Race, protest and democracy in America

This article by Ryan LaRochelle of the University of Maine at Farmington was originally published on the Bangor Daily News opinion page on June 30, 2020.

A woman, wearing a protective mask due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, walks past a mural in tribute to Frederick Douglass on Wednesday, June 24, 2020, in the South End neighborhood of Boston. Credit: Charles Krupa / AP

In a few days, Americans will celebrate the Fourth of July. In 1852, the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society of Rochester, New York, invited abolitionist Frederick Douglass to give a speech on the day’s meaning. Douglass gave his speech on July 5 and offered blistering remarks on the momentous gaps between Americans’ professed values of freedom, equality and independence and the lived reality for enslaved African Americans:

“I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine.”

Douglass’s remarks still ring true in 2020. Despite progress over the past century and a half, racial inequality persists across the U.S. and in Maine. As of June 3, Black and African American Mainers were nearly 20 times more likely than whites to have tested positive for COVID-19.

Jobs held by Mainers of color provide worse benefits and more irregular schedules. Across the nation, white families hold on average 10 times more wealth ($171,000) than black families ($17,150).

Racial disparities in the criminal justice system are well documented. Although they make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans make up nearly 40 percent of the nation’s inmates. During their lifetime, one in three African American males can expect to be imprisoned, compared to just one in 17 white males. Black Americans receive sentences almost 10 percent longer than whites arrested for the same crimes. And prosecutors are more likely to charge Black arrestees with crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences than whites.

These persistent systemic inequalities are at the forefront of ongoing protests. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in the New York Times, “If we and those who stand with us do not mobilize in our own defense, then no official entity ever will.”

Throughout U.S. history, Black Americans have forced us to reckon with how often we fail to live up to our stated values. In doing so, they have helped make the U.S. more inclusive and democratic, though much work remains to be done.

Research shows that protests over racial injustice have changed U.S. public policy. Protests increase the likelihood that members of Congress — from both parties, though the effects are stronger for Democratic members of Congress — will vote in favor of bills to ameliorate race-related complaints, especially when protests occur in their district.

Protests also influence the types of cases the Supreme Court decides to hear. Political scientist Daniel Q. Gillion found that “The number of race-specific cases on the docket jumped by four percent after 100 minority protests had been reported nationwide — and 10 percent if the public believed racial issues were important.”

History proves that major moments of political change — from the abolition of slavery to the fight for civil rights in the 1960s and today — are the result of the dynamic interplay between social movement activists and political elites. The current protests over police violence and racial inequality have already changed public opinion, leading more Americans to support the Black Lives Matter movement and recognize that Black Americans still face discrimination.

Enacting democracy requires concerted and sustained action. Returning to Douglass’s speech from 1852: “We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the prosperity of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

Ryan LaRochelle is lecturer at the Cohen Institute for Leadership and Public Service at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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Education. Jobs. Health. Poverty. Crime. Immigration. Environment. Campaigns. Rights. What does research show? Avoiding jargon, Maine’s Scholars Strategy Network explores pressing issues and democratic life.