The protests against police brutality gripping the nation are a study in contrast — notably, the contrast between the government response to the current unrest and its response to last month’s demonstrations.
When an armed makeshift militia showed up at the Michigan State Capitol to demand the state be reopened — even as coronavirus cases were growing — President Trump hailed them as “very good people.” As thousands of people descended upon city streets in mostly peaceful yet forceful calls for an end to extrajudicial police killings of black people, the president denigrated them as “thugs,” demanded that state governors “dominate” them and called for the U.S. military to be activated against its own citizenry.
This contrast is nothing new. Black people have long sought means of collective action that circumvent electoral or judicial routes, reflecting their well-earned skepticism that such routes will bring about the desired change. And the government response to this collective action has often been characterized by a focus on surveillance and criminalization not applied to collective actions led by aggrieved white Americans.
This is simply the latest indicator that America has very different standards for who gets the privilege of expressing anger and defiance, without fear of grave consequence. Angry white agitators can be labeled good people, patriots and revolutionaries, while angry black agitators are labeled identity extremists, thugs and violent opportunists.
In my research I refer to this racial contrast in how the public imagines expressions of political anger as the anger gap. This gap carries important consequences for how effectively socially marginalized groups, particularly African-Americans, can advance their demands.
Again, the contrast is clear. Within weeks of the militia’s descent on the Capitol, states across the nation began reopening in earnest. Meanwhile, the dominant labeling of the current unrest as unlawful and disorderly is used to delegitimize protesters’ claims, increasing the chances that the calls for systemic transformation are met with little more than piecemeal, superficial reforms.
It should come as no surprise that this contrast weighs heavily on many black people as they make sense of the political world. When I asked African-Americans across the country to reflect on what makes them angry about politics or race issues in the United States, the tone most characteristic of their responses was not one of indignation but rather exhaustion and resignation.
I’m tired. This country will never be an ally of the black man or woman. We can do nothing to change it.
This sentiment is reinforced not just in times of mass unrest. It is also fortified in the everyday political minutiae that black Americans grapple with: Black people wait in lines for hours to cast ballots while their neighbors in white neighborhoods wait minutes. Black Americans are subjected to patronizing messaging from political figures on both sides of the aisle, admonishing them to tell Cousin Pookie to put down the video games and vote or to pull up their pants if they want fair treatment in the legal system. They are told in so many words that their vote preferences are uninformed.
These constant sleights are unrelenting and exhausting. They sap the motivation to do the everyday work of politics — to register others to vote, to canvass for a candidate and to endure the long lines at polling places come November.
This is important to understand as we remain fixated on the exasperation on vivid display at this moment. Once the figurative and literal fires are stamped out and black communities face the compounding effects of mass arrests, escalated tensions with the police and the continuing disproportionate toll of Covid-19, how many will feel a profound sense of fatigue when asked to do the work to oust President Trump this fall?
It is the challenge and opportunity for the Democratic Party to show that it understands and shares this anger. Since it is dependent on black votes to retake the White House, it must consider what it says and how it acts to ensure that the kindling flames of this moment are not snuffed out once Election Day arrives. To do so requires drawing a sharp contrast from the usual staid talking points for a black community bound to feel an acute sense of resignation and exhaustion from having to repeat the same calls for justice.
Joe Biden and Democratic candidates would do well to view Black Lives Matter not as a slogan but as a platform. Democratic leaders can engage directly with the architects of that platform and incorporate some of its language and policy into the official party platform.
The party can commit to creating a national database of violent police incidents, as has long been called for by advocates and journalists. The party can identify efforts to combat the myriad ways black enfranchisement is challenged, from voting ID requirements to lack of polling-place capacity to microtargeting campaigns intended to depress the black vote. It can affirm black people’s anguish not just over police violence against black men like George Floyd but also black women like Breonna Taylor, black trans people like Tony McDade, black homeless people like Charly Keunang and black people dealing with mental impairment like Charleena Lyles.
The party can demonstrate a willingness to heed the ideas imagined by activists on the transformations of the major institutions in the country, from prison abolition to universal health care. Such openness to novel ideas typically considered beyond the pale of party politics can send a strong signal to a people feeling disillusioned.
Black people need a credible sense that this time around their input will perhaps reap responsiveness — that this time around, the work they do in November may preclude the need to take to the streets again next summer. Then, perhaps, this election will offer a study in contrast to a status quo many find distinctly unsatisfying.
Davin Phoenix, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of “The Anger Gap: How Race Shapes Emotion in Politics.”
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