GOP vows to ‘take America back’ — but race tension, cop killings suggest we’re already there
Shots rang out from a downtown high-rise. An African-American sniper targeted police officers in retaliation for what he believed was their role as enforcers of white supremacy in black neighborhoods. No, I’m not referring to Dallas in 2016, or Baton Rouge on Sunday, but New Orleans in 1973. Navy veteran Mark Essex shot and killed five police officers before he was shot to death on the roof of the Howard Johnson’s hotel on Loyola Avenue.
In both 1973 and 2016, rage at racist police wasn’t unfounded, even though we rightly excoriate the counter-productive method of redress chosen by the angry black men. Racial strife erupting into gunfire isn’t the only déjà vu of 2016, though. The predictable way that American conservatives pour gasoline on the fire for political expediency is also a familiar script.
“Law and order” is the answer, said Nixon in 1968 and now Trump in 2016. Out-of-control law and order is what led police to kill Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, yes, and to beat thousands of Civil Rights protesters throughout the South in the 1960s. Despite the obvious logical contradictions, the GOP’s racially tinged fear mongering worked great in 1968. So, with the party convening this week in Cleveland to nominate Trump for president, here we go again.
The question of why innocent black men are still disproportionately killed by police, with predictable (but occasional) eye-for-an-eye retaliations, is inevitable, the answer disheartening. Racism and, more specifically, anti-black racism (the mother of all- American racism) doesn’t seem to want to go away.
Nietzsche wrote about “eternal return,” the idea that history is tediously and often violently repetitive, making the notion of historical “progress” a vain ideal with little basis in reality. I used to like Marx more than Nietzsche, because of his dogged faith in the ability of human beings to shape a more just society through struggle. I suppose they’re both right to a certain extent. There’s no question that black lives are valued more today than they were 50 years ago. The chances of a police officer dying in the line of duty are also much reduced since 1980. Violent crime in general is way down since a deadly peak a generation ago.
But pointing out how things are better has a way of sounding like an apology for the status quo. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “the mythical concept of time” — rejecting the idea that mistreated people should settle for rejoicing that their descendants will probably (maybe) get treated better.
And then, of course, we have problems other than race. This violent July calls our attention to continuing racial strife, but also to the problems of an over-armed as well as over-policed society. The costly and painful foreign wars that Republicans have insisted will “make us safer” may also be implicated, since the men who fired on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge (and in New Orleans in 1973) were all recently discharged veterans who had been deployed overseas.
What’s sad is how the other serious problems we face — easy access to killing machines, zero-tolerance policing, 10 years of repeated deployments for military families, declining incomes for the vast majority of Americans — are too often used as diversions. They are mustered rhetorically as reasons to downplay the force of persistent racism, when instead they should be recognized as accessories to or enablers of it. The very normal social mess of American society is best described by both/and rather than either/or terms.
But people who stress that our society is over-policed for all races shouldn’t be on a different team than Black Lives Matter. The Washington Post has recently compiled data on people killed by police across the country. The data should alarm us, no matter how the numbers are diced. More white people were killed by police in 2015 than any other race, but the percentage of murdered black citizens is far higher. The same holds true for stats on poverty, government assistance, etc.
These numbers mean that black people continue to be disproportionately victimized by our economy and by the laws meant to enforce the economic status quo, but that, yes, there are significant numbers of white losers, too. Putting these numbers in perspective should in no way be spun as a denial of the continuing existence of racial disparities — how could they be?
The argument over whether “black lives matter” or “all lives matter” is part of the same pointless shouting match. All lives matter, yes, but black lives are the ones that have been disproportionately devalued. I don’t understand why that formula is so difficult for people to grasp and agree on. Oppression takes place on multiple fronts. Reducing everything to race alone is almost as crazy as the familiar conservative refrain that “race has nothing to do with it.”
One of the most baffling responses to the persistence of racism is the formalized confession of white cluelessness. Blog posts crop up instructing white people how they should respond, how they should speak to black people about these issues, and, most pointedly, what they are NOT to say. Facebook is filled with protestations by well-meaning white people that until just now — Eureka! — they have had no understanding of the black experience.
One of the most embarrassing installments of this genre came from the guy I voted for in the presidential primary, Bernie Sanders. GOP vows to ‘take America back’ — but race tension, cop killings suggest we’re already there | The Lens: