The year 2020 hasn’t been easy. But the challenges that are blistering the world’s skin today are mostly not because of 2020. Even the pandemic. For the pandemic itself is less of a problem than the underlying long-standing vulnerabilities—socio-economic gaps and systemic lack of investments—which have brought the world to its knees.
So, these problems are centuries old and decades-long. The start of June 2020 is flooding with unbelievable images of civilians looting on the streets amidst an ongoing global lockdown.
One of the richest zip codes of the region I now live in (pictures from where, at any other time, would show Rodeo drive-esque shops and manicured waterfronts) had people breaking glass panes and getting ‘lathi’ charged. Something I didn’t think I would ever see in Scottsdale, Arizona.
What is causing this? Is it the brutal, suffocating knee of a white police officer on the neck of a black man who had his hands tied behind his back? Or is it the disproportionate death and incarceration of black men and the systemic racism via impunity that has disadvantaged the black community in the US for ages?
Not really. Like the corporate policies that make retaliation and gender discrimination illegal, but not really, for in practice they keep on happening.
Illegal, but impossible to prove in court unless as blatant as a video of cold-blooded murder in broad daylight. Worthy to note here, the accused officer in the particular case in point (now charged with murder) might still be acquitted, despite the video.
It has happened in numerous cases prior. One quick google search on ‘white officers acquitted post wrongful or questionable death of black men’ will prove this, as will a read up on Eric Garner (the other man who had died in a police choke-hold pleading ‘I can’t breathe’) and off-course the acquittal of George Zimmerman which started the Black Lives Matter movement).
What is causing this explosion today is pent-up suffocation forced into climaxing by an inciting incident. An incident severe enough to destabilize a delicately balanced fulcrum.
Just like Nirbhaya in 2012, India. A problem known to all—tolerated or ignored—the ones not directly affected, desensitized—not worth fighting for until a tipping point is reached.
The problem is, tipping points are tremendous, but have high human costs. More importantly, they are unsustainable and don’t lead to permanent, effective change. That is exactly why outrages have happened, yet court verdicts continue to acquit officers in the US, and rapists in India.
Let’s take the image of racial injustice for a second and put that against the images of migrant laborers walking miles—dying by the side of the roads or at railway stations. Are the images very different? Not really.
Differential treatment (which is tolerated and accepted as differentiated fate) vetted to humans by fellow humans, institutions of a nation, and really, what might seem like the entire universe (e.g. black men have a significantly lower life expectancy from even nonviolent health ailments owing to systemic lack of care and lifestyle—just like the global poor; the recent COVID outbreak in NYC and its disproportionate effect on certain communities) can be because of skin color, bank balance, gender, or last name.
Just like the US knows that its black community is severely disadvantaged and discriminated against, India knows the same of her poor. We know the informal segment and their plight well — from our maids to men we see cleaning streets and climbing on bamboo poles.
But we are tolerant, waiting for images to shake our conscience. Waiting for a tipping point. Higher the desensitization and devaluation of life, more severe and shocking the inciting incident needs to be for dams to break.
But just like social justice—without systemic development of culture and behavior—has remained and will remain elusive once the dust settles.
So, the real opportunity here is not to “not be bothered by George Floyd’s death because it’s far away and we have bigger problems to care about”. Nor is it to “be bothered about racial justice overseas by placing a higher price on life and values overseas vs. inland”.
The real opportunity is to use the mirror that’s reflecting an image to shine a light on inequality in every form that we tolerate and propagate daily. If we develop intolerance to the same, without needing a trigger, we will cultivate change in behaviour. We will cultivate sustainable change.
So let’s be equally outraged by all of it and see inequality as a singular problem statement without needing the flashlight of a disastrous event.