The killing of George Floyd, who died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled into his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest, has spurred a wave of rage, anguish, and protests across the country. To better understand what is happening and what the future may hold, the Gazette talked with Orlando Patterson, the John Cowles Professor of Sociology. A scholar of slavery and issues of race, Patterson talked about the legacy of white supremacist ideology, racism in policing, and the ongoing, widespread discrimination and segregation in American life. He also explained why he hopes that the country can yet heal its racial divide, and sees particular promise in the young.
GAZETTE: Two years ago, you spoke to the Gazette on the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report, which blamed white society’s racism as the underlying cause of the race riots of 1967. You said then that maybe we needed another report that looks at the roots of the racial inequities in the country. What is your take now?
PATTERSON: Reports are always useful if well done. There are now many studies of race and inequality, in fact it’s a virtual industry. There’s no shortage of thorough and well-informed research. But it would do no harm to have a group of people bring together the main results of the findings of recent studies, as well, including the views of influential people, not just academics, but also community, political, and religious leaders, who can say where they think we are and where we are going in terms of race relations in America. That’d be important especially now, after the killing of George Floyd. Many people must be asking themselves what has happened over the past half a century or more, since those first set of defining riots of the ’60s, not to mention the Rodney King riots in 1992. Is the element of white supremacy and chronic racism so deeply rooted that no amount of not just protests, but reform and institutional change is going to make a difference? That’s a depressing view. My sense is that there’s something new in these demonstrations.
GAZETTE: What is new about these protests, compared to the protests of 1967, 1968, or 1992, or the more recent ones organized by the Black Lives Matter movement?
PATTERSON: For one thing, and this is even true of the Rodney King demonstrations in 1992, the difference is the composition of the demonstrators. One cannot help but be struck by the significant proportion of the protesters who are white, Hispanic, and Asian. It was interesting, for example, that when the police brutally broke up a demonstration near the White House and trapped protesters on a road, a South Asian man took 70 of them in his house. My sentiment is that this is a more diverse, although still predominantly black, expression of outrage. I think it has to do with the moment we’re living right now. People seemed horrified that we’re seeing this sort of thing after all these years, but they also sense that something is profoundly wrong. What’s terrifying about this moment is that the foundational institutions of our democracy are under assault, that the fundamental norms upon which our Constitution and our system of government rests are being threatened.
GAZETTE: What similarities do you find between previous protests, including the ones that followed the Rodney King beating, and the ones led by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the current protests?
PATTERSON: The common denominator is police violence and brutality. We have these brutal acts and killings, and we have outrage, protests, commissions, recommendations, and again and again, the police still continue in their old ways. They don’t seek to respect life and are prepared to brutalize someone for something as minor as passing a counterfeit $20 bill or jaywalking. The police are also very much part of one of the worst recent developments in American life: mass incarceration. It’s historically unprecedented, and it’s shameful that the country that claims to be the leader of the free world, although most of the rest of the world will consider that a joke, has the world’s highest number of people in prison: 2.3 million. And over 40 percent of those in prison are black. This is really just astonishing, and the police have a lot to do with it, as well as prosecutors.
GAZETTE: There have been other cases of police brutality in the past few years, but why do you think the killing of George Floyd has led to this wave of protests even beyond the United States? Why did it happen now and not before?
PATTERSON: First, the whole thing was captured on video. And it was especially chilling because of the nonchalance, the sense of complete indifference, the disdain for someone’s life that the police officer showed as he killed Floyd. We have seen videos of brutality in the past, but this one came right after a series of police killings, and it simply reached the breaking point. When I saw the expression in that officer’s face and that three other officers were around him standing by as if this was just business as usual, I thought of Hannah Arendt and her phrase “the banality of evil.” What Arendt found most horrific was that ordinary people were able to commit horrible killings, and at the end of the day, they went back home to their nice homes and their nice families, and the next day they went back and killed again. I also think that the video came up in the midst of a pandemic, when people were feeling appalled at the incompetence and absence of leadership.
GAZETTE: What role might the pandemic have played in this wave of unrest?
PATTERSON: When we passed that critical milestone of 100,000 deaths, that called for a leader to express our collective fear and anxiety. We didn’t get that. People were really aghast at what was happening and at the reports that say that thousands of lives could have been spared if our leadership would have been more competent and less self-absorbed and concerned solely with the problem of reelection. The nation saw two big failures coming together: on the one hand, the absence of a proper health system and, on the other hand, the incompetent leadership. When the issue of police brutality came up with this video, people saw a link between the incompetent leadership, the failure of the American welfare state, and the resurgence of one of the worst aspects of American society: its white supremacist and racist ideology.
GAZETTE: How does white supremacy fit into this?
PATTERSON: What the killing has done is to show us that there still persists a hardcore white supremacy racist ideology, which rejects outsiders, anyone who is not white. That ideology is now ascendant as a result of the leadership in the White House. What I see is two great traditions in America that are competing. There is the liberal tradition, and there’s the equally dominant tradition of white supremacy, which comes out of the South but traveled northward. There is real tension between them.
I’ve argued in my writings that there has been extraordinary progress in the changing attitudes of white Americans toward blacks and other minorities. As late as the early ’60s, a majority of whites openly said they saw blacks as inferior, and now there is an acceptance of equality, at least in their views. I’ve always said that this may be the great majority, but there’s still 20, 25 percent of whites who still embrace white supremacist views. This hard core of white supremacists is still there and have been encouraged and are leading a revanchist sort of movement. And that’s quite frightening.