When John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president, civil rights were not on his mind. His much celebrated and otherwise memorable inaugural address in January 1961 made no mention of the growing desegregation movement or its fierce and violent opposition. He pushed his first White House meeting with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to that fall. And when King asked him to champion civil rights legislation in order to follow through on his campaign promise to advance racial equality, Kennedy was dismissive because he thought it would be too heavy a lift for Congress. But less than three years later, the Civil Rights Act — the first of several sweeping civil rights measures passed that same decade — was signed into law by Kennedy’s successor.
Sometimes, in America, change happens fast.
That’s been evident since the killing of George Floyd in May set off nationwide protests that have gone on for over 40 consecutive days. Jurisdictions across the country have already started to implement substantial reforms, including Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed: The city council voted, with a veto-proof majority, to advance a ballot measure to abolish the city’s police department. The question now is whether or not the federal government, and Democrats in particular, will seize the current moment and push for rigorous antiracist policies, in the mold of legislation passed in the 1960s, that will fundamentally change American society for the better.
That’s more far-reaching change than what many presidential candidates were willing to offer in the Democratic presidential primaries, which effectively ended before Floyd’s death. In response to the growing calls for what some viewed as “radical” change, several centrist Democrats, including the presumptive nominee, Joe Biden, staked their candidacies on the notion that their own incrementalist proposals were the more realistic choice if people wanted to see any progressive ideas become law.
But the seemingly pragmatic argument against more ambitious policy proposals — that they are too aggressive to garner broad congressional support and are therefore an unrealistic pursuit — missed a significant trend: Over the past decade, a surge in activism and a corresponding leftward lurch in the Democratic Party hinted that America was on the brink of a mass social movement, one that could bring on a new civil-rights era that would make bold, antiracist policies, including reparations, a tenable goal.
In other words, the Floyd protests are not a fleeting moment; rather, they have ushered America into a new era that requires a different approach to politics — one that looks to movements, not lobbyists, to ask what legislation is politically viable. Now Biden ought to take heed of the protesters’ most urgent demands to advance racial equality and begin drafting an epoch-making, antiracist agenda.
Some Democrats already agree. “You’re literally having judges come in front of the Judiciary Committee who won’t even say that Brown v. Board of Education was rightly decided,” New Jersey Senator Cory Booker told me last year, when he was still running for president. “We’re seeing voting rights under attack now, we’re seeing civil rights under attack right now, and we’re seeing institutions like mass incarceration do such damage to Black and brown communities. We have to talk about these issues and the urgency to do something about them.”
It’s important to note that this moment didn’t come out of nowhere; it’s been decades in the making. Last year, long before the Floyd protests began, the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina, a civil rights activist, said America was in the midst of what he called a Third Reconstruction. That’s in part because the United States government had failed to live up to the promise of its own civil rights-era laws, and instead of eradicating racial inequality, the country has reaffirmed its caste system: Black families were hit particularly hard by the Great Recession, and lost much of their wealth in the housing market collapse; metro areas across the country have been resegregating since the 1970s; and policies that contributed to mass incarceration — or the New Jim Crow — have stifled economic growth in Black and brown communities. In fact, according to a 2017 study by the Institute for Policy Studies, median Black household wealth is projected to dip to zero dollars by 2053.
Add to that the Trump administration’s accelerated rollback of civil rights, the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic collapse, and a video showing a white cop killing a Black man by kneeling on his neck for nine minutes, and an already restive resistance movement has become more enraged, kicking off what looks like a consequential revolt.
“We are in the midst of a new civil-rights era because we’re in a renewed era of white supremacy,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil rights activist who ran for president in 1984 and 1988, told me last year. “We’re facing a fast headwind by this unusually strong, militarized white nationalist, race supremacy. And yet in spite of that, we’re increasing our numbers in Congress,” he said of Black and brown people. “We’re fighting the headwind!”
Since Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013 in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin — and even dating back to the first Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 — social movements have only been growing. “We are in a really serious and critical moment right now, and we are in a full-on resistance movement, from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo to the Women’s March to the March for our Lives,” Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, said before the Floyd protests.
Indeed, the scale of these movements can’t be ignored: The Women’s March in 2017, which confronted issues pertaining to racism and racial inequality in addition to women’s rights, was the largest protest in Washington, D.C., since the Vietnam War. The demonstrations around the country that day may have drawn more participants than any other single-day protest in American history. And the recent police brutality protests have drawn millions of demonstrators across the country for what is shaping up to be the biggest social movement since the nation’s founding.
After decades of deteriorating social conditions in some communities and activism brewing below the surface, the killing of Floyd caused the movement to boil over. So if he’s elected president in November, Joe Biden will likely preside over one of the more consequential moments in American history, and he should be ready to answer to a forceful antiracist movement that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
“Movements can change what politicians tend to do,” said Barber, who leads the Poor People’s Campaign. “Lyndon Baines Johnson didn’t intend to ever be the one to sign the Voting Rights Act, but the movement forced that. And it forced it in a non-election year, too.” He warns that campaigning against ideas just because they seem unrealistic can be deeply damaging to the movement for equality.
That’s why Democrats, and Biden in particular, should prepare for a presidency that doesn’t just slap Band-Aids on gun wounds, but one that begins to implement bold, transformative policies. America doesn’t need minor touch-ups — it needs to fundamentally change the way it polices its neighborhoods; it needs laws like a new Fair Housing Act to promote desegregation or a new Voting Rights Act to eradicate voter suppression; it needs to provide its citizens with the right to free health care and higher education. Put simply, it needs a whole lot more antiracist and anti-poverty laws if it is to become a “more perfect” union.
“If you can’t take on those who would call you a socialist just because you want to have living wages, then we are in a sad place as a nation,” Barber said. “We are producing people who judge their rightness by the polls of the moment, and with that kind of political calculation, we would never have had women’s suffrage, we would never have had a civil rights movement, and we would never have had any of the progressive things that we ever achieved.”
One vice presidential hopeful who might help Biden seize the moment is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. “We can’t just stand back,” she told me at one of the D.C. Black Lives Matter protests last month. “I want to see us attack systemic racism head-on everywhere. It’s about how the police treat Black men and women, but it’s also about systemic racism in education, in health, in the Black-white wealth gap, and in housing. We need, as a country, to have a serious, heartfelt conversation about what is wrong, what has been wrong now for centuries, and what we can do to change.”
Many of Warren’s policies have targeted issues that Black Lives Matter protesters care about. In 2018, for example, she introduced an ambitious housing plan that aimed to desegregate communities across the country, and she was one of the first presidential candidates this season to fully support reparations. And when she showed up at the demonstrations last month, protesters broke out in a “VP! VP! VP!” chant.
Before he dropped out of the race for president this year, Senator Booker said he hoped to make this election a part of a bigger movement for democracy and justice. Though his campaign never gained traction, what’s happening on the streets in America today may well be the birth of that movement. And if Biden wins in November, he will have to reckon with its loudest voices.
The question for him then will be: Is he ready to answer their call?