The unprecedented wave of protests that have roiled the United States in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 may well be recorded as that nation’s largest social movement. The video of George Floyd’s death, his neck compressed by the knee of Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin for over eight minutes, groaning that he could not breathe and calling out for his mother, was sad and outrageous and yet consistent with deeply entrenched patterns of anti-black racial violence by police in the United States. The killing of Floyd followed other tragic deaths: Ahmaud Arbery was shot by vigilantes in February while he was jogging in a small town in Georgia; Breonna Taylor was, killed in her own home in Louisville as police they entered her apartment in search of a suspect.
Similar deaths sparked the Black Lives Matter movement seven years ago. The 2013 killing of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown led a small group of activists to use adopt the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. As the movement gained momentum and organization it was joined by high profile athletes like Colin Kaepernick, who took up the cause in 2016. BLM activists organized counter protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacists gathered to “Unite the Right.” Since the election of Trump and the intensification of racial divisions in the United States, BLM has become a global movement for racial justice.
The high-water mark was reached in the Summer of 2020. Floyd’s death by torture led to one of the most dramatic shifts in public opinion recorded by pollsters. As many as 26 million people may have joined the protests. They often received the support and encouragement from progressive mayors, governors, elected officials, and in exceptional cases even law enforcement officers. In Washington DC Mayor Muriel Browser renamed a two-block strip of 16th Street leading toward the White House as Black Lives Matter Plaza, and wrote the words in large yellow letters (visible on Google Earth).
The outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter was a stirring repudiation of racism and violence but it may have been insufficient to pull the United States back from the brink of civic strife. The complex roots of anti-black racism and violence can be traced to the legacies of chattel slavery, the betrayal of the promises of post-Civil War reconstruction, Jim Crow laws and legal segregation, the Nixonian “War on Drugs,” the construction of a carceral state, the militarization of law enforcement, rising inequality under neoliberalism, and the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the black community. The cumulative effect of these mechanisms of perpetuation of racial hierarchy has been to weaken the vision of racial integration and justice that came out of the 1960s civil rights movement.
The African American community—and, to a lesser degree, the Latino community—has been criminalized and disenfranchised: they are massively overrepresented in the prison population, and their voting rights are infringed due to incarceration (so-called “felony disenfranchisement”). Stigma and fear motivate the base of the Republican Party, much of which is based on stereotypes that are continuously reinforced by right-wing politicians, Fox News, and other media. President Donald J. Trump from his bully pulpit has both contributed to anti-black violence and racism and benefitted from the ensuing malaise. He is not the first demagogue to play to prejudice and bigotry, but few can match his talent.
A self-absorbed and narcissistic personality may impede competent management of a pandemic, but it isn’t a liability when it comes to blame-shifting and race-baiting. What is truly disturbing about both Trump’s rise to power and approach to government is that he has built a political base of supporters who either embrace or willfully ignore the racist and misogynistic rhetoric he has uses and by which he gives them permission to indulge their own ignorance and intolerance. Rather than unifying and healing the country, Trump seeks to divide it. He does so because it serves the interests of his class. When he defends the names of military bases and statues of defeated traitors—the mediocre losers of a true American carnage—he is doing what racist oligarchs have always done. As Martin Luther King would have said, he is giving his base Jim Crow to eat: “If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. He gave him Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.”
King understood that nothing so threatened the status quo like a broad coalition—men and women, people of all races and religions, rural and urban—with a shared commitment to justice and equality. It would threaten what Trump truly represents: the power and privileges of an oligarchy that can only survive through division and polarization. Only by a continual campaign of fear mongering can oligarchic interests secure the votes of those whose very interests they undermine. Only by continuously feeding their base with lies—about the “deep state”, about threats to guns ownership and other “freedoms,” about women, minorities, immigrants taking away jobs and opportunities—can oligarchic forces prevent the emergence of a vision of the nation consistent with its founding aspirations (if not reality): that all people are created equal, and entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The Republican Party has become an anti-system insurgency bent on the destruction of US democracy. It both contributes to governmental dysfunction, and then blames the ensuing dysfunctional on government. Since at least the Reagan era, it has abandoned the commitment to the mixed economy that emerged after the Second World War and contributed to shared and sustained prosperity. It has fully embraced a neoliberal ideology that less government is always better. Less well understood is that neoliberalism in the US has been motivated by, and has reinforced, racism.
Racism aids neoliberalism because redistributive policies help minorities get ahead. As Arlie Hochschild puts it, conservative white supporters of the Tea Party believe that they have been abandoned by a federal government. But they do not blame big corporations for capturing government and imposing policies that have widened the income gap and reduced social mobility. Instead, they have nurtured a sense of grievance with the wider culture. “They feel their cultural beliefs are denigrated by the culture at large. They feel that they’re seen as rednecks, that they live in a region that’s being discredited. Many of them are deeply devout, but they see the culture at large becoming more secular. And then they see economically that this trapdoor that used to only affect black people and people one class below them is now opening and gobbling up them and their children too.”
For decades Republican politicians have primed their base to hate and fear minorities. They have opposed affirmative action, entitlement programs, and “special interests,” all of which have become code words for helping minorities get ahead. Reagan propagated the racist myth of the “welfare queen,” the perpetrator of welfare fraud; the idea of the black male as a “super-predator” originated with the Reaganite, climate-denying, neoliberal Manhattan Institute. Even the core neoliberal value of choice has a racist tinge. As Nancy MacLean has carefully documented, early advocates of neoliberal thought in the United States supported the privatization of public education in part because they opposed the racial integration of schools. In short, racism has long been a barrier not only to the development of social democracy in the US but even basic education, healthcare, and other public services. Racism and neoliberalism fit hand-in-glove.
This brings us to a central puzzle in US politics today. Why is the Democratic Party unable to generate a compelling alternative to the extremist, racist, and anti-democratic politics of the Republicans? With lacklustre Joe Biden as their candidate, and growing internal divisions between democratic socialists like Bernie and OAC and the party leadership, the Democratic Party has trouble capitalizing on social movement activism. Rather than being propelled forward, Democrats struggle to balance the need to reassure moderate and easy to frighten suburban voters while energizing an increasingly radicalized base. The Party’s embrace of neoliberalism and abandonment of the working class as they cultivated allies on Wall Street has left much of the working class in the heartland sharing the sense of abandonment that pervades the deep south.
To understand the dynamic at work, consider Kenosha, Wisconsin. A quiet lakeside community of about 100,000 people, Kenosha used to be an automobile manufacturing town. Now it is mainly a bedroom community for people who work in Chicago, a couple of hours away by train. It has a liberal arts college and an industrial park. About three quarters of the population is white, most of the rest are African American and Latino. Kenosha seemed like an unlikely flashpoint for racial tensions in the US unless one looked under the surface. A few years ago, after a robbery, the Kenosha county sheriff expressed the kind of tough-on-crime views that suggest a deeper problem of race relations. “These people have to be warehoused,” he said. “These people are no longer an asset to our community, and they just need to disappear.”
It was in Kenosha in August that the police shot Jacob Blake in the back as he left the scene of an altercation and attempted to get in his car. The killing lead to several days of protest, during which vehicles were burned and government buildings and businesses were damaged. The National Guard was called in to restore order, and armed vigilante groups began to appear. Their presence was welcomed by local law enforcement officers under the direction of the county sheriff, and one of the vigilantes allegedly shot and killed two protesters. There could be no more graphic example of white privilege than the fact that armed white militias could want unimpeded through police lines after discharging their weapons in protests against anti-black police violence.
When Trump visited Kenosha he did not speak with the Blake family but instead praised the efforts of local law enforcement and offered more funding for policing and to rebuild businesses. He attacked “Antifa,” criminals, illegal immigrants, and deplored lawlessness in Democratic-run cities. Of the vigilante, he suggested he was acting in self-defence.
Trump’s visit was controversial: both the Mayor of Kenosha and the Governor of Wisconsin told him to stay away. But as one older working class white resident of Kenosha said: “It’s the first time in a week my wife and I have felt we could come anywhere near downtown…It sends the right message about who is in charge and who needs to stand down, what kind of country this is supposed to be and how people ought to behave.” He went on to reflect on the broader politics of the visit, saying: “If the pictures people are going to see of Kenosha on TV and stuff — all the boarded-up businesses and barricades — help to remind Americans of that, and that pushes the voters to return Trump to office, then Trump’s visit was certainly the right thing,”
Back in Washington, Trump criticized “Critical Race Theory” as “divisive, anti-American propaganda,” and argued for “Patriotic education” while downplaying the legacies of slavery. In the debate with Biden he refused to unequivocally condemn white supremacy, and after the vice-presidential debate he attacked Kamala Harris as a “monster.” He also criticized Gretchen Whitmer, Governor of Michigan, after she was targeted by an armed militia to be kidnapped and murdered, saying she should be grateful to him for the investigation that led to the arrest of the plotters. Trump’s repeated suggestion that his supporters have to be vigilant about fraud raised the spectre of armed factions showing up at polling stations.
As the New York Times put it “the president has increasingly made appeals to the grievances of white supporters a centerpiece of his re-election campaign.” Whether running as the defender of “white America” is a winning proposition is an important question. Unless the United States can find a way to come to terms with its racist past and present, it will go down in history as proof that power and wealth mean nothing if the citizens of a nation cannot agree on how to live together.
Note. A version of this commentary appears in Quehacer in Peru.