George Floyd was killed by a police officer on May 25. But it’s now been more than three weeks, and the George Floyd protests haven’t subsided. If anything, they’ve become more pervasive.
Something is very different about these protests when compared to the racial unrest in the late 1960s. That event involved mainly African Americans in a select number of large cities. But the George Floyd protests are taking in a large number of white and Latino participants. And not only are they happening in multiple large cities across the country, but they’re also taking place in smaller cities and suburban communities.
Here in northern New England, protests have taken place over several days in Portland, Maine. This is noteworthy because Portland is a small city, with a population of 66,000+ and an overwhelmingly white population makeup (African-Americans comprise only about 7% of the population).
Given the length, breadth, and inclusive nature of the protests, I believe there’s a lot more happening than challenges to police brutality and a particular focus on the killing of African-Americans.
Yes, it is all that, but Floyd’s killing may be the catalyst for a multitude of unresolved issues in America.
Of course, it’s too early to tell exactly what’s going on. But here is my attempt to identify contributing factors.
One might think that the killing of George Floyd by a police officer would be enough to incite widespread public unrest. But we have to remember this happened against the backdrop of the coronavirus. It’s been said that the coronavirus is the first crisis to hit us both as a health crisis and an economic crisis. Americans were already deeply frustrated by this conundrum.
There are few qualities that more define the American mindset than optimism. We even have a term for it – American exceptionalism. It doesn’t matter what happens to the rest of the world, we’re always going to come out on top, because we’re America and we’re Number 1.
Then there’s the just-world hypothesis, also known as the just-world theory or the just-world fallacy. Call it what you will, it’s the mistaken belief that everyone gets what they deserve. Good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people.
If only that were true. We all know good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people all the time. But somehow we can’t shake the belief that if only we do all the right things, we’ll end up with positive outcomes.
Both American exceptionalism and the just-world hypothesis have met their match with the coronavirus. That’s what’s causing the frustration. Not only has there been the fear of this invisible, incurable virus, but the economic devastation caused by the shutdown that followed. What made it worse is how it somehow seemed to sneak up on us out of nowhere (though following several months of denial).
Uncertainty was widespread on the morning of May 25. And uncertainty has a way of turning into fear, and few forces mobilize a people more than fear.
For at least the past 10 years, and maybe 20, tens of millions of Americans have sensed growing economic vulnerability and the social dislocation that comes with it. But what’s been missing is a centralized platform from which to air their grievances. The killing of George Floyd may have been the flame that lit the fire that was fueled by the coronavirus.
Building Economic Distress
If the coronavirus was the fuel lit by the George Floyd match, growing economic distress by large swaths of the population magnified the impact of the coronavirus, which itself mostly exposed our growing vulnerabilities to the light of day.
While interest rates have been artificially low for more than a decade, the stock market has been exploding, and house prices have been rising steadily (someone has to explain to me why rising house prices are good for anybody but real estate speculators). At the same time, costs for healthcare, college education and other products and services crucial to the population and the economy have also been rising out of all proportion to economic growth.
Against that backdrop, consider the following grim statistics:
- While growth in wages from 1979 to 2018 was 34% for the top 10% in inflation-adjusted dollars, the increase was just 12% for middle-class workers.
- 78% of US workers live paycheck-to-paycheck.
- 69% of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings.
- 40% of Americans age 55 and older have no money saved for retirement
- 50% of retired couples and 70% of individuals rely on Social Security for 50% or more of their income. 21% of couples and 45% of individuals rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income.
- Despite the Affordable Care Act, nearly 28 million Americans are without health insurance. That number began increasing in 2017.
- Nearly one-third of American households are considered “housing cost burdened”, spending 30% or more of their incomes on housing. More than 15% spend more than 50% of their income on housing. The second group is considered to be severely cost burdened. (Again I have to ask the question, how are rising housing prices good for anyone?).
These statistics point to a nation in which most people could best be described as economically fragile. Do you think any of these facts may have contributed to the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus, or the pervasiveness of the George Floyd protests?
I don’t think need to work too hard to connect the dots. A population that increasingly sees its status within society declining – whether black, white, Latino, Native American, or other – is likely to find itself angry and ready to take to the streets to demand change.
The Political Fiasco that’s Become an American Standard
I’m not going to spend much time on this topic because I think – or at least hope – Americans of every race, ethnicity, creed and mindset are fully aware of it.
Politicians say one thing on the campaign trail, then do something very different once in office. If we’re lucky, they do something small and mostly symbolic, then claim victory over the problem.
Put another way, they lie to us on the campaign trail, and we pretend to believe them. Most of us know they’re lying, but we hope against hope that they aren’t, and that we can continue to maintain some semblance of happiness and security in our lives.
American politics, just like everything else in our society, mostly uphold the status quo. If we were living in a perfect world, that would be a winning strategy. But the problems that get ignored – in favor of maintaining that status quo – fester and can even become unsolvable due to years, decades or generations of neglect.
Maybe, just maybe, the George Floyd killing finally has Americans thinking I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore! (from the 1970s movie Network). I suspect this is where the protesters are at. More of us need to feel the same way if we want real change.
The Black/White Divide – An Unfortunate American Institution
Too many white Americans see the George Floyd killing as a one-off event that’s being exaggerated by the protests that have followed. But if you think that way, you’re ignoring the bigger picture. The killing of George Floyd was symbolic of a history of a second-class status that’s easily recognized in the black community, but mostly ignored among whites.
As much as we like to believe the narrative that America is a melting pot, it’s no better than partially true. There’s a growing divide between rich and poor, metropolitan areas and rural areas, suburban communities and inner-city neighborhoods, and especially between those born into wealth in those who aren’t (the common belief that anyone in America can become wealthy through hard work and determination is another of those myths we like to feed on).
All these problems are more pronounced in black America. In each of the economic statistics cited earlier, the numbers are considerably less favorable for black households. And in yet another statistic that underscores the problem, the median household income for whites is $70,642, but just $41,361 for blacks. The fact that the average black household earns only about 59% as much as a white household confirms that wealth inequality is a built-in characteristic of the American economic system.
Depending on your political viewpoint, we can argue for days about the causes driving the wealth disparity between whites and blacks. But in the final analysis, that disparity is very real.
Major disparities have to be resolved, otherwise they boil into conflict.
I can’t speak for the African-American population on this issue. But I hear it enough from black leaders in public platforms and see it in the many statistics that bear it out.
White Indifference to the Black/White Divide
White America, by and large, prefers to ignore this divide. Worse is when it’s seen as normal. Disparities are not normal, but an indication of a broken system. It’s easy to ignore this when you yourself are faring well in life.
That’s my situation now, so I comprehend the indifference of those not affected by it. But at the same time, my family and I spent several years in the barely-getting-by camp. If you’ve never been there, you can’t imagine the hopelessness that comes with it. That feeling is intensified when you live in a culture where so many are doing so incredibly well.
If you’re white and “can’t see the problem here”, it’s probably because you’ve never experienced anything like it. We did in my family, and it was bad enough. But we didn’t have the racial factor to contend with at the same time.
I can only imagine what that combination is like, and if you’re white, I’d ask you to do the same.
It’s a natural thing; we all get trapped inside our own heads. We assume the life we’re leading is the standard of normal, that everyone can attain the same level, and that if they haven’t it’s their own fault.
As long as we think that way, the racial divide – and every other divide in the country – will still be here long after we’re all gone. That’ll be a tragedy, because we’ll have failed to leave the world in a better condition than the one we were born into.
Now let’s turn to the issue that’s being considered the focal point of the George Floyd protests.
The Hand of the Police HAS Gotten Heavier
Let’s start this section by saying I’m not in favor of many of the popular “solutions”, like disbanding or de-funding police departments. There’s a reason police departments exist in the first place, and that’s chaos, because that’s what you’ll have without police. Mostly, I think these are radical proposals from people desperate for change.
But at the same time, I fully appreciate and support the need for that change.
There are plenty of statistics to illustrate the point. They’re drawn from Trends in US Corrections from The Sentencing Project:
- There were fewer than 300,000 prison inmates in the US in 1980, and about 1.44 million by 2017. This doesn’t include approximately 800,000 in US jails, which would bring the total number of Americans incarcerated to over 2.2 million.
- The US prison population has expanded by about 500% since 1980, compared to an increase of less than 50% in the overall population of the country.
- The rate of incarceration in the US is 655 for every 100,000 citizens. This compares to 383 in Russia, 172 in Australia, 127 in Canada, 118 in China, 107 in France, and 104 in Germany. Side note: did you ever expect to see the rate of incarceration in the US not only higher, but much higher, than that in Russia and China??? Please spend some time contemplating what that implies.
- State prison expenditures have increased from $6.7 billion in 1985 to $59.8 billion in 2017.
- The number of people being supervised by the prison system – in prison, in jail, on parole, or on probation – has risen from just over 1.8 million in 1980, to more than 6.6 million in 2016. We’ve succeeded in creating an enlarged criminal class in the process.
- There is an extreme disparity in the rates of incarceration between states. For example, the rate per 100,000 is 239 in Massachusetts, but 1,387 in Louisiana. Are people in Louisiana really 5-6 times more likely to commit crimes, or is something else at work?
- Whites make up 30.3% of the prison population, while blacks represent 33.1%, Latinos are 23.4%, and “other” are at 13.3%.
A CNN article published last week, American police shoot, kill and imprison more people than other developed countries. Here’s the data reports more than 1,000 people killed by police in the US in 2018. This compares to 11 in Germany, eight in Australia, six in Sweden, and only three in the UK.
When we look at the statistics, it’s easy to see why people – black, white, and Latino – are up in arms and taking to the streets.
Before We Blame the Police for All the Bad News…
Whether you consider yourself to be pro-police, anti-police, or somewhere in between, the above statistics are more than alarming. Over the past 40 years, America has gradually but relentlessly been morphing into a police state.
But we can’t go pinning all the blame on the police. Consider the following:
- Nearly 400 million guns are in the possession of fewer than 330 million Americans. This makes Americans the most armed civilians in the world. Cops in the US are more likely to face a gun-wielding perpetrator than police in other countries.
- About 40,000 Americans lose their lives each year to guns whether by murder or suicide. That dwarfs the number of people shot and killed by police.
- The job of a police officer is to stand in between the citizenry and the gun-toting perpetrator. That kind of standoff is bound to produce overreactions and paranoia, even when guns aren’t involved. Few of us face the likelihood of death in the line of our occupations that police do.
- The evolution of the police state is not categorically the fault of the police. It’s driven by politicians looking to get elected by get-tough-on-crime platforms, and the people who vote for them.
I want to spend a little more time on that last point. If I’m right about this, the majority of American citizens are squarely to blame for the rise of the police state.
Americans, particularly white and prosperous ones, are obsessed with safety. Whether it’s home security systems, carrying pepper spray, calling for more police and tougher sentencing laws, or demanding more ordinary behaviors be classified as criminal activity, we’re now living in a police state environment that’s been indirectly demanded by we the people.
The police are taking the brunt of the heat for this outcome. But that’s mainly because they are the face of law enforcement. The public will never blame itself, and politicians will never accept blame for failure by their own hands. It’s always far more convenient to push the blame down to the lowest levels, to those on the front lines.
Against the backdrop of public calls for increased criminal justice, increased funding, and certain triggering events, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the police have done what they’ve been directed to do. Unfortunately, that extends in many cases to shielding members of their own organizations from prosecution in situations where it’s clearly deserved. All organizations and industries tend to be self-protective, but when it’s an organization where the members carry guns, it generates understandable sensitivity among the citizenry.
And hypocrisy. After decades of calling for increased criminal justice, American citizenry is now demanding better behavior from the people they called upon to carry out those demands.
I hope you can appreciate that this is not as simple as a good-guy/bad-guy scenario, the way it’s portrayed on TV. The death of George Floyd is the result of a country that has given its police the authority to act in this manner, all in the name of keeping us safe.
It’s Time for American Citizens to Accept Blame for the Police State
As Americans, we’re now coming face-to-face with the reality that our love affair with criminal justice has produced negative consequences. Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and yes, low income white Americans, are bearing the brunt of those consequences in the form of higher rates of incarceration and killings by cops. That’s not to mention the perpetual fear of being arrested on the most flimsy charges.
But it does seem as if even white America is now beginning to get an appreciation for just how out-of-control the situation has gotten. The image of a police officer kneeling on the neck of a dying George Floyd invokes two very disturbing mental pictures:
- A citizen being crushed under the boot – or in this case, the knee – of an agent of an oppressive government, and
- A hunter proudly posing over a recently killed deer.
Let’s hope that this outrage isn’t just fleeting – and that it’s not aimed entirely at the police. Sure, the police need to clean up their act, and behave less like warriors and more like citizens. But that can’t happen until the other forces driving what has become the American police state are seriously rolled back.
Burning question: Do you really feel any safer now than you did ten or 20 years ago?
Follow-up question: Are you finally coming around to the realization that maybe this whole criminal justice obsession has gone too far?
The Bigger Picture
Unfortunately, I’m not proposing any solutions to any of these problems. That’s because I freely admit I don’t have any. These are national problems, with deep historical, social, racial, cultural, economic, legal, and political roots.
But I’m just a guy writing on a blog. My best hope is raising awareness. Maybe many in white America – especially those who are better off economically – will begin to sense the gravity of multi-generational oppression and indifference. And maybe those with better minds than me will gradually come up with solutions.
Everyone says they want to build a better world – this crisis, or series of crises – may be presenting us with just that opportunity.
We can’t blow it with business-as-usual complacency.