„Anti-Black racism is a global phenomenon“
Alexander Görlach: The murder of George Floyd by a police officer and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery who was shot by two white men while he was jogging remained 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?
Alicia Sheares: First, I think it’s important that the media also center the experiences of Black women who are also victims of anti-Black violence. Oftentimes when we talk about racism the focus is on Black men but Black women experience racism as well, so it is just as important that they are included within the conversation. Particularly, I am thinking of the murders of Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor which have captured less attention in the media.
Second, I think it’s important to discuss what we mean by “change.” I think at the heart of your statement is that people hoped that the election of President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 signaled the end of racism and the beginning of a post-racial society in the United States. Clearly those predictions were wrong partly because many people misunderstand how racism operates.
Systemic racism is about the hierarchical ordering of racial groups, and White people exist at the top of this hierarchical order. Particularly, White people have amassed economic, social, political and symbolic resources that they’ve hoarded among themselves rather than distributing these resources equitably within society. When we think about power in the United States, White people as a collective have a lot of it. A majority of the country’s journalists, politicians, venture capitalists, etc are White. So White people have a lot of power over which laws are passed, what is taught in schools, and which businesses are funded, just to provide a few examples. The election of President Barack Obama was definitely a momentous historical event, but this one event did not signal the end of systemic racism considering the power in this country was and is still concentrated in the hands of White people.
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-persevering, the civil war that was led over the abolishment of slavery, is 150 years back.
I would actually not say that racism is fundamentally different in the United States than it is in other countries because once again, racism is about power. Particularly groups hoarding economic, social, and political resources, and you can find that anywhere in the world. With the protests happening in the United States, we’ve seen similar protests occurring in Europe. In France we’ve seen demonstrations that demand justice for Adama Traoré, a Black French person who died while in police custody. In Britain, we’ve seen protestors topple the statue of Edward Colston, a notorious trader of enslaved persons. And we’ve witnessed mass demonstrations over George Floyd’s death in Brussels. So while these global protests largely emerged out of Mr. Floyd’s senseless killing, I think one clear message is that anti-Black racism is a global phenomenon and the experiences of Black people throughout the diaspora are truly interconnected.
That said, I think the United States has very visible and visceral forms of racism, particularly as it relates to policing which stems back to the antebellum (Pre-Civil War) period. Although the United States is just over 4% of the population, the country has over 22% of the world’s prisoners, which I think speaks to the particular nature of policing and anti-Black racism in the country.
Harvard historian Jill Lenore 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 would say for Black people, there has always been one America, not two. Racism is not the sole property of those who embrace exclusionist frames, but those who identify as liberal can also be racist. In fact, I would argue that White liberals often point to Trump supporters to say, “Look at all of the terrible things Trump says and the awful policies that Trump supporters endorse. We’re not like them!” Yet White liberals also carry out racism through Black exclusion by living in all-White Neighborhoods, gentrifying neighborhoods, working in all-White or nearly all White companies, and having nearly all White friend groups.
We recently saw Amy Cooper, a White woman, call the police on Christian Cooper, a Black man of no relation to her. Christian requested that Amy put her dog on a leash in a bird park, so she screamed that he was threatening her life. Amy Cooper lives in New York and identifies politically as a liberal. But in that moment she relied on racism to reinforce White supremacy by putting a Black man in his place and demonstrating that she had the power to harm him. That is textbook White violence. So I think we have to move away from the idea that one group of people is racist and another group is not. Racism is a system of power that infiltrates every aspect of society and White people can enact racism at any time. To defeat racism, we must address the racial inequity, and we must work to be anti-racist every day.
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?
Protests are a great way to bring attention to a cause and bring about change. We’ve seen protests bring about arrests for all 4 officers related to the George Floyd case and protests for Breonna Taylor led to the reopening of her case. Additionally, we also need structural and systemic change. George Floyd’s family is organizing a march to bring about a federal policing bill and the Minneapolis City Council announced their intent to defund the Minneapolis police department. These are very important developments in the fight for Black racial justice.
But it is important to point out that even if the US reformed or defunded the police tomorrow, it would not affect racism in other domains like education or healthcare. The criminal justice system does not have a monopoly on racism, just an incredibly visible form. To bring about systemic change in the United States, we would need to interrogate where power lies, the consequences of that power, and plan to distribute it equitably.
Additionally, calls for peace and harmony are ideal, but I think we all might need to get comfortable with the idea that achieving peace and harmony is not an instantaneous or calm process. Systemic racism has ravaged Black communities in the United States and globally for centuries. It’s time that the world legitimately listens and comes up with a plan to address the grievances of Black people rather than critiquing how Black people display their justifiable anger.
President Donald Trump has worsened the situation and is determined, in my opinion, to deteriorate the constitutional framework of the United States. Moreover, all his rhetoric and attacks against the protesters, deploying 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?
When we talk about democracy, we must question “Democracy for whom?” Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Founder of the 1619 Project, has this wonderful essay titled, America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black America Made it One. The United States was never inherently a democracy but by fighting to eradicate slavery, Jim Crow, and fighting to have access to education and voting, Black people have consistently made it one.
This is not to say that Donald Trump’s time in office has not been catastrophic, it definitely has been. I’m more so pointing out that the United States has always struggled to live up to the nation’s Democratic ideals and whether or not Donald Trump is in office will not change that.
But I would agree that it does appear that the United States is at a crossroads for democracy. The United States has a real chance to implement economic, social, racial, political, and environmental justice which has the potential to eradicate White supremacy, provide people with access to real and livable wages, allow them to actively participate in politics, and live in clean and safe environments. It’s unclear if the United States will move towards justice or continue to rely on oppression.
If you had one wish for the nation, engulfed in conflict and polarised to a maximum. How could the country heal?
I think we have to move away from rhetoric surrounding healing and move towards an honest discussion about systemic racism in the United States. Healing can only come about by examining the history of racism, xenophobia, and imperialism, honestly recognizing the damage and violence these systems have caused, atoning for that violence, and creating a plan on how to eradicate systemic racism and create a more just system for all.
Alicia Sheares is a sociology Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies race and ethnicity, immigration, inequality, and entrepreneurship. Specifically, her dissertation explores the role of networks and organizations in facilitating on inhibiting Black tech entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley and Atlanta. She received her B.A. in International Studies from Spelman College where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude. She then spent two years living in Brazil as a Fulbright Fellow. Upon returning from Brazil, Alicia received an M.Sc. in Migration Studies from the University of Oxford. In her free time, Alicia enjoys conducting user experience research for tech companies in Silicon Valley, running, traveling, listening to Brazilian music, and exploring the city of Oakland.
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.