My name is Mani Walcott. I am a 24 year-old environmental engineer living in Maryland. I’ve written this blog in an attempt to convey to you, the supporters and members of Progress in the UK, why we need your support and your solidarity as we say enough is enough – Black lives matter.
As a movement, as a cry of anger at long-held notions of white privilege in the United States of America and the centuries-old discrimination still baked into the social, economic and political systems that underpin the much vaunted ‘American way’ – Black lives matter. It’s in the name.
Over 150 years since the abolition of slavery, more than fifty since the assassination of Martin Luther King, and six years since the creation of Black Lives Matter following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting of African American teen Trayvon Martin – and we’re still expected to explain ourselves. We’re still expected to explain what we’re fighting for.
Why? Why do we have to explain to the average American that black lives matter? Why do we have to convince them?
The answer is simple. Because they don’t believe it.
The United States was founded on racism. Not solely as a social construct but as an economic and political construct as well. In an economic sense, virtually no economic aid was given to African Americans upon the abolition of slavery: former slaves were met with sharecropping, segregated into dilapidated neighborhoods and disproportionately forced into free prison labor. In a political sense, black populations were met with Jim Crow laws, voter suppression and gerrymandering to limit their ability to engage in the governance of America.
The effects, remnants, and survival of these historical obstacles continue today. And in this particular moment, as black Americans and allies once again take to the streets to demand equality, America finds itself effectively leaderless in the midst of a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting black Americans.
But these obstacles are not insurmountable. With deeper understanding and a commitment— or at least an acquiescence— to change from white America, progress can be achieved. Take gerrymandering — the manipulation of the boundaries of electoral constituencies so as to favour one party or class.
In recent years, members of the Republican party have used gerrymandering to prevent predominantly black areas from having an impact on elections. Large, densely-populated black neighbourhoods are designated as single districts, so as to allow less populated, predominantly white areas to have the same voting power.
The impact of gerrymandering compounds because the more it is used to win elections, the more elected officials can subsequently gerrymander the districts for further elections. Local and state elections require huge voter turnouts to counter such gerrymandering and elect officials that can break the cycle.
Current attempts at mitigating Republican gerrymandering involve the creation of bipartisan committees to review district maps drawn by legislative bodies. These could reduce the power legislators have to draw boundaries that favour their political party. In Virginia, a bill to create such a bipartisan committee will be on the ballot in the upcoming November election.
Alongside the pursuit of a fair and equal political system capable of rectifying inequalities, we must also pursue criminal justice reform. The mass incarceration of black men is one of the most visible examples of systemic racism in America. The rate at which black men are incarcerated far exceeds any other demographic, and sweeping prison reform has become part of the discussion to remedying this discrepancy.
Decriminalisation of minor drug offenses is one example of how to reduce the number and severity of sentences that black men and women receive. Black communities show no increased prevalence of drug use, yet police continually target low-income, predominantly black neighbourhoods for minor drug arrests. High levels of black incarceration tear families apart, a phenomenon that evidence shows us can lead to fewer and worse life chances for black children.
And what about direct economic solutions to mitigate the oppressive effects of racial inequality? Currently, local and state governments have large portions of their budgets allocated to funding massive police forces. Often acting as agents of black oppression, a militarised police inherently protects the system that employs them; taking innocent black lives without retribution, and attacking peaceful protesters.
Defunding these police forces— a proposal focused on repurposing funds that is often deliberately misrepresented in both social and news media— would free up large amounts of capital. Capital which could be invested in securing resources for education, stimulating black businesses, and breaking the school-to-prison pipeline. The current protests have already lead to movement on this issue, and this progress should be encouraged. Increasing positive investment in black communities is a crucial aspect of any policy programme that aims to tackle racial inequality.
Racism has long acted as a machine to prevent black citizens from receiving the benefits of citizenship (safety, community, and prosperity) while capitalising on black labour and black culture. It has long kept capital and wealth out of black hands. Again, the question begs: why? Why have black people been subjugated in order for the American capitalist system to succeed? The answer is that excess profit is best reaped when there is a group from which to reap it, and wealth is best hoarded in small numbers. Black America has patently never been given equal access to the opportunities open to white America.
Racism has facilitated extreme income and wealth inequality in America, creating a disadvantaged population; and a system with white concentrations of wealth has dismissed the needs of that population. The two power structures have not lost the interdependence that they founded in 1619.
That is why it is seen as a challenge to propose that black lives matter. Because it has been internalised and passed on for generations that black lives cannot matter for a system of privilege to work.
And that is why the protests persist. In the face of structural limits installed to subjugate and suppress black lives and livehoods, the Black Lives Matter movement must continue to climb the ladder, engaging those who have not previously engaged, forcing America to reconcile itself to its past and its inequality.
Black Lives Matter is a movement predicated on the idea that black lives hold equal value to any other. But we know the conversation is rightly also about the deeper structural problems that underpin and facilitate violence against black people and black communities. We must continue to be part of the movement: to encourage conversation, to force awareness, and to change policy with the goal of eradicating systemic racism.
Mani Walcott is an environmental engineer in Silver Spring, Maryland. He graduated from Hofstra University in New York with a degree in environmental engineering in 2018. He tweets @knockoutnolo