Many people think that unity is strength, and even that when the Latinx community joins forces with the Black community they are no longer a minority. During the last months, both communities have demonstrated these beliefs to be true.
As the United States and the world continue marching, protesting and demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, and many more victims of police brutality and racism, Professor and Director of USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity Dr. Manuel Pastor discussed with BELatina via Zoom the importance of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, rallies, the 1992 L.A. riots, and more.
Do you think we can compare the 1992 L.A. riots and the BLM uprising?
I think there are both comparisons and important differences. So part of the uprising in 1992 was provoked by the equivalent of police officers that have been caught on tape, viciously beating a black man. So I think some of the anger about policing was really critical. Another thing is, and I think it’s actually a bit of a parallel, is that there was a context for the uprising of economic distress.
People forget that nearly half of the job losses that occurred in the United States in the early 1990s happened in California, that the recession — which was driven by a cutback in defense spending actually — really hit our aerospace industry hard in Southern California, and all the rest of manufacturing. And so a lot of employment here was very high, above 10 percent. Instead, there was a context of economic deprivation, including a big influx of immigrants, who said we’re working at very low wages. And there’s a parallel today because George Floyd’s murder probably would have triggered protests under any circumstances — but in the context of COVID in which the racial disparities have already been illustrated, and it was lots of economic distress. I think that that’s part of it.
And so I think those two things are similar. What’s different is that the uprising in ‘92 was largely [homogenous]. [The BLM Movement] has been [characterized] by national integration everywhere. Second, while initial protests in Los Angeles were in some sense political — like people went up to the police headquarters, which was called Parker Center, and protested there — most of what took place had taken place in poor neighborhoods, people looting and burning in their own locations. What’s been different here is the protests are [taking place] in many places around the country, out of poor neighborhoods, into downtowns (particularly, in Los Angeles) [and] wealthier areas.
And I also think there was a movement waiting for this moment, as the Black Lives Matter protesters had been laboring at this for at least seven years. There was some context, as I kind of already said, to sort of channel things in a way that just wasn’t completely there in ‘92.
Do you think that defunding the police and allocating that money to benefit the black and Latinx community, it’s something that can be possible?
There is certainly attention for a big change. Some people when they say ‘defund the police’ are talking about divestment in investment. For some people it means total. For others, it means the redirection of resources and some level of scale. What has been interesting is that it’s difficult now to use ‘defund the police’ as the club against the protesters. Trump’s attempt to isolate the protesters and portray them as hooligans has been ineffective.
If we are not successful in defunding the police, do you think there is going to be a positive change, or at least a much-needed change of government?
The way I think about what just happened is that there’s a lot of attention to the murder of George Floyd and the protests that have erupted. You really need to contextualize that by looking at the couple months of the COVID crisis, the precarity, unemployment, the lack of health insurance, the lack of legal status for documented immigrants, the vulnerability of essential workers, the way in which this has disproportionately affected Black and Latino communities in terms of cases of deaths, but that was actually also on top of three and a half years of Trump. And Trump has represented a kind of unique combination of cruelty and incompetence.
The lack of intelligence of the Trump administration, the denial of science around climate, denying of research around how safe are communities even having evidence of harm, denial of good research around what would make for better policing, the lack of intelligence, and then coupled with attacks, both coded and uncoded against people in scapegoating from the beginning, and then with just corruption — I think things were just kind of ready to break. And then COVID removed the shimmer of a buoyant economy, and then the murder of George Floyd removed any illusion that there was any empathy or compassion on the part of the president.
So it’s in that context that the disapproval ratings have been going up and the approval ratings have been going down. I mean, think about it. Why should anyone actually approve a president who’s presided over 120,000 needless deaths from COVID, has tanked the economy or is on the way to tanking it by restarting it too quickly? His not speaking to a racial [world] and awakening around racism in the United States is deeply out of tune.
Is racism a mental health issue? Should it be treated like one?
Well, let’s distinguish two things. One is personal racism and the other is institutional racism. And the reason why that’s important is that if somebody has crappy attitudes that are racist but they have no power in your life, it’s kind of sad for them and they won’t be your friend. If they can’t police you, if they can’t determine whether you get a job, whether you get a loan, whether you can buy a home, whether you can get an education, of the quality of the areas in your neighborhood, their attitudes are a bummer.
I’m not a big fan of hockey but it doesn’t bother me that some people like hockey. So, I think, our focus needs to be on things that are institutional and structural that are impacting people’s lives.
When you’re a minority, you have to learn how to form alliances with other groups. And that’s a really good people skill and political skill to develop. When you’re a majority, you don’t have to, and I think that part of what’s going on in the United States is that there’s been a backlash about the coming demographic change in the United States. And a lot of that backlash was triggered or accelerated by the presidency of Barack Obama.
I am not surprised when I walk into a room and the smartest person in the room is Black. I’m not surprised! And I say, okay, that person is in charge, and I’m following because you’re the smartest person in the room. So there are some of us that saw Barack Obama, and said ‘He’s the smartest guy in the room.’ And then I think there are other people that simply can’t conceive that the person who is in charge is somebody of color.
So I think that’s part of America’s changing. Most of us are changing along with it and young people, in particular, are at the forefront of that for two interesting reasons. Young people, unlike older people, are able to keep two ideas in their head at the same time. One is that your friend group is much more diverse, and within that friend group, race and ethnicity don’t matter, in the sense of who’s your friend; it might be an asset they bring in terms of the stories and culture. And then at the same time, to another one, it may not matter in your friend group, but it matters socially that the Black folks in your friend’s circle are going to get different treatment from the police or a different set of assumptions when they apply for a job.
So at the same time that your friend group is more diverse and you’re very welcoming, you recognize that there’s institutional racism, structuring the life chances of people within that group — and you resent it more because then you want every one of your friends to be able to succeed. I think that’s what’s kind of interesting watching the protests after the George Floyd murder. Certainly, the protests have a large number of Black people but now it’s hard to find marches that are Black only.