In the age of COVID-19, police killings, and government-mandated lockdowns, it's fair to wonder if 2020 has provided any positives for society. Isolated in our homes, many of us consumed media at a rate we’d never done before, and the news was rarely uplifting.
At the end of May, we watched a video recording of George Floyd struggling to breathe as an officer placed his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd died in police custody, becoming one of many high-profile police killings since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
But the aftermath of Floyd’s death felt different; it felt bigger. The killings of George Floyd and others like Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery initiated a chain of events that sought to expose how racism dwells within the fabric of America’s institutions — from education to health care to the lack of representation within the country’s most powerful corporations.
The Research that Leads to Silver Linings
For students and professors alike, diving into their areas of expertise led to reasons for hope after a down year.
As chapters of the Black Lives Matter movement from across the country took to the streets to call for social justice, structural change, and police accountability, I saw Confederate monuments toppled in the states of the former Confederacy, mayors redirect funds from their police forces, and commitments from high-ranking politicians to work toward reparative justice. As a person who lived in Columbia, South Carolina, from 2009-14 and frequently crossed paths with the Confederate flag displayed at the statehouse, my senses were heightened that change was brewing in a way that it hadn’t before.
But I also witnessed the troubling underbelly of the American divide, as heavily armed counter-protestors threatened peaceful BLM marches; police attacked protestors with canines, rubber bullets, and other weapons; and conservative commentators posthumously attacked the reputations of those killed by the police. I was often called on to provide my thoughts to media interviewers, and each time I paused to reflect a bit longer at the question: What can be done? As a historian, I’ve never felt particularly equipped to discuss (or try to predict) the future, but I realized that my training in contextualizing the past for the present might provide some answers.
Though this entire year has been difficult, I needed to use this moment to dive more deeply into literature that is both engaging and accessible to the public. My efforts ultimately brought me into areas of research I’d never consistently investigated, and it has allowed me to expand my conception of history and the historical process, and more concretely examine how the legacies of the past inform the circumstances of the present.
First, I revisited Ibram X. Kendi’s 2016 work Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which provides a broad, sweeping narrative of anti-Black racism throughout the entirety of U.S. history. Kendi’s work provides a reference point for understanding the historical distinctions between those who seek to lightly “reform” society’s racial ills against those who actively seek to remove them. Such concepts are commonly known as “racism” vs. “anti-racism,” though Kendi also provides a history of “assimilationists” vs. "segregationists,” showing how anti-Black ideas have infected the broader society, ranging from the most ardent racists, to indifferent observers, and even to civil rights activists.
Second, I re-examined Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (2014), which provides a rather surprising history of the United States’ carceral expansion in the second half of the 20th century. Murakawa’s innovative work challenges assumptions that the tough-on-crime policies of Republicans and southern Democrats led to the explosion of the U.S. prison system. In fact, this is only a part of the story. Linking the initial phase of mass incarceration to the Truman administration, she charts how liberal/Democratic presidents, such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton, used a large federal presence to incarcerate greater numbers of Americans, specifically Black men.
Finally, I approached Pero Dagbovie’s 2018 work Reclaiming the Black Past: The Use and Misuse of African American History in the Twenty-first Century, which challenges the mythical narratives of African American history espoused in popular culture. He argues “many Americans’ perceptions of U.S. history, including African American history, have not necessarily been shaped by professional historians,” noting films and other forms of popular media tend to inform the public. Given that BLM protests are often compared to the civil rights movement, Dagbovie’s work is a crucial intervention when considering this comparative history and demystifying the past.
Taken together, each work responds to the current discourses permeating 2020: the continuous prevalence of racism and espousal of racist ideas, mass incarceration and prison abolitionism, and misunderstandings surrounding what legitimates a social protest in American history. Each book is heavy in its content, and their relevance to our current socio-political moment make them even heavier for a reader. But I encourage everyone to read them deeply and discover how the material contextualizes this historical moment.
Though it is difficult to know the future, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic in the long-term. Social media platforms hold entire communities of progressive activists who espouse a commitment to a better society, which includes challenges against the current mode of American policing, incarceration, political disenfranchisement, and institutional racism.
My own work on the history of the K-9 unit has greatly benefitted from the work of abolitionists and scholar/activists who push for revolutionary change, and I approach my sources, analysis, and conclusions with an eye toward their societal relevance. I hope the work I conducted during this lockdown can inform and uplift my students, my community, and my readers for many generations.