Institutionalised racism in the US: a phenomenological understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement

di Ginevra Canessa - 15 Luglio 2020

from London, United Kingdom

Institutionalised  racism in the US: a phenomenological understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated how our current global order is still far from an establishment based on equity and social justice. It is within this framework that the renewed social pact, which many believed possible, seems to have evaporated in a melting pot of violence and discrimination. The killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd represent other episodes reinstating the racism that is inherent, systemic, and institutionalized in the American political culture. Events that occurring in such times could not simply be ignored but that have inevitably triggered a global movement, going under the name of Black Lives Matter. Its articulation across different countries reflects the struggles of black people against racism and social injustice. More importantly, it raises the awareness that episodes of racism, marking history since its beginning, cannot be neglected anymore but should become part of the understanding of our past and present.

This article attempts at drawing an analysis of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US by considering, on the one hand, the historical origins of American political culture, and, on the other hand, by conducting a brief literature review of the institutionalization of racism among US institutions. This first part will serve as a basis to understand the current protests in the US and beyond. Then, we will focus on the use of military forces and on the phenomenology of civil mobilizations. We conclude with a reflection on the results achieved so far and the importance of conceiving a collective consciousness that deconstructs racism on a daily basis.

The 13th Amendment: was slavery ever really abolished?

The US is marked by a long history of racial violence which did not end with the 13th Amendment in 1865. Instead, as Dr. Megan Ming Francis (2014) argues, the political and economic reconstruction of the American South after the end of the Civil War (1865) had the precise scope of entrapping black people again. If, on the one hand, the economy had to change in accordance with the abolishment of slavery, yet, the 13th Amendment still included a loophole allowing for ‘involuntary servitude where convicted for a crime’ (Little, 2018). Sided with the Black codes- restrictive laws limiting the freedom of African Americans as a way to ensure the availability of cheap labor force- the loophole in the 13th Amendment has favoured mass incarceration of black people.

These discriminatory arrangements created a straitjacket for black people to enjoy full rights and allowed the white political establishment to maintain its supremacy. Not only this has occurred through the promulgation of racial laws, but also through cultural narratives according to which black people are characterized by animalistic and evil traits. This is particularly evident in the movie Birth of a Nation (1915) which many have deemed responsible for reconstructing racialized warriors and enemies, thus favouring the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan’s heroic portrait (Cobb, 2015).

The era of mass incarceration

These measures were accompanied by the increased expansion of prisons’ population, which continues to perdure, with the highest incarceration of people per capita among other industrialized nations (Stewart et. al, 2020). Whilst throughout most of the 20th century, US prisons’ population was largely flat, since the 1980s we can observe a dramatic surge (Fig.1). This is the result of “four decades of punitive crime policies that have produced large racial and ethnic disparities” (Ibid, 119). Whilst, as we have seen, the overrepresentation of African Americans in the judicial system has been present since the early 20th century, significant racial disparities continue to affect Black and Hispanic communities. Evidence to this is also the observable trend in prison admissions showing that the latter are respectively 6 and 2 times as likely as Whites to be incarcerated (Nellis, 2016).

Historically, the era of mass incarceration is generally attributed to the Nixon administration and the ‘war on crime’. The politics of ‘law and order’ introduced by Nixon soon became intimately intertwined with the ‘war on drugs’. As a top Nixon’s aide on domestic affairs John Ehrlichman later declared, the strategy of criminalizing drugs like heroin and marijuana had the precise scope of disrupting the two major anti-establishment forces opposing the government, namely black political movements (in particular the Black Panthers) and leftist antiwar groups. Yet, whilst Nixon audacious plan of ‘fighting crime’ mostly remained a rhetorical war, the Reagan administration turned the war on drugs into a literal crusade. In practice, this led to law enforcement’s attention to drug offences, with a dramatic rise in drug arrests and harsher penalties (Mauer, 2010).

Data Source: Calculated by the Prison Policy Initiative from U.S. Census 2010 Summary File 1. For full sourcing details, see the full data set in Excel. (Graph: Wendy Sawyer, 2020)

The war on drugs and racial disparities

The main consequence of treating health issues, such as drugs’ consumption or abuse, as a criminal offence had the immediate effect of becoming an economic and social burden, in particular, for black communities. Reagan’s political strategy relied on the criminalisation of problems of economic inequality, hypersegregation in American cities, and increased drug abuse (Van Jones, 2016).

In this regard, the war on drugs has been defined by many as a war on communities of colour (13th Amendment, 2016, 25:10). A claim that finds support, for instance,  in the harsher penalties imposed by Congress for possessing crack (smokable cocaine) vis-a-vis similar amounts of powder cocaine. The rationale behind this choice relied on the assumption that crack was more addictive. Yet, such an assertion was soon disproved by scientific studies. In this regard, it is more plausible to argue that the harsh criminalization of crack was aimed at targeting African Americans- the community that was mostly associated with its use (Times, 2020).

 Who establishes ‘the criminal’?

The American construction of ‘the criminal’ seems to have often relied on political strategies but also private interests. In particular, the representation of black people in news media and popular culture have for long relied on their societal role as criminals more times than it is actually accurate. Accordingly, the phenomenon of mass incarceration, which has mostly affected communities of colour finds itself also strongly linked to the issue of prisons privatization and the role played by corporations, such as ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).

It has become, therefore, increasingly common for conservative state legislators to rely on ALEC’s legislative models which, from the 1970s, has included the passage of several laws from tax cuts, loosened environmental regulations, and longer prison sentences (Price, 2006). Among these, ALEC ratified in Florida in 2005 the ‘Stand your ground Law’. This expanded the right of self-defence by establishing a legal framework of immunity if a killer claims they had a reasonable threat in front of them. As a result of this law, George Zimmerman initially got away with the murder of 17-year old black male Trayvon Martin.

The fact that under the ALEC umbrella, corporate members secretly vote as equals as lawmakers when proposing new models of legislation, make the activities of increased criminalization and prisons privations profitable for shareholders. This is also successfully demonstrated by a study analysing a leaked document containing 800 model bills. In particular, the latter shows how ALEC has benefitted from a prison-industrial complex based on the promotion of private prisons, goods, and services, a greater use of prison labour, and an increase in prison population (which mostly affected communities of colour) (Cooper et al, 2016).

Institutionalised racism

To understand the anger and frustration around policing in 2020 means to analyze the historical discriminations against African Americans. It is not just about police violence, but also about many institutions that have failed black people, including corporations who continue to benefit from an unequal judicial system.

The field of Critical race theory (CRT) offers an effective explanation for the reproduction of systemic racism in the US. CRT theorists draw from Foucauldian notions of power and, accordingly, adopt a narrative approach to contemporary legal thought. Through the critical analysis of legal texts and mainstream American culture, CRT challenges majoritarian interests, including liberalism, which are at the core of the maintenance of race inequality (Gilborn, 2020). Indeed, a central idea is the “historical centrality and complicity of law in upholding white supremacy” whilst establishing hierarchies of gender, sexual orientation, class, and race (Crenshaw et. al, 1995: xi; Bell, 1992). An important argument that CRT theorists advance, in this sense, is that racism is reproduced in the everyday through discourses of power that are contingent on particular historical moments.

Racial capitalism theory

The emphasis placed on the narratives inherent in the rules, practices, and power of our social world, ultimately makes CRT an intellectual movement for human resistance and emancipation. By revealing the sufferings of peripheral groups, it opens up for possibilities for what Edward Said has called “antithetical knowledge”, the rise of counter accounts of social reality by subaltern elements of the dominant order. Considering the current protests in the US, the question arises: Will this renewed awareness on institutionalised racism bring any change to the American system?

According to the prominent CRT scholar, Cedric Robinson (1983), racism is a “material force” which has allowed for the development of the bourgeois capitalist order. It did so through the treatment of black people in terms of property, thus assuming that black people are inferior to the white man. Yet, what is whiteness if not a social construct?

Its functioning both as a form of property and an identity based on exclusion continues to sustain racial capitalism (Robinson et al.,1983). This was openly founded on the violent dehumanization of communities of colour and still functions through the marginalization of people by race. The mobilization of the Black Lives Matter movement across the world represents a stand against systems, such as the American one, whose very functioning is rooted in discrimination. It follows that a systemic change will be the result of a collective rejection of the racist status quo which permeates American institutions. More importantly, it becomes a matter of recognizing one’s positionality and engage with the experience of marginalised communities without undermining their voices.

The use of military forces

Recently Trump has been trying to contain the civil insurrections, blaming the local administration for not being able to repress the protests:

“If a city or a state refuses to take the actions that are necessary…then I will deploy the US military”. (BBC News, 2020)

As a matter of fact, there are conditions under which the President of the United States is entitled to call the use of military force. The Insurrection Act of 1807, still vigent in the U.S. legislative system, admits the Presidential deployment of the military forces without the approval of domestic governors. This action is possible as the President considers it impossible to enforce US laws, or when citizens’ rights are threatened in the subjected area. (Ny Times, 2020)

The doubts of the American establishment

The decision has been fiercely questioned by former U.S. Generals, as Gen. Colin Powell did in his recent intervention at CNN’s Jake Tapper broadcast.Mark Esper, current United States Secretary of Defense, followed the call out of Gen.Powell, putting additional contextualization to the situation:

“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations [… ]. We are not in one of those situations now.”(CNN, 2020)

These are just two of many statements on Trump’s current status, many came from the security establishment, creating an unprecedented situation. Many of them harshly criticized Trump’s actions and condemned the police brutality that we are all witnessing (Chait, J., 2020).

Deconstructing democracy

The actual necessity of deploying military forces across the territory does not constitute the only doubt on Trump’s actions, but also the attempts of politicization of the national army does. This process goes against the principles that drive democracy and its consolidation across countries, according to Morlino (Morlino, L., 2012). As Tusalem confirms, if the military has institutionalised its role in politics as being interventionist, the likelihood of democratic consolidation becomes difficult. These are the processes that mined the path towards democracy of many countries, as happened in Central Africa, Middle East, and Latin America. Exactly those countries that the U.S. always vowed to save from authoritarianism. Still, in those areas it is possible to reckon actions of politicization of the military forces to overthrow governments or to repress the public opinion, establishing authoritarian regimes (Tusalem, R. F, 2014)

A past experience from the deployment of the Insurrection Act

Furthermore, another question arises from the use of military forces in the current U.S. situation: the actual degree of necessity of the measure. Most of the mobilizations were peaceful, while some turned into violent riots. Before making a  distinction between these two phenomenologies of civil mobilization, it is worth to recall once again American history and remember the consequences of military action in the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Here,  the Insurrection Act has been used for the last time in the U.S, until now (NBC News. 2020). It is true that mobilizations occurred in 1992 were not peaceful, but the spirit of today’s protest is again, 30 years after, of subversion against an institution that marginalizes and oppresses. A lesson that has been learned in California, as state governor Gov. Gavin Newsom dissociated himself from Trump’s statements, claiming that he would reject the military intervention (LA Times, 2020).

Phenomenology of civil mobilization: recognizing a riot from a protest

The killing of George Floyd did not generate social unrest and civil mobilization on its own, but the event represented only the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The force with which people flooded the street witnesses the resilience of Afro-American citizens. As in the riots of Los Angeles in 1992, this recent event seems to have had the function of a relief valve. But, conversely from the 1992 riots, in 2020 protestors started with a peaceful aim that escalated quickly. Controlling and addressing protest is a fragile task that often vanishes as protest intensifies. Looking at the mechanics of the protest, we have seen mobilizations becoming uncontrollable also in the case of Hong Kong. The high degree of technology and the gradual fermentation of unhappiness among citizens, over a controlling authority, connect the two phenomena.

Yet, the two cases have different backgrounds: Hong Kong is fighting for its independence, while in the U.S. citizens are fighting against racial discrimination. Nevertheless, both cases call for a recognition of identity and the implementation of the rights that follow from this implication. This broad motivation regards large masses, not just restricted groups of protest. The variabilities of participation and relations among protesters can be topical in understanding the difference between protests and riots, and how peaceful events derail in violent scenarios (Booth, Farrell, and Varano 2008)

Relations among protesters and the danger of social media

As described by Ives and Lewis, where the mobilization is not highly organized, the ability of movement’s leaders and of police forces to serve as gatekeepers vanishes. This can happen when civil mobilizations are organized through thinner channels of relations, such as social media. Regroupement through social media, such as Facebook events, groups, and pages does not permit a high degree of filter, allowing anyone to join the movement, even people who are not passionate about the cause. As participation is regulated through this mechanism, the impact of the formal and informal social controls exercised by protest leaders is fairly restricted (Booth, Farrell, and Varano 2008). This condition easily enables violence-oriented actors to create a breach in non-violent movements, escalating the peaceful activities in violent ones. When it comes to larger areas of application, or cities with a high density of population, the process can get even more drastic.

The role of gatekeepers and the degree of organization

The role of gatekeepers is crucial in civil mobilizations. Their absence- voted at constraining participant-reduces the degree of consciousness of the protest and the experience of their participants. Consequently, there is a likelihood that inexperienced protesters may turn violent when confronted by state forces. Moreover, the absence of gatekeepers might work as an appeal for violence- oriented individuals to join the protest.

The organization constitutes an important factor in providing certainty to the possible events and escalations, permitting to better handle the situation. In this way, it should be easier to forecast what protesters should expect from a particular protest. If the degree of organization lowers, there is space for the increase in individual uncertainty. As a person joins an ad hoc protest, he or she is not necessarily aware of what co-protesters have in mind. In certain cases, more likely in big cities and through social media communications, it may be possible that none of the protesters are aware of other protestants ideology and mindset (Ives, B. and Lewis, J.S., 2020)

Results driven by uncertainty may be even worse when combined with the potential high costs of a protest, especially in terms of violence and judicial punishment. Hence, if police constrain the protest by using teargas and batons, then loose-knit groups appertaining to the movement may respond to police violence with their own one, resorting to throwing blunt objects or burning police vehicles and other institutional figures (Ives, B. and Lewis, J.S., 2020)


As George Rawick recognized, the self-activity of oppressed people holds the key to the emancipation of everybody (Lipsitz, 2009: 158). The protests that we are witnessing, including the toppling of monuments and statues honoring imperialist personalities, have raised a collective awareness on legacies of racism worldwide. More importantly, they have triggered a critical stance against our historical past which, in most cases, has revealed profound racial disparities. Whilst in the US these are particularly evident in the criminal justice system and in police violence, European countries are not exempt from social injustices. Demonstrations of solidarity to the American cause remains important to sustain the political message of the BLM. Yet, individual countries should also focus on forms of racism that are inherent in their own systems, which have different historical and socio-political roots. The fight against racism should be declined accordingly.

Among the proposal of several legislations to reform American police corps, the concept of ‘defunding the police’ continues to gain momentum. Whilst its interpretation varies among different political groups, the main idea is that a reduction in police budget would allow for better funds’ allocation in areas such as education and public health. Considering the power and influence that the police has acquired historically, the call for defunding police remains extremely difficult to implement. As of now, several mayors and lawmakers, including in Los Angeles, New York City, and Minneapolis, have been proposing reforms to divest from the police. It still remains fundamental to increase transparency and accountability of police officers in order to discourage racist bias in policing whilst deconstructing prevailing narratives of crime that discriminate communities of colour.

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Autori dell’articolo 

*Ginevra Canessa. Studentessa in Politics and International Relations, BA (Hons), University of Kent (Regno Unito). Addetta alle questioni di Global Gender Justice e Human Rights della Think Tank. 

*Luca Mazzacane. Dr. Lingue e Culture Moderne presso l’Università di Pavia (BA), Dr. in International Relations presso LUISS Guido Carli (MA), Roma.


Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti. 

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