On May 25, my families in both Bangladesh and Australia were celebrating Eid-ul-Fitr after a month of fasting in the month of Ramadan, though in a restricted manner because of Covid-19 pandemic. On that same day, a horrendous incident took place in the US. An unarmed African-American man named George Floyd was killed by a White American police officer named Derek Chauvin in the city of Minneapolis in Minnesota.
The brutal incident shook the entire world and had a butterfly effect in which both Black and non-Black people in the US, Australia, and Europe protested against systemic injustice and racism against Black people.
It immediately brought to my mind the statement of Martin Luther King Jr that is inscribed on the wall of the African-American Museum in Washington DC in capital letters: "WE ARE DETERMINED … TO WORK AND FIGHT UNTIL JUSTICE RUNS DOWN LIKE WATER AND RIGHTEOUSNESS LIKE A MIGHTY STREAM (MARTIN LUTHER KING JR 1955)."
I hope the protests stimulated by the death of George Floyd will bring major changes in the lives of African Americans.
In December 2016, I visited the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC. The museum's collections showed how in the 17th and 18th centuries Africans were brought to America in chains as slaves.
Some of the slaves were Muslims. Other historical records tell the life stories of some Muslim slaves. For example, Kunta Kinte, who is depicted in Alex Haley's book and the television show titled Roots, was brought from Gambia in 1767.
Kinte tried hard to hold onto his Islamic heritage and showed great courage by practicing Islam in a Christian environment. Some Muslims fought in the Revolutionary War. For example, Peter (Saleem) Salem, a former slave, fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill against British troops in 1775.
Muslim slaves were not allowed to build religious structures such as mosques or graveyards, so they could not establish a physical Islamic heritage for their descendants.
Later, from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War took place between the Union states in the North and Confederate states in the South. The Unionists led by US President Abraham Lincoln were abolitionists who aimed at the abolition of slavery, while the Confederates refused to ban slavery because it would hamper their economy.
The Unionists won the civil war. The 13th Amendment (1865) of the Constitution abolished slavery, and African Americans were given equal legal status with White Americans.
Yet, discrimination against African Americans continued. From 1877, Jim Crow laws legalised Black segregation in the southern states. Black segregation in public places, public transport, educational institutions, restaurants and restrooms was made mandatory.
In the 1950s and 1960s, America witnessed some major changes. On August 28, 1963, the civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King Jr., through his famous speech, "I Have a Dream", called for equal civil and economic rights and an end to racism in the US. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed to end racial segregation and in 1965, African-Americans were granted voting rights.
In 2019, the Pew Research Center in the US found that eight in ten adult Black people say that they were not given rights which measured up to the rights granted to White people. The Black unemployment rate is double than that of the Whites.
According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Black Americans are jailed at five times the rate of White Americans. According to national health data, Black mothers die in childbirth at over twice the rate of White mothers. There are inequalities across school systems, housing and other public resources.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture reported that on any given day in the US prison system, approximately 80,000 to 100,000 people are incarcerated. They are disproportionately adults and youth of colour. Some are held in solitary confinement for months, years or even decades, leading to mental health issues and ultimately to suicides.
For my research on young American Muslims' identity, a 25-year-old African-American Muslim in Maryland commented on the terms "American" and "un-American", which are used by some politicians and the media.
"Literally my entire history is based on being oppressed, either if you do consider me African American, if you do consider me Native American because I have Native American in me ... So, I wouldn't consider myself American in that sense. I think the term un-American is pretty much is determined by the majority and not the minority. For example, if everybody thinks Muslims are terrorists, then you're (Muslims) officially un-American ... Blacks have been un-American for the longest time(sic)," the comment read.
In 2017 when I interviewed some Muslims of Somali background in Minnesota, they said that they were being discriminated against because of the colour of their skin. In particular, some Muslim women said that they were doubly disadvantaged because of their Islamic attire (hijab/headscarf) and the colour of their skin.
It is unfortunate that racial discrimination has existed throughout American history. Yet there have been significant changes in American society when White Americans supported the Black cause. For example, the Abolitionists during the American Civil War (1861–65) were mostly White Americans.
In 2009, Barack Obama became the first American President. In 2017, when the Charlottesville City Council in Virginia decided to remove a monument of Confederate leader Robert E Lee, White supremacists gathered there to protest the decision.
On 13 August 2017, the decision led to violence between the White nationalists and counter-protestors, who were mostly White Americans. It ended in the death of a 32-year-old White woman named Heather Heyer, an advocate on civil rights issues, when a White supremacist drove his car into a group of peaceful counter-protestors.
The Black Lives Matter (#BlackLivesMatter) movement was founded in 2013 when an American man was acquitted for shooting an African-American teenager to death. The movement came to public attention after the unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, was killed in the city of Ferguson, Missouri by a White police officer named Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. This led to a series of riots in Ferguson in 2014 and 2015.
There have been many other protests and riots in the US on the same issue. Earlier, the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King were among the biggest and the most notable one.
The Ferguson riots were confined to Missouri. But the recent Floyd protests led to an outcry of Black Lives Matter from Minnesota, that spread to the other states of the nation. It also reached Australia and Europe where protestors have been sympathetic with African-Americans. In Australia, protesters demanded justice over Aboriginal deaths in police custody, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
It is now clear that when people are silenced, their grievances slowly accumulate. And, when there is a triggering moment, in this case it is the killing of George Floyd, it can set off protests, movements, riots, leading to a revolution.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, when people are asked to maintain social distancing, protestors put their cause before their own safety. What is evident now is that this is the time for substantial reforms to counter racism in the law enforcement, employment, health and education sectors because Black lives matter.
The author is Professor of History at the Department of English and Humanities at BRAC University, Bangladesh.