Exorcising Racism 1: Dialogues on the Current Uprisings


Dialogues Between Arvind Mandair and Stan Kowalinski

Arvind Mandair (ASM):  Since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25th 2020, people from different walks of life and different cultural backgrounds throughout America have engaged in overwhelmingly peaceful protests that have in turn inspired similar protests throughout the world. 

PC: Wall Street Journal

 

A major portion of the country has at last started to grapple with the fact that any attempt to overcome systemic racism will require a transformation of some core structures, systems and self-image that American society has of itself.  In a series of posts I want to reflect on the gravity of this current moment and what it might hold for the future. I’ve decided to title this series “Exorcising Racism” for reasons that will become clear later in this post and in forthcoming posts. However, unlike my opening posts on teaching about race and religion, these reflections will take the form of a series of conversations with Stan Kowalinski. By way of introduction Stan attended my AS334 class in Fall 2019 on Race, Religion & Caste in India and the United States. Stan is a US Navy veteran whose work experience also includes interaction with the police. Stan and I have kept in email contact since the class finished. At the time neither of us had any inkling that some of the issues we talked about in that class would erupt so suddenly and so tragically in the late spring of 2020 with the modern day lynching of George Floyd, an unarmed black man whose life was brutally choked out of his body by officer Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis police. The conversations in the next few posts are a continuation of the after-class dialogues that Stan and I engaged in Fall 2019. Stan has since graduated as a Sociology Major from the University of Michigan (class of 2020).  

 

Stanston Kowalinski (SK): Hello Arvind! First, I want to say that it is good to speak with you again and I’m delighted to be able to engage with you about these events. While taking AS334 I was intrigued by your method of teaching the class about race in the U.S. and abroad, especially the comparisons you drew to social caste in India, religion and philosophy in forming and shaping the ways we see and experience race and racism today. Taking our very different cultural identities and backgrounds into consideration, I appreciate being able to speak with you about the lynching of George Floyd and the other victims of police brutality and violence, as well as the recent response of communities and cities mobilizing against police brutality, white supremacy and systemic racism in the U.S. and many other countries around the world.

With the myriad events taking place in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arberry, and the topics of race, white supremacy and violence, it’s difficult to pick a starting point. Although racism and extrajudicial killings have happened well before these three victims, it may be important to start with George Floyd’s death and the subsequent movement that followed since it re-catalyzed our discussion. What sort of thoughts have you had in regards to George Floyd’s death, and the overwhelming response of the Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movements that we are seeing today? Also, I want to ask if you’ve drawn any meaningful connections you’ve made between your work in studying and teaching on race, caste and religion, and your experience living in the UK and the U.S. with these events. 

 

ASM: My immediate reaction right after I heard about Floyd’s death, before I had even watched the video, was a sickening feeling of helplessness, that it would become just another statistic; that there would be a flurry of protests, but these would fade away and we’d be waiting for the next one. My feeling was that people had become numbed into just accepting this as part of the status quo, that this would register as yet another case of systemic violence, but the system would just go on as normal. And the Alt-Right propaganda machine managed to blunt the initial impact of the Black Lives Matter movement prior to 2019.  After all we’d seen several choke-hold deaths in police custody in previous years, notably the killing of Eric Garner in 2014. 

But something was clearly different this time. Was it the nature of the video of George Floyd’s death, its availability to the general public in such a short space of time? Was it the effect of the people being locked down for several months during the pandemic? Did it have something to do with Trump—the fact that he had been actively sowing the seeds of division, and fanning hatred in the lead up to Floyd’s death with his attacks on Asian Americans? Was it the arrogant look on Derek Chauvin’s face as he choked George Floyd for 9 agonizing minutes (“I can do this because I can and because I’m allowed to! I dare you to stop me!”)? Perhaps all of these things mixed together to produce something quite incendiary as it hit a real nerve bringing different sectors of American society together in a way that hadn’t been the case for decades. In the weeks following the death my initial feeling of helplessness turned to hope at the sight of so many peaceful anti-racism protests led by the BLM movement around the country. There were instances of rioting that marred the impact of the popular uprisings and there were tense confrontations between police in riot gear and protestors as the following images from some of the Detroit protests show. Some of the tensest stand-offs happened right below the GM building and in front of the Renaissance Apartments Complex (where, incidentally, my son was living).

PC:  Nicole Hester, Detroit News
Police officers tackle protesters during a demonstration against police brutality in Detroit on Friday, May 30, 2020. (Photo: Nic Antaya, Special to The Detroit News)

However, this time round BLM’s messaging was so much better and more effective. Like many other people I was also genuinely surprised (but elated) at the response of mainstream corporations large and small which came out publicly against racism in America. The statement made by the ice-cream company Ben and Jerry’s is a good example:

There is an awakening happening in our country, a new movement of advocates and activists that are countering the narrative that we’ve moved to a post-racial era. It’s a movement that is standing up for black lives and insists that all of us acknowledge the deep systemic structural racism that exists in our country today. It’s a movement that demands that we confront the injustices of the past and present so that we may move forward together to build a nation of liberty and justice for all.

It is true that while we may have fewer overt racists, racism is still deeply embedded within systems like our schools, workplaces, the criminal justice system and hospitals, to name a few. Think about it: because white people occupy a disproportionate number of positions of power in our society it comes at the expense of people of color.

When we took a stand in support of the Black Lives MatterOpens a new window movement, we received a massive response–mostly of overwhelming support, but also mixed with misunderstanding, sincere questions and sadly, some hatred. But one thing became clear: it started a conversation.

We invite you to join us on a journey to better understand issues of race in our country, to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism and the implicit biases that all of us carry….

Other examples that turned the tide in favor of the anti-racism protests this time round include the reversal by major sports organizations such as the NFL the US Soccer League to allow players to ‘take a knee’ in protest against racial injustice; a gesture that was inspired the San Francisco-49’ers quarterback Colin Kapernick and much derided by Trump who encouraged/bullied people and organizers to ignore Kapernick effectively making him and BLM a pariah movement. In short, I think all of these movements have coalesced into a growing self-examination of American values (such as “freedom” – freedom for whom?), the American self-image (the land of the free and the brave, the very idea of the American dream). Basically, people are again asking what is the basic idea behind America? If America itself was born on the rotten foundation of genocidal violence and enslavement of non-white races, how can we make a new and better foundation?

Stan, you also asked me about possible connections between the present moment of racial unrest and my research, teaching and experience of living in the UK? It would take me too long to unpack all of these connections—perhaps I can talk about it in the next few posts—but I will nevertheless make a few pointers. As I noted in my earlier post Visceral Memories of Racism, I grew up and went to school in the UK in the 1970s and early 1980s, an era of widespread racism and violence against immigrants. By the 1990s the UK appeared to have embraced a multicultural ethos and things were looking upbeat. I left the UK in 2001 thinking I was leaving behind memories of European racism and coming to a USA that also seemed to be forward looking and progressive. But 9/11 put an end to that dream. As Islamophobia swept the country in the years following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, all the gains made since the 1990s were thrown out of the window as violence against visible minorities became normalized and the demons of American racism were once again awakened by political operatives who appeared to have hijacked the Republican Party pushing it more and more towards the extreme right. Note that I use the term ‘demon’ here. What I’m suggesting here is that racism has a spectral quality to it, but is also an evil that needs to be removed from the minds of individuals afflicted by it, as well as the body politic. In other words it has an intrinsic connection to religion which we can explore in the next post.  So for me the last two decades, but especially the George Floyd moment, if we can call it that, was like reliving the 1970s and early 80s in the UK. It was the same nightmare but a different decade, different continent. And as I mentioned in the Patterns of Prejudice post,  my AS334 course was a way for me to come to terms with the nightmare by sharing it with others.

But what about you, Stan? Can you talk about how the current uprisings affect you, your family and broader community? 

 

SK: Thanks for asking Arvind. Personally I’ve also experienced a range of emotions and thoughts, ranginging from rage to sadness, hope to defeat. I have to state that the emotions and thoughts I have pale in comparison to the African American communities and other persons of color who are constantly impacted by the violence of racism. I found George Floyd’s death to be especially egregious, particularly when I look at it from my background in the military, my experiences interacting with police and my previous work in bar security, where I’ve had to use physical force dozens of times to separate violent patrons. I’ve witnessed open racism in front of me, while in the military as well as interacting with police—as if I was okay with it due to being white and my position. This caused a lot of frustration for me over what should be considered human decency. Entering and serving in the military, you are enculturated into an idealism that this country is not only just but also worth fighting and dying for. However, you are simultaneously encultured into an institution that functions off of colorblind racism and utilizes an insidious form of labeling ethnic groups in pejorative racialized terms—methods that seem to only make conditions worse when you’re deployed to regions to interact with these people. When you peel back the layers of this belief system and shine a light on the contradictions and inequalities facing any person or group because of their race, income or identity, it becomes extremely visceral and compelling to either work towards changing it or jettison the construct entirely and start over.

One particular frustration I have been having lately was the inability of several people within my social network, particularly white people, failing to connect how George Floyd’s death was not an isolated incident of one malicious or negligent police officer, but another example of the myriad ways in which violence is enmeshed with racism in our society. Prior to these events, I just completed my undergraduate thesis on Flint, where I connected themes of structural racism in Flint’s water restoration and relief efforts, work which landed me an award at Racism Lab’s Martin Luther King Jr. symposium at U-M’s Institute for Social Research this past February. It was difficult wrestling with the idea that several of the same people who liked my posts and content of this event and award online, who responded with love and praise for this achievement, then became fervently reactionary over the recent protests on my timeline. This left me feeling discouraged in my ability to connect with some of my relatives and former friends, that they will never break out of the belief system they internalize.

That being said, outside of those who are still too ideologically intertwined with the problematic processes of this society, the size and breadth of the response to George Floyd’s murder, as well as Amaud Arberry, Breonna Taylor, and others has left me feeling hopeful for a future I doubted was possible during my lifetime. I’ve noticed many people who were previously non-vocal on social or political issues, suddenly becoming very active online and in their communities. Also amazing to see was the level of support work and logistics being conducted for protests as well in many communities including Toledo and Washtenaw County. As I write this at the end of June 2020, the threat of COVID-19 is still very real, and its unequal impact on low-income communities and communities of color is something not forgotten in these communities. Protesting then becomes not only a double-danger but a necessity to combat these effects.

Seeing residents in cities of all races, religions, and backgrounds come together to mobilize against racism in the U.S. and abroad has reinforced thoughts and feelings that real change can be made, while also showing that the past and current m.o. of systemic inequality and racism in society and politics needs to be dismantled and society needs to be restructured with equity and empathy.

I also agree with you that there are still many challenges facing this movement, several of which I look forward to engaging with you over the next several posts. One obstacle in particular is the response of police and city officials to the protests around the country. My own city of Toledo was recently published in a New York Times article of one of over one hundred other cities where police responded to protests with tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and another crowd dispersal weapon called “knee-knockers” which I can explain more about later.

Toledo Police Department and Ohio State Highway Patrol Using Tear Gas in Downtown Toledo Protest 05/30 Credit: Toledo Blade: Amy E. Voight

Witnessing the way police and politicians, especially Donald Trump have escalated tensions through reckless use of force against protesters and media workers, ignoring accountability for this escalation, and belligerently labeling Antifa as a terrorist group while ignoring the very real far-right boogaloo movement which has enacted violence and death, was deeply disturbing and highlights many of the topics we discussed in your course, particularly the rise of a distinct form of fascism in the U.S. and India. As I end my contribution to this post, I want to conclude by saying that I see this blog series as helpful in making me feel present and engaged in this moment we’re in and contributing in whatever way I can. Is there a particular topic or theme you look forward to discussing more in this series? 

 

ASM: Thanks for sharing this Stan. As I’ve mentioned in class conversations I found your take on this situation to be fascinating and helpful given that you’re a veteran, albeit a very young one, a sociology major and have real experience of working with the police. In the next couple of posts perhaps we can talk more about the nature of systemic racism and how to overcome it. If the current uprisings and protests do indeed target institutional racism, and if overcoming racism requires a transformation of certain key systems and structures central to which is a narrative of America’s self-image, then perhaps what any anti-racism effort really needs to get to grips with are the very building blocks or cornerstones of racism, namely the idea of white supremacy and (this may surprise many people) the framework of thought that was supposed to combat and eradicate white supremacy, but in fact continues to sustain and nourish it: the ideology of liberalism. 

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