On May 25th, 2020, “Video of George Floyd’s death went viral and sparked months of demonstrations against racism, and calls for police reform” (Williams). Today the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police violence is slowly approaching. The anniversary of his death brings back images of George Floyd pleading for his life and calling for his mother as Police Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee pressed firmly against his neck while callously ignoring George Floyd’s pleas for help. No one could hide from the video America could, and Americans from every corner of the country sat and watched a man be murdered by those who swore an oath to protect their communities. The emotional reactions to the video were primal. The video touched human beings at their core instincts of survival. The fear observed in George Floyd’s eyes and the despair heard in his voice were unmistakable. These emotions fueled months of protests and demands for social reform. Slogans that Black Lives Matter and defunding the police that have failed time and time again to stand by their oath swept the nation and could be heard in every major city. People from all walks of life rallied together to express their anger about a citizen being murdered at the hands of the state.
George Floyd’s murder is not an isolated incident. Instead it is a continuation of the long history of systematic racism that African Americans have faced since before the inception of the United States of America. It started in 1619 when the first Africans were
brought to Virginia. Slavery would not end for another 246 years, in 1865. From there, the legacy of mistreatment of African Americans continued under Jim Crow Laws until 1964 when a mass civil movement pushed the federal government to pass the “Civil Rights Act; which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin… discrimination in public accommodations and federally funded programs. It also strengthened the enforcement of voting rights and the desegregation of schools (U.S Department of Labor). But, still, systemic racism and the effects of historical oppression did not end with the Civil Rights Act. Out of the ashes of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement was born as a new answer to the federal government’s resistance to fixing the damage done to Black Americans throughout the history of our country. Eventually, just like the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement would be put down through the assassinations of the movement’s leaders and state interference programs such as Cointelpro. Floyd’s murder by the hands of the state was an emotional reminder of the gruesome history of the African American experience in the United States of America and the realization that while concessions have been made to raise the quality of life for African Americans, the roots of the issue have still not been dealt with. Each of these moments of civil unrest in the name of justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to the recent protests in George Floyd’s memory, have been driven by our most primal biological mechanisms and have been heightened by the unhealed material and emotional wounds from the subjugation and oppression of African Americans throughout the history of the United States.
Throughout the book Looking for Spinoza, Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, writes extensively on emotions, feelings, and how these two mechanisms aid in homeostasis. Colloquially, the words emotion and feeling are often conflated and used interchangeably, but Professor Damasio offers a clear distinction between the two words. He explains that “Emotions are built from simple reactions that easily promote the survival of an organism and thus could easily prevail in evolution” (Damasio 30). This means that emotions are physical and play out in the body and act to promote the body’s longevity through homeostatic regulation. Damasio goes on to describe the body as a “Homeostasis machine and uses the image of a large multi-branched tree of phenomena charged with the automated regulation of life” (Damasio 31). Emotions exist in a range from the simple and unseen to the more complex and visually observable. The simplest forms of emotion are our basic homeostatic mechanisms that are required for survival, such as metabolic regulation and physical healing from damage inflicted in our day-to-day lives. A step up
from there is the emotional response to pain and pleasure. This can be easily pictured as the involuntary response to recoil when touching a hot stove. The next step from here is motivations, including hunger and thirst; these emotions are much more visible to the
naked eye but still act in a homeostatic manner to sustain life. Nearing the top of the tree are emotions that we traditionally think of when we use the word emotions; these are joy, sorrow, fear, and anger.
Nevertheless, at the very top of the “tree of phenomena” are feelings. Professor Damasio defines “Feeling, in the pure and narrow sense of the word, as the idea of the body being in a certain way” (Damasio 85). Simply put, feelings are a perception of the state that the body is in. Professor Damasio goes on to explain that “the origin of the perceptions that constitute the essence of feeling is clear: There is a general object, the body, and there are many parts to that object that are continuously mapped in a number of brain structures” (Damasio 87). The brain is constantly analyzing or sending out “body maps” to inquire on the state of the body, specifically looking at information from different sensory points in the nervous and vascular systems. From these maps, feelings can be perceived. It is also important to note that the brain can simulate emotion in the body, this is easy to understand when we consider the emotion of empathy. Empathy is the ability to share in the feelings of another individual. As professor Damasio explains, this is made possible by the brain’s ability to “…Use incoming body signals like clay to sculpt a particular body state in the regions where such a pattern can be constructed, i.e., the body sensing regions” (Damasio 116). The brain fabricates the emotion of empathy through a false construction of the state of the body.
Furthermore, emotions, in the way that Professor Damasio is referencing, are the automated biomechanisms that are the driving force of social movements. As Professor Damasio explains, “the goal of the homeostasis endeavor is to provide a better than neutral life state, this is what we as thinking and affluent creatures identify as wellness, or well-being” (Damasio 35). The human organism seeks more than to live in a state between life and death. The automated systems of homeostasis push for human life to flourish and go beyond simply functioning in a neutral state. That is why the emotions of fear, anger, sorrow, and empathy are so intertwined with protestors aiming to improve their societal environment. Damasio goes on to explain that the emotions of, “…Disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, sympathy, and shame aim directly at life regulation by staving off dangers or helping the organism take advantage of an opportunity, or indirectly by facilitating social relations” (Damasio 39). Essentially individuals will team up with other individuals when there is a perceived common threat, such as the mistrust of the systems meant to regulate the environment of our society. Once the
individual no longer trusts these systems, the individual will perceive these systems as a threat to their well-being.
The perceived threat activates the most basic evolutionary homeostasis, which is the “fight or flight” mechanism. Since the fight or flight mechanism exists in all organisms, “This shows that nature has long been concerned with providing living organisms with the means to regulate and maintain their lives automatically, no questions asked, no thoughts needed” (Damasio 41). Without the ability to automatically remove ourselves from danger, we would have become extinct. Those advocating for social change often perceive themselves to be in conflict with the systems that regulate human life. During a Black Lives Matter protest following the murder of
George Floyd, The Guardian interviewed an anonymous protestor, who said, “There is no such thing as a peaceful protest; there is non-violent protest, but protest is not supposed to be peaceful” (Guardian). Protest in its truest form is conflict. The conflict, in this case, was against the state’s unfair treatment of African Americans in the U.S. The issue is that the automated emotional responses of the body that led to protest will not be enough to return American society to equilibrium.
Similar to the body, societies thrive when they are well balanced and well regulated. “Social conventions and ethical rules may be seen in part as extensions of the basic homeostatic arrangement at the level of society and culture” (Damasio 168). Social conventions and ethical rules are two societal systems that aim to regulate human life, but sometimes they can fail. Specifically, if the society is damaged or unbalanced, the society cannot rely on automated responses that are found in the body to bring things back into balance. The society itself must assess its needs and act accordingly to return back to a happy equilibrium. If it does not, social tensions will remain high, and the fractures within the society will begin to appear from the imbalance. Society, like the body, is made up of different parts that work together to create a hospitable environment for life to flourish. In the case of the United States of America, the
imbalance in the disparity between African Americans and their counterparts has reached a level that will take serious societal influence to correct. This disparity was created by the historical imbalance of American society and its ill-treatment of African Americans for over 400 years. The damage comes in two forms: the first is the physical and material damages of enslavement and segregation, and the second is the mental aspect that has created feelings of mistrust, which compounds over time as the imbalance continues to go unaddressed.
To fix this imbalance, there must be an understanding of the total material loss suffered by the African American community in America. There are multiple ways someone can attempt to quantify the material damages, but the most common method
is a return to how much 40 acres and a mule would be worth today. Returning to 40 acres and a mule is significant because it was the original attempt to balance American society’s imbalance after slavery. Mr. Darity, an American Economist and researcher,
has found “by beginning with the cost of an acre in 1865: about $10. Forty acres divided among a family of four comes to 10 acres per person or about $100 for each of the four million former slaves. Taking account of compounding interest and inflation, … the present value is at $2.6 trillion” (Cohen). The cost seems astronomical, but for context, the total cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is estimated to be around 2.4 trillion. Repaying the material loss on its own would not be enough to return the American society to a balanced state. In order to return American society to a balanced state, we must “embrace the idea of slave redress, (and) welcome the belief that we must go back in time and place to right a heavy wrong and make the present and future more racially harmonious” (Brooks 141). Fully embracing slave redress means contending with our feelings and recognizing the damage that past societal imbalance has caused. The governance that created the imbalance must apologize and accept their role in the harm they have caused., and then and only then can we achieve a balance in our society that allows for life to flourish.
Historically, American society has failed to operate in a state of homeostasis. The imbalance and the lack of attempts to return the society into a state of equilibrium have led to vast divisions and a gross wealth disparity between African Americans and their counterparts. Social justice movements fighting for improved conditions for African Americans will continue to struggle out of an emotional compulsion to improve the living conditions of the environment that they live in. However, the automated response
of the body’s emotions will not be enough on its own to return American society to a state of equilibrium. Americans, on their own accord, must begin the unautomated process of returning American society into a state equilibrium that allows all individual life to flourish regardless of race.
Brooks, Roy L. “Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations.”
Atonement and Forgiveness, 1st ed., University of California Press, 2004,
Cohen, Patricia. “What Reparations for Slavery Might Look Like in 2019.” The New York
Times, The New York Times, 23 May 2019,
www.nytimes.com/2019/05/23/business/economy/reparations-slavery.htmlLinks to an external site..
Damasio, Antonio R. Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. Vintage
The Guardian, director. Inside the George Floyd Protests in New York: ‘We Are Not the
Problem’ . YouTube , YouTube, 4 June 2020,
U.S Department of Labor. “Legal Highlight: The Civil Rights Act of 1964.” U.S.
Department of Labor Seal, 2021,
Williams, Jordan. “George Floyd’s Brother on Anniversary of Murder: ‘I Think Things
Have Changed’.” TheHill, The Hill, 25 May 2021,
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