Events and social movements of recent years have accused the United States of systemic racism. While there have undoubtedly been advances over the decades in both legislation and public opinion, the rise of nationalist ideology, the resurgence of racist practices, and enduring structures of inequality undermine these advances. This essay outlines that from slavery, to the Jim Crow era, to today’s police brutality, racial minorities in America continue to face disadvantage, discrimination, and unjustified violence. What are the implications of racism beyond social injustice, on democracy and the strength of a country? How does it impact the national security of the United States? How is Europe implicated in this as well?
The Broader Context
A great deal of pain has been attributed to the year 2020. A deadly pandemic brought the world to a standstill—a pause that elicited reflections on the state of society, what was working and what was not. Particularly, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted inequities in public health through a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minority groups. Social factors, including less access to high quality health care and disproportionate representation among essential workers, led to people of color being more at risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. Compared with white Americans, BIPOC (black, indigenous, and other people of color) in American were three times as likely to be hospitalized and over twice as likely to die from COVID-19. Additionally, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and the recorded and widely-shared murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin led to a boiling point in the U.S. that sparked a worldwide movement.
Further, the past decade has seen a rise in nationalist populism that has had a significant impact on global politics. In the United States, the election of Donald Trump gave legitimacy to previously fringe, xenophobic and racist ideologies. France saw Marine Le Pen become a runner up in the 2017 presidential election, and she still has potential for next years’ election. The Alternative for Germany, which has distinctly neo-Nazi overtones, has become the largest opposition party in Germany. Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and many other European countries have seen a rise in the representation of far-right populism in their countries. Nationalist populism singles out a particular group, often based on ethnicity or religion, and uses that group as a scapegoat for the countries’ woes. In the U.S. and much of the EU, this group is often migrants who are blamed for ‘stealing jobs’, contributing to terrorism, and undermining their definition of the countries’ values. This ideology normalizes discourses and practices that, according to UN Human Rights, “incite racial discrimination, xenophobia and exclusion in the name of protecting national interests”. Nationalist populism further divides countries along lines of race, ethnicity, and/or religious background, as well as threatens international security by undermining the authority and capabilities of national and international democratic institutions. Nationalist populism has given a legitimacy to racist ideologies and has led to discriminatory policies, increased violence and further destabilization.
How Systemic Racism Undermines Democracy
The United States voting system, particularly the creation of the Electoral College, was designed in a way that empowered Southern voters (slave owners) over Northern voters (free states). A popular vote system would have significantly disadvantaged Southern states because slaves made up a considerable portion of their population and did not count towards representation. To more evenly balance representation between Northern states and Southern states, the three-fifths compromise was agreed upon, which designated slaves to count as 3/5ths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation. While the three-fifths compromise was repealed when slavery was abolished, other voting systems, including equal representation in the Senate and the organization of the Electoral College still give an advantage to Southern states by overrepresenting a region that makes up a smaller portion of the total population. Additionally, since the abolishment of slavery and black Americans receiving the right to vote, voter suppression strategies have been implemented to limit the ability of black Americans to vote. During the Jim Crow era (the time period between the abolishment of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s), literacy and ‘good character’ tests, intimidation tactics, and poll taxes were used pervasively to prevent racial minorities from practising their right to vote. These blatant forms of suppression were struck down with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965; however, a key provision that required changes in voting procedures in districts with a history of discrimination to receive federal approval before being enacted was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2013. Since then, half of the states in the U.S. have implemented voting procedures that act as direct barriers to voting.
Just in the past few months alone, conservative politicians in seventeen states across the U.S. have submitted legislation that limits both who is allowed to vote and how they’re allowed to vote. By limiting mail-in ballots, offering fewer voting locations in predominantly black areas, and limiting early voting, these laws will make it more difficult for Americans to vote. Mail-in ballots and early voting help working-class Americans who are unable to take time off work to go to the polls practice their right to vote. While this is done in the name of election security, it is effectively voter suppression. The truth is that voter fraud only occurs at rates between 0.0003 and 0.0025 per cent, and is not a valid justification for restrictive voting procedures. The laws that are passed in the name of election security often disproportionately impact voters who tend to vote liberal, including racial minorities, working-class Americans, voters in urban areas and students. For example, in the state of Texas, a gun license can be used as a valid form of identification to vote, but a university ID cannot. In case it was not clear enough what the true intention of this legislation is, take an example from the state of Georgia’s new law. In areas predominantly made up of racial minorities, voters often wait over five hours waiting in line to vote due to excess polling booths being closed. Georgia’s new law made it illegal to give food or water to those waiting in line to vote. Because, obviously, the biggest threat to election security is hydration.
The U.S. does not have a centralized electoral commission that defines standards and rules to follow without political interference. This vacuum of accountability, alongside the gutting of legislation meant to prevent discrimination, has led to rampant political interference with the process of representation that is the most central component of democracy. In addition to laws that overcomplicate the process of voting, gerrymandering is another method used to override the will of the people, skew election results and make elections less competitive. Gerrymandering is a practice where lawmakers use the process of redistricting to redraw the lines of electoral districts to benefit a particular party. While these practices negatively impact all groups in the U.S., those that are most significantly impacted are racial minorities. The voter suppression laws being passed by conservative politicians today continue the longstanding practice of limiting the access to vote of those who may vote against their interests. As long as these practices continue, the ability of the population to make their opinions heard and have their interests represented in the government is limited, and the democracy of the United States is weakened.
Security Concerns – Violence and Destabilization
Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have designated white supremacists as the most pressing domestic terror threat to the United States. This was partially in response to the January 6th insurrection of the U.S. Capitol that explicitly threatened the peaceful transfer of power, which was largely made up of extremist groups that support white supremacist beliefs. Additionally, two-thirds of domestic terror attacks in 2020 were committed by white supremacists and other right-wing extremists. The racist and inflammatory ideology Trump allowed to gain prominence during his administration was not without consequence—in addition to the insurrection, hate crimes increased nearly 20% over the years he was president, from 6,121 in 2016, 7,175 in 2017, 7,120 in 2018, to 7,314 in 2019. Hate crimes are the “most severe expression of discrimination, and a core fundamental rights abuse,” according to the EU’s FRA. They violate the right to life, security and protection from violence. Major events can cause spikes in attacks, which is most often seen after terrorist attacks but has been seen more recently in Anti-Asian attacks as a result of the pandemic. The first quarter of 2021 saw a 164% increase in Anti-Asian hate crimes compared with the same period in 2020. Although nationalist populism argues being tough on immigration is necessary for national security by characterizing migrants as potential terrorists, the top law enforcement officials in the U.S. have recognized that the form of terrorism most dangerous to the U.S. today is domestic white supremacy.
This turmoil destabilizes the country, limits how well it can govern, and hinders national unity. It leads to acts of violence against people and property, civil unrest, and a continuously growing division between those who recognize racism and those who do not. This leads to conflict in times of general peace and will worsen times that require social cohesion, such as times of war and conflict. Research has shown that black Americans enlisted in the military during World War II at higher rates in communities that had lower levels of discrimination. For the U.S. to be able to rely on all its citizens, all citizens must be treated with equity and dignity. Furthermore, foreign powers can exploit these divisions. Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election did not invent hateful conspiracy theories, they capitalized on the already existing racial divide to create further discord amongst American voters. This division is a weak point in the United States’ armor that the entire world can see.
The protests against racism that rocked the U.S. last summer are not new to the country; the Civil War and the riots of the 1960’s both reckoned with the violations of black Americans’ human rights. The violence that plagued the Civil Rights Era led to calls for reflection to better understand what causes riots and how they can be prevented. In 1967, a bipartisan commission appointed by President Johnson was created to investigate what led to the notoriously violent Detroit and Newark riots of the previous year. After seven months of research, the commission declared that white racism, police brutality, failed social programs, and white-oriented media were to blame for the riots. This turmoil, if left unaddressed, would lead to two separate societies: “…one black, one white—separate and unequal”. This call to action was ignored by President Johnson, despite him being the one to create the commission to begin with. One fact that does bring hope is that public opinion is not the same as it was in the 1960’s. In the summer of 2020, two-third of U.S. citizens were more concerned with the actions of police than protests that became violent, which is quite a different perspective than the Americans of 1968 who elected Richard Nixon and his platform of ‘bringing back law and order’. Nevertheless, racial division in the United States will continue to grow until more reforms and restructuring take place.
How does racism in the U.S. connect to Europe?
Race in Europe is objectively very different from the United States, but there are still important similarities and insights to be gained from understanding the situations of both. French MEP, Younous Omarjee, argues that in both the U.S. and Europe, the worst theories of the racial hierarchy were created to justify slavery, the holocaust, and colonization. The consequences and prevalence of these theories have not gone away. Hate crimes have also been on the rise across Europe, and police brutality exists throughout Europe as well. Last month a video of a Czech police officer kneeling on the neck of a Romany man, who later died in an ambulance, ignited calls against racist policing in the Czech Republic due to the similarity of the case with that of George Floyd’s.
The U.S. is not the only country that has been called into question for unjustified practices in policing (marginalized groups in Europe are also stopped more often by police, despite generally lower rates of crime), but the rate of police brutality is significantly higher in the U.S. than in comparable developed democratic countries. This is not because systemic racism only exists in the United States and that European countries are immune, but has more to do with the policies and regulations that surround policing. Countries in Europe tend to have higher thresholds to entering the police force – police training in the U.S. takes 21-weeks on average, but programs in Europe can last more than three years. Independent oversight bodies are more commonly used in European countries compared with the U.S. which is in line with UN guidelines for police accountability. Additionally, many European countries have centralized national police forces, which makes it easier to set and enforce uniform standards, whereas the U.S. has a web of nearly 20,000 regional police force agencies with varying levels of autonomy. While the European Union has regulations that prevent many of the acts of racial violence that occur in the U.S., racism and police brutality are still prevalent. Not only does police brutality violate the human rights of life, equal protection under the law, and freedom from torture, it also undermines trust in government institutions, destabilizes communities, and sustains systemic racism.
Because of social media and globalization, social movements in one country are increasingly spilling over to others. Black Lives Matter, which started in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida, is now a global movement. Increasingly, the racial politics of the United States is of international significance, both in terms of the stability of the world’s largest democracy and in its effect of holding a mirror up to the ills of the world. Last summer, anti-black discrimination in Europe, the long-term impacts of colonialization and the experiences of People of African Decent were brought to the forefront of conversations. With racial profiling, harassment, social exclusion and discrimination still widely prevalent across Europe, it is clear there is a great deal of work yet to be done in addressing racism.
There are signs of hope as public awareness around racism rises and it is recognized that limiting discrimination is best for everyone. The U.S. saw police reforms enacted across the country over the summer of last year, the European Commission has created an Anti-Racism Action Plan and countries across the globe are beginning to reckon with the longstanding consequences of history based on racial subjugation. This work must continue, at an even faster pace, in order to build the societies of the future that uphold and protect the human rights of everyone. Because as long as social division and systemic racism exist, countries will be vulnerable to destabilization, the rise of populism, and unjustified violence.