The convergence of COVID-19 and protests against police violence have created a singular cultural moment. Social historian Earl Lewis—the Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy, and the director of the Center for Social Solutions—assesses the long series of events that have brought us here and how our history can help us move forward.
Lewis is the founder and the director of the Center for Social Solutions, which nurtures research and partnerships that address urgent social problems. Their work is focused around four pillars—water insecurity, the dignity of labor in an automated world, diversity and democracy, and slavery and its aftermath.
The way we frame these last few months, from COVID-19 and its aftermath to the protests against police violence, will have a big effect on the way we think about them. As a social historian, how do you view them?
Earl Lewis: COVID-19 has done something that we've never seen before: It has slowed the world. In a digital moment where everything moves with the click of a mouse and you can send information across the world in a matter of seconds, it forced us to slow down. We got to see the ways in which people we had once thought were marginal were essential. It was not just the doctors and the nurses who were essential, but also the postal carriers and mail sorters, the food clerks, and folks working at a series of other jobs. People who were able to work from home could see that they were able to because somebody was at that meat packing plant and the Amazon warehouses.
As the level of interdependence became much clearer, the inequities and inequalities did too—not just in the risk of exposure, but in the overrepresentation of Black and Brown people dying from COVID-19, particularly in major cities. There were co-morbidity factors like hypertension and diabetes, but there was also of the legacy of slavery: inadequate access to health care and the added burdens, psychological and physical, of being one paycheck away from being dispossessed of something as basic as a home.
And then you add on this searing image of George Floyd having his life taken away from him. And for what? Michael Milken, the financier who was convicted of insider trading and spent time in jail, is now back and making repentance for all he did. We're talking about millions of dollars and not an allegedly forged $20 bill. Bernie Madoff robbed millions of their life savings, and he too got his day in court. No one put a knee on his neck and exterminated him in plain view. One can pull a thread from Emmett Till in 1955 to George Floyd in 2020, through 65 years of America supposedly getting better, and see that certain humans are viewed as less valuable than others. They pay an ultimate penalty for what looks like a minor transgression in the broader context
And it's the power of seeing all of this, the weight of a moment. Black Lives Matter is more than a catch phrase. It’s a way of organizing communities and framing some fundamental questions about police and policing.
Now the question is, what kind of movement can we sustain? The sad truth of the matter is, of course, that George Floyd won't be the last to be killed for what seems like a minor transgression. Can we reform policing in America without reconstructing America? That’s the question I keep asking.
This does feel like a familiar cycle: a high profile case of police brutality followed by protests that get a lot of media attention and don’t progress any farther. What does it take to enact change?
EL: At some point we need to actually feel the pain, the hurt, and the anger. If you can’t or don't feel, you are not inclined to actually do something in the long run because it remains an intellectual exercise.
This may be our moment for a truth-and-reconciliation project for the United States. We have never been able to do that, and I think, in fact, that some people don't want the truth. The notion of reconciliation will require us to deal not only with the sin of slavery, but with the sin of confiscating native lands and all that entails. Perhaps we can make sure that this moment is not lost so we won’t be having this conversation again in 5 or 10 years about another incident because we didn't have the strength and willpower to do what’s necessary now.
There has been an interesting juxtaposition between people who are protesting the stay-at-home mandates and people protesting against police violence. Some protestors are championed as patriots while others are depicted as anti-American thugs. How do you interpret that divide?
EL: I'm scheduled to teach a course on African American history this fall, and, at some point in the semester, I'm sure I will use two images: one of the Black Panthers marching on the state capitol in California in the 1960s with their guns over their shoulders and another of militia groups walking on the state capitol in Lansing with their faces covered in 2020.
The divide tells the story about race, and the ghost of slavery that does not go away. California called the Panthers a terrorist organization. I don't know if the state of Michigan has declared these militias are terrorist organizations. It certainly hasn't done so publicly. The way the militias were treated was far more gentle than the treatment peaceful protesters have suffered in the numerous peaceful protests in cities around the country where the police reacted far more violently toward them.
As allies to the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of white people have called out the need for white people to acknowledge their privilege. I understand the motivation and the sentiment behind it, but I haven’t seen much articulation about what owning white privilege actually means or seen the effects of white people owning their privilege. How do you view the idea of white privilege in this moment of social unrest?
EL: The idea of white privilege has probably always been there, but it has only been labeled as such for the last decade and a half. I’ve been trying to figure out the difference between white privilege and white power. I think white privilege may be too easy. It almost assumes that if white people would only check their privilege, that’s somehow all that’s required. If they're cognizant of their privilege, if they check their privilege, then the world will be equal.
In my view, let people say they can check their privilege, but make sure that they actually interrogate their power: the power to set the norms and to create the rules, to create the narrative, and to shape the tropes. All of those pieces get intertwined in a story about privilege, but I actually think it's fundamentally a story about power. So I’d like people to not just check their privilege, but to examine their power too.
The protests that we've seen across the country include people of different races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds coming together. At the same time, with COVID-19, we're physically separated and have been for what feels like a long time. Do you have any thoughts or historical lessons about unity that might apply to this period that we are living through?
EL: I think in a certain way, independent of the protests, COVID-19 reminds us of our commonalities. Some communities were certainly more vulnerable to it, but it’s not a disease that discriminates. It killed a whole lot of Chinese people before it came to Europe and the United States. We know it is killing thousands in Brazil, and vulnerable populations across the African continent. We can see its devastation in India, and even Russia. Social media, the John Hopkins COVID-19 site, and many others all remind us that there's a common enemy out there that can take anyone out.
We’re all living in a period of ambiguity, and I’ve noticed how many people really hate ambiguity. They can't deal with it, but I think that's our common future for this next period, and I think that comes back to the shared humanity too. The virus’s risk is a certainty, but it brings along a lot of ambiguity that’s difficult for a lot of us.
But the wanton killing of someone for a minor transgression has no ambiguity. Philando Castile was killed even after telling the police officer, I have a gun here and I have a license to have a gun. Let me show you the license. That was enough for the officer to pull the trigger. Was that officer properly trained? No. But more than that, I think the officer was scared, that a Black man’s body produced fear in him.
It doesn't help when politicians claim some people are good people and others are bad. It gives people in authority a license to discriminate, and in a way that can be lethal. So in some odd kind of way, the coronavirus may have actually made us aware of our shared humanity a little more. When leaders don't end up demonstrating empathy, the people are left to insist that the collective is the only way that we can produce change.
That sounds like an optimistic note.
EL: Most people who believe in social movements are optimists. If you don't believe that a place can be better, you tear it up. But if you believe that we have not yet realized the best part of ourselves, you may have some hope for trying to figure out how to build it up.
In some ways, I would argue that the Black Lives Matters movement has been an optimistic movement from the beginning because these were young people who were trying to figure out how to build something rather than to tear it apart. And if we are smart, we will treasure and nurture that impulse rather than demonizing it. And I can only hope we're smart enough.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.