Attempting to rewrite the paradigm of race
With the brutal murder of George Floyd and the eruption of global society into weeks, and perhaps months, or more, of protest, we are seeing, finally, the unjust paradigm of race being shaken to its very core. As the world continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, and businesses and schools attempt to define and implement a "new normal," millions have broken quarantine to voice dissent and search for ways to dismantle the institutional racism that sparked the flame of this worldwide call for change.
Can we rewrite the paradigm of race without dismantling society as we know it?
Working to change behavior through policy
You'd think that the voices raised in protest, and in solidarity, should eventually go from rapid boil to a simmer. During what seemed to be one such early transition, the renewed work of policy change started revving up. It is renewed because we have tried this before.
Somewhat recently, on August 19, 2019, California signed into law AB 392, or "The Stephon Clarke Law." AB 392 "allows peace officers to engage in lethal force only in situations where it is deemed 'necessary' to protect officers or the public from an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury." It seemed to signal a seminal moment.
Both Assembly Woman Shirley Weber, who introduced the bill, and Governor Gavin Newsom had high hopes for the bill, the essential gist of which was altering the language stipulating "officers had 'reason to believe' force was necessary" to "where it is deemed necessary."
AB 392 is a necessary step to affirming the sanctity of human life and protecting human rights. For too many days have gone by with far too many deaths because of the inactions of those who have the power to enact change.
-Assembly woman Shirley Weber
At the bill's signing, Governor Gavin Newsom spoke of its potential impact on the rest of the nation. ". . . as California goes," he proudly proclaimed, " so goes the rest of the United States of America. We are doing something today that stretches the boundaries of possibility.”
So, now, nearly a year later, and not a few more deaths later, Nancy Pelosi and Senate
Democrats paid their respects by taking a knee, and introduced The Justice in Policing Act, once again attempting to stretch those boundaries of possibilities.
What exactly is possible through policy? What impact does policy have on something as pervasive as racism? In sorting through the interplay between the boil and the simmer, between the voices of protest and the (re)burgeoning work on antiracist policy, I've turned to one of our most foremost experts on antiracism, Ibram Kendi.
A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups. An antiracist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups. By policy, I mean written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people.
- Ibram X Kendi, "How to be an Antiracist"
Does the Justice in Policing Act (or any of the local efforts at reform, defunding, and even abolishment of local police forces) have potential to be part of a new beginning? And can it, when it is refined, be a model for anti-racist policy in other sectors of society, including housing and employment, for example, where clearly delineated policy will be the measure by which further racial equity can be addressed?
Keep the pot simmering
What about that pot of protest simmering on the stove? The protests have been notable not only for the sheer volume of them and the breadth of territory covered, in all 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., and in at least 40 countries on every continent except for Antarctica. We are talking about protests built around one name three weeks ago and then expanding to dozens of names, spanning decades of injustice. That's a long time to be simmering.
I'd like to think that could be our base stock of new humanity, and we'll add to it, turning up the flame at times, and bringing it back down when appropriate. But right now the flame is still high, steady in its vigilance for George Floyd and all that moment stands for, and disturbingly renewed with new acts of violence even as the world watches.
Raynard Brooks, who died after being shot in the back while fleeing a confrontation with two police officers in Atlanta, is the latest confirmed victim as of this writing, and so the protests have gained momentum once again.
How does the paradigm ultimately change?
Paradigms don't shift overnight, and this is not a new battle. The death of George Floyd has re-ignited the fight for justice, but that parsing out of justice into workable policy change and everyday behaviors is going to take a long time and steady vigilance.
But what we have also seen at the rallies, protests, and recorded speeches is the demographic of its participants and how that, coupled with the numbers, reflects the potential for change and a paradigm shift in the making. First we saw the citizenry of Minneapolis, driven by its youth, take to the streets, and then that extended to other major cities in the world. There are people of all ages marching and from diverse cultures. There are world leaders engaging in the protests and using social media to address the protesters. The United Nations Human Rights Council is holding a debate on racism and police violence in response to an urgent request from 54 African countries.
The protests are resulting in action.
In those early days in Minneapolis, we learned a bit about how not only how to navigate in the time of protest, but perhaps about how to start to think differently about our place in an evolving society. The labor unions, offered support, advice, and laid out protocols: No, bus drivers were not obligated to drive police to the site of a protest or arrested demonstrators away. This was a new way of thinking for some.
Students, already driven out of their schools by the specter of COVD-19, were now driven to the streets. Teachers, already stretched to the limits with the demands of a loosely-defined COVID-driven pedagogy, were now called upon to counsel those students impacted by George Floyd's death and its aftermath. How do you admonish someone whose excuse is along the lines of this:
“I’m sorry I didn’t finish my homework, I was flushing my eyes to get the tear gas out.”
- Student comment from Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (LaborNotes.org)
How far does society have to evolve?
As we have started to ask ourselves about education as a result of COVID, meaning, can we, do we, go back to what it was before, we are now struggling with the more frightening prospect of public safety. We know we can't go back to what it has been, but how do we get to where it should be?
Can real change happen as a product of policy?
Most people have lost faith in reform as a tool for change. So, while the Justice in Policing Act is a start, the real question that people have started to ask is what do we need to do to abolish racism?
This much we know. Policing cannot look anything like it has if we are to move forward with striving towards equal protection under the law.
A June 8 New York Times article notes how several cities have started to work with different models:
In Austin, Texas 911 callers are asked whether they need police, fire, or mental health services.
In Eugene, Oregon, a team consisting of a medic and a crisis worker with mental health training are deployed in response to emergency calls.
In Camden, New Jersey, as a result of a program to revamp its police force, officers handed out more warnings than tickets and went through training that emphasized holding their fire.
And now, as protesters call for sweeping changes, we are confronted with the reality of what it takes for real change to occur. Minneapolis has begun that process of change with proposed calls to disband the police department (voted on by the city council), but this has already been challenged and the fight will continue until we see what the new configuration will actually look like.
Changes to policing, from defunding to full abolishing of local forces, all represent a paradigmatic shift of their own, and they are a significant component of rewriting the paradigm of race.
Continue to stir the pot and to focus on policy
We are seeing hearts and minds around the globe inspired by the need to rewrite the paradigm of race. We, the people, it seems, have an increasingly louder and singular voice. Let's use that unified voice to affect change through those who have the power to make policy. Again, Ibram Kendi helps us focus our energies in that direction.
We all have the power to discriminate. Only an exclusive few have the power to make policy. Focusing on “racial discrimination” takes our eyes off the central agents of racism: racist policy and racist policymakers, or what I call racist power.
In the past few weeks, we have seen how the dialogue between we, the people, with the promise to influence change and those with the power to affect change has been amplified. And perhaps our influence has grown.
Finally, piggybacking on barely learned lessons from the global pandemic, we know we cannot go back. In April, at the start of the pandemic, Arundhati Roy read from what now feels like a prescient passage from her book "Azadi: Freedom. Fascism. Fiction." to be released in September from Haymarket Books.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
We cannot walk through this portal of change lightly, but we can choose to walk through it as antiracists, ready to create another world, and already fighting for it.
For further exploration
Black Lives Matter, updates, resources, ways to get involved
How to Be an Anitracist by Ibram X Kendi
I Am Not Your Negro, James Baldwin's unfinished work "Remember This House," brought to life by filmmaker Raoul Peck and voiced by Samuel K. Jackson.