Since Mike Brown’s death America has witnessed the biggest movement for civil rights in a generation, but how much has it achieved? We spoke to race and policing expert Joe Feagin to find out more.

Since Mike Brown’s death America has witnessed the biggest movement for civil rights in a generation, but how much has it achieved? We spoke to race and policing expert Joe Feagin to find out more.

Officer Darren Wilson’s shooting of the unarmed black 19-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9 2014 helped spark the biggest civil rights movement the US has seen for a generation. As more unarmed black men and women have been killed by police officers over the last year – Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray, Samuel DuBose, Walter Scott, LaTanya Haggerty and Rekia Boyd among them – protests have erupted across the country and Black Lives Matter has emerged as a focal point, forcing police violence and institutional racism onto the agenda.

But one year after Michael Brown’s death, where do we stand?

Brown’s killer was cleared by a state grand jury and that verdict was supported by a federal civil rights inquiry launched by investigators from the Obama administration’s Justice Department. However the same federal agency condemned Ferguson’s much-criticised criminal justice system as institutionally racist, a decision which will force reform.

Although Brown, Garner and many others are still awaiting justice, the weight of public pressure has been viewed as pivotal in prosecutions against officers involved in the killings of Walter Scott in South Carolina in April, Freddie Gray in Baltimore the same month and Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati in July. Few commentators believe this would have been possible a year ago.

For the first time, a recent Pew poll showed a majority of white Americans now agree the country needs to make changes to give black people equal rights, reaching 59% in July.

But the same month, a CBS/New York Times poll found that 58% of white people thought police were no more likely to use deadly force against black people than against whites, which remains unchanged since shortly after Brown’s death in 2014.

To gain a deeper understanding and put recent events in context, we reached out to Joe Feagin, professor of sociology at Texas A&M University and one of the leading experts on US racism.

We’ve seen a year of protest and mobilisation both online and offline since Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed last summer. How much progress do you think has been made? Have there been any important victories or campaigns you feel have made a lot of impact?
There has been much important local organisation and numerous marches and other protest demonstrations, especially by Americans of colour on policing and immigration issues. All are good signs of some progress in the racial democratisation direction, at least in putting pressure on police departments to rein in some (rarely, a lot) of their large numbers of problematical officers.

So, my verdict now is that there has been some modest progress, but that it is so far only modest and often symbolic (such as the taking down of Confederacy symbols). It remains to be seen if it can be sustained and greatly expanded, which is what it will take given how powerful the whites in charge of our justice system really are.

How do you see the struggle developing? What should racial justice activists’ priorities be over the next year?
I am not sure if the good local anti-racist organisation can increase, but I would predict that it will slowly, but only slowly, do so. There is a racist policing incident several times a month, and only communities of colour stay exercised about that for very long. I think a key priority for anti-racist activists here and in Europe needs to be to meet in regular national and international gatherings to share ideas and resources, and build support for each other for the long haul. These voluntary and nonviolent movements take lots of time and effort to bring significant changes.

“So only for 46 years have we been close, officially, to liberty and justice for all – to real freedom.”

How deep-rooted is institutional racism in the US?
For over half of the US’s 408 years of existence, we had slavery as our foundational economic and political system. This country did not even become an officially free country until about 1969. So only for 46 years have we been close, officially, to liberty and justice for all – to real freedom. Essentially for about 83 per cent of our history we had a totalitarian system for the people of colour – for blacks, Native Americans, indigenous peoples, Asian-Americans, Latinos.

To a substantial degree, the policing system in the US, and this is directly relevant to Ferguson and New York City, started with slave patrols in the slavery states. Many of the first organised police forces were slavery patrols made up of ordinary whites, often not slave holders. Those ordinary whites worked for the slave holders to make sure the slaves didn’t organise and rebel and overthrow the system.

When I say whites, for most of our history it’s been white men. White men and their families have benefitted enormously. Cross-generational inheritance is a key idea, what I call the social reproduction of racial inequality and racial oppression. Social reproduction works by social inheritances from one generation to the next.

So these recent events have to be set in the context of a foundational, fundamental, extensive, systemic racism.

How has US government policy played a role in the developing inequalities?
So, my father’s generation got nearly free public education at lots of colleges and universities which barred black Americans until the 1960s. They were simply excluded, except from a few historically black institutions that had underdeveloped programmes and were poorly funded.

Whites got almost all the Homestead Act land that was given away. The federal government took Native American lands and gave them away to farm families from the 1860s through to the 1930s. For about 70 years the federal government gave away 246 million acres of good farmland. Almost all of that went to white families for little or no money. And those white families worked hard, and they built up farms and passed on that wealth to later generations, through to the present day.

Now there were plenty of black families at that time but they were discriminated against and didn’t get access to that land, for the most part. So they didn’t have any land wealth or wealth made off farmland to pass along to their descendants. And their descendants of course, until recently have been under Jim Crow discrimination anyway.

After World War II, white soldiers and their families got huge affirmative programmes under the GI bill: veterans programmes that paid for college education, helped to buy a home, etc. Those programmes were highly discriminatory, relatively few black veterans benefitted from them.

“White men, more specifically white men from the upper middle classes, mostly run the country.”

So white families after World War II again built up enormous wealth, mostly in housing equities and educational capital, and then passed that on. That substantially accounts for why whites dominate in all the professions, including police forces. Because their families have been able to send them to college or provide capital, educational or social capital, that enables them to get good jobs.

Black families have been much less able to do that because of slavery, Jim Crow and contemporary discrimination. That’s why there are so few black cops in Ferguson, a half black town. White men, more specifically white men from the upper middle classes, mostly run the country.

What can be done to break down these racial disparities?
Real diversity, social justice and democracy cannot happen without dramatic reparations to black Americans and other Americans of colour who suffered racial oppression for 83% of our history. You simply can’t do it unless you redistribute economic and social wealth. Now having said that, you can make modest changes with aggressive affirmative action programmes.

With regards to policing, how can forces become more representative and accountable to the communities they serve?
It’s necessary to have affirmative action programmes which aim to hire blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans for our police forces and promote the officers of colour who are already in the police force to higher ranks, where they’re in control of major decision-making.

Hiring more black cops would be helpful but it would be a small first step. Sending white officers who discriminate against black citizens to jail would be a pretty good first step. But that won’t happen until blacks are represented among judges, prosecutors, district attorneys, top police officers, police commissioners. Until blacks are represented there in fair numbers, instead of right now in zero numbers or tiny numbers, you’re not going to get white cops prosecuted for killing black men, except in rare cases.

Why have white people accepted the decisions not to prosecute or at least try police involved in these controversial shootings?
One of the concepts I’ve developed is the white racial frame. In order to rationalise and legitimate 350-400 years of racial oppression, we whites have developed what I call a white racial frame. That frame includes racial prejudices and stereotypes, but it’s much broader than that. It includes racial narratives: stories we whites tell ourselves about how good we are. It includes racial emotions and racial images of people of colour, like the “dangerous black man” visual image. As whites, and this is true for Europe too, we learn much more than prejudices, we learn a whole world-view.

“We believe white people are virtuous, no matter what we do, we’re virtuous, we’re superior.”

We whites see ourselves as the most virtuous people, the most civilised, we have the best legal system, we’re the most intelligent, we’re the most moral, we’re the best educated. White people are virtuous, that’s the heart of the white racial frame. That’s why we get so emotional and defensive when somebody suggests we’re not virtuous, like ‘You’re racist’. Most white say I’m not a racist because we know that’s a bad thing and we know we’re virtuous. So we may go have a beer with friends and tell “nigger jokes”,then insist to a reporter, ‘I’m not a racist’. Because we believe white people are virtuous, no matter what we do, we’re virtuous, we’re superior.

How can that be broken down?
We whites do not see the world from a black point of view. It’s extremely difficult for us to see the world from a black point of view. One of the concepts that my colleagues and I developed is called social alexithymia. For individuals it’s a psychological condition where you can’t relate to the emotions of other people, it’s a psychiatric diagnosis. A person is diagnosed as clinically, psychologically disturbed if they cannot read the emotions of other people when they’re interacting with them.

My colleagues and I extended that to social alexithymia or group alexithymia. Whites have a condition, as a group, of being unable to relate well to the emotions and perspectives of people of colour. This group alexithymia seems to be essential to racist systems. Racism requires that the oppressor class, the dominant class, has social alexithymia. Because if you did relate to people who you’re oppressing or discriminating against, you wouldn’t probably do it.

So discrimination requires a breakdown of relating to the emotions and perspectives of other people. A more familiar term is empathy, it’s a breakdown in empathy. But it’s even beyond that, it’s this socially-structured, learned alexithymia. ‘I don’t understand black people, I see white people as virtuous, I don’t want to understand black people because I see them as un-virtuous. Because that’s what mum and dad and the kids in the schoolyard and the media have taught me.’

You can see that any kind of serious white anti-racist activity requires a breakdown in alexithymia. You have to develop real empathy, some ability to put yourself in other people’s shoes, to even begin to engage in serious anti-racist activity.

It’s good to see multi-racial coalitions emerging, but if history is any guide, these protests are going to die down eventually and especially among white people. I may be wrong, but I would be willing to put money on it. Unfortunately this scattered white anti-racist protest won’t last. Blacks will continue to suffer. That’s what is still very problematic: keeping whites involved in anti-racist programmes that threaten their self interest.

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