After months of intelligent lock-down – during which we have all been on our own a lot – our world is waking up to remarkable global activism: a collective statement by millions of people. The horrific death of George Floyd by police brutality in the USA has triggered a deeply felt anger about both institutional and more informal forms of injustice in racial relations.
What we’ve seen happen is what Danielle Allen, in her 2004 book Talking to Strangers, has labeled a “re-writing of the constitution”. Simply put, constitutions, laws, and rights are paper statements. They set a framework (and are to be cherished for doing so). However, the real constitution of any society is the actual set of practices and mutual expectations between citizens as well as between citizens and their governments.
In any struggle for rights we see several phases (which are never neatly separated, by the way). There is the phase of fighting for rights that only others have; a phase of seeing those rights granted (and hence reaching formal equality); and then there is the phase of reaching material equality by actually being treated as an equal by fellow citizens, and by state and social institutions. It is this third phase that mostly relates to the Black Lives Matter Movement at the moment (although the second remains very important when it comes to, for instance, the legal room for certain police actions).
We need to acknowledge the great achievements of generations of brave activists and politicians who, through dealing constructively and often gracefully with centuries old struggles against racism, have brought us a level of formal and material equality that we have not seen before. There is no reason whatsoever to doubt this momentous achievement of constitutional democracies under the rule of law. But the step to material equality for black people, and all other racially marginalized groups, faces structural challenges that are now on the agenda for all to see. New styles of democratic politics endanger the inclusive agenda of constitutional democracies under the rule of law.
There is hope in people coming out of lock-down and marching for justice. It is heartening to see how racially diverse the demonstrations are. This is not in any way about one racialized group struggling for recognition by another racialized group. This is about millions of citizens of societies and, hence, of the world, who stand up for basic and principled forms of justice and equality.
What we need to acknowledge is that the bigger discussion does not just concern American policing. Everywhere in the world, academic curricula are historical constructions. Centuries of western domination have led to an over-representation of white and western perspectives and interests in the world’s universities. As a young university, UCR is not at all immune to this.
In recent years, we have intensified reflections on diversity, colonial history, and slavery through a diversity report authored by Dr. Vazquez Melken and associates and several conferences and discussion platforms we created. With the organization Themoora, we are collecting material for thinking through the makeup of our curriculum, including our courses in history, anthropology, sociology, social geography, human rights, and political theory, among others. Of course the current wave of activism will initiate new debates on this. This is to be welcomed, for we need to go further. And we will help create fora for it.
Looking at the situation we all find ourselves in, there is reason to be hopeful. For months, the question has been posed; what would happen after society’s unprecedented response to the corona pandemic is slowly lifted? Not many of us have expected to see that the first instances of mass-societal engagement are not focused on economic gain and consumption, but rather on questions of justice. This is where hope lies — and we all have work to do.