In American cities, business property has been torched and stores have been looted following marches against the murder of George Floyd by a police officer who kneeled on his neck for nine minutes while three other officers looked on and did nothing. A few days before, Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police falsely claiming that a Black man (Christian Cooper) was threatening her in Central Park. Only the video taken by Mr. Cooper saved the day, but this is every Black man’s fear—it harkens back to the days of lynching. Today, Black Americans are in real danger of being murdered by police and being falsely accused of wrongs without evidence. In response, thousands have marched peacefully, but some have attacked business property.
Years ago, on a trip to the store with my son when he was young he asked me why we don’t have to be afraid that oncoming cars will cross the double-yellow line and crash into us. I explained that we have an unspoken agreement between all drivers that I won’t cross the line and hurt you and you won’t cross the line and hurt me. This is a social contract, and social contracts like this exist with and without laws.
The fundamental social contract of Americans is in the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [of us] are created equal, that [we] are endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted . . . deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
If you are Black in America, for you this social contract has been broken. It’s obviously broken. Perhaps it’s always been broken. According the Equal Justice Initiative, “more than 4,000 Black Americans were lynched across twenty states between 1877 and 1950.” These lynchings by mobs were executions without trial and were done with the silent approval of elected officials and the police all in violation of our most important social contract.
Today, there is another kind of lynching in America in which the police use bullets or a knee on the neck instead of a rope. These are also executions without trial and they also are being done with the silent approval of elected officials and the police. Almost every week we see videos of Black Americans being killed or abused by the police. We hear some of our elected officials openly trying to justify these lawless killings. How is it that our elected officials allow this to happen?
One might blame at some level income inequality between rich and poor as contributing to the problem. According to Forbes, “the top 1% of Americans pocketed 85% of total income growth, according to a study . . . from the Economic Policy Institute. As of 2013, the average family income of the top 1% was 25 times the average income for the other 99%.” Economic inequality like this perhaps has caused the wealthy to lose touch with the People much like French aristocrats lost touch with the People before the French Revolution, and thus tolerate and even support this inhumane treatment of Black Americans.
One might also blame our U.S. Supreme Court as contributing to the problem since the Court has recently ruled it will not intervene to stop partisan gerrymandering, so power and money can virtually rig elections by redrawing election boundaries to favor certain candidates. And our Supreme Court has approved the infusion of unlimited money into elections by corporations (as though corporations were living and voting citizens) so that those with money and power have a louder voice than the People. Money and power in politics can skew the national will and produce elected officials who think they are unaccountable.
Or one might also blame institutional racism as being at the core of this problem, which lives in all of us, and which silently casts Black Americans as second class citizens, and limits empathy and action when those atrocities occur.
We don’t need a definitive answer as to causation to observe that once a social contract is broken, consequences follow. It has been the case in history that destruction of business property follows a perception that government has broken an important social contract, perhaps because it’s not unreasonable to perceive that those with money and power can influence government action and inaction. One example in our history is the Boston Tea Party in which the Sons of Liberty, fighting taxation without representation by the British government, which was a breach of a social contract, dumped tea into Boston Harbor—tea owned by the British East India Company. It was government that was breaching the social contract, but the Sons of Liberty reeled against the money and power of the day, perhaps because money and power influenced British policy, and perhaps if property owned by the money and power of the day were attacked, the leadership might become sensitized to the plight of the colonies or at least decide that the cost of breaching the social contract was higher than the benefit.
As to the wealthy in America, they enjoy Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, but Black Americans do not. Here and now, business property owned by those with money and power, who can influence government policy, has been damaged as a part of the protest. Whether the damage to property is a proper means to the end being sought is for historians to judge, and whether it is a politically effective strategy is not the subject of this piece. One need not decide those issues to agree that there has been a breach of the most important social contract in America: The Declaration of Independence.
A stable democracy is the best protection for the wealthy, because the People share equality and enjoy Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness and need not take to the streets to protest violence against Black Americans. Those with money and power should ensure that the breach of this social contract is mended. In that world, Black American families don’t fear the police, their children are safe, and they have hope.
When the rich lack wisdom, they allow the People to live without political or economic justice, without fairness, and without hope, and the first to be affected will be people of color and the poor, but the affect without change will reach into the middle class. In that world, unrest boils over.
Our government has broken the social contract that all of us are created equal, that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. It’s not too late for those with money and power to use their wealth to support candidates who will make government accountable in every state for the ongoing abuses and killings of Black Americans, and ensure Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness for all.