Though I try to stay away from social issues on this site, especially from politics, sometimes there is no choice.
I have been married for a long time to an Afro/Carribean woman. We have two daughters of mixed race. I’ve been close not only to my wife’s family, but to the West-Indian community in Toronto for decades.
One of my daughters is a resident of Brooklyn, NY, along with our beautiful little granddaughter, who is a US citizen, and who, with DNA also from her Afro/Haitian/American father, is firmly on the ‘black’ side of the social fence. George Floyd’s death profoundly affected us.
I saw a poll recently that showed something like 28% of ‘white’ (I dislike these crude terms of color) Americans think the deaths of black men at the hands of police are unique events that are just the result of encountering ‘bad apples’ in the police forces.
But that is dead wrong. Those deaths are the tip of a mountain of abuse.
For example, a few years ago my Brooklyn daughter told me of a young male friend of hers who came from a relatively affluent family, grew up on Long Island, went to college or university, and was employed with an insurance company, doing a ‘white collar’ job. This young man was stopped in the street regularly by police. For he was black. Had he been of white/European origin, he would probably never have been stopped. But his story was not unique. It was repeated over and over.
Now, here some people will want to step in and explain that this is not unreasonable because, after all, black people have higher crime rates. Well, if that sounds reasonable, let me show you why it’s not.
In the insurance claims industry in Toronto, especially in the personal injury field that I worked in, it has long been known that specific groups are more prone to make fraudulent claims. Basically, the most recent immigrants make the most fraudulent claims. So, in the ‘40s and 50s Jewish people were high on the list. Italians gradually took over in the ‘60s, then came Afro/Caribbean people, then South Asian people, then Central American people, then Russians, etc.
Because of that, it was natural that when you received a new claim from someone who belonged to one of these groups you watched out for ‘red flags’. You were more careful in dealing with them. But that didn’t mean you were entitled to treat them like criminals.
In my case, I treated everyone the same, innocent until proven guilty. It was obvious to me that the majority of any group were perfectly honest. It wasn’t hard to treat people properly and still spot the dishonest ones. I was better than most claims adjusters at that.
However, a lot of adjusters – in some offices it was the majority – treated all of these people as criminals from the start. They didn’t believe anything they said. They denied benefits to them on the slightest evidence.
Were they being more realistic than me? No, what they were doing was stupid. When those claims got to court, companies routinely lost, had to pay high rates of interest on the outstanding money owed, and that was often accompanied by awards of punitive damages. When the abuse didn’t stop (because, believe it or not, even management often couldn’t see what we were doing wrong) , the damages got higher and higher.
Their behavior was grossly dysfunctional. It cost insurance companies a lot of money, and it was partly responsible for the dubious reputation they still have with much of the public.
Police forces who target black people with a broad net, hauling in everyone just to check them out, are doing the same thing. One of the reasons that the deaths of the George Floyds are so offensive, is that often these men haven’t done a thing wrong. A routine stop turns into an execution.
And where is all of this leading?
I can’t help thinking of ancient Rome, when Julius Caesar, victor in the civil war and champion of the working class and racial minorities (he protected the Jews in Rome, the reason that several rabbis attended his funeral) tried to convince his fellow upper class Romans that they were wrong in their increasing suppression of the lower classes.
Rome had a sophisticated democratic system, with multiple houses of representation for different groups – the ‘comitia’. The lowest was that of the ‘plebeians’. It worked well enough until Rome became rich, which meant that the upper class became rich. Increasingly more powerful, they changed the political setup so the rights of the lower houses declined while they, especially in the senate, gained more and more power.
When Caesar couldn’t convince them to change their ways, he made himself dictator and demoted the senate. That allowed him to begin the social reforms that were badly needed. In response, the senators murdered him. Caesar’s followers then defeated the senate’’s army, and the senate was never again a significant factor in Roman life. Democracy was destroyed. Stupidity triumphed. Everyone lost.
The abuse of political power is intimately connected with the abuse of working-class people and minorities. That George Floyd died at the same time as the US government is growing more and more dysfunctional because of the determination of the top 1% of the population to hold onto as much of their growing wealth as possible is no coincidence.
You can see that America today, and some other nations too, are on the same path as Rome. But it doesn’t have to have the same ending. That’s why the whole world will be holding its breath when the votes are being counted in this November’s elections in the USA.