The United States is burning. A curfew has been imposed in several cities, while the uprisings in the streets of black and white protesters alike show no sign of diminishing and the army is ready to intervene.
Meanwhile, the words and actions of the US government, particularly of Trump (his latest comments about “law and order” evoking a television drama), show little interest in reconciliation with communities that are already exasperated by the coronavirus crisis, unemployment and social inequalities.
To understand the historical and social roots of the riots, we put a few questions to professor Noam Chomsky, one of the most renowned experts of American politics and society in the world.
The protests that followed George Floyd’s killing turned into riots and spread from Minneapolis to several other cities in the United States. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has urged military police to prepare. Professor Chomsky, what’s going on in the United States? Is there something deeper behind the protests against racism and abuse of power by white policemen?
What is deeper is 400 years of brutal repression: first, the most vicious system of slavery in human history, which provided much of the basis for the economic growth and prosperity of the US (and England); then 10 years of freedom in which blacks could enter the society, and did so with remarkable success; then a North-South compact which effectively granted the former slave states the authority to do as they liked. What they did was to criminalize black life, creating “Slavery by another Name,” the title of one of the major books on the topic.
That lasted virtually until World War II, when labor was needed. Then came a period of relative freedom, hindered by racist laws so extreme that the Nazis rejected them and federal laws requiring segregation in the government-funded housing that was built after the war – and of course blacks (and women) were excluded from the free higher education provided to veterans. Then came another wave of criminalization of black life.
The residue can be imagined. The racism persists, though it is less rampant than before. And when it manifests itself, as in the Floyd murder, there is naturally an explosion – joined in this case by much of the white population, a reflection of progress among some parts of the population in overcoming this hideous curse.
Do you think the pandemic has played a role in the protests that have sparked in recent days? Did it bring the country’s inequalities and profound social justice problems to the fore? Or did it just blow up a pot that had been simmering for some time?
The pandemic has highlighted some of these problems. For example, blacks are dying from COVID-19 at three times the rate of whites. Trump, whose malice has no bounds, has taken advantage of the pandemic to cut back regulations limiting air pollution, which has devastating effects for the current respiratory pandemic. The business press estimates that tens of thousands may die as a result, heavily concentrated among blacks who can afford to live only in the most polluted areas. How such facts will affect public opinion depends on the extent to which they are obscured by racist apologetics.
Are there circumstances, like these ones, where violence from an exasperated population can be justified?
It can certainly be understood. The record reveals that it is not wise. Consistently, it leads to more public support for harsher repression.
Donald Trump reacted to the protests with a Tweet that was later removed, but not before throwing a lot of gas on the fire. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Can you explain to us why, beyond the incitement of violence against demonstrators, this phrase has had such a strong impact on American society? And also, do you think that the “original sin that still stains our nation today” (as Joe Biden said) is aggravated today by Trump’s presence? Does his fiery rhetoric also help him to climb back up in the polls, which today give Biden in the lead?
Trump was quoting a Florida mayor from 50 years ago on how he’d react to protests against racism. The meaning was clear, though after a highly negative reaction, Trump lied about it and said he meant that looters would shoot. Trump has gone out of his way to increase the “stain,” appealing to white supremacist elements of his voting base. Hard to predict the popular impact.
What do you think of the reaction of the liberals? Does what is happening these days have something to teach them and Biden?
It should. Whether it will, we will see.
A last question, professor. You cited the “criminalization of black life,” which you have often spoken about in your books. Can you explain briefly how it has acted and continues to act in American society and its economy?
I can’t take credit for the phrase. It is commonly used in studies of American society. In the former slave states in the late 19th century it was deliberate policy. If a black man was standing on the street, he could be arrested for vagrancy, given a fine he couldn’t pay, and sent off to prison – where he could be provided to businesses as a perfect worker: disciplined, no protests, cheap. That was a major contribution to the manufacturing revolution of the time, as well as to agribusiness.
The second wave of criminalization took off with Ronald Reagan. In 1980, when he took office, incarceration rates were within the European range. Since then they have exploded, far beyond Europe. Those imprisoned are disproportionately black. That is partially the result of the drug war, and is partially traceable to greater crime among blacks. The latter fact is sometimes adduced in racist apologetics, suppressing the question of why crime is greater among blacks. That is typical of oppressed communities. The case of blacks is by far the most severe.
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