Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Social justice vs. social distancing

By Mahmood Monshipouri

The ongoing unrest and mass protests over the death of George Floyd, amid the backdrop of a still-raging COVID-19 pandemic, have raised a question about the tradeoff between social distancing and social justice.

The unrest, which has drawn widely diverse participants, including energetic and diverse cohorts of young white allies, unseen in the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, are likely to continue well into the future. It is now widely acknowledged that the effects of the death of Floyd will linger long after the rallies and protests have ended.

At the same time, the lives of many people in the United States and around the world have been devastatingly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. For racial and ethnic minorities in the United States, the outcome has been consequential as the coronavirus pandemic has adversely and disproportionately impacted black and Latinx communities. The unemployment rate among African-Americans has doubled and that of Hispanic minorities tripled, with the American middle class trapped by fears of financial instability and growing uncertainty.

Clearly, Mr. Floyd’s death has spurred a genuine debate in America about what needs to be done about systemic discrimination and racial injustice. Dramatically, social distancing has taken a backseat to matters relating to social justice, which have re-arisen to assume a renewed immediacy.

While sooner or later, as Roxane Gay aptly notes in The New York Times (May 31, 2020), a vaccine will be created to effectively manage the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, a cure for white supremacy and police brutality is in most ways more complex and difficult.

The protests across the United States and the globe reflect and reinforce deeper problems about justice and accountability. Many Americans are rightly concerned about the lack of professionalism and transparency on the part of the police, especially regarding the treatment of African Americans.

Police departments across the country must be held to a new standard of accountability for ongoing discrimination and racial oppression. Studies have shown that the United States has one of the highest poverty rates in the developed world, with one in six Americans living below the poverty line.

The sanctity of life—the cornerstone of fundamental human rights—has given a new urgency and impetus to the slogan: “Black Lives Matter.” Crucial to this movement is the right to dissent, which has taken precedence over social distancing, protesting the inherent biases of the US justice system.

While the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be blamed on any particular individual, group, organization, or political system, the disturbing images of police responses and the violence perpetrated against Mr. Floyd caught on bystanders’ smartphones have placed the issue of accountability front and center in the debate over racial injustice.

It is also worth noting that while the coronavirus has been and continues to be invisible, the images of Mr. Floyd’s death have gone viral on social and broadcast media. The high visibility of this tragic incident has both alarmed and animated the consciousness of the vast majority of the American people.

The public outrage demonstrated on the streets of major US cities has been intensified by the Trump administration’s woefully inadequate and inappropriate response. Instead of healing the wounds of racism and police brutality, Trump has encouraged the militarization of crackdowns and the use of force against protesters in the name of law and order.

The crackdowns against peaceful protesters has sent the wrong message to the protesters both in the United States and the rest of the world, as these events have been reminiscent of faraway lands where authoritarian and repressive regimes have for centuries relied on brutal mechanisms of control and suppression.

To characterize the protesters as looters, anarchists, and trouble-makers as a justification to evoke the National Guard to suppress these genuine and spontaneous waves of protests has fundamentally damaged the Trump administration’s image—both domestically and from an international standpoint.

What are we to make of this episode? And how can the playing field of racial injustice be leveled? Some observers have reminded us that the United States left the New Deal unfinished and neglected to safeguard the security of all sectors of American society and that now more than ever investment is needed in the American people.

The protesters seek a holistic agenda that addresses these deeply rooted inequalities, including vast educational reform, economic justice packages and law enforcement reform. Yet, the lack of bipartisanship in the US Senate seems appalling given that the Senate has failed to even pass an anti-lynching bill, with the Republican majority blocking the move. As the cases of coronavirus spike around the world amidst nationwide and global protests, the importance of showing responsible behavior, which entails wearing masks and gloves while also keeping the necessary distance from others, cannot be stressed enough.

In the meantime, the commitment to reforming law enforcement and achieving economic justice requires an ongoing process of forging relationships based on trust, transparency, credibility, and accountability with marginalized individuals as well as with other groups of people.

In the short term, and until that commitment is seriously made and rigorously pursued, however, the only hope for change lies in suffrage. Voting in fair and free elections remains the most empowering tool at the disposal of the economic and social underclass.