In what follows, I contextualize the killing of Mr. George Floyd, another unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I will argue that at the core of the present upheaval is the depletion of empathy and compassion that has resulted from the American system of inequality.
While the killing of Mr. Floyd is undoubtedly the catalyst for the recent wave of revolts, the current epoch represents a continuation of centuries of black rebellion against systemic oppression.
A system describes a network of interactions between elements, or parts of a whole. Because we all live and are socialized within the system, it is impossible to see the entire system at once. Yet we know that the system exists because it conditions our behavior. It tells us who is eligible to vote, how much money is to be taken out of our taxes, and even how much freedom we have.
Law enforcement is among the most visible elements of the system. It is generally the most violent because their role in the system is to assure that all members comply with the rules/laws established by various decision-making elements of the system. This role naturally requires a higher degree of coercion and violence than other institutions.
Three things make systemic oppression especially vicious. First is the fact that one cannot see the entire system at once. Yet we know it exists because it dictates how we behave each day, and for Black and brown people, this interaction is almost always in an oppressive manner. It’s like the leaf on the tree trying to fight against gravity in Newton’s famous experiment.
Secondly, the system creates an allusion for many that it is, in fact, fair because it allows a degree of variability in people’s living conditions. In some cases, the system is even viewed as skewed in favor of the historically oppressed. Hence, it is not uncommon to find some members of the historically oppressed that deny the existence of systemic oppression.
Likewise, it is not unusual for the privileged to believe that the historically oppressed are no longer oppressed and are, in fact, gaming the system at their expense.
Yet both of these arguments are disillusioned because they are generalizations drawn from one’s immediate placement in the system. In the social sciences, this would be equivalent to attempting to refute a general theory based on a couple of outlier cases. Because it produces the above allusion that the system is equal, or at least equalizing, the system pins the privileged against the oppressed, making it difficult for each to empathize with the other.
The third element that makes systemic oppression especially malicious is that it quite literally implements the entire weight of the system to oppress or keep you down. While some might experience some relief in one aspect of life, they are smacked down in another.
The current outrage over the American system is that although it claims to be equal, it is fundamentally unequal. The American system as a whole is divided between what Mamdani (1996) calls citizens and subjects like colonial states of times past. While no law (that I’m aware of save perhaps the 13th Amendment) says that some people have the right to full citizenship while others do not — which was the case during Jim Crow just over 50 years ago — the system continues to operate on such an uneven plain.
Because there is no real divide between individuals who happen to be officers of the law and law enforcement as an institution, the privilege of the institution shields individual officers from the same standards of accountability that generally governs society. The current outrage is an expression of frustration at the entire system of oppression, of which law enforcement happens to be the most visible element.
The most challenging aspect of this situation is that there is no room for moral arguments. The challenge is that morality centers on a shared understanding of good and bad, which (ideally) reflects in our laws. However, given the selective application of the law going back literally since the founding of America, the implication is that there has never been such a shared concept of good and bad. In a system of inequality, the privileged often dictate what is good and bad because the status quo (which is the system’s default) usually works in their favor.
Individual offenses are perceived and punished unequally in America. A member of the oppressed group often receives a more punitive sentence for the same offense as the privileged. In the Twenty-First century — some five decades after the Civil Rights and Voting Right Acts allegedly upended Separate but Equal and affirmed the principle of equality — the American system continues to provide a segregated system of justice. To the new generation of Black Americans, this reality is utterly unacceptable. Allied with a coalition of multi-ethnic social justice crusaders, the new generation of Black freedom fighters is determined to destroy systemic oppression once and for all.
At the core of the issue is a crisis of empathy and value for human worth. This crisis of empathy I believe comes from the sorrowful condition produced by a system of inequality, which grossly restricts the ability of individuals to see others as not just people but as a member of their own family. A system of unequal justice, in other words, hinders one’s ability to see the nation as an extended family.
While all systems produce varying degrees of inequality, the American variant produces and reaffirms the harmful us versus them mentality that has been the downfall of the world’s greatest empires in times past. To maintain its status as the standard-bearer for liberal democracy in the global arena, America must rid itself of the cancer, which is systemic oppression.
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