This feels like a tipping point for our country.
The agonizing image of the killing of George Floyd is seared into the nation’s consciousness. Polls show a majority of Americans recognize that racism is a serious matter in America and see police violence against Black people as a real problem. The call for action has grown so pronounced that it has nudged congressional Republicans into a recognition that they need to at least appear to be doing something.
And yet . . . and yet . . .
We’ve seen similar seeming tipping points on other issues, only to have things remain largely the same. Victories at the polls, expressions of public outrage, elevated public consciousness don’t always translate into changed public policy or practice.
Many hoped Barack Obama’s election marked a new and different America. Instead, on the very day of the new president’s inauguration, the opposition adopted a strategy of thwarting him at every turn. In the wake of the horrific massacre of children and staffers at Sandy Hook, nationally popular gun safety legislation died aborning, despite broad outrage and calls for action.
What could dash our hopes of transformation now? There are many factors, but three strike me as formidable.
A clear-eyed person can’t have watched the divisive course of Trump-era America and believe race relations are improving. Those who deny there’s significant bigotry in America have now retreated to this rhetorical redoubt: Yes, there’s racism, but it’s not systemic. By which they seem to mean: Therefore, it’s not really a pressing problem.
In an era when we regularly see cell phone videos of appalling police violence against Black people, that claim is best viewed as a rationalization, a way to deny the need for change, action, reform.
Second, there’s an undeniable authoritarian impulse in this country. Often expressed as a desire for law and order, it shows a willingness to ignore — or even encourage — police brutality in enforcing that order.
Trump regularly plays those dark authoritarian chords with a demagogue’s divisive skill. This time, it hasn’t worked — at least, not yet. From his racist tweet “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” to his threats to send the US military unwanted into various states to impose order, to his baseless conspiracy theories about antifa provocateurs, he has been clangingly off-key.
But that won’t deter him. The president and certain elements of the conservative media will keep trying to prompt an authoritarian backlash. They are already trying to use the imprecise and easily exploitable “Defund the Police” slogan to that end. Similarly, in ruling out the renaming of military bases that honor Confederate military leaders, Trump is clearly trying to portray the movement to expunge lingering stains of the Civil War as an assault on American heritage.
Perhaps we’ve moved too far along for such a backlash to take hold. And yet, when one recalls the disapproval and anger masquerading as patriotism that greeted then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s respectful protest in kneeling during the national anthem, it’s clear that authoritarianism is never far beneath the surface of American life.
Lastly, there’s bureaucratic inertia. As anyone who has covered state or municipal government knows, laws, public-safety contracts, and police department cultures are hard to reform. Forces that favor the status quo batten down the hatches until the immediate storm blows over, knowing that the fierce urgency of now often fades when met with faceless delay. And so reforms get bottled up or watered down.
Outrage now has to move beyond protests and into continuous pressure for concrete reforms. Demonstrators who have spent long hours on the street must also spend time in hearing rooms and spectator galleries and on their cell phones and e-mail, demanding action from politicians — and making it clear there will be consequences at the ballot box for falling short.
These protests have set things in motion. But if meaningful change is to come, it’s imperative that Americans stay focused, active, and relentless.