America Begins to See More Clearly Now What Its Black Citizens Always Knew

Thousands of protesters march from downtown to the site of the arrest of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., June 5, 2020. (Eric Miller/Reuters)

The present round of protest is different. The participants are people of every race, ethnicity, sex, age, and religion.

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The present round of protest is different. The participants are people of every race, ethnicity, sex, age, and religion.

F our years ago, in the last week of my 20-year military career, a fellow officer pointed at the flat-screen television mounted on the wall of a classified Pentagon conference room and asked, “What do you think about that?”

I glanced up to see a cable news segment about Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers at the time, kneeling during the national anthem, the closed-captioning sputtering out blocks of text with his rationale. The summer of 2016 had been filled with more than a hundred Black Lives Matter protests in several dozen cities following the police killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota. Kaepernick explained that his protest was designed to call attention to racial injustice, including the brutal policing of black people.

Not wanting to have this conversation at work just days before retirement, I shrugged, demurring with a question, “Freedom of speech, right?”

Thankfully, my colleague, a white airman from Colorado, pressed me, a black sailor from North Carolina, on the issue. “I’ve served with you, saluted alongside you — I know how you feel about the flag. But do you think the police treat black people differently?”

There was no shrugging off this question.

Just before the start of my career two decades earlier, I was out smoking cigars with friends, celebrating my imminent departure for military training. On my drive home in the wee hours of the morning on an isolated stretch of interstate, reflections of blue lights lit up the car’s interior. Within minutes, I stood handcuffed as one policeman ransacked my car and the other informed me that one of my headlights was out. And then, adding matter-of-factly the real reason for the stop, “Besides, we saw you smoking that blunt” — using slang popularized by rap artists for a cigar filled with marijuana.

By the end of the ordeal, I was stuffed into the backseat of a police cruiser on my way to jail, arrested — not for the headlight or the tobacco in the cigar butt wisping in the ashtray but because, as an absent-minded college student, I’d forgotten to renew my license after it expired several weeks earlier. Scared to death and waiting to be released to my parents, a black man with long dreadlocks and a massive hematoma on his forehead was tossed in my cell, trails of blood racing down his face and pooling onto the concrete floor where he lay.

These bookends to my military service feel fresh once more as the nation roils with peaceful protests and violent unrest following the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police. In the span of just a couple of weeks, investigative reporting and released videos brought the incidents into the public sphere and quickly displaced the coronavirus pandemic as the nation’s preoccupation.

Calls for justice rang from all corners, and many of them soon developed into demonstrations decrying the disparate treatment of black Americans by law enforcement. Some of these have broken into riots, devolved into looting, and spiraled into violent confrontations with heavily armed police forces. But the overwhelming majority have been civil exercises of the First Amendment rights to assemble peaceably and to speak freely about the effects of racism on our liberty and society.

Predictably, rather than take on the exceptionally difficult task of a national self-assessment, some politicians and media directed public attention to the most egregious actions during protest rather than to the aims of the protest. The brew of militarized police, enraged citizens, and criminal looters — bursting into scenes of chaos backlit by burning cars and flashbangs — is a powerful elixir. Sensational images and impassioned appeals to stop the violence flooded traditional and social-media outlets, broadcasting the destruction and airing competing ideas about how to restore order.

Political leaders at all levels of government took their cases to public, typically sorting into one of two ideological camps. Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms characterizes one side, telling her city in an emotional speech that breaking windows and looting stores runs counter to the spirit of the protest and detracts from its purpose of calling attention to racial injustice. President Trump is a superlative characterization of the other side, which suggests that the unrest is not a symptom of a larger national problem but is the problem itself and requires a response of overwhelming force. He modeled his vision for quelling protest by sending federal agents with nonlethal munitions and smoke cannisters to surge against peaceful White House demonstrators so he could cross the street for a photo op in front a damaged historic church.

And, as usually happens when racial tensions reach fever pitch, Martin Luther King Jr. becomes the referential totem. In explaining the anger that boils over into destruction, we are reminded of his statement that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Others note that the principal order of business should be to restore order, echoing another King quote from the same speech: “I will always continue to say that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating.”

As the protests continue across the United States, we risk finding ourselves lost in the same pattern of unproductive behaviors that have long plagued the country. An obsession with modes of racial protests rather than with the meaning of them belies an unwillingness to face the flaws they expose in the nation’s ability to live up to its ideals and fulfill its obligations to the citizenry. Public order and the rule of law are elemental to the well-being of liberal democracies, but the values on which our republic is founded are far more important than any material loss from protest. After all, nearly 250 years after Massachusetts colonists destroyed private property by dumping the contents of a British East India Company shipment into the Boston Harbor, no one gives a damn about the tea. However, the principle that inspired that protest — “no taxation without representation” — endures.

If we are to capitalize on the present crisis to strengthen America and make the Union a little more perfect, we are duty-bound to grapple with the abiding sense of injustice that is felt in black America and fuels civil unrest today, just as it has for centuries.

The night the police stopped me for smoking a cigar, all three of us — the two white officers and me — became part of a larger narrative about the relationship between black Americans and policing. As much as Americans would like to consider every encounter on its own merits, history is never left to the past. The author James Baldwin aptly observed that history shapes our present, is bound up inside us, and influences our lives in ways that we do not always fully comprehend. History does not absolve us of the consequences of our personal behavior, but it does provide context for the choices we make, our interactions with each other, and our worldviews.

For black Americans in particular, the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are not aberrations in an otherwise equitable system of justice. Rather, they are wholly consistent with the history of policing and vigilantism experienced since the nation’s inception, knowledge of which has been passed through the generations as cautionary tales. Each incident between an unarmed black person and law enforcement or self-appointed watchmen evinces the veracity of lessons from the past. It is impossible to understand the current protests, peaceful and otherwise, without a fuller appreciation of this history.

The creation of the black American occurred in a system that rewarded the deprivation of a black person’s liberty and exacted harsh penalties when the racial order was breached. Violence was meted out at every point of enslavement, becoming the primary language in which the nation spoke to these new Americans. As they sought freedom from bondage, animated by the same spirit that had inspired a young nation to declare its independence in the summer of ’76, slave patrols were established to deter uprisings, to capture those who dared to escape, and to enforce the laws and codes that further stripped black Americans of their autonomy. State-sanctioned brutality — carried out by private citizens, commissioned patrols, and state militias — was the means to keep black Americans marginalized, delivering a bastardized conception of justice that any reason, or none at all, was enough for it to be employed with impunity.

After the United States’ victory over the Confederacy, slavery was made unconstitutional, and the vigilantism of white segregationists became a principal means of depriving the newly freed men and women of their rights. Attempts by victims of the racist violence to obtain justice were futile.

Poor conditions in the South compelled millions of black Americans to migrate north and west in search of work and security. The vigilantism they experienced in the South, however, was succeeded by over-policing in their new locales. The arrival of so many black Americans in a relatively short period of time altered local politics and increased economic competition with working-class and indigent white residents. Law enforcement became the means by which the economic, political, and social threats assigned to the mere presence of black people were managed.

White European immigrants, also seeking stability, were treated as second-class citizens but were awarded patronage jobs that empowered them to control the more undesirable black arrivals. A significant share of police officers across the North and Midwest consisted of European immigrants. Studies of the early 20th century show that arrests and incarceration rates of black Americans increased along with the proportion of police who were white immigrants. As many black newspapers chronicled at the time, police harassment, raids, and brutality in black communities were commonplace. The urgent pleas of black Americans for accountability and redress went largely ignored by political and institutional leaders.

The stories from early and mid 20th-century America are legion. Isaac Woodard, a black World War II veteran fresh from the Pacific, had his eyes gouged out by police in Batesburg, S.C. Claude Neal was lynched — a mob of 100 white vigilantes shot, hanged, burned, and castrated him, taking fingers and toes for souvenirs. And these weren’t distinct occurrences — police and mobs often collaborated in extrajudicial acts of violence. A 1933 study, published in the book A Tragedy of Lynching, estimated that police officers participated in at least half of lynchings and either condoned or turned a blind eye to nearly all the others.

Nonviolent civil-rights activists were often met with police and posse violence. Black Americans were subjected to beatings, lynchings, bombings, and shootings that rarely resulted in justice for the victims. Images of peaceful black protesters in the clutches of heaving German shepherds, clubbed by uniformed police, and shielding one another from water-cannon blasts are seared into the American psyche.

The lessons of this history have been painfully clear to each successive generation of black Americans: Policing by agents of the state as well as by private citizens is accompanied by an ever-present risk of violence, perpetrators of the violence often go unpunished, and black citizens’ accounts of the violence are often tossed aside. Altogether, even as the nation made lasting strides in extending the rights and privileges of citizenship to black Americans, the inability to receive justice when wronged by agents of the state or other citizens was a right that remained out of their reach.

So, when Ahmaud Arbery is accosted by murderous vigilantes while jogging through his neighborhood, black America is reminded of teenager Trayvon Martin’s killing by an overzealous neighborhood watchman, and of the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till. And when George Floyd dies as a police officer kneels on his neck, black America is reminded of stories of similarly brutal policing over the years: policemen blinding Isaac Woodard in an alleyway, choking out Eric Garner on a street on Staten Island, shooting Walter Scott in the back in an empty North Charleston lot, and the list goes on.

The narrative that emerges from this history is not the result of forced connections between unrelated dots scattered in time and space. Rather, the collection of incidents manifests as a clear articulation of the longstanding deleterious relationship between the state and its black citizens. The relationship is characterized by mistrust, conflict, and the sense that law enforcement is free of oversight and consequence when engaging black citizens. This conception is in the ether — few black Americans can remember the exact day it dawned on them that policing is likely going to be different for them than for most of their fellow citizens.

As a college kid pulled over by police late into the night, one officer at my window and the other lurking over my right shoulder on the car’s passenger side with a flashlight in one hand and a holster palmed in the other, I can tell you that the fear racing through me was a product of this sordid history. I grew up the child of college-educated professional parents in a white subdivision in Raleigh, N.C., where police were implicitly trusted and rarely seen. So my view of police was informed not so much by personal experience as much by exposure to the experiences of others like me. Issued along with my driver’s license came parental guidance for any interaction with police: “Survive the encounter; worry about your rights and liberty later.” The bleeding black man on the floor of my cell confirmed the wisdom in that counsel.

The racial tensions at play between black citizens and law enforcement are emblematic of a broader question about the powers of the state and the liberty of its people. Racial inequality has long been the primary issue that exposes the gap between what the United States says it is and what its actions communicate to the citizenry and the world. Slavery is often referred to as America’s original sin not because of white people’s treatment of black people but because a nation founded on the high-minded ideals of liberty and equality allowed the enslavement of human beings to persist. That contradiction, along with all the ensuing racially targeted deprivations of natural and, later, constitutional rights, is not an unfortunate relic of history; it is a lethal paradox that threatens the nation’s identity and narrative.

The protests in response to the killing of George Floyd are not just expressions of outrage at his death or at the long history of the use of excessive force in black communities. They are also a people’s rejection of the state’s violence and infringement on the rights, liberties, and autonomy of its citizens. The rallying cry “black lives matter” is an assertion that, given our nation’s history on race, America can realize its potential only if it recognizes the inherent value of a group it once enslaved, and accepts the right of that group to hold the state and its agents to account.

At their core, the historical responses of black Americans to abuses of power by law enforcement are really a question about a foundational American principle: If we are a nation in which government derives its power from the consent of the governed, then the ability to keep that power in check rests with the people. But if a people, because of little more than their race, have been excluded from the right to hold the state accountable for its actions or inaction, then the foundation of our liberal democracy is faulty.

The current protests are not simply about race relations. They are not about whether white and black people get along better or like each other more. They are, rather, affirmations of the need for a reckoning, for an answer to the question of why race remains a distinctly divisive issue capable of exposing the gap between the nation’s ideals and its actions.

The present round of civil unrest is different — it’s more intense, widespread, sustained, and focused than previous responses to police and vigilante violence against unarmed black people. Protests have occurred in every state in the country, and the participants are Americans of every race, ethnicity, sex, age and religion. If there’s been an epiphany, it’s the same for 21st-century Americans as it’s been for those in previous centuries: Unjust and unwarranted state encroachments of individual liberty and abridgments of constitutional rights are unacceptable.

If this principle undergirding the protests is as old as the nation, then the new wrinkle is evident in how many more Americans of all kinds are explicitly insisting that the liberty of their fellow black citizens is as sacred as their own. This is no small matter. Given our nation’s origin, getting to this point is a testament to exceptionalism. But the pats on the back end there; the thing is not resolved.

These protests are just the latest chapter in a more consequential tale. It is much more convenient to reduce these sorts of conflicts between the state and its people to little more than interpersonal prejudices run amok. Any attempts to consider the broader role that racial inequality plays usually devolves into debates about whether racism is a sound explanation, a convenient scapegoat, or a magical and malleable fiction. The easy, but incorrect, explanation is that individual behavior is the only culprit. There, the implicit suggestion is that our time is better spent arguing about rotten fruit — bad apples in the police force, in black and white America, among peaceful protesters.

But the truth is that racism is a unique and painful reminder of how the nation has historically fallen short and of the lingering effects that continue to plague us. It’s a scathing critique of the use of state power to deny the very thing our nation was created to establish: a government based on the equality of citizens and on the protection of their liberty. It spotlights the misalignment between our principles, our mythology, and our practices.

To put a finer point on it: The persistence of racial inequality threatens the nation’s ontological security, by which scholars of international relations mean the critical importance of the stability of a nation’s identity. Threats to that security can be felt as deeply as threats to economic or national security. Further, rebellions against racial inequality challenge the idea that well-ordered democratic societies are more peaceful and prosperous than alternative forms. Together, the existence of racism and protests against an unresponsive government present as a two-pronged attack on the nation’s identity.

As in its responses to other types of security threats, the state employs its instruments of power to reduce risk, convey strength, and reestablish a sense of normalcy. Law enforcement is typically employed at the tip of the spear for domestic ontological threats, engaging marginalized communities and facing displays of discontent in a manner altogether different from how it interacts with other parts of the citizenry. The problem with this approach is immediately evident — disparate treatment of citizens protesting against inequality and injustice places three sacred American principles — of equality, liberty, and security — in tension.

The present moment is neither about animus between white and black Americans nor about whether there is an institutional bias in law enforcement against black people. It is decidedly a question about the duties of the state to its citizens, especially those who have been historically excluded, and about the state’s acceptance of accountability when it falls short.

Racism remains a national Achilles heel because it forces a confrontation with our identity and demands that the proper balance of liberty and security be available to all citizens regardless of their race or ethnicity. The protests spawned by the killing of George Floyd are an interrogation of this quandary that black Americans have insisted on since the beginning. Will the people reject the illiberal application of state-sanctioned power, especially against those who have long been its primary object? That the protests today are showing small signs of multiracial solidarity among the general population — something that the nation has rarely seen — is a definitive answer to the question and a reason to believe that the moment we’re in may be different.

The United States is a different place today from what it was when the new year dawned. Its president has been impeached, a global pandemic has killed over 100,000 of us, the economy has seesawed while unemployment has skyrocketed, most Americans spent much of the spring shuttered in their homes, and a massive nationwide protest in response to the killing of unarmed black people by police and vigilantes has captured public attention. Conventional wisdom suggests that there is no going back to pre-2020 normal; a new normal that will alter the American way of life in some significant fashion awaits.

A prolonged gaze at racism and the associated powers of the state — long utilized, at worst, to perpetuate it or, at best, inadequately address it — may lead to consequential outcomes. The public is seeing the issue of black Americans’ access to liberty and of their exposure to over-policing differently in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. Our sensibilities are changing, becoming ever so slightly more aligned to those of the country we aspire to be than to the one of days past.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that most Americans — most white, most Hispanic, and most black Americans —are more concerned about the actions of the police that led to nationwide protest than they are that some protests have turned violent. By a margin of two to one, Americans believe that the criminal-justice system treats white Americans better than it does black Americans and that the police killings of black citizens in recent years are signs of a broader problem. Most Americans — a majority of each racial group — think that race was a major factor in Floyd’s death, think that police are too often not held accountable for misconduct, and support measures to mitigate the use of deadly force.

Naturally, political actors find public consensus on an issue is irresistible to leverage. Some progressives demand that police forces across the country be defunded and disbanded. Their proposals benefit from video of peaceful protesters being met with swinging batons, tear gas and smoke, rubber bullets, polycarbonate shields pushing citizens to the ground, and even the front end of police SUVs and the front hooves of mounted patrols. Some on the right prefer that more-militarized police forces and even the military itself face down the demonstrators. That view is aided by raucous rioters destroying private property, opportunists raiding businesses, and angry Americans setting police cars ablaze.

The policy fights will rage, but we shouldn’t allow that to distract us from what’s happening in the country. At a time when political and partisan polarization seem to doom the prospect of good governance, Americans across lines that typically divide us have come together daily, for weeks on end, to compel a change in behavior by the state and its agents, aligning us more closely to our professed principles. The collective outrage at the racial injustice and abuse of power that surrounds George Floyd’s death is a testimony of American progress.

Significant work remains. Law-enforcement departments across the country will need to conduct deep self-assessments to restore and keep the faith of the American people. Political institutions and actors will need to determine the proper responses to the moment and the will of the people. Citizens will need to consider all the ways in which racial injustice harms the American experiment. And we will all need to come to the understanding that there is no liberty without security, and that the power to provide that security is derived from the consent of the governed.

There’s a photo currently circulating of, on one side, former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem and, on the other side, Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin casually kneeling on the neck of George Floyd. The striking image poses an implicit question about the value of black life and the extent to which we are willing to challenge the American identity to answer it.

It reminded me of the conversation back in the Pentagon during my last week in uniform. I told my colleague that since my 16th birthday I’d been pulled over about 40 times by police — almost always escaping citations by intentionally handing over my military ID along with my driver’s license. I told him of the experiences of family members and friends who’d also had the uncanny misfortune of attracting undue police attention. I told him of the night a cigar and a recently expired license landed me in jail.

He asked if I thought most of the confrontations between unarmed black people and police were just a matter of bad apples. I told him, “No.”

He asked if I thought that all police are racist. No.

But to his question of whether police treat black people differently — of whether I believe that racial injustice exists — the answer could only be yes. If the protests are any indication, Americans agree and are declaring that the time for change is now.

Theodore R. Johnson is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and author of the forthcoming book on national solidarity, When the Stars Begin to Fall.
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