On Racial Justice
By Safwan M. Masri
May 2, 2021
Dear friends and colleagues,
Last week, the news from Minneapolis – former police officer Derek Chauvin pronounced guilty on all three counts in the murder of George Floyd – provided an enormous sense of relief. There was a collective exhale: Finally, some accountability and justice. But along with the consolation of this verdict comes the realization that legal justice does not necessarily look like what we envision as a peaceful, fair, and free world. It does not grant anything like an equitable distribution of the benefits and the burdens in society.
We have absorbed the idea that advancing the rule of law is the way forward, and it is – or can be. Vulnerable populations, targets of hate crimes, migrants, even fragile ecosystems can all be afforded protection under the law. But it won’t happen naturally. It isn’t the law that creates justice, it is the people who push for those laws – identifying problems, proposing legislation, and working to build a better, more just society.
Although the Minneapolis trial avoided talking about race and the way Black people and other minorities have been treated in the United States, Chauvin’s status as a police officer meant that the legal system itself was part of what was being interrogated. The relentless history of police brutality, episode after episode almost universally directed towards marginalized people of color, was exposed by the trial, even if unacknowledged in the courtroom. Finally, after decades of impunity, this behavior by law enforcement was decreed criminal, and worthy of imprisonment.
Protests and marches and moves towards police reform give us hope that our often misguided notions of justice will be addressed, because today’s world demands an understanding of the many ways the law has been used to create and sustain injustice. The eruption of anti-Asian hate we have been witnessing recently is not simply a response to the pandemic-related slurs of the former American president. There is a whole legal history targeting Asians in the United States, including the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — the first major laws to restrict immigration of specific nationalities — and, of course, the infamous Executive Order 9066, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s directive that forced people with Japanese heritage into internment camps. These are but a few examples among many of how the United States has failed to live up to its basic principles, and how the legal system has been used to reinforce institutionalized racism.
The days we are living in are full of trauma. It is hard to bear witness. But these are also important and hopeful days, in which the fault lines of the system have been laid bare, giving us the chance to build something better. The vast array of people taking to the streets, protesting injustice and erupting in celebration for one fair verdict, show us what democracy looks like, and point the way forward, to liberty and justice for all.
In hope for our future,
Safwan M. Masri