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  • Writer's pictureBrendan Szendrő

Protecting Property, Not People

Recent events show us that the United States' legacies of wealth and racial inequality continue to reverberate in unison.

So far I’ve held off on one of my patented super long political essays because I worried that it wouldn’t really be helpful. I do not want to speak to something I have no first-hand experience with. I also do not want to stay silent over two absolutely shocking issues that are destroying the country, and as a Political Scientist I feel like it would be wrong to say nothing.

The destruction of property, while regrettable, is secondary to both the continued and historical injustice against America’s racial minorities and the erosion of all Americans’ first amendment rights. In fact, the destruction of property doesn’t deserve to be in the same sentence as the destruction of lives. The prioritization of this rhetoric goes hand-in-hand with the cultural construction of racial inequality. We are, however, finally starting to see some cracks in the facade. The longer this incident goes on, the more police repress peaceful citizens, and the interests of black and white protesters start to converge as white folk realize that, as one person told me, “if they can do this to some of us, they can do this to all of us.”

The two main interests are heavily related, primarily by the need to sanitize the upper-middle class American experience. The police, as an institution, have evolved to protect property over people. This means that disturbances to public order meet physically repressive force even if that force endangers more people than it protects. Our country has a lot of inequalities, the most pervasive and destructive of which is that of its racism. That racism acts as the backbone for each of the other major inequalities.

We have undergone a massive shift in this country. Until recent the end of the Cold War,

American cities held notorious reputations for violence and low standards of living. Things

changed when the iron curtain vanished and the world became interconnected. Globalization

converted the country’s major cities into tourist spaces. This meant that the wealthy, safe

areas became wealthier and safer, and the poorer areas became further isolated.

In order to maintain a safe space for upper middle-class vacationers, the police grew increasingly militaristic and hellbent on protecting the wealthy spaces from any potential harm. Times Square, for example, went from a drug- and prostitution-filled haven of porno theaters to one of the most kid-friendly spots in the world — a change overseen by a strong-arming police force.

Now, it so happens that the poor, isolated areas of the cities that are becoming poorer and increasingly isolated are majority black. “So happens,” not by chance, of course, but because of a long history of segregation and discrimination, both overt and under-the-table.

In the aftermath of desegregation, the City of Chicago set to work to retain racial homogeneity in moneyed areas. Renters, businesses, and even city government refused permits, leases, and basic property rights for black residents, forcing the black residents to live apart from their white peers.

Parts of Chicago have a reputation as a veritable war zone. Today, though, a visit to Chicago’s central loop would never indicate such a thing. Police patrol the main drag of the city for a stretch of a few miles; they don’t go into the black neighborhoods, but they don’t really let anyone from those neighborhoods into the city center.

In 2019, I snuck away from a Political Science conference and walked around the city. “The white people are scared of us,” a local resident told me, “So the police make sure we don’t get to close. They don’t go more than two blocks in either direction.”

The same goes for quite a few other cities. In my own personal experience, I see the worst police brutality in areas where black residents step into tourist-heavy areas. In Boston, for example, I saw police beat a young black man unconscious across the street from Fenway Park.

Politics is mostly about coalitions. For most of this country’s history, the dominant coalition has been between urban whites and rural whites. Together, these two factions are large enough to shut out most other interests, at least on the national stage.

It is true that urban and rural whites have had their differences. Some have argued that forced industrialization was the "true cause" of the Civil War. To be clear: the first and last cause of The Confederacy was slavery; they resisted industrialization because it would have forced an end to this obviously corrupt institution.

I say “obviously corrupt” because decades before The Civil War, many prominent slave owners saw the writing on the wall, and sought to kick the can down the road just long enough so that they could die before they faced the music. The most obvious and unfortunate of these, of course, being George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

The Founding Fathers were born into a slave-owning classes. Some of them were pro-slavery; some of them had renounced it and freed their own slaves. Washington and Jefferson are obvious stand-outs because they tried to play both sides of the coin — renouncing it without giving it up — and that’s what the progressives in this country have done ever since.

Jefferson famously stated that “I tremble for my country when I remember God is just.” His initial anti-slavery clauses in the Declaration of Independence were stricken by his peers. As part of the compromise between the pro, anti and “middling” factions on slavery, the founders avoided using any mention of the word “slave” or any reference to a person’s race in The Constitution. They believed — some of them even hoped — that the institution would die out, and those clauses wouldn’t be relevant.

As Abraham Lincoln said, they intended that in the distant future there would be no record that anyone had ever been enslaved in a country that proclaimed itself free. The notorious three-fifths clause in The Constitution goes out of its way not to mention race or slavery, referring instead to “free persons and all other persons.”

The Confederacy seceded, at its heart, because of a repudiation of the belief that the institution would and should die out. In the aftermath of The Civil War, the give-and-take between urban and rural whites halted the black community’s attempts at progress. The coalition between the two gave them free reign to subjugate America’s black population by other means.

There is an elitism by urban whites towards rural whites, and a disadvantage rural folk face regardless of their race; none of this excuses the history of violent repression of a group of people based on their race, especially in a country that supposedly prides itself on its freedom.

The elitism of urban whites has often become a rallying cry for Confederate sympathizers; some of them, I think, are honestly just ignorant and willing to turn a blind eye towards injustice in favor of their own personal indignation. But the architects of this excuse are bad faith actors who want to keep white supremacy legitimized.

The callousness of urban whites towards black folk, and the outright hostility of rural whites, combined with the obsession of sanitizing American life, has had a disastrous effect on the black community. It has prevented the equalization that would have rendered the question of race as irrelevant as the other questions of the past.

I do think the inequality between urban and rural whites, and the inequality between upper and lower class whites, does in part explain the reticence to addressing the issue of race. As long as there is a permanent underclass, the disadvantage by the lower class whites is less. Rural and working-class whites fear that equalization for the black community might put them at the bottom of the hierarchy.

It is true that there are worse countries out there, but that’s not an excuse. Americans love to pat themselves on the back for not being as bad as, say, Communist China, or The Islamic Republic of Iran, or “failed” states like Somalia, when we are the only developed country on Earth that has this kind of inequality and violence. And yet we pride ourselves on our “freedom.”

Since the inception of the country, America has succeeded in following the Jefferson route — ostensibly opposing oppression but kicking the can down the road to avoid a permanent fix to the problem. Race shouldn’t be relevant in The United States, but it is. And it will be until there is a real reckoning on the issue.

I want the country to survive — but that means it has to adapt. What we’re doing isn’t working. If I can help, I'd like to do so; otherwise, my platform is less important than that of the people suffering.

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