Race and Democracy in America
Author: Marjan Pokhylyy Published: 20 May 2021
Speaker: Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad
Host: Professor Peter Trubowitz
Hosted by the United States Centre as part of the Phelan Family Lecture Series
A discussion about race and racial inequality in the United States
A much-needed discussion took place at the London School of Economics. The LSE’s United States Centre invited Prof. Muhammad to speak about the latest developments in the United States regarding racial inequality and its effects on democratic processes. Prof. Muhammad is a renowned scholar at Harvard Kennedy School and the Radcliffe Institute. His work focuses on exploring racial politics of criminal law, a topic that had been at the forefront of the news after the controversial killing of Geroge Floyd and its aftermath. Adding to the relevance of the topic is the recent trial of Derek Chauvin, the events of which are still unfolding at the time of this writing and likely to have a significant impact on the justice system in the US as a whole.
The host of the discussion was Prof. Trubowitz, a Professor of International Relations, Director of the US Centre at LSE and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. His main work is focused on US foreign and security policies.
Against this background, the discussion began by outlining the latest legislation affecting racial inequality in the US justice system. The discussion focused on Biden’s newly appointed judicial nominees, the effects of the ‘For the People act’ known as H.R.1, John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the implications of newly introduced reparations in Evanston. This was followed by acknowledging the impact of the upcoming Derek Chauvin trial and a broader, more theoretical debate of institutionalised racism were then discussed.
The discourse on institutional racism addressed the complexities of teaching about racism and colonialism at university level.
A particular focus in the discussion was on the Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability Project (IAAP), which seeks to raise public awareness of racism during the job recruitment process. The final part of the discussion explored the topic from an international perspective. The conversation concluded with an in-depth look at the role of the US as a global trendsetter for fighting racism and the lessons for the UK and Europe.
US 2020 elections
The consistent view held during the conversation emphasised the importance and preference of collective responsibility for the individual actions to address racism. From a historical perspective, Prof. Muhammad stressed the institutionalised influence of racism in shaping US history and the reluctance of the US elites to learn the correct lessons from its past. To illustrate this, he referred to the recent US presidential election results, explaining the motivations of the minorities to vote for Donald Trump. The core argument was that a significant number of minority voters felt alienated by the system and opted to attain their individual political goals, as they felt no sense of collective responsibility. This underlines the importance of trust in the electoral system, and that institutionalised racism undermines the democratic principles by creating a feeling of alienation.
The Focus on Finance
A more salient and thought-provoking point raised during this conversation was about utilising financial incentives to measure social accountability. This point was first voiced during the discussion of a newly introduced reparations programme in Evanston, and then echoed in the roles of the IAAP and the evaluation of de-financing the police at the local levels. Prof. Muhammad praised the legislation in Evanston as a victory, noting the need for such legislation to be on the Federal level to emphasise the national stance on the issue. Likewise, Prof. Muhammad welcomed the idea of de-financing police at the local level in order to decrease the influence of the police as ‘social workers with guns.’ Furthermore, the role of finances was at the centre of the discussion on how to influence company shareholders and their role in formulating societal views on racism.
The focus on financial incentives and punishing mechanisms to tackle racism is an important aspect. Prof. Muhammad talked about his project, IAAP, and ways to train the financial elites to be aware of how racism shaped US history. One way is by underlining the institutionalised racism in the recruitment processes, another in emphasising the role of pressure groups on company shareholders. Overall, the discourse shed light on a unique set of tools to apply in the private sector to inspire social and political change.
The Global South vs Global North
"Slavery was so inherent in the US society that after its formal abolition, the legacies of racism were ever so present." -Pf Muhammad.
The last noteworthy topic raised by the conversation was the reference to the Global South vs Global North theory. The conversation established a link between colonialism of the past to explain the racism of the present. The fundamental premise was that whilst the North benefited from colonialism, today it does not take enough responsibility for the reality of its past. The colonialist ambitions of the North utilised slavery as a capitalist tool which exploited the profits from slavery to establish a global hierarchy. A hierarchy is still prevalent today.
According to Prof. Muhammad, even as the practices of slavery were abolished, racism transferred and institutionalised itself in other social aspects. Slavery was so inherent in the US society that after its formal abolition, the legacies of racism were ever so present. This argument binds colonialism and racism to explain the current day global inequality. It also functions as a new way to understand racism in a broader view regarding global trends, international relations, and the historical significance of racism in shaping the current day world.
The strength of this discussion rests in its ability to explain current day developments. It outlined the historical aspects of racism that had become institutionalised and called for more education in the field. It touched upon the effects of racism in shaping US democracy by evaluating the social and political impact of ongoing electoral legislation and judicial influence. Without a doubt, the debate on racism has been long overdue, and the need for such debate is only escalated by ongoing racial inequality in the US justice system. Prof. Muhammad had done a fantastic job at outlining the historical explanation for the current day institutionalised racism within US democratic and justice systems.
Notwithstanding the praise, the event had a sole and obvious limitation – it only had one speaker. This is a missed opportunity, as an additional speaker from a more practical field would add an important insight into the functionality of the topics raised or offer alternative explanations to further formulate the discussion.
The final takeaway from this event is that the fight to tackle institutionalised racism is far from over in the US. Despite the historic efforts, racism still affects the core democratic principles and has major implications at judicial levels. Furthermore, society as a whole needs to act far more collectively to challenge racism, while the Global North needs to do more to acknowledge the impact of history in shaping the economic disparities of today.
Marjan graduated with an MSc in European and International Politics from the University of Edinburgh and MA in Central and East European Studies and Politics from the University of Glasgow. His research interests include European Foreign and Development Policies, Security, and Political developments in Eastern Europe with a specific focus on Russia and Ukraine.
Featured image by Peinture À L'Huile - Image gratuite sur Pixabay