Valdai Club expert Andrei Tsygankov talks about the reasons for the new wave of unrest.*
George Floyd's dying plea to the policeman who tortured him, the phrase "I can't breathe," has become the symbol of new racial protests in America. The protests have gone far beyond Minneapolis and now involve most states. Under America's sworn promise of freedom, there is not enough air of freedom for everyone. Floyd's death was preceded by the death and humiliation of many members of the African American minority community. For the umpteenth time in American history, peaceful protests were accompanied by riots and clashes with the police and the National Guard.
The interest of Russia and Russians in the subject of American racism is clear. Both Russia and America are empires that constantly address issues related to ethnic minorities and work to solve the problem of diversity in their own ways. Deeply hidden sociological and economic contradictions underline the national identity and political unity in both societies. In Russia, the issue of political unity was resolved with the help of trans-ethnic ideology – from orthodox to communist and civilizational – sometimes more successfully, sometimes less.
The interest in how they have resolved the issue of political unity is fueled by Russia’s ethnocultural problems related to the status of Chechnya and national regions, friction between Russians and nationals from the Caucasus and Central Asia, the role of officials and the police in the protection racket connected to illegal immigration, etc.
In any empire, racial and ethnic issues are among the major concerns. The empire provides stability not only through its power but also through legitimacy, decentralization, and creating channels of mobility and growth for different groups in society. The more diverse the population, the more difficult the task. The more stable the imperial state is, the more successful it is in improving the living standards of people and recognizing important values and traditions.
America's problem lies in the historical bond of economic class and ethnocultural inequality. Such a connection makes social division inevitable and serves as a constant source of political tension. Apart from the largely destroyed Native American population, the Black population was unluckier than others. In their case, racial humiliation increased poverty. Slavery is at the heart of the situation facing Black people in America - the basis of both poverty and segregation.
After the Civil War, the so-called Jim Crow laws maintained segregation in many states until 1964.
In fact, segregation is still alive today. Too many African Americans continue to live in separate neighborhoods, often with the help of government benefits, but without opportunities for education and economic growth. Poverty and humiliation are important roots of crime, and hence, important roots of attention by police. Latinos and Asian Americans do not have the stigma that attaches to African Americans.
A vicious circle is being created. The actions of the police and politicians cannot break it, and often exacerbate the problem.
The suspicion that America police have of African Americans is somewhat similar to the suspicion Russian police have of Caucasian nationals. Police often have to deal with these minority communities in the line of duty. Statistics show that police in the United States are 2 1/2 times more likely to shoot Black people than white people, even though the Black people make up only 13% of the population. At the same time, almost half of the murders in the country are committed by African Americans.
Politicians have also failed to find a solution to the problem. Democrats consider African Americans as their supporters by definition. Presumptive presidential candidate Joe Biden, said African Americans who did not vote for him were not Black. Today, African Americans mostly vote for Democrats, and do so more actively than Latinos and Asian Americans. However, nothing here happens automatically. African American confidence in power remains low.
Even those who vote for Democrats generally do not identify themselves as liberals and regard racism as a major problem in society. Once again, Biden said too much. His apology soon followed, but the damage, as they say, was done.
African Americans have even less confidence in Republicans and President Donald Trump. Trump’s remarks during the recent protests that “after the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and that the police should "dominate" the protesters were considered by many as unworthy of a president, who was calling for additional violence. These statements confirmed that Trump has little interest in minority issues.
Trump’s priorities are those of a nationalist who wants to develop business and strengthen the state by freeing himself from additional obligations with respect to foreign and domestic policy. At the beginning of March 2020, only about 14% of Blacks people supported Trump, and 77% considered him a racist and were completely disappointed with the general direction in which the country was moving.
Yet, the problem of racial and economic segregation in the United States is an old one, and you cannot blame it on the police and Trump. The solution is not limited to eliminating racism among state police departments or within the political class. Programs to support minorities are also insufficient, as is being political correct.
Even the idea being circulated in America of reparations for slavery will not solve the problem of fully integrating Black people in society. It will require a strong and socially egalitarian state capable of dismantling the structures of racial and economic segregation and of reinvigorating the American dream based on the idea of common prosperity.
In the absence of such a state, the reality of racial protest and violence is that it is doomed to dog America. The system of de facto segregation will show itself in police violence, on the one hand, and violent protests, on the other. Among the majority of peaceful protesters, there is always a well-trained and organized minority of riot provocateurs who come armed with weapons and fireworks. At the same time, even successful Black people such as Black athletes will continue to challenge the state by refusing to swear allegiance to the American flag out of racial solidarity. The U.S. will not change until most African Americans believe that this is also their country, which accepts them, and does not pay them off.
*Editor’s Note: The Valdai Club is a Moscow-based think tank established in 2004 and named for Lake Valdai, close to where the club’s first meeting took place.
Posted by Andrei Tsygankov, Valdai Club Expert, Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of California, San Francisco.