The cops force a man suspected of a minor crime to the ground. Multiple officers stand over him, watching their fellow cops violate his body. A video surfaces and, after the justice system fails to uphold its own principles, large, destructive riots take place.
This is Rodney King’s story from almost 30 years ago. This is also the story of George Floyd. It is a story that transcends time.
Moments like these force the American gaze onto the ugliness of the white supremacy that permeates its every pore. When I saw the video, I was disgusted. Above all else, though, I felt numb. I have seen the cycle of innocent Black people dying too many times before. Right on cue, the news inundated every channel with video of their death and the resultant protests. In our history America has approached the tipping point of radical upheaval innumerable times but has always returned to equilibrium. Each time I become more pessimistic.
This is not without reason. The beating of Rodney King led to no tangible change. The officers were charged but acquitted. By the presidential election that fall it seemed as though the country had forgotten about the six days of rage. In a few short months America was numbed back into normalcy.
Many counter my pessimistic outlook with the successes of the Civil Rights Movement. If the Black Lives Matter Movement stays true to the same course as the previous movement, they argue, Black activists can find success once again. What they overlook, however, are markedly distinct circumstances between the movement then and today.
Specifically, many scholars point to Cold War pressures as the key to the success of the Civil Rights Movement. After WWII the United States and U.S.S.R. both vied for the alliance of decolonized Black and brown nations. To do so the U.S.S.R. spotlighted America’s racial apartheid. By 1946 no global description of America was complete without acknowledging its discriminatory nature against racial minorities. America’s racial oppression handicapped its imperial pursuits. Every major civil rights decision during the postwar era, from Eisenhower’s federalizing of the National Guard to Brown v. Board, was viewed first through an international lens. The interests of the state – not a moral awakening – engendered the success of the Civil Rights Movement.
Decades later, the beating of Rodney King sparked similar protests that were broadcast around the world, but the state stood and watched. Waning Cold War pressures meant that the state had nothing to gain internationally by granting racial progress.
This outlook is cast as pessimistic. Does this delegitimize the progress of the Civil Rights Movement? Not at all. Acknowledging the state’s self-serving nature in civil rights gains does not erase the benefit of lasting legislation. It does, however, mean we should be cautious when we point to periods of progress.
America doesn’t change out of altruism or pressure solely from its citizens; it has accommodated change in small, controlled channels to its own benefit. And after each period of change the state has fought tooth and nail to reestablish the racial caste system. From slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration, the expression of anti-blackness has changed but always endured in the American psyche.
Then what of progress today? George Floyd’s murderers have been charged. Minneapolis has pledged to dismantle its police department. Los Angeles plans to cut the police budget by $150 million. Pessimism does not spurn reform, but it encourages us to view it for what it is: reform. Reform can improve lived experiences, but it has never excised anti-blackness.
I’m pessimistic because I’m tired. Not tired of fighting, but of watching the nation crescendo to the cusp of change only to fall short. Rodney King exemplifies the tendency of the fire to die out. Every dollar, every signed pledge, every protest does make incremental change. But it cannot stop there. In the same way that the Civil Rights Act did not make America a post-racial society, charging George Floyd’s murderers or even defunding the police won’t either. Pessimism considers that necessary reform, but only that. Pessimism realizes that America was born out of anti-blackness. Pessimism realizes that pursuing racial equity is a never-ending fight. I’d love nothing more than to be proven wrong.