The sickening video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd—impairing his breathing and ultimately killing him—has once again laid bare the great weakness of American democracy: racial injustice. In the days since the video gained public attention, this chronic civic ailment has only seemed to metastasize, damaging a number of other basic rights.
The United States arguably has one of the most dynamic political systems in the world, with powerful legal protections for the news media and expansive freedom to associate and peacefully protest. Yet journalists covering the recent demonstrations have been harassed, assaulted, and arrested even as they identify themselves as reporters—a profound breach of constitutional guarantees. And the right to assemble is being denied, as militarized police forces tear-gas peaceful protesters in many cities. These immediate abuses must stop, but the nation must also come together to address the underlying problem.
It has been over half a century since the landmark laws won by the civil rights movement were passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Freedom House supported these measures, as we have recognized throughout our long history that America’s ability to uphold freedom abroad depends on the steady improvement of justice and democracy at home.
Important changes for the better have taken place, but we still have far to go. As many citizens and leaders of all backgrounds have noted during the current crisis, when it comes to the crucial matters of daily life, like getting a job, buying a home, finding a good neighborhood school for one’s children, or simply walking the streets without fear of police profiling, African Americans still regularly experience what amounts to second-class citizenship. Crucially, they are more likely to be targets of police violence and harsh sentencing.
The United States is certainly not alone in its shortcomings. As part of our annual Freedom in the World report, Freedom House assesses the quality of political rights and civil liberties in every country in the world. Democracy has suffered a decline globally in recent years, due especially to the pernicious ways in which many governments and societies have discriminated against certain racial, ethnic, and religious groups. Rather than trying to represent their entire countries, political leaders in a variety of settings are pursuing narrow visions of national interest that exclude or, worse, persecute vulnerable populations. Unfortunately, America is contributing to the problem when it should be offering solutions. Authoritarian leaders worldwide will use our behavior to justify their own.
While many protests triggered by George Floyd’s death have proceeded or commenced peacefully, there have also been nightly televised images that suggest a nation careening out of control. Social media help Americans organize, but they also facilitate the deliberate encouragement of violence and the spread of disinformation about conditions on the ground. Instead of attempting to calm the unrest, President Trump has offered polarizing tweets and Rose Garden threats that further strain our country’s social and political fabric, and he has put forth proposals intended to chill speech rather than protect it.
Coupled with the human and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of this makes for a profoundly unsettling time that calls for moral and political leadership to bring our country together.
We urgently need a new, bipartisan effort to address the deficit in racial justice. African Americans are imprisoned at a vastly disproportionate rate. There has been an impressive bipartisan movement to reform the criminal justice system with the goal of reducing mass incarceration, and this should press forward. The events of the past week should also act as an impetus to implement reforms in policing tactics. Numerous studies have identified police methods that are overly aggressive and too reliant on tools and ideas borrowed from the military. Governors, mayors, and chiefs of police should take immediate action to roll back the “warrior” approach to law enforcement and move swiftly to adopt institutional improvements, including greater training on deescalation techniques.
Presidential leadership at this moment is critical. We will not move toward racial justice if our public officials are focused on shifting blame, engaging in partisan attacks, and stoking polarization. Instead, leaders should be enjoining Americans to remember and act on our highest ideals of equality, unity, and freedom.
There is reason for hope. Racial injustice has plagued this country since its founding, but our history includes moments of great bravery and righteousness as well. We now live in a world where technology can be used to expose injustice in real time. We have no choice but to confront it. And civil society—active citizens who are organizing themselves to create a more perfect union—is out in full force and ready to do so. Ordinary people willing to speak, protest, and mobilize for lasting change are the bedrock of a robust democracy. Viewed through that lens, our democracy is very strong indeed.