America in 2020: Interview with Dr. Polak

A few weeks ago BAISmag asked the student body if they had any questions about 
the current situation in the United States for the interviewee Sara Polak. 
This is the resulting interview. 

What is the scale of the current Black Lives Matter movement, in comparison to other previous equality movements?

That’s a difficult question to answer, because unlike the more classical civil rights organizations from the 1960s like SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) or SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference), BLM is not a formal organization with members; it’s primarily, a hashtag, a movement that is mobilized through a hashtag.

#BLM started in 2014 with the Ferguson protests. The current upsurge is part of the ongoing civil rights movement, which started under slavery and evolves constantly, like a tidal wave. One thing that is shifting perhaps, is allyship. There is an increasing awareness among particular groups of whites, that saying that you are against racism or that black lives matter is not enough. It is now a question of how to achieve equity and how to get rid of the institutional racism that is increasingly hard to deny exists.

Some describe the BLM movement as novel but is the current energy of the BLM comparable to the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement?

Black Lives Matter has less visible leaders than the Civil Rights Movement did in the 1960s. This is perhaps wise, because Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were both murdered because of their visibility as civil-rights leaders. The BLM movement has a less hierarchical structure. On the other hand MLK and Malcolm X too were a part of a much larger movement in which many people, including many women, did a lot of organizational and managerial work. They have been historicized as leaders. The work of a wide variety of activists is more easily acknowledged now, in a post-digital culture, which allows for a more bottom-up structure, as things go viral and incite action. The communication strategy and routes are very different compared to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

However, protesters, then and now, are aware that the protests will be in the media. For example, you can find clips on social media of some people looting shops and then BLM leaders urging them to stop, because they are aware that this provides an image that will immediately be weaponized by opponents. Anyone can post a video and it can go viral, without a journalist or network “signing off” on it. At the same time, Martin Luther King too used the fact that demonstrations ending in confrontations with the police, would be front page news. So there is change, but also continuity.

In response to protests, police and other security personnel do not seem to differentiate between press and demonstrators. What implications does this have?

The Trump administration generally views the press as the enemy, so protesters and journalists are effectively in the same boat even though they have different agendas. At the same time, the distinction between press and others is changing – anyone can film what’s going on, and doing so – exposing, for instance, police violence – is part of being an activist.

America’s history with racism differs from other countries, however, the BLM movement has gained traction in various countries across the globe. Considering the different histories, why has the movement also caught on in Europe?

Of course racism in the US has historically played out differently than in Europe, but both come from the same source: European colonialism. However, from a white European perspective it is easy to think of as something that ‘happened over there’. It wasn’t on ‘our’ soil that slavery, for instance, was very visibly present, whereas in the US, it’s everywhere in the landscape.

When considered from an African-diaspora viewpoint, however, there is an intuitive solidarity and shared history between Europeans and Americans with African heritage, that is, perhaps, more important than the history they share with white Europeans or white Americans.

So events in the US such as the murder of George Floyd feel directly relevant to black communities everywhere. The same kind of racist violence is easily recognizable in Europe. Here [in the Netherlands] the police are far less militarized and police officers need to worry less about people carrying guns. But institutional racism in the police force is not necessarily less serious here. In the US you have a three times higher chance to die under arrest if you are not white than if you are; in the Netherlands this factor is something like eleven, which suggests institutional racism plays a role here. And aside from the issue of deathly violence, here too non-white people are exposed to racist incidents, leaving them to wonder: ‘Am I imagining this or is this racist?’, and often gaslighting themselves to give others the benefit of the doubt.

The public discourse about racism and its background is more developed in the US. The idea for instance that it is possible to be “colorblind”, has been discredited in the US long before it was in Europe. If you are one of the very few people of color somewhere, you can’t ‘not see color’, and it’s a privilege of the white ‘neutral’ majority to think that you can. In the US there is more language with which to discuss race, and more awareness that it’s socially constructed and that racism is expressed through structures.

Do you think these current events will impact the upcoming elections?

I am hesitant to make any predictions. There are currently many wildcards: these huge protests, but also the COVID crisis, and the questionable health and unpopularity of both candidates. All these factors also make it hard to predict voter turnout, which is a huge factor.

How might these domestic events affect the US’s role as a hegemon?

The US’s COVID response has been lacking, but the pharmaceutical industry in the US remains very powerful; if a vaccine is developed it will probably come from an American company.

On a separate note, Black Lives Matter does show that, while the US has come to occupy a less hegemonic position economically, Europe and the global North continue to watch closely what is taking place in the US culturally.

Why is economic inequality rarely discussed in national politics?

People don’t take to the streets to protest economic inequality, in part because American culture is very capitalist. There is a dominant narrative that you can always become rich, even if you’re poor now.

Gender and racial inequalities tend to also be more visible. You can’t change your skin-color or gender to avoid discrimination. Economic inequality is more elusive, despite having grown massively.

Moreover, few people believe politics will solve their poverty, but rather think they should start a successful business or have a better employer. The US historically hardly has a culture of unions or collective action. At the same time, both in the US and in Europe there is a tendency, snapped up keenly by some politicians, to scapegoat groups that can be easily seen as “other” – as the ones that are “stealing” the jobs and receiving government support, so that the blame is projected onto these groups, and not on systemic inequities. 

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Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/SFpGiPMDVBwVBw

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Sara Polak is a lecturer at Leiden University, specialized in the region of North America. She has conducted a multitude of academic work within the subject of American history and it’s remembrance, also thematizing the construction of national historical memory.

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DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of BAISmag or BASIS.

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