Opinion | George Floyd's killing, unrest a result of structural racism

John Mogk is a professor of law at Wayne State University specializing in urban law and policy.

The wanton killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the civil disturbances following were a predictable repetition of Detroit's rebellion in 1967 when the largest civil disturbance in American history was triggered by the abuse of African Americans by a police force that mostly was all-white.  The Michigan National Guard and 82nd and 101st  Airborne Divisions of the U.S. Army were required to regain control of the city.  Forty-three people died and hundreds of millions in today's dollars in property damages was caused   Notwithstanding the magnitude of the rebellion, the abject discrimination revealed a need for federal intervention as the country failed to learn a lesson.
The root of the problem then, as it is now, is structural racism, and white police officer abuse of African Americans is merely one stark manifestation of it.  Structural racism has its origin in slavery and fosters public policies, institutional practices and cultural representations that work to reinforce racial inequality for African Americans.  Too many white police officers view African Americans with suspicion, interpret their actions as threatening and are quick to disregard their human rights.  
Their attitudes are grounded in the culture of a substantial portion of the broader white community, where only 1 in 4 white Americans has African-American friends.  Many whites are uncomfortable with African Americans as neighbors, unwilling to send their children to integrated schools or vote for African-American candidates.  
President Lyndon B Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to investigate conditions contributing to the Detroit rebellion and others occurring in the country.  It found that African Americans faced pervasive racial inequality not only in abusive police practices, but also in employment, education, housing and virtually every other aspect of life.  
The conclusion was that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one back, one white - separate and unequal....  What white Americans have never fully understood — but what African Americans can never forget— is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.  White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it."  
Experts were skeptical that change would occur and consistent with their prophesy only scant progress in combating structural racism in the past half- century has been made.  Many white Americans take solace in the election of the country's first African-American president, Barack Obama, as evidence that structural racism is in retreat.  But, a cavernous gap between African Americans and whites remains. Today, as before, a far greater percentage of African Americans than whites are arrested, underemployed, impoverished, imprisoned, uneducated, poorly housed and lack access to adequate health care.    
It takes a tragic killing such as George Floyd's and the rebellions that have followed for there to be a wake-up call that structural racism remains below the surface and alive in America.  Not since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson has American leadership engaged in a concerted effort to address structural racism.  Discussion of it has been absent in the election cycles of the past several decades.  A call for healing of wounds is not enough.   American leaders need the courage to step up and face structural racism head on for America to be the just and peaceful society it purports to be. 

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Tue, 06/02/2020 - 12:32am

Regardless of the writer’s nostalgia for the 60’s, this is 2020. An honest conversation about race is, today, almost impossible. The “racist” label is tagged on anyone who dares even question the conventional wisdom of the American Left. Virtue signaling has stifled debate. Blaming problems on systemic racism without pointing to specific issues and proposing solutions doesn’t really solve anything. It does, however, automatically absolve the individual of responsibility for their own choices, and instead casts them as simply a victim of their circumstance. How patronizing. As for recent events, video has shown the horrific slayings of two African American men. People of all races are understandably outraged. There is at least some comfort in knowing that suspects have been arrested and will likely face trial. This isn’t perfect and it won’t bring them back, but it’s a hell of a lot better than 1964.

Wed, 06/03/2020 - 7:19am

Marshall, very well said and spot on!!

Wed, 06/03/2020 - 3:51pm

'Blaming problems on systemic racism without pointing to specific issues and proposing solutions doesn’t really solve anything."
i think you havent been listening if that's the case. there are many many organizations who's goals are to reduce systemic racism in multiple different niches. because my background, im most familiar with the work in the birth field. there are measurable discrepancies in patient care and outcomes which can only be explained as long term racism because they dont happen anywhere else. to combat these issues there are groups working from every angle, advocating for black mothers to be heard when something feels off, prenatal visits to the home, community centers who work at prenatal care and mental health and support, breastfeeding education and support before and after birth to try and lower the infant and maternal mortality gap between white and black people. i know at least 5 groups combating this in different ways, there isnt an easy answer, you cant solve it overnight. so sometimes what work you dont see is hours of labor and lobbying and advocacy and money being spent for very little improvement, but improvement nonetheless.

Thu, 06/04/2020 - 1:01pm

At least you mention a specific issue. Good on you for working to reduce the infant and maternal mortality rates. I can hardly think of a cause more worthy. I would hope these efforts would be made regardless of the race of the people involved. I would , however, caution against seeing a disparity in numbers for an area or ethnic group and automatically conclude that "long term racism" is the only possible cause. Is there really no other possible explanation? As an aside, I'd also like to see these heroic efforts extended to protect the unborn from the abortionist. The death rate in those cases is 100%.

Sun, 06/07/2020 - 7:09am

Marshall, again you are 100% correct.

John Gorentz
Tue, 06/02/2020 - 10:17am

I hope Michigan enacts some reforms in its emergency powers acts. It's good that the governor has power to quickly issue orders in case of emergency. But once the legislature is able to get itself together, it should have the power to ratify or cancel these orders. Under such a system, a governor would be encouraged to seek more of a consensus whenever there is time to do so, and the people of the Michigan would have more confidence in the validity and value of the emergency orders.

Tue, 06/02/2020 - 10:48am

Tell us exactly what school did you sent your kids to? And why?

How does does stealing and burning the small businesses in a minority neighborhood (or other) stick it to those oppressing the same minorities?

David W
Tue, 06/02/2020 - 12:38pm

Thank you!

Eugene Jenneman
Tue, 06/02/2020 - 2:12pm

On his phone call with the Governors yesterday Trump told them to get tough on the protestors. Arrest them and put them in jail for 10 years! That will stop all of the riots and looters.

The same then can be said for the police killing black suspects who always seem to have a gun even when they don’t or whatever excuse they make. Start consistently arresting and jailing those cops who use excessive force and then maybe cops killing black suspects will end or at least make them think twice before pulling the trigger or choking a suspect.

We are not likely to see an end to systematic racism within another generation or two, if then, but we can enforce and create laws that deal with it. It would seem making law enforcement accountable in the most egregious cases would be a start!

Wed, 06/03/2020 - 7:17am

I believe that the evil knee to neck cop would have done this to a White as quickly as a Black. I do not believe there is any Structural racism that exists today. Yes, some people will be racist,,but it is for sure not the sole domain of the Caucasian people!! I am almost 70, I have seen it all and very involved, playing the race card today is nothing but a crutch,,and a very dangerous one indeed! Our police do need to be reined in, as the pendulum has swung to far in one direction.

Lisa Kaufman
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 10:41am

When Ann Arbor can pass a $1 Billion bond proposal for schools, and Detroit students have to sue the state for a basic education in buildings that aren't collapsing, structural racism is going to remain in place. We need leadership that can address the inequalities that our current tax system promotes.

Chuck Jordan
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 11:29am

"Liberty and justice for all." That would do it.

Todd Priest
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 12:59pm

Most aren’t being told that out of 10 million arrests last year, 1004 were killed by police. Out of those, 41 were unarmed. 19 were white while 9 were black. 89 cops were killed but nobody seems to give a crap about that. So now you’ll say this is a lie I’m sure so feel free to research it and start where I started. The FBI Uniform Crime Report and Washington Post.