Millions of Americans have witnessed the unjustified, brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Like Rodney King, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and countless others of our Black American community, Floyd’s name has become yet another war cry in our country’s fight against racism.
Already in the midst of a pandemic, our country has since lit up in flames, as peaceful protests turned violent, riots and looting spreading from Minneapolis to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.
Still in quarantine, I watched cable news night after night as fellow citizens expressed outrage over the systemic violence that has tainted our history for far too long. I have to admit — despite believing myself to be an ally and activist, I felt helpless.
There is no denying that a problem exists with the law enforcement of our country. What happened to George Floyd would not have happened to a White person. Even as an Asian American, I would never expect to find myself in such a scenario, and neither have I ever left my home conscious of a possibility that my life can end at the hands of an armed officer. Change must happen, and soon.
Nonetheless, these problems span beyond police forces. Their seeds were planted at the onset of slavery, a system where White persons imported Africans (and their future children) for a life of servitude. A life that was, objectively, less than.
But this life of oppression did not end with slavery. The fundamental mentality of slavery — especially since only Africans comprised American slaves — has never left. The legacy that leaves Whites as superior and darker-skinned people as inferior endures through our systems.
Norwegian theorist Johan Galtung, sometimes referred to as the “Father of Peace Studies,” once highlighted three levels of violence: direct, structural, and cultural.
Direct violence threatens the basic needs of survival, well-being, identity, and freedom. In other words, direct violence is perpetrated by someone directly harming another person, often through physical means. A husband beating his wife represents a form of direct violence, as does a policeman holding his knee against the neck of an unarmed man.
A profusion of direct violence results in structural violence, which prevents specific groups from obtaining equal access to opportunities. The power imbalance that silently and passively allowed the disgusting sexual abuse of women in Hollywood (and men, and in other industries, of course) by male executives only endured due to a pattern of direct violence towards victims who were threatened grave workplace consequences should they speak up. The same repetition that allowed such abuse in turn encouraged it. Similarly, due to precedents set by previous court rulings that may hold cops to a different standard for evoking self-defense, it has become extremely difficult to convict police officers in cases involving deaths brought on by officers themselves.
(Each year, about 900 to 1,000 people are shot and killed by the police, the grand total in 2019 reaching 1,004 people. Since 2005, only 35 of 98 arrested nonfederal police officers have been convicted of crimes, often for lesser offenses.)
The culmination of direct violence that feeds structural violence produces what Galtung calls cultural violence, a justification and legitimization of social norms that accept direct and structural violence. Racism is surely a result of generations of belief in White superiority, but even more dangerous are the unconscious biases we allow to linger in the back of our minds as we go about our everyday lives. Why does the possibility of pregnancy prevent a woman from securing a promotion? Why do cops perceive Black Americans to be more dangerous than their White counterparts? Unless someone openly admits to being sexist or racist, there is no other explanation than unconscious biases.
Therefore, the oppression Black Americans and other minority Americans continue to suffer today in the 21st century cannot be addressed solely by law enforcement reform. It is a start, but there are other places we can advocate for change.
Let’s reevaluate school systems that continue to generate low college graduation rates among people of color (POC), examine the reasons why minorities continue to earn less in the workplace, and scrutinize the perpetuation of segregated towns and cities across our country (and their lasting implications). Let’s reassess legislation written to specifically target POC and lead to mass incarceration, analyze the reasons why the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color, and rethink the way we integrate Black culture into American culture — using the N-word as non-Blacks, no matter the circumstance, including in songs and everyday slang, is unacceptable. Let’s tear down institutionalized violence against our fellow humans in the name of our humanity to uphold our unalienable and constitutional rights. By doing so, we can slowly but surely cure the social parasites that run rampant in our bodies in order to destroy the cultural violence that has destroyed the lives of too many.
We can do it.
Where there is violence, there can be peace. Where there is direct, structural, and cultural violence, there can be direct, structural, and cultural peace. I am proud of the support my friends have rushed to show the #BLM movement across social media platforms. I have felt empowered by the droves of people who, despite facing a public health crisis, have bravely recognized that they must fight for justice, a cause much longer lasting than a virus and its threat. If anything, this past week has proven yet again the enthusiasm we Americans can harness to rally for change, together. Nonetheless, I pray that we can extend this fight for social justice outwardly into our own, everyday lives in order to combat the cultural implications of racism, bigotry, and other forms of hatred.
As President Obama said, “Let’s get to work.”