Khalid Zaka: Racial injustice at centre of George Floyd protests, but let's not overlook the class dimension

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      By Khalid Zaka

      The antiracism protest, which started in Minneapolis, not only spread in the US but has shown a strong presence across the globe. It began as an expression of outrage when George Floyd, an African-American man suspected of buying cigarettes with a fake $20 bill, died on May 25. This came after Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis policeman, knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and exploded into seething protests throughout the U.S.

      States called in the National Guard to quell unrest; thousands of people were arrested; shops from Santa Monica to Manhattan have been looted.

      In scope, size, and scale of disruption, the recent protests over police killings resemble those in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King. There were then enormous protests in more than 100 American cities, some of them extremely destructive. Then, too, commentators wondered what the point of the concurrent looting was. James Baldwin gave this explanation in an interview with Esquire:

      “Who is looting whom? Grabbing off the TV set? He does not really want the TV set. He is saying screw you. It’s just judgment, by the way, on the value of the TV set. He does not want it. He wants to let you know he’s there…No one has seriously tried to get where the trouble is. After all, you are accusing a captive population that has been robbed of everything of looting. I think it's obscene.”

      Since 2015, the available database of all known fatal police shootings indicates that there are almost precisely 1,000 such deaths every year. In cases where the race of the deceased is known, 26 percent are black, twice African Americans’ share of the population. The Afro-American community constitutes about 13 percent of the U.S. population. Take out cases where the person killed was armed, and the ratio remains the same. Exclude those of people showing signs of mental illness, and the proportion is slightly higher.

      It is not just George Floyd's killing; many things combined to produce this anger. Most of all, it's poverty. When poverty combines with race, it becomes very sharp. But the Afro-American people have lived with it for a long time.

      COVID-19 and the mayhem and crisis produced by it has helped trigger such widespread and extreme reactions. By far, the most significant number of deaths due to COVID–19 have occurred among people of color. The protesters are from a cross-section of American communities, the majority of which appear to be working class, as well as the oppressed segments of the middle class.

      Unemployment is concealed in the official statistics. A person doing two hours of work a week may be considered employed. In any case, it is not decent and secure employment. The living quarters may be wet and may not have proper heating and cooling; many suffer from loneliness, depression, and other mental diseases. They live a state of fear most of the time and in a crime-ridden area. They are looked at with suspicion all the time, have low status, and no respect.

      Many scholars have emphasized that race, not class, has been the great dividing as well as the great organizing principle in America. But little attention is paid to why Americans are both resistant to see the problems in terms of class or organize around class issues and yet are very much willing to hold the issues around race. Race and class, while different, are interrelated in U.S. society. It appears that racial meaning, identity, and practices have constrained and helped shape and limit class consciousness.

      The class question lies in the core of racism; however, the projected face of the two significant uprisings (1968 and 2020) in the U.S. was racism, not the class question. The social and economic indicators show that it is not only the African American people who have been the victim of neoliberal policies; it is the working class and the part of the middle class irrespective of race.

      Khalid Zaka is a social justice advocate living in Surrey, British Columbia. The Georgia Straight publishes opinions like this from the community to encourage constructive debate on important issues.