Mike pences rejection of the idea that the us is systemically racist at wednesdays vice-presidential debate was not unusual; history seemed to be repeating itself. i was born in the caribbean, live in the us, and am affiliated with a south african university, a perspective that makes clear to me the global reach and tumultuous events of black lives matter. this recalls and builds on previous black political movements, especially the us civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
This focused on dismantling the jim crow black codes and formal segregation that constituted an american apartheid. in many ways, it was successful: it dismantled all the legal norms that denied rights to african americans. it had multiple currents, some more radical than others, and a plurality of organising methods, ranging from sit-ins to voter registration campaigns and mass marches. it culminated in the civil rights act of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965. a century after the abolition of us slavery, formal procedural rights were finally granted to african americans.
Yet, as mr pences comments made clear,not all the movements demands were realised. thus this year, while there are no legal bans on african-american voting in the presidential election, there is deep concern about voter suppression. these concerns flow directly from a 2013 supreme court decision which invalidated parts of the 1965 voting act.
Blm shares many of the civil rights movements traditions, but emerged in a very different context. it started to crystallise during barack obamas second term as us president, when george zimmerman fatally shot trayvon martin, a 17-year-old who waswalking home one evening in florida. the shooting and the subsequent acquittal punctured any illusion of a post-racial america.
Four decades after the dismantling of formal segregation, socio-economic indicators make it clear that equality is a mirage. african-american rates of prison incarceration have risen exponentially; their killing by police officers remains unabated, contrary to mr pences notion that the charge of systemic racism is an insult to all who serve in law enforcement. the quality of the state public schools that blacks attend is appalling as is their access to healthcare, their unemployment compared to whites, and the wealth gap.
Federal law did not change the structures of anti-black racism. hence blms objective to eradicate white supremacy and its aim to work for a world where black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.
This is very different political terrain from the civil rights movement and has created a distinctive political language. it has required new methods of organising: mass protests maintained via a non-hierarchical structure. it is also more international. the more than 4,000 cities across the world where solidarity marches occurred this year, made blm a global political banner.
It is remarkable that blm garnered multiracial support in the middle of a pandemic and has shifted, at least temporarily, the views of many whites.in the us election, blms activities have shaped both campaigns. for president donald trump, they have become a yeast for a campaign based around law and order. meanwhile, his democratic rival, joe biden, walks a fine line between being attentive to protesters demands while not alienating sections of white suburbia. this is a difficult game: an election win depends on the turnout and enthusiasm of voters of all races and political persuasions.
The election result will be decisive for racial justice. a trump victory will embolden racist groups. as the president and his running mate do not believe systemic racism exists, there will be no new policies for racial justice either. a biden win would create a different political space, where work towards racial equality may continue.
One unknown factor, as history shows, may yet make all the difference. the civil rights movement, with all its diverse currents, was met with fierce violence. are we again today in a similar moment? a recent fbi report noted that perpetrators of hate crime are a major domestic threat. mr trump, even before he was prescribed steroids for his covid-19 treatment, has not beensilenton this. inthe first presidential debate he gave a wink and a nod tothe neo-fascistgroup proud boys, which advocatesracial hatred and violence, telling them to stand by.
We are in a momentof flux. will authoritarianism and illiberalism become dominant? recent months haveseen ahinge of history as blm has challenged the uss deepest racial structures.
The writer is professor of africana studies at brown university