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You Say You Want a Revolution: Police brutality was the spark but economic inequality is the fuel for racial conflagration

It’s 3 o’clock in the morning as I begin writing this, having just spent the last few hours watching Providence finally get the violent riot it had been lucky to avoid. I can’t sleep, not because of anxiety or psychological distress, but because, having tried to formulate the words for the past week, I need to type out my thoughts on the nationwide protests sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. But in the 2,000 year-old maxim of Rabbi Hillel, the Jewish patron saint of procrastinators, “If not now, when?”

I don’t yet know the extent of the riot in Providence: a police SUV was burned to a crisp on Finance Way near Francis Street just outside the Providence Place Mall and the State House, a car was overturned on Westminster Street near Messer Street, and some store windows and looting occurred on Westminster Street downtown near Eno Wine. I’ve heard no report of serious injuries, although I understand some police officers and a videographer were taken for medical examination. There are reports of at least 10 arrests.

I asked RI Gov. Gina Raimondo yesterday morning, many hours before the riot, about the historical forces at play (“Governor Raimondo Addressed the Protests Against Police Brutality”, Jun 1, 2020), noting that there were destructive race riots in Providence as long ago as 1824 in “Hard Scrabble” and in 1831 in “Snow Town,” black neighborhoods somewhere between the current State House and University Heights. The nation saw dozens of race riots in the “red summer” of 1919 and almost 200 in the “long hot summer” of 1967, resulting in many deaths including lynching (extra-judicial murder) of blacks by whites. More recently, some remember the week-long Los Angeles riots of 1992, set off by the acquittal of police officers charged with beating arrestee Rodney King, resulting in 63 dead, thousands injured, and a billion dollars in damage.

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In response, Raimondo pointed out that for many, perhaps most, these events were older than living memory, as 1992 was 28 years ago and 1967 was 53 years ago: “I’m the mother of two teenagers who are just beside themselves: ‘How can this be happening?’ I think we have a whole generation of people – I referenced people in their 20s – think about their lives. If you’re an African American person in Rhode Island who is mid-20s, you have grown up with two economic recessions, you may or may not have a decent job, you’re probably overly burdened with college debt. You and your family and your community are probably hardest hit by this public health crisis. You’re probably out of work. You may or may not have the degree or credential to get a decent job, and you’re looking around the country and seeing racism everywhere you look, you might see it when you go to the grocery store. Maybe you went through a public education system that let you down. And that was racist. The point is, that is the generation I think where you’re seeing it is new for them in a way. They weren’t around in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.”

The 1967 riots (as well as earlier riots going back several years) led to the creation of the Kerner Commission, whose 1968 report, despite being over 400 pages, became a surprise best seller with two million copies purchased by the public in an era, decades before downloading, when they had to pay actual money for a printed book. Then-President Lyndon Johnson, who had appointed the commission, rejected and ignored their findings because they concluded that the reason for the riots was white racism that had, since the time of slavery, unfairly disadvantaged blacks in job opportunities, housing, education and both de jure and de facto segregation. In the commission’s most quoted line, they said that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The report said that the failure of race relations was grounded in basic mutual incomprehension: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Racial segregation in education had been outlawed as a result of the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, in public accommodations (trains, buses, taverns, and so on) since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in elections since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But segregation remained real, notoriously praised in 1963 by George Wallace in his inaugural address as governor of Alabama, promising “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” As late as 1968, a few weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a few weeks before the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, my father unknowingly used the AAA Tour Guide to book a reservation for a family vacation in Washington, DC, at a hotel of the wrong race: the city was still completely segregated although it had been illegal for four years by then, so the front desk refused to notice us and the hotel restaurant refused to serve us; we got the message and, at my mother’s strong insistence, left for a different hotel. We were guests of Sen. John O. Pastore and rode the subway with Sen. Eugene McCarthy, but my strongest memory of the trip a half-century later remains that hotel.

There seemed a possibility of meaningful improvement in the racial situation after the Kerner Commission report, and even President Richard Nixon (whose successful campaigns in 1968 and 1972 employed the “Southern strategy” of appealing to racists who felt abandoned by the embrace of racial equality) was willing to fight baldly illegal racial discrimination in housing, suing egregious perpetrators such as the Trump real estate empire. That progress came to an end with the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, whose general belief in constraining the federal government left many states free to revert to their natural reluctance to pursue racial equality, not so much overt racism as simple inertia – but that was enough. Reaganism accepted as an article of faith that free markets pursue prosperity, but that is not true: free markets pursue efficiency, which is usually aligned with prosperity but not always; for example, a market-based solution would “solve” the problem of homelessness by starving all of the homeless people to death, but such an efficient “solution” would be immediately recognized by all sane people as highly undesirable for good reasons having nothing to do with efficiency.

As of the most recent data available in 2018, 26.0% of Providence residents were below the poverty line, as well as 32.8% in Central Falls, 24.1% in Woonsocket and 18.6% in Pawtucket, all much worse than the statewide rate of 12.9%. Accounting for inflation, real wages for most workers have remained essentially stagnant since 1964, peaking in 1973, with increasing inequality between the top and bottom quintiles (fifths). Measuring anything, especially wages, over such a long period is complicated, but there are important indicators, such as that wages as a percentage of Gross Domestic Income (that is, how large a share workers get of the national economic pie) is much lower than it was in the 1950s through the 1970s. All of this troubling economic data is before the coronavirus tanked the economy, which the Congressional Budget Office projects will cost the economy $16 trillion ($7.9 trillion adjusted for inflation) over the next decade.

I’ve noted in the past (“Opinion: We the People, Establishing Rule of Law”, Apr 3, 2019) observations by writers such as Arlie Russell Hochschild about the subjective perception by many that the American Dream is fading from their reach, causing a resulting politics of despair. Although her focus was the despair that led in 2009 to the formation of the Tea Party, I contend – and this is the main point I want to make – that the subjective economic despair on the right is substantially the same as on the left, but that the objective realities of race make these fundamentally different. Both sides have become possessed of a “burn it all down” mentality that is ultimately destructive of their own ends. But, as the Kerner Commission wrote, “Violence cannot build a better society. Disruption and disorder nourish repression, not justice. They strike at the freedom of every citizen. The community cannot – it will not – tolerate coercion and mob rule. Violence and destruction must be ended – in the streets of the ghetto and in the lives of people.”

As I warned years ago (“Fine, Just Fine! Everything Is Fine!”, Aug 16, 2018), “Trump has broken all bounds of precedent in lying: he lies about everything, so flagrantly and so often, that no one believes him about anything, anyway. This is going to lead to a major catastrophe of national scope in the future when trustworthy leadership will be essential but unavailable, Trump having squandered the credibility he would need to survive a crisis. Trump thinks like a small-time real estate huckster where the consequences of antisocial conduct, especially lying but also habitually stiffing creditors and repeatedly declaring bankruptcy, have limited effect. Trump is a man in way over his head, denying he is drowning rather than trying to swim. The unanswered question is how much of the country and the world he can take down with him.” When I wrote that, I had no way to know that Trump, in the final year of his term, would face the worst race riots since 1967, the worst economic crisis since 1933, and the worst public health crisis since 1918 – and prove himself incompetent to manage any of them.

The riots were sparked by a horrifying incident of police brutality, but are really fueled by despair both political and economic. Candidate Donald Trump in August 2016 promised he would get 95% of the black vote, a claim that was utterly delusional then and remains utterly delusional today, with his actual polling so low as to put zero within the sampling margin of error. (The best estimate is 8% in the 2016 election.) But Trump is not merely unpopular with black people: A July 2019 poll by Quinnipiac University found that 51% of Americans think Trump is a racist, including 80% of black people but only 46% of white people – and 8% of Republicans – agree. This is not policy disagreement, but a divergence of worldviews so completely opposite as to preclude any possible reconciliation. The black-issues-oriented The Root reviewed a major Trump 2018 speech under the headline “The Top 10 Racist Dog Whistles Hidden in Trump’s State of the Union Address.”

The police are, however, the sharp edge of racial oppression in the perception of many black people. As the Kerner Commission said in 1968, “The police are not merely a ‘spark’ factor. To some Negroes police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection – one for Negroes and one for whites.”

People resort to violence in the streets when they have lost all hope of achieving their goals through conventional political means. That the nation’s highest elected official is viewed as a racist by more than half of all people and an overwhelming majority of blacks has resulted in a deep despair. Trump’s threat on Twitter “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” is a literal throwback to the 1960s, used by George Wallace in his 1968 presidential campaign – yes, the same one known for saying “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Nor are these riots primarily the work of “outside agitators,” neither right-wing “boogaloo boys” nor left-wing “AntiFa,” despite competing contradictory claims. There may be a few outside agitators, but this claim has been made repeatedly for decades and it has never proven true. Indigenous despair should be recognized for what it is.

Trump is pursuing an aggressive escalation, telling state governors “most of you are weak” and “You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.” In doing so, Trump is defying the advice of the Kerner Commission from so long ago: “This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution. To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values. The alternative is not blind repression or capitulation to lawlessness. It is the realization of common opportunities for all within a single society. This alternative will require a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.”

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