Updated: June 2, 2020 9:23:36 am
American history is a profound collision between two exceptionalisms. The first is the exceptionalism of self-image: A country providentially endowed with liberty, equality, rule of law, democracy and capitalism. But the second exceptionalism just requires putting “race” in front of these ideals. The story flips easily. The story of liberty turns out to be a story of one of the largest, racially structured mass incarcerations of any society in the world. The story of equality turns out to be a story of racial hierarchy, especially for African Americans. The story of rule of law goes hand in hand with a deeply violent society that uses law as an instrument to subjugate particular communities. The story of democracy turns out to be a story of repeated attempts at democratic disenfranchisement. And capitalism turns out to racially tinged: Who can or cannot participate in the market order, in urban spaces, has been profoundly shaped by race.
The explosion of protest, violence, rioting, curfews and brutal police crackdowns in the wake of George Floyd’s suffocation by police in Minneapolis is another chapter in the long history of a democracy whose self-image often cloaks its more sordid realities. It is a cliché about American democracy that its original sin, “race”, shows up the pathology of each one of its ideals and its policies: Everything from gun control, voting procedures, federalism, and the politics of welfare is coloured by the shadow of race.
Each political movement forward to erase the sordid legacy of race seems to be accompanied by its own setbacks. Emancipation from slavery unleashed new and diabolical strategies for segregation, economic disempowerment and disenfranchisement. The New Deal was based on a political compromise that left the structure that sustained white supremacist politics in the South intact. The “liberal reforms” in the aftermath of the Sixties were nullified by the use of crime and welfare as dog whistles for racism. The sunny optimism of the neo-liberal era of the Nineties opened up many political and elite spaces and some economic churn. Within the African American community, they probably deepened the class divides, leaving many disempowered. But the cultural and institutional needle moved relatively little. Institutional racism in institutions like the police remained pervasive.
The sense of stigmatisation and disempowerment of African Americans continued. Obama’s delicate balancing act, rather than overcoming racial contradictions, politically sharpened them. It paradoxically gave rise to both the Black Lives Movement and White Supremacist Nationalism. For many, Obama became, in Cornel West’s phrase, “the flag bearer” for exceptionalism of American self-image, rather than the “cross bearer” for racial injustice. And still he could not avoid a white nationalist backlash.
This brief history is important as a cautionary tale. It is a reminder of just how difficult it has been for democracy to overcome deep racial or ethnic hostility. It is often an instrument of its perpetuation. But given this history, and the deep violence that has always accompanied it, perhaps the question is not why these riots are happening, but why they don’t happen more often. This violence is always a lurking threat, held at bay by a combination of artful repression and political misdirection. Sometimes, if you are lucky, there is a political culture that, even at the risk of some hypocrisy and complicity, has an investment in trying to build a common story. The minute that story disappears, anarchy is not far from the corner. The sheer pervasiveness of the rioting is a reminder of that.
Four things make this moment of violence in the US even more fraught. The first is, clearly, a president who has a political investment in polarisation, and many would argue, racism. Incitement is in his nature. The Republican Party and its supporters have, tacitly, made their peace with the white nationalism. They will, tacitly, make this election about order and race, rather than justice and rights. The second is a deeper disenchantment in politics. There is a more energised Left (although what counts as Left in the US would be centrist everywhere else). But the Left has two challenges. It is not clear that many Democratic governors or mayors have shown greater capability in managing the politics or the institutional fallout from this crisis. This kind of violence also seems to reflect a pervasive disenchantment with normal politics. Third, the general intellectual and social climate speaks to an even more pervasive and frenzied breakdown of trust than ever. All sides will build their own story from whatever information or video they can find. The police will come out aggrieved at being painted villains; those seeking justice will come out aggrieved since they will be unfairly painted as violent anarchists; the conservative forces of order will come out aggrieved that violence is being accepted in the name of justice. The politics of recrimination will dominate.
There are a few silver linings. The fact that there were widespread protests and that these were far more multi-racial than would have been the case anytime in American history is encouraging. But in a context where the political incentives are aligned towards polarisation, incitement and repression, it is likely this potential bridge towards conciliation will collapse easily. All conspiracies will be let loose in an environment marked by institutional decay and a nervous uncertainty about the future. It is potentially very volatile.
Finally, there is the enduring dilemma of race politics in the US. The Martin Luther King strategy of civil disobedience, whose task is to expose racial violence, not indulge in it, ends up with his assassination. The normal course of democratic politics reaches, on the racial issue, a kind of dead end with Obama. Any protest is easily hijacked by the forces of violence; and the violence becomes the pretext for denying the legitimacy of the underlying cause, and unleashing more repression. Even at this distance, it seems it has taken barely a couple of days for the narrative to shift from police brutality to the fear of violence. George Floyd and the underlying moral issue his death represents become relegated quickly to history, overrun by the pre commitments and prejudices of politics. So African American politics may retreat into a phase of disenchantment or take a form we cannot predict.
The political fallout is hard to predict. Nixon greatly benefited from the narrative of disorder in the Sixties; whether Trump can do so is an open question. But there is no question that he will try. America will come out of this, in the short run, more authoritarian and polarised
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 2, 2020 under the title ‘An American Tragedy’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.
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