the country. To better understand what is happening and what the future may hold, the Gazette talked with Orlando Patterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology. A scholar of slavery and issues of race, Patterson talked about the legacy of white supremacist ideology, racism in policing, and the ongoing, widespread discrimination and segregation in American life. He also explained why he hopes that the country can yet heal its racial divide, and sees particular promise in the young.

The common denominator is police violence and brutality. We have these brutal acts and killings, and we have outrage, protests, commissions, recommendations, and again and again, the police still continue in their old ways. They don’t seek to respect life and are prepared to brutalize someone for something as minor as passing a counterfeit $20 bill or jaywalking. The police are also very much part of one of the worst recent developments in American life: mass incarceration. It’s historically unprecedented, and it’s shameful that the country that claims to be the leader of the free world, although most of the rest of the world will consider that a joke, has the world’s highest number of people in prison: 2.3 million. And over 40 percent of those in prison are black. This is really just astonishing, and the police have a lot to do with it, as well as prosecutors.

Captivity and
White Supremacy

First, the whole thing was captured on video. And it was especially chilling because of the nonchalance, the sense of complete indifference, the disdain for someone’s life that the police officer showed as he killed Floyd. We have seen videos of brutality in the past, but this one came right after a series of police killings, and it simply reached the breaking point. When I saw the expression in that officer’s face and that three other officers were around him standing by as if this was just business as usual, I thought of Hannah Arendt and her phrase “the banality of evil.” What Arendt found most horrific was that ordinary people were able to commit horrible killings, and at the end of the day, they went back home to their nice homes and their nice families, and the next day they went back and killed again. I also think that the video came up in the midst of a pandemic, when people were feeling appalled at the incompetence and absence of leadership.

Sociologists have argued that while some whites may have liberal views, a lot of them are not prepared to make the concessions that are important for the improvement of black lives. For example, one of the reasons why people have been crowded in ghettos is the fact that housing is so expensive in the suburbs, and one reason for that is that bylaws restrict the building of multi-occupancy housing. These bylaws have been very effective in keeping out moderate-income housing from the suburbs, and that has kept out working people, among whom blacks are disproportionate, from moving there and having access to good schools. Sociologists have claimed that while we do have genuine improvement in racial attitudes, what we don’t have is the willingness for white liberals to put their money where their mouth is.

One of the fundamental aspects of the American race problem is segregation. The black population is almost as segregated now as it was in the ’60s. That is the foundation of a lot of problems that blacks face, but it also explains and perpetuates the isolation of whites who grow up in neighborhoods where they don’t see blacks or interact with them. That reinforces the idea that blacks are outsiders and don’t belong.

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The purported breadcrumbs of slavery are still very substantial today. Too many, especially the younger generations prefer not to acknowledge it persistence to thrive in our society, until they or an associate are restrained physically, financially, or mentally . Travon Martin, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor and thousands more have been extinguished without the accountability of the offenders. The world continues to watch America with a certain amount of hypocrisy of its own. InnerKwest®

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