Letter: Changing hearts and minds about racism is not enough
To the editor,
–Yesterday at the Black Lives Matter protest in San Luis Obispo, California I was proud to stand in solidarity with black and brown people. It felt good to be a part of a movement with thousands of people standing up for justice. The speakers for Race Matters in SLO told us that they had worked with police so that they wouldn’t wear riot gear near the protestors. At first, this seemed like a step in the right direction. As we marched I only saw cops on bikes in their normal uniform. However, as we turned away from the entrance of the freeway, it was clear that a large group of men in military riot gear were blocking the entrance to the freeway. The police were willing to meet the demands of the people only superficially. We were allowed to walk in a circle and not encounter riot gear, but if we had moved out of the permitted area, would we have been met with peace? These are the same police that tear-gassed peaceful protestors days before.
I also became disheartened as the speakers articulated their calls to action. The speakers asked us to “vote,” to read the book White Fragility and to meet with lawmakers. However, the biggest ask was to “examine the racism in our own hearts”.
Well, this is me examining the racism in my heart and also scrutinizing those calls to action.
I have family members who hold racist beliefs. I’ve tried to talk to them about it and I have been outspoken. Sometimes there has been progress and sometimes not. But what if I was successful? What if every single one of my racist family members had a change of heart? Would that be successful in stopping the police brutality towards black, brown, and poor people?
We have been told that the battle against racism is one that occurs internally. While that work is important, it is also secondary. Changing hearts and minds is not enough. The hearts and minds of the people stood together against Trump during the Women’s March, but did that do anything to actually stop Trump’s action? Does putting a “Resist” sticker on a car bumper do anything to enact meaningful change? Honestly, Trump didn’t give a shit that we set our hearts and minds against him.
So then, what is enough? What will actually bring about change in police brutality? I think in order to answer that question it is important to examine the actual reasons for the racist systems we have in place in America.
Mass genocide and exploitation in the Americas began with the white explorers and colonist’s brutality towards Native American people. Entire populations of indigenous people were wiped out by the white man’s violence and disease. In school, we learn about the horrific massacre of indigenous people more now than we did a decade ago, but we still fail to examine the motivations for that genocide. White settlers weren’t just assholes with corrupt hearts and minds that wanted to inflict pain on Native people. They were assholes with corrupt hearts, but that internal violence was a product of their primary motivations: money, power, and capital. The explorers came to the Americas with the express purpose of enriching themselves and expanding the power of their nations. The greed of the explorers and the racism that festered in their hearts are intrinsically linked to one another.
The exact same motivations can be found in the enslavement of black people in the Americas. White people were not motivated by an innate desire to inflict pain on black people, they were motivated by a desire to make money and expand their personal power. In order to profit through agriculture in the South and in order to live luxurious lifestyles in the North, white people exploited the labor of black people. Although the exploitation of black people was present all across America, the South’s entire economic structure depended on the work of enslaved people in the fields. It is no surprise then that abolitionist movements started in the North, where the economic system was not directly dependent on the exploitation of labor. So how did racism play a role in this exploitation of human life? The racism in people’s hearts grew out of a justification for the brutality towards black people. White people cannot watch, or participate in, the beating, the rape, the lynching of another human being and not scramble cognitively for a justification of that violence. The justification must be that the person experiencing that violence is somehow less human and therefore less deserving of sympathy. The racism that grew, and continues to grow, in people’s hearts was a way of justifying the violence and dehumanization necessary for the exploitation of labor.
The 13th Amendment, which codified the “end” of slavery in the United States had one glaring exception. Slavery was prohibited “except by punishment of a crime.” Logically it is easy to dehumanize people who have committed crimes and justify their exploitation. It is no surprise that since “end” of slavery, incarceration levels have skyrocketed. We know that black and brown people are incarcerated at much higher levels than white people. Biden and other lawmakers wrote the Crime Bill in 1994 which extended the amount of time people were held in prisons. What was the reason for the exception in the 13th Amendment? What is the motivation for sending people to prison for longer? We know that prisons are overflowing and are extremely expensive for the taxpayer, so what could the benefit possibly be? According to the International Labor Organization, in 2000–2011 wages in American prisons ranged between $0.23 and $1.15 an hour. People in prison do not have the right to demand a living wage and can essentially be used as slaves in order to expand the profits of the rich and powerful. Again, upon inspection, it is clear that our prison system has grown out of the exploitation of labor.
Police are an integral part of maintaining a large prison system and therefore a large labor pool for exploitation. Many black people that were arrested decades ago for minor drug offenses have spent their lives in prisons. Recidivism rates, the tendency of someone convicted of a crime to be arrested again, across the country are extremely high. When you understand that it is the job of police to provide a large pool of people for labor exploitation, you understand that reforms to police are not enough. The Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971 showed that when you task someone with the exploitation and subjugation of another person, it inevitably leads to abuse of power and violence. Having black and brown people in the police force will not stop the abuses. As long as the system is designed to provide labor for exploitation, police violence and brutality will continue.
Corporate Media and politicians play a major role in the continuation of this exploitation. I have yet to see a major news outlet show footage of police brutalizing peaceful protestors. The majority of the footage attempts to portray the protestors in a negative light. There is footage of fires and looting and possibly police brutalizing the press, but there is an unspoken agreement that the police brutality towards the protestors is less important than the destruction of property. This is not an accident. The corporate media benefits from the police protecting property. The main discussion between supporters and critics of the protest ultimately is centered around comparing looting and the destruction of property to the assault and murder of people. Take a moment and reflect on that. As a country, we are seriously asking ourselves if we care more about property or more about human life.
Politicians have largely failed to respond in any meaningful way. Republicans in general seem to side with the police and encourage the use of military weapons and tear gas against the people. Democrats, on the other hand, have been deploying the National Guard against their own constituents. Some of the most horrific abuse of protestors has happened in New York and Lost Angeles, blue cities that are in blue states. The Democratic platform advocates for small, incremental changes to the system as the solution. Those small changes, like banning police knee-holds, may seem positive at first glance, but upon closer inspection, they are even more insidious than the Republicans outright and honest violence against black and brown people. Those small changes fail to address the underlying problem that in our country we prioritize property over human life. However, achieving those small changes allows well-intentioned people to feel good about themselves, feel like they’ve done something good, and relax back into complacency. President Clinton, President Obama, Governor Gavin Newsom, Governor Cuomo, Mayor De Blasio, Mayor Garcetti, Mayor Heidi Harmon, and other Democratic politicians have betrayed the public by diverting good intentions and the desire for meaningful change into fangless calls for “self-reflection” and incrementalism. There was a call to have more black and brown representations in politics and corporations. While again, that is a well-intentioned call to action, it ultimately fails to address the underlying systemic racism that causes police brutality. Having black and brown politicians and CEOs cannot and will not stop the exploitation of labor.
We cannot expect rules in a rule book to be enough to stop police brutality. We cannot expect a vote for a capitalist with nicer rhetoric to end the exploitation of labor. We cannot be content with conciliatory gestures or words. We cannot do the work within ourselves, but fail to do the work in the world around us.
The actions that need to be taken involve the dismantling of the capitalistic system that prioritizes profit over human life.
- Defund police departments and use that money for education, housing and healthcare in black and brown communities.
- Pay all workers, include people who are incarcerated, a living wage.
- Pay reparations to black and Native people for the continued exploitation and oppression of the last 400 years.
- End the exploitation of labor both inside the United States and around the world.
- Redistribute the wealth of billionaires so that there are no people in the position to exploit other people’s labor.
I understand that racism exists in each and every one of our hearts and minds. The work to recognize it is so important. But if we don’t address the root cause of that racism, which is the continued oppression and exploitation of people, our minds will inevitably find ways to justify the continued violence. White minds will look for reasons for the violence towards black and brown people. Rich minds will look for the reasons for violence towards the poor, unemployed, unhoused and working class. This expands beyond the racism against black people. It includes the exploitation of undocumented workers, the colonization of Native Americans, the exploitation of Burmese factory workers, the persecution of the Rohingya, the drone bombing of Syrians, the invasion and massacre of Iraqi and Afghani people and many more atrocities. All of these evil acts have the same motivations: money, power, capital.
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