Arvanitakis on American politics: Reconciling the past

| June 13, 2020

The slow suffocation of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis while other police officers watched has brought a very sudden reckoning to United States race relations. The nine-minutes it took for George Floyd to die were filmed and shared on social media around the world, sparking outrage and protests that have led to two weeks of riots and violent clashes with police.

This tragedy and the protests and riots followed need to be contextualised by both the Covid19 epidemic and the flow on economic effects that have seen unemployment rise in the USA to nearly 15 percent – both of which disproportionately impacted black communities. This is additional to the deep structural inequalities that see the average Black American household with medium net worth of $17,000 compared to $171,000 for Caucasian households.

Analysing the data around the more that 100,000 deaths from Coviid19, we see that African Americans have died from the disease at almost three times the rate of white Americans. Across the country, African Americans have died at a rate of 50.3 per 100,000 people, compared with 20.7 for whites, 22.9 for Latinos and 22.7 for Asian Americans.

The third dimension is the historically problematic relationship between law enforcement and Black communities which manifests itself in many ways. The starkest of these was compiled by Mapping Police Violence, which showed that Black Americans were nearly three times more likely to die from police than Caucasian Americans. These statistics also show that black Americans were nearly one-and-a-half times more likely to be unarmed before their death.

It is such statistics that shows why the Black Lives Matter movement remains relevant since it emerged in 2013 despite it being described as dormant during the Trump presidency.

Understanding the past…

History must be reckoned: Understanding the Great Compromise
As Australian’s have started to debate whether ‘slavery existed in Australia’, we should remember that history pasted over always returns to haunt us. We can trace the abovementioned inequalities to both America’s brutal history of slavery as well as the very foundation of the American Constitution and the ‘Great Compromise.’

In 1781, under the Articles of Confederation, the US national government consisted solely of a Congress in which each of the 13 states had a single vote. Given the conflict with Britain and the War of Independence, there was deep distrust of remote centralised government and as such, the national body had little power to either collect taxes or enforce laws. Most elements of the new nation, including the regulation of slavery, was left to individual states.

In an attempt to resolve the many issues that impeded the national government, 12 of the 13 states met to review the Articles of Confederation in 1787 (Rhode Island was the exception). The goal of the gathering quickly changed and the delegates agreed to write a new Constitution with three branches: executive, judiciary, and a two-house legislature.

The discussions over the legislative branch began to derail negotiations because the larger populated states wanted representation in both houses of the legislature to be based on population, whereas smaller populated states wanted equal numbers of representatives.

Delegates eventually came to the Great Compromise: One branch (House of Representatives) would be based on population while the Senate, would have two members from each state.

In context of slavery, the Compromise included an issue that had split the convention along the North–South divide: Should slaves count as part of the population? To solve this, three additional compromises followed.

Firstly, due to the cash crops, the Southern states had large numbers of slaves and including them in their population counts would greatly increase their political power. While the Southern states argued in favour of including slaves, the Norther states disagreed. The compromise: Each slave would count as three-fifths of a person with no voting rights.

The next compromise was to extend the date of the slave trade until 1808. While ten states had already outlawed the slave trade by 1787, three states allowed it: Georgia and North and South Carolina. In order to maintain the agreement, Congress would postpone any ban.

The third compromise was the return of escaped slaves. While the Articles of Confederation had not included this, a clause promising that escaped slaves would be returned was placed in the Constitution. In exchange for the fugitive slave clause, the New England states received concessions on shipping and trade.

These compromises had serious effects on the emerging nation that haunt it to this day. Not only did the fugitive slave clause allow escaped slaves to be chased into the North, there was also the illegal kidnapping and return to slavery of thousands of free blacks.

The three-fifths compromise increased the South’s representation in Congress and the Electoral College. The result: 12 of the first 16 presidential election resulted in a Southern slave owner as president. Extending the slave trade past 1800 brought hundreds of thousands of slaves to America including 40,000 slaves to South Carolinas between 1803 and 1808.

It is easy for criticise the Southern states, but we should remember that the priority of the Northern states was to secure a new government and enjoy the economic benefits that followed. Little was done by the Northern states who were willing to wait in the belief that slavery was a dying institution with no economic future. This changed, however, with the invention of the cotton gin which made growing cotton – and hence slavery – hugely profitable.

To understand today

While Congress overwhelmingly voted to end slavery in 1808, it was not until the 13th Amendment, adopted on 18 December 1865, officially abolished slavery, and freed black peoples. Previously enslaved men and women received the rights of citizenship and ‘equal protection’ in the 14th Amendment and the right to vote in the 15th Amendment.

These constitutional provisions were often ignored and violated and as such, it was difficult for Black citizens to gain a foothold in the post-war economy.

The impacts of this history have been felt for centuries and flared up countless times: from the Civil Riots movement in the 1960s, to the riots associated with Rodney King in 1992, to the events we are watching unfold.

The crisis that has followed the death of George Floyd is an opportunity for reconciliation – but given that we are in an election year and the deep partisan divides that exist – both parties seem intent on scoring points rather than finding a resolution. For the Republicans, it is to deny systemic racism and the Democrats it is to ignore that Black communities are suffering the most because of the riots.

Even attempts to find solutions have been shouted down. When the New York Times ran an opinion piece by Republican Senator Tom Cotton supporting President Trump’s suggestion of calling in the military, the backlash was overwhelming, and the opinion editor eventually stepped down.

Ironically, what was forgotten was that U.S Presidents have ordered military on the streets on several occasions – and still praised for it. Particularly it is worth noting that Eisenhower in 1957, used the military to carry out the orders to desegregate schools. Likewise, in 1965, Lyndon Johnson used the military to protect civil rights marchers from right-wing white violence in Selma, Alabama.

The question whether deploying the military is right or not was never properly discussed nor the fact that 40 percent of Black Americans supported this strategy: it was lost in accusations of fascism. Both in Australia and the USA, finding inclusive solutions seem secondary to scoring political points and an attempts for dialogue where shut down. No wonder we do not have the ability to reconcile.

Photograph by John Lucia.