The perfect storm; a High Point University historian’s view on the sustainability of today’s movement

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HIGH POINT, N.C. — This feels different.

2020 itself has been packed with uncharted territory. From a pandemic to a nationwide racial equity movement, it’s a year historians will study deeply for generations to come.

But, at least in terms of the movement, its sustainability may have been formed in thanks to the pandemic itself.

“As a historian, I don’t know that we’ve ever seen this kind of a convergence of all these major events happening at once,” said Dr. Paul Ringel, Associate Professor of History at High Point University.

In the 1860’s, after the Civil War, there was another movement for racial justice. At that time, the main debates were centered around what the rights of the newly-freed African Americans would be.

“One of the things that I think is similar to that moment is that you’ve got kind of a convergent white and black interest. Political interest,” Ringel said.

He says at that time, it was white Republicans working for what he calls the greatest white support of black freedom we’ve seen. Until now.

“There is this sense that helping the freed people to achieve rights is going to be good for the Republican party because all of those people are going to vote for the Republican party,” Ringel said

100 years later, there was another movement.

Though the Civil War abolished slavery, it didn’t end discrimination. The Civil Rights Movement consisted of African Americans fighting to gain equal rights under American law, from the Greensboro sit-ins, to the march on Washington, to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“The integration of these movements is much bigger than it was in the 1960’S,” Ringel said.

There has been video in the past. With cases such as Eric Garner’s death in 2014, it was captured in part for the world to see. While there were protests, they weren’t sustained for weeks on end across the nation.

There also wasn’t a global pandemic.

“I think it’s the individual events in conjunction with big events like the pandemic,” Ringel said.

He says today’s movement is likely the result of a perfect storm of sorts, mainly thanks to three main factors.

With the pandemic, many people were stuck at home paying more attention to the news than they otherwise would have been. Not only were the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd being largely publicized, but two of them were captured on video.

But the third factor in Ringel’s perfect storm consists of a means of protest that has only been present for four years.

“We’ve had this pattern since 2016 where people are taking to the streets in opposition of the President,” Ringel said.

He believes the source for today’s movement’s sustainability is in fact the result of – not only three deaths – but three individual unprecedented factors.

“Even then the 60’s it was kind of stop and start,” Ringel said. “It wasn’t three weeks of sustained protests at a time.”

Again, this feels different. But when it’s all said and done, what will be different?

“Do we get kind of a signature legislative moment out of this event like we did in the 60’s with the voting rights act and the Civil Rights Act?” Ringel asked.

He does believe police reform is where the answer starts but not in its current form.

“People are talking about defunding the police,” Ringel said. “That doesn’t seem like a slogan that’s catching on.”

If it doesn’t happen, the real movement may come in November.

With what Ringel calls a “voting shift,” African American turnout seems to have increased in the few elections we’ve had since the pandemic hit, with millions of Americans holding the power to change the legislative body.

“I think it could have major ramifications on the election,” Ringel said. “But beyond that, I’m not really sure.”

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