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An Immigrant Contextualizes the George Floyd Verdict

by Rory D. Bahadur | April 25, 2021

In the Caribbean, “rum and roti politics” is defined as the personal and populist style of politicians who give handouts to constituents. It means that close to election time politicians in the Caribbean provide token freebies to the populace and these token gestures consist of superficial handouts. These superficial handouts promote strong emotional reactions and hypnotize voters into rabid celebration of the token handouts which in turn leads to an emotional, limbic brain driven, blind, irrational, and fervid allegiance to the party that gave the handout. 

The fact that the handout creates this response is a survival mechanism. People gravitate to anything that keeps them distracted from the fact that corruption, inequity and mismanagement are the rampant, unchanging realities of post-colonial governments. The human condition seeks distraction from depressive realities. In the Caribbean this phenomenon is reflected in the cliché “If you don’t laugh you will cry.” In order to distract from the depressive realities of perpetual government ineptitude, people are distracted by and focus and fixate on the meaningless handout.

“Distraction works because it interrupts your mood and forces you to 'shift gears'. Many negative moods contain an element of rumination to them. When you ruminate, you go over your problem or worry again and again in your mind. Each time you go over your problem or worry, you reinforce its grip on you. Distraction breaks this grip by forcing you to think about other things. If the thing you distract yourself with is sufficiently compelling or demanding of your attention, you will temporarily stop ruminating and start to feel better. Maybe not good, but better.

In recent American politics, Donald Trump was also regarded as a master of distraction, but his distraction technique was different. Instead of focusing people away from his ineptitude by pointing to shiny objects, he riled people up using anger and fear by inventing imaginary crises that he claimed threatened our democracy. Just like Rum and Roti politics distracts by making people happy, Trump distracted by making people angry.  Either way, once the limbic brain and emotions are invoked, people's analytical and conscious, rational decision-making mind is relegated to second place.

We should not let the George Floyd verdict be the distraction equivalent of Rum and Roti politics.  Systemic racism is not at all impacted or diminished because Derek Chauvin got convicted. And while it is easier to focus on the happy by focusing on the result in that trial rather than the deeply entrenched nature of systemic racism, that trial needs to be considered in light of the fact that there were 10 million arrests in 2019 in the United States.

Remember how many people used the argument that racism was dead because we had a black president? That statement is just an excuse to minimize and trivialize the magnitude of the systemic racism problem in the United States. It is an excuse to preserve the status quo. A status quo of systemic racism and racial injustice.

While we can use the George Floyd result as a motivating symbol in the fight against racism, do not mistake this emotionally powerful, beneficial symbolism for actual societal change and progress. If we do that, then George Floyd will have died in vain.


Professor Bahadur is the James R. Ahrens Chair in Tort Law and has been voted the 2010 and 2012 Professor of the Year at Washburn University School of Law.

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