Is America a Failed Social Experiment? - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Demonstrators, gathered at Lafayette Park across from the White House, face a police barricade during a protest over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer in Washington, United States on May 30, 2020. A group of protestors surrounded a police vehicle and others beached the first security barricade at the park.
SourceYasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty

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George Floyd’s death in police custody is raising fundamental questions about the moral authority of American democracy.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

  • The protests roiling the nation reveal a depth of frustration and anger that calls into question America’s moral standing before its citizens.
  • But those same protests might also offer a ray of hope for the future.

Nine decades after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt attempted what The Atlantic at the time dubbed a new “social experiment,” Cornel West is calling it. Through politics and policies, Roosevelt nudged a capitalist economy toward building a country more responsive to the needs of some of its most vulnerable sections.

Yet to West, one of America’s most prominent political philosophers, George Floyd’s death at the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis on Memorial Day is the latest evidence that the U.S. needs to acknowledge a harsh truth.

“The United States is a failed social experiment to the degree to which, when it comes to Black people and poor people, its capitalist economy fails,” West, an emeritus professor at Princeton University, told the BBC on Sunday. “Its militarized nation state fails.”

It’s not an easy description to digest. But the protests that have enveloped the U.S. over the past week underscore a depth of hurt, anger and frustration that — unless they’re addressed — threaten to rip apart the moral standing of American democracy before its own citizens.

If we take time to listen to this nation’s wounds, they tell us where to look for hope.

The Rev. William J. Barber II

Police violence and discrimination are only the most extreme examples of deep-seated racial biases and inequities that divide the U.S. An April poll found that Black Americans are four times as likely to know someone who died from COVID-19, as compared to their white compatriots.

Black Americans have less access to health insurance, their median income is a third lower than white peers and their children are 10 times likelier to suffer from asthma. Even aging discriminates: Black women are the likeliest demographic to age alone, without partners and relatives.

Still some experts believe that the protests raging across America are more than acts of pent-up desperation: They’re also emblems of hope.

“What a shame it would be if this nation could watch a policeman murder another human being, then pose like a hunter with his prey while his colleagues looked on, and there not be protest, anguish, anger, outrage, and moral disruption,” says the Rev. William J. Barber II, in a public letter the pastor and activist released on Sunday. “If we take time to listen to this nation’s wounds, they tell us where to look for hope.”

While some of the spotlight has understandably turned to the need for police reforms, other more radical suggestions are emerging too.

In Minneapolis, local activist groups such as Reclaim the Block, Black Visions Collective and MPD150 are calling on the City Council to slash the city police budget by $45 million, and to instead invest that money in “community-led health and safety strategies.” So far, very few mainstream politicians have backed such demands. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a progressive Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced a bill last year called the People’s Justice Guarantee, that serves as a framework for upending the justice system as we know it to end mass incarceration.

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Police in Minneapolis

Source KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty

Or is a revolution the only way to fix the problem? The communist revolution in China did dramatically improve overall access to health and education for previously vulnerable sections of society, including women, after all. Is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission — like the ones used by South Africa and Rwanda to rebuild their nations after the brutalities of apartheid and an ethnic genocide — what America needs to address the festering wounds of slavery? Or will it take a new constitutional convention and a fresh Bill of Rights drafted by people of color?

Ultimately, Barber believes it’s the streets that might hold the answers.

“The hope is in the mourning and the screams,” he says. “Only if these screams and tears and protests shake the very conscience of this nation — and until there is real political and judicial repentance — can we hope for a better society on the other side of this.”

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