These weeks see worldwide demonstrations and outcries against racism after the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis as a victim of police violence. What can we do to stop this violence? Which approaches can help to expose racism? What is our own role? It is a real challenge to add here something worth of your time and attention that has not already been said more eloquently and argued more convincingly by others. In my own country a recent report showed more traces of racism exist than Dutchmen would like to admit. Therefore it is not possible to tell others to change, and at the same time not look at your own country.
However, remaining silent is exactly one of the problems around racism. In this post I will try to look at some aspects of racism in the United States connected with law and justice. Just listening to people telling us about the impact of racism is one of the most important steps towards a society where people truly enjoy equal rights. A focus on oral history resources is perhaps closest to my own perspective and knowledge. The ultimate aim of the struggle against racism is to achieve a greater measure of justice for all.
A brief look at the Netherlands
In April 2020 the Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau [Social and Cultural Planning Office] published the report Ervaren discriminatie in Nederland II [Experiencing discrimination in the Netherlands II] (PDF, 2,4 MB) with an English summary. A quarter of the Dutch population indicated they have experiences of discrimination. The degree of discrimination is different for various groups, and this indicates there will not be just a single solution leading to a more inclusive society. The report shows not only people with a different origin perceive discrimination, but their numbers are surely high, and they perceive it stronger than other groups. They mention things such as not getting a job because their name sounds foreign. Buying a house can be difficult when some estate agents accept wishes not invite them as prospective buyers, even when these agents know this kind of discrimination is not allowed. People told they did not get a job because their place of birth is outside the Netherlands.
The Dutch situation does not stem only from a colonial past in the Caribbean and Indonesia. Labor immigrants from North Africa, Turkey and Eastern Europe, too, arrived in my country. Many of them have now a Dutch passport, but they and their children do experience forms of exclusion, just because of their names and the perception people have of them. The single most important matter is probably not being aware at all that people experience this exclusion. You might be tempted to thing outright racism does not exist anymore, but suggestive regards, telling remarks and bad jokes exist. My tiny country with just seventeen million inhabitants can seem a paradise, but it is part of a larger world. It may be hard to believe, but it cannot be denied forms of racism and exclusion exist in the Netherlands, too, and you cannot blame just one political party or whatever organisation for fostering racism. Multiple causes are at work.
Eyes wide open, ears willing to listen
Racism touches individual persons, groups and eventually an entire nation or country. It will not do to state you have no idea of any form of exclusion, inequality, injustice and outright violence. It would mean you think you live somewhere else, in another world. Admitting and acknowledging it happens in the very same world where you live, and perhaps not in your own safe haven, but alas surely in many other places, is a starting point. A second thing is harder to achieve, admitting you have probably distinct blind spots in your perception. On the level of a country this might lead to not understanding almost two nations exist within one country. A third thing is the temptation to think in compartments, with “we” on the good side, and “they” on the other side. A fourth difficulty is the great seduction of either deciding for others or letting the government decide about such people, as if you can create a distance from others, instead of listening first of all to others, to their perceptions, feelings and grievances, to their views about ways of building society and administering justice.
In my study I sit across a cupboard with books. A few years ago I put right behind the screen of my computer at eye height a number of books about justice, as a sign not to forget about justice when studying law and legal history. The things staring in your face can be hard to detect, a fact of life.
When I started thinking about writing as a legal historian about current events I quickly saw some websites providing you with very good overviews of online materials to start studying African-American history. The Library of Congress marks 22 of its 424 digital collections as directly touching this subject. The Digital Public Library of America has 27 primary source sets concerning African Americans. A good starting point is the Black Past portal with its great range of subjects and themes. Its page on research guides and websites for African-American history is most helpful. It is only natural to mention here the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC, and its digital resources guide. Pursuing a road to the history of racism within the history of the United States brings you to institutions and portals such as the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York, Facing History and Ourselves, The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook and the National Council on Public History. Two other museums have to be mentioned here, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, the latter with an oral history project. No doubt some of the websites and projects I mention here figure also in this online overview of Black Digital Humanities Projects & Resources.
Among the organizations issuing statements about racism and the death of George Floyd is also the American Historical Association. The AHA statement has been endorsed by seventy-five scholarly organizations. This statement focuses on the history of police violence, and it urges to learn from history, even if the facts abut structural injustice and ingrained violence are not welcome, because they damage the image people had of America and Americans.
Perhaps you would prefer to use visual resources to tell stories of the position of African-Americans in the United States, the racist behaviour against them and the actions of individuals, organizations, state and federal institutions to change society and uphold human rights in a truly equal way for every American citizen. In my view using oral history brings home the message that people tell stories of their lives, of injustice and humiliation, of their efforts against all odds to change things. Looking at television and listening to radio broadcasts of public networks in the United States can certainly show something else, the relative invisibility of African Americans during many decades. The American Archive of Public Broadcasting is a great resource to pursue this research direction.
At the website of the International Oral History Association you will find a substantial number of links to sites with oral history projects in the United States. The Oral History Association (OHA) is the organization in the USA for oral history. The OHA, too, issued a statement about the death of George Floyd. The OHA gives you a long list of oral history centers in the United States, To give an example, the Minnesota Historical Society (MNH) does work in the field of oral history, in particular within the project Voices of Minnesota. Within this project of the MNH a number of resources concern African-American history. The Minnesota Digital Library is a portal to other projects and collections for Minnesota’s history, and to an oral history transciption style guide. At Minnesota Reflections you can find some 2,000 oral history interviews, the majority of them with texts, a substantial number with recordings and nearly fifty with moving images.
Writing here “moving images” was at first a literal quote from a search by format for oral histories at Minnesota Reflections, but of course the other meaning of moving images is most expressive and powerful. Other words, too, are these days most telling. While preparing this post I was struck by the very name of a project for community history in New York City, Place Matters. The Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University, Montreal, has created Stories Matter Software allowing you to clip, index and export audiovisual recordings to avoid some of the difficulties with transcriptions of interviews. The links list of the center in Montreal is impressive, too. The skills of oral historians, their examples and guides, both in the United States and elsewhere, can help to document also the tragic events in Minneapolis and the reactions of people and institutions.
Listening to the stories about the events in Minneapolis and following the world wide reactions is one thing, pondering their meaning and preserving their memory is important, too, but naturally thoughts go also to ways to tackle racism and exclusion.
Talking from your own position
At the end of this concise post I am very much aware that my overview of resources can seem too detached, taken too much from a virtual helicopter view, as if this would be possible. I am not writing from Olympian heights, but definitively with an ocean between me and America. The news from the United States touched me. I try to think about it, and at the same time I feel emotions, too. In my overview you will notice I gave detailed attention to some resources, other figure only with their name and web address. I tried not to focus only on racism and police violence, and therefore I mentioned first a number of institutions which deal with many aspects of American history.
At my blog I try to look at legal history in its manifold incarnations. Not only positive elements in historical laws, law courts or legal education come into view. Several posts focused on parts of the history of slavery, for example my post on the digital collection Slavery in America and the World: History, Culture & Law. Violence in the United States was the subject of a post in 2018 on historical gun laws.
I will not and I cannot offer here political advice or show legal roads to eliminate forms of racism, to reform the police force or to diminish endemic violence and the use of guns in the United States. In a recent conversation about what you can do yourself, even at a great distance, we mused about the importance of communication, of listening to each other behind words and moods, about the need for awareness of cultural differences in communication. Changing the way police officers talk with others, prepare themselves for non-violent communication instead of the proverbial Shoot first, ask questions later, and reflect about their image in the eyes of others, is not the quickest and easiest thing to do, but certainly worth an effort. In the same conversation we talked also about the power of symbols and the role of emotions.
As for real stumble blocks for political change in the United States I could not help remembering the way voters have to register for elections. From the viewpoint of a country where being registered in a municipality and fulfilling some simple criteria such as age and not being excluded from the vote by a verdict of a court, leads automatically to receiving your voting card, this is a remarkable situation. It is a challenge for all Americans to gain insight into the many ways African-American citizens can be hindered in exercising their civil rights to full extent as anyone else, to realize what impact such things have, and to understand how this feels in the face of a history of exclusion, open or veiled racism, and injustice. Looking critically at your own country, your own role, your own prejudices and quick opinions, is something we all can do. It might imply leaving your own bubble, changing your own role and perspectives. In 2017 I ended a post about the United States with words that fit here, too: The old wisdom that politics will touch you sooner or later still holds true, as will visions of law and justice.