San Francisco sits on the Hayward Fault. Eighty percent of the city was destroyed in 1906 by an earthquake. Los Angeles is near the San Andres Fault. A 2006 study found that a massive earthquake on the southern section of the Fault would cause significant damage throughout Southern California, including Los Angeles.
Neither the Hayward nor the Andreas Fault can be repaired. From time to time there are tremors. Preventive measures have been taken in most cities on top of the faults. But if “The Big One” occurs – an earthquake of over 7.0 on the Richter scale - there will be considerable loss of life and damage.
The United States sits on a societal fault line. It is called slavery. Since the 1861-1865 Civil War, there have been tremors. To name just a few in recent history: 1965 Watts; Summer 1967 – when there were 159 riots across America; 1968 - all over the country following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; 1992 - Los Angeles following Rodney King beating; 2014 Ferguson, Missouri - after shooting of Michael Brown and 2014 - New York after the choking death of Eric Garner. And there have been many, many more outbreaks of protests against racial injustice in the United States.
The fault line of slavery is still in the United States more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves and the 13th Amendment officially ended slavery. Injustices remain. Just look at the statistics of who died from Covid-19 or jobless numbers.
Is there a Richter scale to measure racial protests? Is there a way of judging how each of the protests against racism advanced the cause of justice? Each protest was followed by a period of hope. But anger and frustration remain. There have been tremors but no major earthquake.
Is the killing of George Floyd the Big One? Is this the moment when the foundation of racial separation will crumble? We know that in the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the Court ruled that “separate-but-equal” education and other services were not, in fact, equal at all. But de jure decisions by courts and laws passed by Congress, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, are not the same as de facto integration. They are necessary but not sufficient.
"A house divided against itself cannot stand,” President Abraham Lincoln said in 1858, arguing that a country built on the fault line of slavery will always be subject to tremors and earthquakes. The United States, according to Lincoln, could not survive on the fault line of slavery.
How to repair the original fault? Unlike South Africa after apartheid, the United States has never had an official Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While it could be argued that the Civil War ended slavery, there has never been a full reckoning of the role of slavery in the American experience. There have been calls for reparations; see the untiring work of political activist Roger Wareham and his colleagues. But the original sin has never been absolved. No penitence has been pronounced.
This latest tremor could be a beginning of a major rectification of the original fault. It could be The Big One in a positive sense. A new generation is taking over. More whites are participating in the marches. The historic demonstrations in places like Selma, Alabama, are being replaced by social media gatherings of protests throughout the United States. And this time there are marches against racism throughout the world. Black Lives Matter has become a global movement.
Deconstructing the movement is important. What started as protest against the police killing of George Floyd has expanded to include protests against police violence in general as well as the socioeconomic situation of Blacks. While the tipping point has been the video of the officer kneeling on the neck of Floyd, the protests have included much more. Calls for social justice include discrimination in jobs, housing and education.
The inclusiveness of the protests in form and content give reason for hope. But they also give cause for concern. Beyond anger and frustration, specific steps must be taken. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a legal step forward. But more than legal actions are needed.
When the American football player Colin Kaepernick protested against racial injustice by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem in 2016 he became a center of media attention and also something of a pariah. Although a successful quarterback, Kaepernick was not hired by any team. Owners and league officials condemned him. Now apologies are coming in. Kneeling has become an accepted form of protest, including police and members of Congress.
Are these protests The Big One? No, they won’t repair the fault line or overcome the legacy of slavery. Will they make a positive difference? Past protests have come and gone. Progress has been very small, if any. But this time there is energy from a new generation, without a leader like Martin Luther King Jr. but with social media. Schools have become more integrated. There have been societal changes following demographic shifts.
For those of another generation who had their hopes raised on other occasions – think of the election of Barack Obama only to be followed by the election of Donald Trump – there is reason to be hesitant. Please show me that this is really The Big One.
This article also appeared in the Geneva Observer