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OP-ED: A lesson from Black Lives Matter

  • Published at 07:43 pm June 10th, 2020
WEB_Minneapolis protest
Reuters

This could be the beginning of a series of positive changes on a global scale

Two weeks ago, a white police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota for almost nine minutes while he gasped for air and kept saying: “I can’t breathe,” “I can’t breathe.” He could not scream. The video of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, being murdered while people nearby screamed at the police officers shook everyone to their core. The three words “I can’t breathe” resonated with people from all races and creeds to an epochal level, and now millions of people all over the world are out on the streets demanding justice, demanding change.

It was only a matter of time that people could no longer look away from the rotting, ugly truths of our collective consciousness. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed the stark contrast between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the have-nots, to the bone -- something that we considered to be part of our lives or “normal.” The murder of George Floyd worked as a catalyst to take people’s anger, frustration, and grief to a breaking point where they could no longer stay home, even during a pandemic. There is no normal anymore because the “normal” we had was the problem itself. 

Racism is not a deep-seated socio-political problem only in the US or the UK, it is a problem everywhere. Black people have been oppressed and discriminated against for hundreds of years, and it is still ingrained in every layer of the social, economic, and political systems. Racism and white supremacy are systematic and institutionalized, which cemented the discriminating norms with the underlying message that white lives matter more. 

In South Asian countries, racism exists in the form of untouchability and we discriminate against people based on their religion, caste, ethnicity, and yes, even skin colour. The obsession with fair skin, which is still promoted by the entertainment industry, cosmetics companies, and society in general, is nothing but a gross residue of white supremacy left behind by the British colonizers in the Indian sub-continent.

Discrimination and social exclusion look quite different in Bangladesh with the precedent set by our history, economy, and culture. The religious minorities, ethnic and indigenous communities, social outcasts like differently-abled people, Bede, Harijan (sweepers), Bihari, sex workers, transgender community -- they are the ones who are systematically oppressed time and again. 

Untouchability is still a barrier that people from certain excluded communities like Rishi, Harijan, and Bede have to overcome in the remote parts of the country. And the most vulnerable among these groups of people are the ones who are poor or extreme poor. 

Let’s not forget the beggars and floating people -- the poorest of the poor, the destitute, abandoned elderly people, street children, single mothers in the slums -- all these vulnerable groups of people can barely make ends meet, and often forced to lead inhumane lives. Like everywhere else in the world, the inequality between the richest 5-10% and the rest of the country is increasing exponentially. Many organizations and civil society continuously work on these issues. Then why do so many people still not have a dignified human life? 

As Trevor Noah recently said in his show, the protests in the US may have been sparked by one killing in one American city but if you are a black person, a minority, or poor anywhere in the world, you know that the system is designed to keep you down, with violence if necessary. 

Even in the black community, the people who bear the brunt of the systemic oppression and discrimination are the ones who are poor. Black Americans died of Covid-19 at three times the rate of white people because of systemic racism. It is always the most disadvantaged people who bear the brunt of any natural or human-made crisis. 

The Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 is revolutionary because it is making people take a hard look at themselves and ask: “I am not a racist but am I complacent? Am I ignoring the problem because I have certain privileges? Is it enough to think that I am not part of the problem and not speak up?” 

And they are realizing that they need to re-evaluate their thinking process. The movement is creating spaces for a new type of dialogue between many unlikely groups of people all around the globe. And it is not only the black people who are on the streets demanding a change; everyone is showing support either on the streets or on social media -- black, white, Asian, South Asian, and more. 

This could be the beginning of a series of positive changes at a global scale against systemic oppression. Many of us have never seen anything like this before in our lifetime. We are so used to the neoliberal world that we believe this is just how things work but now, more and more people are questioning the established ways of life. 

Why is it so difficult to afford a decent life? Why are narcissistic, manipulative people rewarded and groomed by companies? Why are women not believed or respected when they speak up? Why aren’t the big corporations forced by the law to make their businesses truly sustainable for the environment and the people? Are the governments really “of the people, by the people, for the people?” Why should the rich get richer and poor get poorer? 

One thing we can take away from Black Lives Matters is to continue questioning the power structure, take up space, and demand changes in an organized manner. And maybe have a little more empathy.

Sabrina Miti Gain is a social policy researcher.