‘Conditions were ripe for a moment like this’: How current protests expose deeper racial inequalities

UChicago scholar analyzes social context of global demonstrations against police violence

For more than a week, protests have erupted in response to the death of George Floyd, one of the latest in a long list of black people killed by police. But these protests have been unusual in their duration and intensity, spreading not only across the United States but around the world.

To University of Chicago scholar Reuben Jonathan Miller, the current demonstrations highlight how protests function as a response to systemic racial inequality—as “unrest in the face of state failure.”

A sociologist and assistant professor at the School of Social Service Administration, Miller focuses his research on the intersections of race, poverty, crime control and social welfare policy. He has written extensively about the ways in which policing shapes the lives of black Americans and the urban poor.

Miller discusses the broader social context of the protests in the following Q&A.

From the perspective of what you study, how do you explain these protests?

One must understand that unrest comes from instances of the state’s failure to protect and provide for its most marginalized. There are many different forms of rebellion, from peaceful protests to loud and passionate protests, to what people would call violent—including things like smashing windows of corporate entities. But even the stores that are being robbed speaks to a social condition. There are people stealing food, which says something. These kinds of things are part and parcel of what happens during rebellion. This is not new. It’s new in its scale, maybe. The international scale of this is novel, but the actions themselves are the same.

When you look at perception of the protests right now, what do you think is missing from the narrative?

Right now, we’re focusing on looting and broken store windows. That’s important to consider, especially given that small shops are also being robbed. People spend a lifetime building enough wealth to do that. Black wealth is scant and fleeting. We see black people lose wealth in a generation. When they gain it, they’re much more likely to lose it. Wealth doesn’t protect in the same way.

I am not saying that people should violently protest; I’m saying that violent protests matter if we think about the kinds of social change that are brought about. People are going outside of state-sanctioned authorities because the state is breaking its own laws. This is unrest in the face of state failure to protect from police, which is a group that folks should not need protection from. Activists are not saying: “Violence is just fine.” But what they are saying is: “Rage is just fine. Your anger is just fine, if your anger is directed the right way.”

Your forthcoming book, Halfway Home: Race, Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration, is based on more than a decade of work with incarcerated people. How can that research help us understand the roots of the current protest?

The ideas we hold about guilt and innocence bring us to these kinds of moments. Groups of people are allowed to be treated poorly because there’s a presumption of guilt—for black people generally, and certainly for people who were formerly incarcerated. People in the workforce, people in government, police, landlords, licensing officials—all are given license to disregard those with criminal records. They’re given license to cast them to the side. Incarcerated people and formerly incarcerated people have been pushing against these kinds of things for years—not just police brutality, but the questions of justice.

Black communities have been silenced. You raise a complaint about unemployment, and the response is that the problem is you. “You didn’t have the right skills. You didn’t maximize your potential.” We’ve been stuck in a market-based language of opportunity, skills and training. This idea that, if I invest in my own capital, I’ll be able to move up and through the world. But the problem is exclusion. These families have been silenced. They haven’t been heard until this protest, until the world has said: “I hear you.”

George Floyd was not the first black person to be killed by police. Why do you think his death has sparked a much larger response?

Everything happens within a social context. We have a pandemic. That’s the obvious elephant in the room, where black people are dying at alarming rates. The pandemic has exposed to folks who have always known, and revealed to people who perhaps didn’t know, the depths of racial inequality in the United States. Chicago, Detroit—you can go to many other cities, and the people most likely to die of COVID-19 are black. People hear the response: ‘Oh, the reason for that is your preexisting conditions. The problem is you.’ But then they see people going to the hospital and being turned away. So, people are seeing this in real time.

And with the pandemic comes an economic crisis. You have black unemployment. In a boom-or-bust economy, black unemployment is always twice that of white unemployment. Black people are watching their cities change. We’ve watched Chicago empty out of its black population. Murder clearance rates by police have not changed. We’ve watched homicide rates drop at the city level and at the national level, but they’ve stayed steady at the neighborhood level—meaning homicide rates remain stubborn in poor neighborhoods where most homicides happened to begin with.

With George Floyd, there was a very long video where we watched a man die. You see the callous nature of his killers, the callous disregard for human life expressed in that video. And it happens in short succession, from Ahmaud Arbery and then Breonna Taylor in that same week. All in the shadow of Philando Castile, and Sandra Bland, and Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald.

When you also consider the resentment from years and decades of mistreatment, at some point, these conditions align to create a powder keg. The conditions were ripe for a moment like this.

What are you going to be paying attention to as the protests continue?

On the public policy front, I’m looking at local institutions. I’m interested to see who gets invited to which tables, under which circumstances. There will be oversight boards enacted. Will they look to include not only black leadership, but everyday black people? What are the ways that the police respond? It’s an unprecedented moment given its scale—not in the regularity of police violence, but the scale of the revolt and how people have responded to it. We’re in this moment where we can reimagine what the future looks like. The pandemic was also raising these questions. In the same way, I’m wondering if institutions will take advantage of the flexibility that this moment offers.

I’m also interested in how young people—middle schoolers to people in their early 20s—think about their place in the American democratic project. How will they think about civic life and civic engagement and their place in the world?

Why is it important right now to consider young people in particular?

I’m interested in what they take from this moment, because I’m interested in what political life will look like in the next 20 to 30 years. For those who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement, there were many victories, but the most important was the franchise and the protection of the franchise. There became these official, bureaucratic ways to level complaints against institutions that cause you harm, and to call for protections from the state. The relief is through these bureaucratic forms.

This generation is saying that those mechanisms have failed us. They fail to recognize our humanity. I think this generation is calling for a radical reimagination of what it means to be in the world, and to be a full participant in the political community. “The bureaucratic institution doesn’t work; I’m going to take to the street.” There’s a different ethic that drives it.