„There is no immediate solution that will bring the country back on track"

With Alterrell Mills, a Harvard Leadership Fellow and a psychologist, we discussed how American racism operates, what "Black Lives Matter" really means and how the systemic racism has to change in the US.
Black Lives Matter
© picture alliance / | Perry Aston

The murder of George Floyd by a police officer and the murder of Ahmaud Arber who was shot by two white men while he was jogging remind Europeans of the grave racism problem the United States has. I guess those who were hoping for a better America when Barack Obama was elected into office were too optimistic about the country’s ability to change?

To believe the election of President Obama would completely shift America’s 400-year history of system racism is rooted in a hope that would deify him beyond actual personhood. The burden of hope that was placed on one man, who faced criticism from black and white communities for doing too much or not enough, is reminiscent of the Greek myth of Atlas. In America we pay more attention to federal elections which have longer term impacts than local elections.

It is also important to understand the ways in which American racism operates: a facade of fairness with an interior that is malicious. The murders of countless black women and men through deadly police interactions are the most obvious and fatal manifestations of American racism. Systemic racism cannot change with one President - no matter who he or she is - without radical political changes that would attempt to level the social, economic, health, education and criminal disparities that are embedded in America’s current structure. 

The current structure of our democracy does not enable all citizens the right to vote (in some states those who have been incarcerated lose their right to democracy), freedom from additional barriers to vote (from the effects of gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics) as well the millions of dollars now required to be raised to run an effective political campaign. If all citizens cannot meaningfully partake in the democratic process, then we cannot expect radical political change. 

In America, the postal code you live in and the income level you were born in is a strong predictor of your health, career and life outcomes. Both postal codes and income are highly correlated with race based on government districting and economic exclusion policies. Even our political system maps to postal codes, which suggests a need for more human movement across cities for American to change quickly. 

What makes racism in the US, addressed against all non-whites, different from racism in other parts of the world? It seems to be over-persevereing, the civil war that was led over the abolishment of slavery, is 150 years back.

Anti-black racism is a global issue, though how the racism manifests may differ depending on the country. In America, racial classifications had legal implications for definitions of personhood, property, rights to marry and a racial binary that collapsed to the one-drop rule. In Latin American countries colonized by Iberian nations, a casta system was imposed that had layers of privilege for the European, Native and African populations that intermixed. In France and Haiti, the refusal to categorize or rather that all citizens are equal created a manifestation of racism that erases the importance of difference by collapsing all. Understanding how racial classifications formed and which groups were present during colonization (or slavery) tell us a more complete story of how racism manifests differently, though all of the systems have anti-blackness at the core: blackness conferring the least privilege, access and societal status. 

Slavery was abolished legally (de jure), but replaced by successive systems of de facto economic and political servitude: sharecropping and segregation. 150 years is exactly two American life spans, or said another way: your grandparents grandparent lived during slavery. And your grandparent was alive and well during segregation. In specifically European context, that could be two or three royal monarch reigns. In a global context, the Byzantine Empire fought two wars for longer than American has existed as a country. 

An inextricable part of how American racism manifests more fatally is tied to our country’s gun laws and the history of modern policing stemming from slave catchers. The lynchings in American have shifted from ropes to bullets - and in other ways as discriminatory housing policies, underfunding of urban schools and disparities in medical treatment that saw a disproportionate impact on Black communities amid the ongoing COVID pandemic. 

You are very active in the LGBTQ-movement. Is your experience there helpful and if so in which way to understand what’s going on at the moment?

The Stonewall riots on Christopher Street 50 years ago set the stage for the rights of LGBTQ Americans. The LGBTQ community and black communities are both marginalized groups, owing their civil liberties (rights) to protests and forms of civil unrest - similar to what we are seeing now as police reform policies make it into mainstream policy discussions. Both groups are still actively under siege, and even more so for those who are members of both communities. 

The US has protections and policies at the federal and state level. For the LGBTQ community there are some states with comprehensive non-discrimination protections such as workplace protections, ability to adopt, healthcare and housing protections. As it relates to police reform and racial justice, there are variations by state as it relates to gun laws and even what rights you have when interacting with police officers. 

Based on the impartial civil liberties granted to LGBTQ and minority groups in the US differs by state, there is a level of fear in all interactions related to race because you would need to know your rights and trust that they won’t be violated. Given the size of America, reasonable travel means your rights can vary from state to state and you may not be informed of those rights before they are infringed upon. It’s scary. 

At the protests I attended there was also the call for “Black Trans Lives Matter”. Transphobic violence is on the rise. Why is that so? One would have thought that after marriage equality was achieved under president Obama the country would also move in another direction regarding transgender. 

Marriage equality was secured at the federal level, yet the lives of the LGBTQ community in many states are no safer than it was before that supreme court decision. We also have to distinguish between gender identity and sexuality, which are differently understood and see very different levels of acceptance or awareness. 

One of the benefits of the LGBTQ community falling under one umbrella is that we can lobby for our mutual rights together, but the levels of privilege and access are not equal. Cisgender people are afforded more privilege, more safety and more protections under the law than are transgender folks. And within each letter of the community there are also layers of privilege afforded by race and class. 

Black Trans Lives Matter because if you believe Black Lives Matter, then you must recognize the increased violence targeted at the trans community which has been disproportionately violent for black trans women. 

Harvard historian Jill Lepore writes in “The Case for the Nation” that there are two Americas: one is the cosmopolitan, liberal one, embodied by Barack Obama, the other one is the exclusionist, white one that Donald Trump embraces. Neither Obama nor Trump invented their version of the States, so it seems difficult from a far to see any way out of the situation in the US. 

I actually think there is just one America, but the belief that there are two is a fantasy rooted in a desire to be a good racist rather than a bad racist. The picture painted of the exclusionist, white America is viewed as “the bad racists” largely by the liberal side of the same racist coin. If there were two Americas, a Trump presidency would not have been possible. 

The picture painted of cosmopolitan, liberal America is that it is free of racism. It is not. The way racism manifests is less explicit and I would hope less violent, but that is not the case. I have lived in liberal states (California, Massachusetts, New York) in very liberal cities where I have seen the violence of racism coalesce from classism and racism. Gentrification and the subsequent violence that comes from neighborhood colonists who use apps like Citizen or Next Door to weaponize their privilege against the poor in the largely minority neighborhoods they move into without so much as understanding the culture before moving. Cosmopolitan America is where police officers are called for noise complaints that might turn deadly, where the workplace is race diverse but everyone has come from the same 5 universities and where social circles are diverse only in that they sometimes interact. This is the racism that wears a suit, dressed up nicely and elects a Black President while still harboring power over systems of oppression. 

The way forward is to realize dressing up racism differently does not inhibit its presence and that re-designing our systems is the only way forward. 

In your opinion what would have to happen to change the United States? The protests all over the country are a good sign for a civil society that is invested in a peaceful, harmonic future. But will this be enough?

What strikes me about the protests happening now, especially compared to the ones a few weeks ago of a different group of citizens wanting the government to reopen businesses despite the health warnings and disproportionate death toll for Black Americans, is that we are witnessing a new level of transparency and accountability. There are some telling photos about how the two protests in Minnesota were differently handled by police because of who was protesting. 

The ability to show side by side images, video and even government responses is making clear how deeply racist America is. Politicians are being held accountable for their budgets and the actions of their police forces. Civilians are engaging in dialogue with city councils and shifting more of the power to the constituents who are meant to be served. 

Your question about peaceful harmony is an interesting one. America is still less than 250 years old. If you were to compare it to other G8 countries only, some of those nations have existed for significantly longer but still see periods of increased civic engagement. 

President Donald Trump has worsened the situation and is determined, in my opinion, to deteriorate the constitutional framework of the Unite States. Moreover, all his rhetoric and attacks against the protesters, deploying of the national guard, seem to stem from an autocrats playbook. As a matter of fact his strategy resembles pretty much how Chinese leader Xi is cracking down on the protests in Hongkong. Do you share my concern for the future of democracy in the US, what is your take on that? Assuming Joe Biden becomes the next president of the United States: what would he have to do immediately to tackle systemic racism and bring the country on track of equality and justice? 

If Joe Biden were to become the next President of the United States, there are a few actions he could take that would address some of the underpinnings of systemic racism in America. The ironic thing about systemic racism is that it is embedded in the design of current systems. Assuming there will be no massive political upheaval, there are places to start that focus on enabling the voice of the people to direct policy. Voter turnout in the US is under 70%. 

First, Election Day should be made a federal holiday with all eligible citizens turning 18 automatically registered to vote. Second, practices of gerrymandering need to be abolished to provide more stability for local elections. Third, voting needs to become more accessible with mail-in and early voting. Fourth, it should be more economically accessible for anyone to run for political office instead of millionaires or charismatic fundraisers lacking in substantive policy. 

I do not believe there is an immediate solution that will bring the country back on track, however, in order to be maximally successful all systems need to have levels of radical transparency and accountability. Systemic racism entangles economic, environmental, medical and education justice. So he’d need to develop policies in those spaces.  Imagine a world where you ask if the budget balances AND if the outcomes you see across populations are equitable. 

If you had one wish for the nation, engulfed in conflict and polarised to a maximum, which one would it be? How could the country heal?

The notion of healing is hopeful and naive if it is not paired with more candid discussions of what does not work. Americans shy away from challenging discussions, often preferring to retreat to our bubbles of safety with those of similar opinions. 

What American is facing right now is accountability. Accountability can feel uncomfortable though it is very necessary. The marginalized and disenfranchised are being heard, but we are not fully there yet. If the change is to be sustainable, we require both short and long-term solutions. 


Alterrell Mills currently works in the consumer technology startup space. After he received his Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from Harvard Business School in General Management, he worked at a non-profit focused on poverty eradication in Harlem, New York. Alterrell holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with a minor in Mind, Brain & Behavior from Harvard University.


The Interview was conducted by Alexander Görlach. He is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics, International Relations in New York. In the past he held various positions at Harvard University in the USA and the University of Cambridge in England. Last year he was a Freedom Fellow of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

Neue Umfrage: Deutsche halten Proteste in den USA für berechtigt

Demo zum Tode von George Floyd Black Lives Matters

Die Proteste des vergangenen Wochenendes in vielen deutschen Städten haben es gezeigt, und eine aktuelle repräsentative Befragung von Kantar im Auftrag der Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit liefert die Zahlen dazu: Die Deutschen sind mehrheitlich besorgt über die aktuelle Entwicklung der Lage in den USA nach dem Tod von George Floyd – sie sparen nicht mit Kritik an den Geschehnissen in Minneapolis und unterstützen Proteste gegen Polizeigewalt und Rassismus.

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