Issue #13: The Endemic Issue

Published on June 04, 2020
1 Image credit: Bruce Davidson

Hi all,

As the exogenous force of coronavirus has pummeled the globe, America has had its own endemic disease roar to the surface.

On February 23rd, Ahmaud Arbery was chased down while he was on a jog by vigilantes in Georgia and murdered in a terrifyingly modern lynching. Because they are white, because Ahmaud was black, and because Georgia remains a bastion of white supremacy in the United States, Ahmaud’s murderers were initially released and uncharged. It was only after the video became public that any form of criminal proceedings started 74 days after his murder, on May 7th.

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On March 13th, Breonna Taylor, an EMT in Kentucky, was shot eight times in her home after police entered on a “no knock” warrant. As the police did not identify themselves, Breonna’s boyfriend Kenneth Walker thought they were experiencing a home invasion and attempted to defend himself and Breonna. Gun ownership is widespread and legalized in the US, and Kenneth fired at the legs of one of the officers, not knowing it was the police. Breonna Taylor was killed by indiscriminate return fire. Kenneth’s call to emergency services stated “I don’t know what happened … somebody kicked in the door and shot my girlfriend.” Shortly after, he was arrested by the police for assault. The individual the police were searching for was already in police custody when the police invaded Taylor and Walker’s home.

On May 25th, video surfaced of Christopher Cooper, a New York City birder, being verbally attacked by Amy Cooper (no relation) in Central Park. Christopher was birding, and Amy was walking her dog without a leash in a section of the park that requires leashing. When Christopher asked her to restrain her dog, Amy called the police on Christopher and specifically identified him as “African American” in an attempt to express her understanding of power over him as a white woman living in a society founded on white supremacy. Amy’s actions resulted in her losing her dog and her job, as well as her being brigaded online. But in a time before smartphones and online video, Christopher might have lost his life and certainly would have lost his dignity, his freedom, and his security.

Finally, on the same day in Minneapolis, a white police officer had his knee on the neck of George Floyd — choking him to death over the accused use of a counterfeit $20 bill and George’s justified fear of the men who had taken him into custody. The police officer’s knee didn’t move for eight minutes and forty-six seconds as George begged for his life, lost consciousness, and died.

In the week since George Floyd was murdered, protests have started and escalated across the United States and around the world. For example, in Copenhagen 2000 people in Copenhagen marched Sunday in front of the US embassy, a sign of support and outrage against a system that the United States has —unfortunately — come to stand for: white supremacy.

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I write a lot about systems in this newsletter, and how systems come to be influenced, leveraged, and undermined. I believe that the real intersection between design, politics, and international relations is around this capacity to not DESIGN systems (which is hubristic and insane), but rather influence and navigate systems (which we can do both intuitively and intentionally). Trevor Noah articulated the flashpoint of the past month brilliantly, starting with Amy Cooper. “You have this woman who blatantly knew how to use the power of her whiteness to threaten the life of another man and his blackness.”.

Amy Cooper was intuitively leveraging a system of power that is endemic to the United States. Because of the circumstance of her birth, her geography, her genetics, and the history of the country she inhabited; she occupied a space where she could exercise power. Given her acculturation and lack of critical engagement, she understood how she could use that privilege to get what she wanted.

In Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns on the migration of black Americans away from the South between the 1920s and the 1970s, she describes the violence that black Americans faced and that was utterly normalized in that society. Speaking of the period following World War 1, she states “All blacks lived with the reality that no black individual was completely safe from lynching.”

This is the reality of American society that many have tried — in different ways — to heal, to cure, to expunge. The election and widespread popularity of a black American president, the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, abolishing the 13th amendment and banning slavery. These are all incredible and laudable steps, but are they just treatments for something that lies at the very centre of American society? Something that is endemic? What I’ve learned and come to believe over the years is that perhaps this can’t be cured or treated in isolation — instead that the problem cuts across the whole system.

Currently, in America, people are on the streets questioning the very foundation of that system and whether it is actually worth saving. The far left wing of the Democratic Party is asking the same thing — is it time to completely remake the system? Overwhelmingly the protests have been peaceful (which is the ideal and according to scholars like Erica Chenoweth, ultimately a hell of a lot more successful), but I think it’s also important to acknowledge the legitimacy, the rage, the fear, and the trauma that spurs more violent forms of protest and property damage. The razing of a police station after the police murdered an innocent man can be argued as proportional — property can be rebuilt as funded by taxpayers, but a life stolen is lost forever.

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Systems of power and oppression are often parasitic to something more fundamental: powerful actors within those dominating systems irrevocably wrap themselves in the flag, for example. They will insist that to question it is to question other values, peoples, and histories. But it’s more complicated than that. America should be proud of its role in crushing fascism and the Nazis in World War II, while also being ashamed that black American soldiers were lynched for walking with pride upon returning home from the war. Systemic ideals like checks and balances between the governing houses and the rule of law can be lauded for their intention, even if the result included the perpetuation of Jim Crow laws in the South for most of the 20th century, and a defacto or new Jim Crow system through mass incarceration of black Americans,

Anyway. Something has to change. America as a concept and as a country will not collapse if state and local police are held to a higher account. It is not unpatriotic to do everything in your power to destroy the gerrymandered voting system that perpetuates white supremacy in elected offices and violence against black Americans in their policies. And it is absolutely reasonable to insist that black lives matter more than the property, prosperity, and power built through the centuries long perpetuation and continuous reinvention of a racist caste system.

As always, please subscribe to and share Diverge Weekly if you haven’t and send me a note if you have questions or feedback!

See you next Wednesday,
Andrew Lovett-BarronAndrew Lovett-Barron

Security Blanket

Source: US Army, National Archive When Jim Crow Reigned Amid the Rubble of Nazi Germany

I got curious about this while reading of Robert Joseph Pershing Foster’s military service in Germany before and after World War II in The Warmth of Other Suns. His experience sounded like something that was all too common, and unfortunately it was. This article does a good job of reviewing the contribution of black Americans in the war against fascism, and the reality that many white American soldiers brought the norms and expectations of a Jim Crow America with them in their dealings with their fellow soldiers.

It’s worth giving this article a read. I didn’t know a fair bit of this history, and while much of it wasn’t surprising, some of the ways that race and class played into cold war posturing was quite new. Finally, I found this quote summed things up effectively:

“Despite their treatment by white American service members, a number of black troops expressed their preference for life in Germany compared with back home. The percentage of black G.I.s extending their tours of duty in Germany was three times that of white G.I.s.”

Happenings

East Asia

Chinese propagandists seize on George Floyd protests With the return of protests in Hong Kong following new criminal laws tied to HK freedom of expression, the CCP has been facing renewed scrutiny and a trade response from the US state department. But given the Trump administrations predictably poor response to this week’s protests, the CCP is using it as a way to accuse the US of hypocrisy.

South Asia

Between virus and violence: The horror of being Muslim in India Persecution and scapegoating of Muslims in India is nothing new and unfortunately under Modi’s regime, is becoming more violent and vocal. A scary side to this is how India is importing some of the “blood and soil” rhetoric of white supremacy, but applied to Hindus and explicitly excluding India’s substantial Muslim population

Americas

America Is in Crisis Because It Won’t Confront Its Grave Racial Divide This is a thoughtful article from a foreign affairs writer exploring why America is so unable to consider its own systemic failings. Theres some helpful framing and links in here for the curious.

MENA

George Floyd’s killing should give the Arab world pause This article was suggests that some of the problems that have metastasized in America are also a risk across the Arab world through class, religious, sectarian, and racial discrimination.

Africa

George Floyd’s killing touches a nerve with Africans who know police brutality at home and abroad An interesting look at responses to the riots in Africa from the African Union and American diplomats in Africa.

Europe

Clashes break out at Paris’s banned George Floyd-inspired protest France has an divisive history with its migrant communities, many coming from former french colonies in MENA and settling in the Banlieue. This article touches on some of France’s own issues with police brutality and a sense of solidarity with the BLM movement.

Reading Around

The Warmth of Other Suns

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson

I’ve been picking at this book for a little while now. Isabel Wilkerson tells the story of the black American migration away from the south. It takes the lens of three individuals: George Swanson Starling, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster.

Against the backdrop of their efforts to get ahead in a system designed to keep them down, there are vignettes of the violence and humiliation experienced by all black Americans in the south. Sadly, some of those experiences and stories sound familiar even today.

I’m only about halfway through the book right now, and already wish I had read it years earlier. Give it a read or a listen.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

Global Design Jobs

Design for Racial Justice

Senior Graphic Designer, Color of Change Located in various US cities

Color of Change is a civil rights organization supporting political campaigns focused on black activism. It’s an example of the kind of infrastructure and organizing needed to affect change, and everything I’ve heard of it has been positive. If you’re interested in making a difference and you have the skills, I’d recommend submitting an application

Design for Remittance

Head of Product Design, WorldRemit Located in London

Remittances power an important chunk of the global economy, with migrant workers and diaspora communities sending earned wages home to their families who often can’t join (this is kind of a gross oversimplification, but…). World Remit is a for-profit company founded by a former UNDP officer, and works across 115 countries.

We find a lot of our postings on the incredible Design Gigs for Good board.
Give it a look!

Knowsi

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Bruce Davidson is a photographer who embedded in black communities during the Civil Rights movement. His work is beautiful, important, but controversial. The “Critical Reception” part of his wikipedia page is a treat.