White police officer Derrick Chauvin pinned George Floyd to the ground with one foot. The video showing Floyd shouting 16 times “I can’t breathe” before his death went viral online. His death has angered millions of Americans at home. American celebrity Trevor Noah lamented that there are two types of viruses in the United States: COVID-19 and racism, both of which have a domino effect. His comment once again exposes the social scars and conflicts brought about by slavery and segregation since the founding of the United States. As of the end of May 2020, nearly 40 million people of all 300 million people in the United States were unemployed. According to the Economic Policy Institute, black people are more likely to be unemployed than white people. Although black people make up only about 13 percent of the US population, they account for more than 20 percent of the total COVID-19 infected cases. George Floyd was a security guard working for a restaurant in Minneapolis which had been closed during the epidemic. He was laid off and ended up dying in broad daylight under the feet of a white police officer.
Foreigners often have to read countless translated writings and illustrations to understand the complex political relations between Hong Kong and China, not to mention to feel for the protesters in Hong Kong. They may find it difficult to understand why the vigilantes (勇武派) have united with peaceful protesters in the movement if we merely discuss the proposed amendments to Fugitive Offenders Ordinance (Cap. 503). They can have a slightly better grasp of the origins of the movement in Hong Kong today when they know the history of social activism in Hong Kong since the handover, its failures and setbacks in other routes. By the same token, we may not fully understand why the black protesters become radicalized in the wake of angry protests in the United States if we just discuss the death of George Floyd and the mishandling of protests by the US government. Thus, we have to discuss the history of oppression and struggle of black Americans over the past two centuries.
From the Founding of the United States to the Civil War: Negroes as three-fifths of a person
Of the thirteen states that formed the United States, the Northern states were relatively free states that prohibited the slave trade, while the Southern ones were slaveholding states. The greatest fear the Southern states had about joining the federal government was that the federal government would become powerful and force them to abolish slavery when the Southern states lost the game of democracy at the national level. To achieve American statehood, the Northern states willingly weakened the power of the federal government (which is the major reason for state autonomy now) and even made compromises on principle. There were once debates among the Founding Fathers of the United States on whether slaves were “humans” or not. Since the amount of taxes and seats allocated to each state under the newly formed federal government were tied to the population of that state, the Southern states wanted slaves to be treated as humans for electoral considerations, but were unwilling to pay taxes for them, while the Northern states did the opposite. In the end, they reached the infamous “three-fifths compromise”. Both sides decided to treat black individuals as “three-fifths of a person” for determining tax rates and seats for each state. The US Constitution even allowed the slave trade for twenty years. The Northern states promised to return escaped black slaves to their Southern slave owners. As the United States expanded, to maintain the balance of power between the Northern and Southern states, the two sides even reached the Missouri Compromise in 1820 in which they agreed that one more slaveholding state would be added for every free state joining the United States. Thus, slavery can be seen as one of the origins of divisions among the states in the United States today.
For white Americans, the United States Declaration of Independence symbolized their national philosophy: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” However, Frederick Douglass, a famous orator and former black slave, declared in his speech on American Independence Day in 1852 that nothing could better underscore the contradictions and hypocrisy of the Americans more than this day. To Douglass, the United States was able to unite as a nation despite state divisions because the free states made compromises on the “self-evident truth” that black people were also “men”. According to many black historical views, America as a nation lacks legitimacy from its roots.
From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement: Constitution as scrap paper for blacks
After the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery, and the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution promised civil and voting rights for black people. The emancipated American Negroes once thought they could finally see the light of day during the brief Reconstruction Era (1863-1877) that followed.
At the beginning of Reconstruction, the federal government used various means of coercion and inducement, such as mobilizing federal troops, to secure the emancipation of the Negro slaves in the former slave states, and to allow them to exercise their civil and voting rights. During Reconstruction, blacks were suddenly very eager to enter politics. Many black politicians emerged in the South. Whites in the South were afraid of losing their power in politics, so they formed white supremacist groups like Ku Klux Klan. They brutalized and intimidated blacks who wanted to enter politics or vote, so that Southern blacks would not vote again. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, lynchings by white Americans against blacks and other minorities (including Asian Americans) in both the North and the South were commonplace. Most executioners did not receive any punishment. In a few more years, whites in the North also became less enthusiastic about black rights. In 1877, less than two decades after the end of the Civil War, all federal troops left the South. Reconstruction came to an end. As soon as the federal troops were withdrawn, the southern state governments then found various ways to restrict the right of blacks to vote by imposing measures (such as collecting poll taxes or requiring voters to be literate) which were ostensibly unrelated to race. One of the most absurd measures was the grandfather clause: one could not vote unless his grandfather had voted in his lifetime. This excluded all the recently emancipated black slaves in one fell swoop. Various means within and without the legal system were adopted to reduce the black turnout in the South down to less than 1 percent for several years, so the right to vote only existed in name.
In fact, the lives of most blacks in the South did not change at all after emancipation. After the Civil War, most factories were reluctant to hire blacks on “free man’s” terms. Blacks had no choice but to return to the plantations in order to make ends meet. Plantation owners rehired the blacks on the same terms as the slaves in the past. What made things even worse was that some states passed a series of segregation laws in the 1890s commonly known as the “Jim Crow laws” which allowed public facilities like schools, stores and transportation to refuse to host races other than whites. In 1896, the US Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537that segregation was constitutional, laying down the foundation of segregation policies for the next six decades.
Civil Rights Movement: The struggles between civil disobedience and violent direct actions
In 1954, the NAACP saw their biggest victory since its foundation: in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled the segregation policy of a school unconstitutional, directly overturning the ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. Black Americans, however, quickly realized that this victory was also only an illusion. The Supreme Court had no enforcement power. The Southern states decided to ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling. They continued to carry out segregationist policies. In 1955, the arrest of black female teacher Rosa Parks for taking the seat on the bus occupied by a white man became an opportunity for civil disobedience actions across the country in the 1960s.
Black Americans saw civil disobedience as a legitimate and necessary action, not just because legitimate demonstrations failed to bring about change, but also because they were merely exercising their rights in accordance with the US Constitution even if they refused to observe the draconian segregation laws. In fact, blacks knew it was difficult to end their demonstrations peacefully as they had already faced violent suppression by white supremacists and police. Ku Klux Klan masterminded bomb attacks in churches for black people in Birmingham, Alabama. The most well-known attack as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in which four black girls were killed. Black people took to the street immediately. The mayor claimed that the protest was unauthorized and deployed high-pressure water jets and police dogs to suppress the rally. More than 2,000 people were arrested as a result. NAACP leader Martin Luther King Jr. was also jailed for taking part in the protest. In his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he stated that he wanted civil disobedience to be a middle ground between defeatism and violent direct actions. Of course, many people like the Black Panthers (who now praise the protesters in Hong Kong for their violent direct actions) saw Martin Luther King Jr. as a pacifist. The most famous critic of Martin Luther King Jr. was Malcolm X, the leader of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm X was a radical who supported violent actions of the blacks for self-defence. In his opinion, blacks had to build their own nation. In his interview at Berkeley, he even suggested that black people did not want new laws to protect their rights as there were already plenty in the law book.
For him, under the existing system, the power disparity between the blacks and the whites was so great that no legal reform could protect black rights, so black independence was the only way out.
Absence of progressives on black issues
One might have an illusion that although black people were suppressed by the conservatives, American progressives were still fighting for them. Historically, however, American progressives often neglected issues related to black rights, treated the blacks as bargaining chips and even ejected them. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, black workers repeatedly demanded to join the US labour unions, which were monopolized by white workers, but black workers were turned away. Many unions of white workers even pressured corporations and factories not to hire or promote black workers. Even the more enlightened union leaders believed that labour issues should be given higher priority while abandoning progressive agenda related to racial issues. Similarly, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal to expand the welfare state in the 1930s, he excluded blacks from welfare policies to raise support from the Southern Democrats who opposed black rights back then. After the high tide of the Civil Rights Movement, black people still had no place in progressive movements. The American feminist movement of 1970, for example, was basically represented by white middle-class women. In 1977, a group of black feminists issued The Combahee River Collective Statement, stating that white women were not only ignorant of, but also uninterested in, racial issues and black history and culture. All these prevented white women from understanding or dealing with the oppression faced by black women due to class, race and gender intersections. As a result, black feminists believed that they had started a new cause on their own.
Of course, the black movement in the United States has never been an ironclad one. In the face of exclusions, there were people willing to make compromises; there were moderates and even pessimists (particularly Afro-pessimists). But for some black people, it was not the individuals, parties, or factions that oppressed them, but the system and the white elites. Some black people thought they had owed nothing to the others, including the enlightened progressives. For them, the only way for the blacks to end oppression was to fend for themselves.
Contemporary Oppression: Why Only Black Lives Matter?
Outside the political and economic system, the most blatant oppression that blacks face comes from white supremacists and the police. The police in the United States have long used racial profiling to “maintain law and order” as they have assumed that black people are more likely to break certain laws. Blacks have been much more likely to be questioned or detained by the police than white people (In 2013, blacks accounted for 92 percent of those questioned by police in Ferguson). In addition, police officers often identify black people as dangerous groups, so they often shoot or use excessive force against black people even when they show no signs of resistance. The courts in the United States are usually run by white judges, so the police officers or whites who kill blacks often get away with injustice.
In 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black man, was pursued and shot dead by George Zimmerman, a member of a local neighbourhood watch. George Zimmerman managed to get away from the murder, and even accused the wife of Trayvon Martin of perjury. Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement started in 2013 and spread across America as a response to the entire law enforcement and legal system which turn a blind eye on black lives.
Black Lives Matter movement got its name from the fact that the police, the courts and even white society do not take black lives seriously, so the activists want to emphasize that black lives are also precious. Recently, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying tried to echo the movement by writing “All Lives Matter” on her Twitter page. Her controversial post seems very sarcastic and silly. Blacks may find “All Lives Matter” offensive because it completely erases the historical contexts of their situation.
Conclusion: can we connect?
Hong Kong people, who are far away from the storm, can comfortably say that they agree or disagree with their means of resistance and the looting during the protests. But to practice citizen diplomacy, we must stand in their shoes, learn American history from a black perspective and understand that their struggle comes from the continuous failures and setbacks of peaceful resistance over the past 200 years, and also the continuous political and economic oppression they are facing.
- Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July”(1852)
- Ida B. Wells, “Lynch Law in America”(1900)
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”(1963)
- Malcolm X’s interview at UC Berkeley (1963): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZMrti8QcPA
- Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement (1977)
- Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and the Violence Against Women of Color” (1991)
- Desmond S. King & Rogers M. Smith, “Racial Orders in American Political Development”(2005)
- Robin D.G. Kelley, “The U.S. v. Trayvon Martin: How the system worked” (2013)
- Vicky Osterweil, “In Defense of Looting”(2014)
- 陳婉容：周日話題：Chinese Virus 有無錯？ 亞裔的「正面種族定型」(2020)