Racial Justice: How the US grappled with its record on race

Published on: Dec 29, 2020fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
George Floyd ProtestsGetty Images

Say Their Names

The Story

This year, the US grappled with its record on race.

Go on.

Racism and racial injustice in America are nothing new. Slavery was abolished in the 1860s, but systemic inequality persists, in large part due to the lasting impact of Jim Crow laws. Black Americans today still experience discrimination and segregation as a result of these racist policies. Whether they appear in wealth, education, housing opportunities, or even medical care, government policies have created and maintained racial inequality. This year, all of that came to a head.

Why?

Because of the killing of George Floyd. The 46-year-old unarmed Black man was killed on Memorial Day in Minneapolis, Minnesota – when police officer Derek Chauvin pinned him to the ground for at least eight minutes while he repeatedly cried out "I can't breathe." The video went viral. And Americans watched in horror as Floyd called out for his mother, while other officers stood by watching rather than stepping in. Floyd's name and last words became a rallying cry at protests across the country – where hundreds of thousands of Americans decried persistent violence against Black men and women.

And what about justice?

That too. The four officers involved in George Floyd's arrest have since been charged – one with second-degree murder. They're scheduled to go on trial in March. But these types of charges are rare – including in the many cases that don't get national attention. For perspective: Law enforcement officers kill about 1,000 people a year in the US. But one study found just 121 officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty killings since 2005. And only 44 were actually convicted.

Why so low?

For many reasons. A major one is police unions. When an officer faces an offense – whether it be complaints from citizens or criminal charges – the union can provide legal representation. But they can also set the terms of internal investigations within the department. Experts say that can include how long police leadership must wait before they begin an investigation, how an officer can be questioned, but also how quickly the dept has to wrap up its investigation.

So they hold the power?

In some ways. These terms have often left police chiefs with little power to fire or discipline an officer, even in cases of brutality and racism. Officers involved in killing someone may claim they feared for their life – a situation that is hard to prosecute. And the data shows all of this has disproportionately affected Black Americans – who make up 13% of the US population, yet one analysis found a third of victims of police-involved deaths were Black. Again, this is not new information. And it has been on display in the countless deaths that have caused outrage in the past (see: Oscar GrantEric GarnerMichael BrownFreddie GraySandra Bland...to name a few). But this year, the demands for change grew louder.

Why do you think that is?

In part...because of COVID-19. Americans were living a shared experience with 'normal' life on pause. More people were home and worried about their (and others') health and livelihood. So when Americans watched the video of George Floyd's killing, they rallied together in outrage. And support for the Black Lives Matter movement grew. In 2016, 43% of American adults supported the movement. That number rose to about 67% in the summer. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in all 50 states to protest. While the large majority were peaceful (by one count: 93%), some protests turned into riots and looting. Thousands of people were arrested. Dozens of cities imposed curfews and businesses boarded up their storefronts. But not all clashes were with police: In Georgia, Michigan, and Oregon, Black Lives Matter protesters clashed with far-right groups like the Proud Boys – who were there demonstrating in favor of the police.

And where was the gov in all this?

Well, President Trump was one of the more vocal opponents of the protests. In May, he described Minneapolis protesters as "thugs" who he blamed for "dishonoring the memory of George Floyd." He sent federal agents to get protests under control and protect federal property in several states. And threatened to cut funding in Democratic-led cities and states.

Right.

As we said, most protests were peaceful and people marched with a common goal: to put an end to police brutality and racial inequality. But protests were also used as a way to honor the lives and demand justice for the many other Black Americans killed or harmed by police violence. Including...

Breonna Taylor…the 26-year-old Black EMT from Kentucky who was shot six times and killed in March following a search warrant at her apartment. None of the three officers involved were charged directly for her death, although one faces charges for endangering her neighbors. A federal investigation is still underway.

Ahmaud Arberythe 25-year-old who was jogging in a suburban neighborhood in Georgia in February when a former police officer and his son chased him through the streets, shot, and killed him. Another man recorded it. Months later, the three white men were arrested. They face charges including felony murder – and could face life sentences or the death penalty if they're convicted.

Rayshard Brooksthe 27-year-old who was shot and killed at a Wendy's parking lot in June. The officers are facing charges including felony murder and aggravated assault.

Jacob Blake…the 29-year-old Black man who was shot in the back seven times by police in front of his kids in Kenosha, WI, and left paralyzed from the waist down.

Daniel Prude...the 41-year-old whose family said was left brain dead after officers in Rochester, NY, restrained him, covered his head with a "spit hood," and pinned him to the ground. Prude died a week later.

Jonathan Price...the 31-year-old employee of the Wolfe City, TX, public works department who was shot and killed by police in North Texas in October.

Walter Wallace Jr...the 27-year-old who was shot and killed in Philadelphia, after police responded to a call about a man armed with a knife. His mother said he struggled with mental health issues and was on medication.

Andre Hill...the 47-year-old who was shot and killed in Columbus, OH, last week. Hill was holding a cellphone when he was killed. The officer, who's been fired, had not turned on his body camera and did not administer aid for several minutes.

theSkimm

This year breathed new urgency into the Black Lives Matter movement. And while protests are a crucial way to call attention to inequality, it's going to take more than that to achieve the kind of change needed to reverse centuries of discrimination in the US. Here's what many are calling for...

Police Reform

In order for the country to start to address and end systemic racism in our policing system, changes need to be made on all levels of government. And by the roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the US. Here are some of the key changes that are considered necessary for police reform:

Ban chokeholdsIt's what officers have used to restrain a person's airflow or blood flow to render someone unconscious. Dozens of precincts have banned or strengthened restrictions on chokeholds in places like Minneapolis, Denver, Dallas, and Houston. And lawmakers on both sides have intro'd legislation either banning or discouraging the use of the deadly tactic. But the practice has yet to be fully banned on a federal level.

Mandate body cams...Not all officers are provided with body cameras when on duty. But by 2016, nearly half of US law enforcement agencies had body cameras. And while some officials say the move is a way of encouraging transparency, it may not actually help with reducing force.

Prohibit no-knock warrants...A judge can grant police a warrant to enter a property without announcing themselves. House Democrats passed a bill that would prohibit no-knock warrants in drug cases like the one used when Breonna Taylor was killed. Now, states like Virginia and cities like Louisville, KY, have implemented "Breonna's Law" that would ban that.

Create a national registrySome have called for a police misconduct database that would include things like disciplinary records, firings, and misconduct complaints. Trump had called on the AG to create a database to coordinate this effort. But it would need precincts and states to be on the same page to keep it updated.

Revise qualified immunityIt's a 1982 legal doctrine that protects police officers and gov officials from being sued if they were accused of misconduct. Democratic lawmakers proposed legislation to lower the standards for immunity so officers could be sued in civil cases. But the Supreme Court decided against reviewing the rule.

Defund the police...A main rallying cry at this year's protests. To be clear: it's not the same as disbanding the police. Instead, supporters want to move the money to communities in need. The idea is that the city's money can go to other resources like social services for mental health, domestic violence, and homelessness. And departments can be replaced with a community-based public safety model. A number of cities have already moved toward defunding their police force.

The Bigger Picture

Systemic racism is expansive and deep-rooted – exactly as its name suggests. And it means that while policing is a big area for the country to address, it only scratches the surface of the many ways in which Black people are treated unequally in the US. Here are some of the other sectors of American society that need to be updated:

Criminal justice...Studies show there are still racial disparities in the legal and criminal justice system that have been used to maintain racial discrimination. Black Americans are disproportionately stopped by police, arrested, and unlikely to make bail. They also receive disproportionately harsher sentences. Research found that 33% of the people sentenced to prison are Black, despite the fact that they make up about 13% of the US adult population.

Education…In the 1950s, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. But most schools weren't integrated for years. To this day, minority students are increasingly concentrated in schools with higher rates of poverty. That's in part because school districts rely heavily on local taxes and poorer areas have less taxable income. Meaning, communities with low-income households are automatically getting less money dedicated to their local schools.

Employment…Studies show that companies are more likely to call back a candidate who has a name more commonly associated with white people. Black workers reportedly account for 26% of EEOC discrimination claims...despite making up 13% of the workforce. Black Americans are also more likely to be unemployed or have low-paying jobs compared to white Americans. That's in part due to education disparities. But studies show Black workers earn less than white workers even when they have the same education.

Health care…Black Americans are nearly twice as likely as white Americans to be uninsured and are less likely to get care. Problem, because Black Americans have higher rates of chronic health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. This health care disparity can be traced to the 20th century when Black patients were denied entry to white hospitals or segregated in different wings. One thing that's helped: the Affordable Care Act. Studies show that since its enactment in 2014, health care coverage went up the most among Black and Hispanic Americans.

Housing…Black Americans weren't legally allowed to own property as enslaved people. And decades later, Black Americans struggle because of policies like segregated federal housing projects and redlining. Aka determining that certain neighborhoods (which consisted mostly of Black Americans) were considered too high of a credit risk to be given a mortgage. Homeownership can be critical to building wealth, but Black Americans have long been left out.

Wealth gap...Combined, all of these issues have contributed to a large wealth gap between Black and white Americans. US census data shows that about 1 in 5 Black people in the US lives in poverty. In 2016, the median wealth of white households was $171,000. The median for Black households was $17,100. And unlike white Americans, the Federal Reserve says Black Americans are less likely to receive an inheritance, which sets up the next generation to fall financially behind.

What You Can Do

Commit to being an ally. Today, tomorrow, and every day. That starts with...

Getting educated...As in familiarizing yourself with the Black experience in the US. That can be through books, movies, TV shows, or podcasts. Here are a few to get you started: "The 1619 Project," "Sister Outsider," "When They See Us," "I Am Not Your Negro," "The 13th," "LA 92," "If Beale Street Could Talk," "Between the World and Me," "Homegoing," "The Hate U Give," "Insecure," "Moonlight," "Hair Love," and "Queen & Slim." There are also documentaries on Trayvon MartinSandra BlandKalief Browder, and The Central Park Five.

Giving support...to Black-owned businesses. Following influential Black voices on social media. Or donating to orgs that support the fight for racial justice. Here are a few...

Speaking up...Leave the niceties in 2020. It's time to have uncomfortable conversations with your friends, your family, your neighbors, and everyone else. The more we talk to each other about race and confront racial inequalities when we see them, the better chance we have at achieving an anti-racist society.

Keeping up the fight...Racism doesn't end over the course of one summer. You can reach out to your representative or local officials and encourage them to fix racist practices in your community. And continue to protest against inequality. Because this is a continued fight for justice that requires all of our support, including on the days when it's popular – and especially on the days when it's not.

Skimm’d by Maria del Carmen Corpus, Mariza Smajlaj, Niven McCall-Mazza, Clem Robineau, and Julie Shain


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