Wednesday, June 17, 2020
Editor's Note: Continuing with our symposium on racial injustice, Gerard Quinn brings us this comparative perspective. Professor Quinn is Raoul Wallenberg Chair of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.
Pinning someone to the ground until their life expires is hardly a model for good community policing. There is something universally repulsive in such a gratuitous act of violence. All right-thinking people everywhere in the world recoil from it.
But violence takes many shapes. To a certain extent, the violent death experienced by our brother George is just the tip of the iceberg. That is why the clamour for change includes but goes far beyond policing. In truth, George is the latest victim of a deeper malaise that has so far defied meaningful change.
The malaise I speak of has to do with deep structural economic violence based on race. It can and does reach across the generations and leave a lasting imprint over time. The missteps of the past never really go away. They are literally encoded and embodied in how people experience their own lives.
Sometimes it is important to stand back from the familiar to assess what might have been -and what still might be with sufficient political will. The many badges of inferiority inserted into the Constitution, and implied into by it by wayward courts, were always strikingly at odds with the philosophy of the Revolution – the inherent equality of mankind. Franklin was acutely aware of the contradiction from the very beginning. What held it in place was the burgeoning economic system and the dependency of the South on cotton and the exploited labour of people of colour. The growing clamour to make ‘freedom national’ came from the move toward ‘free soil and free labour’ – an effort to deconstruct the economic models of the 1860s and to turn toward a much more radical (though classically conservative) free market model. Even before anyone heard the name Hayek, a link was being drawn between economic freedom and political liberation.
A crucial moment came and went. Toward the end of the Civil War there was a clamour to break up the landed estates (plantations) and distribute the land to those who toiled in the fields (‘forty acres and a mule’). This was no less a call to end the economic system that sustained slavery in the first place and to replace it with a system that assured some measure of basic income and employment – and the independence that normally goes with that. Some estates were broken up. But the process was thrown into sharp reverse once Andrew Johnson assumed the Presidency. The cruelty of throwing people out of the land they had only just acquired must have been extremely painful.
Things could have been quite different. At around same time (1860s-1890s) Britain dealt with a similar problem quite differently. Ireland suffered a massive famine in the late 1840s. The famine was not due primarily to a lack of food on the island. Food was plentiful – but the Government insisted that it be exported. A laissez faire policy was followed regardless of its callous impact on the majority of the people who worked the land. Mass children’s graveyards can still be seen in my neighbourhood as a result. Most of the land was held in large estates. The people were treated no better than legal serfs. Over time – and due to the franchise (limited though it was) pressure grew on the British Government to break up the big estates, compensate the landowners and distribute the land to those who worked in the fields. This was done through a series of Land Acts in the 1870s – at exactly the same time that former slaves in the US were being forced back onto the land in dire circumstances.
Of course, this was never going to be enough to halt the clamour for political independence in Ireland. But this act by the British set in train (admittedly over time) a positive dynamic of change that has been largely absent for former slaves in the US. First of all, a system of national primary education (i.e., not funded by the local tax base) meant that every child could dream big and was encouraged to do so. Secondly, a stern commitment to universal suffrage meant there was no room for suppression of the vote. Third, the social model was changed from the odious Poor Law which stigmatised and blamed the poor for their own situation. Last, the policing system was re-designed to be as close to the community as possible (and crucially unarmed).
The moral of the story: Civil and political rights need to be respected. But they depend on economic and social justice to give them reality. The failure to break up the plantations and distribute the land in the aftermath of the Civil War was a culpable disaster. As the British showed in Ireland it could have worked – or at least provided a foundation for further development. A new economic and social contract is now urgently needed partly to compensate for the past and to build a more inclusive future.”