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The Deep Amnesia of Our National Conscience

There can be no healing in America without an honest reckoning with racial injustice—but we have long known that.

Chandan Khanna/Getty Images

On Friday, the arrests of CNN’s Omar Jimenez and his crew covering the protests against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis were carried live, with reactions in real time from two of the network’s anchors. “We don’t know why they’re being arrested,” New Day’s Alisyn Camerota told viewers at one point. “They’re not being given any explanation, as far as we can hear, for why they’re being arrested. We don’t know why they’re being handcuffed and led away. They are allowed to be reporting on the unrest that’s happening right now, but for some reason, the state police decided that they need to be under arrest.”

“And just to be clear, Alisyn,” co-anchor John Berman chimed in, “having been in the middle of protests like this, I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

It’s likely he actually had. Nearly six years ago, The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and The Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly were detained by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and video of their arrests went similarly viral. Neither incident marked the first time a police force has obstructed or sidelined journalists. But this is how public memory tends to work—we record by taping over. Certain snippets of the past are always accessible—1776, 1865, 1968—but all else is erased to make room for the infinite present. There’s no telling, really, what we might do as a country if we were willing and able to take in everything in full—if we could review the whole sweep of what we are and have been. But more police precincts would probably be set ablaze.

Another missing part of the tape: In 2014, 250 businesses in Ferguson and surrounding communities were impacted by property damage or losses during the unrest there. When a grand jury declined to indict the officer who killed Michael Brown that November, at least 25 buildings were burned. The protests’ financial and social costs to the city were real. Yet the images that endured well beyond that fall were of police advancing on protesters and journalists—displays of excessive force against demonstrators protesting the use of excessive force and the reporters working to make sense of it all.

Those nights and the wave of action and organizing that followed them moved public opinion on race and policing so dramatically that even politicians on the right—members of a political movement built partially on reactions to the riots of the late 1960s and the promise of tougher policing—now regularly offer perfunctory denunciations of police brutality, caught between the prejudices of their base constituencies and the broader public’s deepened sensitivity to racial injustice. Consider the seesawing tone, this week, of the president: a man who argued the police should be more abusive to the people they detain during his last campaign and has rolled back law enforcement restrictions and oversight in office.

On Wednesday, he called Floyd’s death “sad and tragic” and said that he had asked the FBI and Justice Department to investigate the case. Early Friday morning, he threatened to quell the unrest in Minneapolis with the military. “Any difficulty and we will assume control,” he wrote, “but when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” It was pointed out almost immediately that George Wallace had once made a similar remark.

Later Friday, Trump defended himself by referencing a murder that took place amid the unrest—“Looting leads to shooting, and that’s why a man was shot and killed in Minneapolis on Wednesday night”—and ended an afternoon press conference without any reference to the demonstrations whatsoever. But he began a roundtable discussion with executives on reopening the economy later in the day with condolences to Floyd’s family and a call for the Justice Department to expedite its investigation into his death. “It’s very important that we have peaceful protesters and support the rights for peaceful protesters,” he added. “We can’t allow a situation like happened in Minneapolis to descend further into lawless anarchy and chaos.”

On Saturday, the seesaw came to rest at a position that will likely be the party line—those who took to the streets this week, Trump said, were “‘Organized Groups’ that have nothing to do with George Floyd,” and Democratic officials have been weak in combating them. “Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis will never be mistaken for the late, great General Douglas McArthur or great fighter General George Patton,” he tweeted. “How come all of these places that defend so poorly are run by Liberal Democrats? Get tough and fight (and arrest the bad ones). STRENGTH!” In summary: The president was saddened by the use of inordinate force against George Floyd and would support an inordinate military or quasi-military response to looters and vandals in Minneapolis and elsewhere.

A fear is setting in in some corners that this message could resonate with voters—just as it was feared that the right would capitalize on the activities of anti-fascists and hostile confrontations with Trump officials during the midterm elections, which Democrats ultimately swept. Of course, white backlash shouldn’t be discounted as a political force. In fact, it doesn’t seem altogether trivial that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and journey to the center of American life began less than a year after the protests in Ferguson. But overall, the history of violence and unrest in this country offers few straightforward doctrines. The riots at Stonewall marked a new beginning for one civil rights movement. The riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, after spurring the passage of the last major civil rights act, brought the apex of another to an end.

A recent paper from Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow found that protester-initiated violence in that period bolstered support for repressive measures and may have contributed to Nixon’s victory in the 1968 election. Another paper, from Harvard’s Ryan Enos, New York University’s Aaron Kaufman, and UC Merced’s Melissa Sands, found that the riots in Los Angeles following the beating of Rodney King in 1992 led to the registration and mobilization of Democratic voters and boosted local support for liberal policy initiatives. On the right, the list of murderers and would-be terrorists inspired by racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric over the past several years is too long to offer even in brief. None of them have toppled Donald Trump and his party as political entities, although they probably haven’t helped them much, either. A mass shooting by a pro-life activist left three dead and nine injured in 2015, and the National Abortion Federation has documented over 400 instances of vandalism against abortion providers and advocates over the last decade. Both of these facts have been immaterial to mainstream abortion discourse and electoral politics.

The most that can be decisively taken from all this is that the factors that render radical action productive or counterproductive, effectual or ineffectual, are complex. Most of the people we can expect to try that calculus are going to be far from the ground where action actually happens, and the actors may well have a different sense entirely of what political success—in the moment or in the aggregate—actually means. On Thursday night, a precinct was burned, and the police fled. To the people who burned it, this was a victory, of a kind, against one of the public institutions least accountable to the public and responsive to democratic will.

For all the awareness that has been raised about the inequities of the criminal justice system and for all the reforms that have been passed or attempted over the last decade, policing in America has not fundamentally changed. Police killings haven’t declined, and body cameras have succeeded mostly in providing evidence that abuses are still common. We’ve made modest progress within the carceral institutions where people are sent once the police are done with them, and have narrowed, here and there, the list of things the police might confront someone for to begin with. But if you are confronted by the police—even if you are unarmed and, most especially, if you are black—there remains a chance that you will have your throat pressed into asphalt until you are dead. That is what the protests are about.

What will it take to “heal”? Probably not calls for healing: We’ve plenty of those already. Exhortations to vote are marginally better, although Minneapolis, thanks largely to the votes of the black residents now being lectured, is a city already governed by the party ostensibly most committed to police reforms, as is Minnesota, for the most part. And our federal political system is not an egalitarian democracy, as much as we are fond of pretending so. Sometimes, though, that system presents opportunities, and whether we move soon toward whatever “healing” might mean ultimately depends on whether the Democratic Party not only prevails in November but adopts a policy program adequate to the needs of the black community.

Those policies should include efforts not only to reform but fundamentally to rethink and rework law enforcement in this country. They should also include massive federal investments in housing, education, and job and anti-poverty initiatives that might address the structural inequities fueling anger and despair. This was exactly the approach recommended by the Kerner Commission in the wake of the riots in 1967—healing meant the adoption of programs “on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems.”

“These programs will require unprecedented levels of funding and performance,” the report read, “but they neither probe deeper nor demand more than the problems which called them forth. There can be no higher priority for national action and no higher claim on the nation’s conscience.”

Over half a century later, despite obvious strides, the nation’s conscience has unfinished business to attend to. The racial wealth gap is a yawning chasm. Schools and entire communities across the country have either resegregated or were never fully integrated in the first place. And men like George Floyd are being disproportionately abused and murdered by the police. We should do better. But we also shouldn’t delude ourselves that doing better would bring calm and quiet to our streets and our politics. White backlash is, again, among the most potent forces in American life; both the last decade and our long collective history—the whole tape, in full—should assure us that the drive for justice will produce its own insurrections. We face a choice not between pain and an easy peace but between the pain of wounds left untreated and the pain of a long, fitful recovery.