By Marisa Dinsmoor and Adam Rainbolt
On May 25, Minnesota citizen George Floyd was killed in police custody, sparking nationwide outrage over the issues of police brutality and, on a wider scale, systemic racism. Floyd’s murder followed those of Breonna Taylor (by police) and Ahmaud Arbery (by a citizen who had made prior racist remarks). Although Floyd’s death was the inciting incident in the protests that have raced across the nation, even reaching San Luis Obispo county. Over the past months, the protests continued, leading to further conflict. Recently, we have seen such conflict in Portland, Oregon as federal agents entered the city in opposition to protests and used tactics—particularly arresting protesters in unmarked vehicles—that sparked outrage nationwide. Although this federal force has since departed Portland, they have announced plans to conduct similar operations in other cities throughout the United States according to a story in USA Today. At their core, many protests seek to fight systemic racism. Systemic racism is an issue that has stretched back decades, centuries, and to before the conception of the United States. This issue is not one that is easily digestible, especially to students of Morro Bay High School, many of whom only see racial oppression in the news or perhaps heard it mentioned in a classroom rather than experienced or seen firsthand in our small, isolated communities. What many people in bubble-like communities similar to Morro Bay don’t understand is that this fight against systemic racism has always existed; it didn’t just start out of nowhere. The difference now is that it’s being recorded and shown in the news and online so that millions of people can witness this reality.
This reality, though, is not one that is new, as explained by US History teacher Mr. Kelley. “ Systemic racism has been a part of human culture from the beginning,” he said. This is not a new issue. In the United States, Kelley continued, the beginnings of this can be seen with Spanish and Dutch Imperialism, acts done before anything resembling the United States (or even the Thirteen Colonies) existed, and, of course, with slavery. Racial prejudice, he explained, is “pretty deep-rooted.” It was an idea that is in many ways inextricably tied to the development and evolution of the United States—from its influence on the arguments surrounding the formation of the Constitution to its role in the economy to the division of the North and South to shareholding, Jim Crow laws, and much more. The effect of this, Kelley said, is that “systemic racism in our country is something that has been ingrained in our culture as a cultural norm for centuries.” Although legal equality has been—in theory—realized for decades, prejudice as a cultural norm has unfortunately survived, bringing us to 2020 with the death of George Floyd.
The effects of systemic racism go far beyond police brutality. The policing system was built on the idea of a “slave patrol”, soon after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in the 19th century. Though we have moved on from slavery, racism and the oppression of African Americans has morphed into Jim Crow Laws, segregation, red lining, and currently, mass incarceration and injustices in our criminal justice system. Due to redlining, which is the systematic targeting of communities of people of color to receive less financial resources from federal and local governments, underfunded cities and towns are often those with larger communities of people of color. When a community is underfunded, educational resources and job opportunities suffer. With less opportunities to succeed, crime may be more prevalent.
In US prisons, African American or Black citizens make up 38% of the population (The Color of Justice), whereas they make up only about 13.4% of the country’s whole population (US Census). This is evidence of the systematic targeting of people of color. Furthermore, once convicted a felon, it becomes harder to secure a stable job and lifestyle and many return to prisons for breaking parole, which can be done easily due to the amount of punishable offenses that a felon has. It is difficult for a felon to reenter society as a positively contributing member. It is important to note, too, that systemic racism goes far beyond discrimination against African Americans. There are many marginalized groups within the United States who are similarly affected by racism.
One thing that Kelley highlighted was that “we live in a bubble-world.” Although systemic racism is a reality in modern America, it can sometimes be hard to see from our communities, which are not only generally safe and peaceful but also undeniably not particularly diverse (US Census data from 2019 indicates that African American citizens make up only 2.1% of SLO county’s population). To Kelley, this isolation has led many students to have a level of unawareness of systemic racism. He recalled that in class this is often seen by a lack of understanding of the key historical events that created the road that led to where we are today, such as 1896 court case Plessy v. Ferguson, the Memphis race riots, the economic disruption African Americans faced following World War I, and more. “How familiar are [students] with the Rodney King riots?” he questioned. Because what we are seeing today is part of “a circular pattern,” this context is necessary for understanding how we got here and, Kelley hopes, creating “a generation that does things a little bit better.” Education is a key way to break out of our bubble.
Social media and cameras have had an important role in raising awareness for the issue of systemic racism. Although he made it clear that historical knowledge would lead to a better understanding of the issue, Kelley noted that in the past years he has seen “a growth of understanding of what’s currently going on.” Social media played an important role in how Morro Bay High School students interacted with these events. They felt more angry now that they had seen so much police brutality in the news and on social media, said one student who was involved in recent protests. “At first, I saw the video and was obviously appalled and heartbroken, then the more it was spread around I realized how often I see videos like this and hear similar stories,” they said. They explained further, “being white I have not experienced any discrimination based on the color of my skin, and I was unaware of how prominent it actually was until now.” They credit social media for how widespread the movement is, especially in small towns like in San Luis Obispo county. “Living in a small town, it’s hard to witness great injustices over local news, so it’s hard to stay informed.” Furthermore they described social media as a good way to spread awareness as well as take actions through the form of signing petitions or donating.
When asked about racism at Morro Bay High School, this student said they definitely had witnessed it, whether through jokes or not. “It is never okay in any situation and I always try to make people aware that their intentions may not be harmful, but no matter what someone says you may not know how it really affected them.” They included the possibility that these racist jokes could connect to someone’s underlying prejudice. These jokes may also be linked to the lack of exposure and knowledge about past and current events in our country that deal with racism and discrimintation.
Another serious component of the Black Lives Matter movement is the fact that protests were held in the midst of a pandemic. This student explained that they had seen there was a protest about to happen in SLO county and they felt they needed to do their part and “use their privilege to raise awareness and make a change.” This student described the safety precautions the protestors used to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “We all wore masks, and even during the protest I saw people with signs saying they had hand sanitizer, napkins, water, and masks to give away to other protestors. Their kindness helped make the protest the safe space it needed to be.” It is evident that the stakes of this issue drove people to risk their health, but taking as many precautions as possible, to stand up for what they believe is right.
Even some students who were not seen protesting have become upset over the news of this issue. Another Morro Bay High School student who wished to remain anonymous described their first reaction to hearing about George Floyd as “being a bit confused, because the first time I’d heard the name was through broken pieces of information on social media.” After they got the full story, they were “shocked and horrified.” Although they didn’t attend a protest, they described them as “justified and necessary” to set a standard for a reaction to these injustices and showed our needs for better police training. However, they clarified they were only justified if they are “peaceful and don’t attack or ignore police attempting to keep everyone safe.”
It may be hard to realize the issue of systemic racism from the idyllic world of Morro Bay. The deaths of George Floyd and so many other Black Americans is a tragedy that reveals a pattern of injustice that has been a part of the nation for centuries. The first step to moving away from this cycle to a more equal world—to, as Mr. Kelley hoped, “[doing] it better”—is by educating ourselves about the past and listening to the voices of the present. After that first step of education and awareness is complete, action must begin—through donating, through signing petitions, through protesting, and by whatever ways work for individuals. Through the lens of both history, social media, and action, students can expand their bubble and, hopefully, not only become aware of this issue but begin to work against it.
Learn about systemic racism (Smithsonian Magazine): https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/158-resources-understanding-systemic-racism-america-180975029/
Listen to Black voices (playlist by John Green): https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLMs_JcuNozJb9oaX6KT1l_-T7tZuVU_9X
Look for charities to support (Vox): https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2020/6/9/21281538/how-to-donate-to-black-lives-matter-charity