June 3, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Thanks to Donald Trump, White Americans Are Starting to Understand Why Black Lives Matter
With black Americans, they are calling for regime change.
I teach a class at Wesleyan on how to understand the 2020 presidential election. (Well, not at Wesleyan; everything’s over Zoom for the time being.) Students are naturally curious. They want to know where I stand. So I tell them I have a point of view, but that my point of view isn’t set in stone. Indeed, I tell them, points of view are never set in stone. They change over time. They are contingent. It depends on what’s at stake.
What started as a call for justice for George Floyd is evolving into demands for the end of a 40-year “conservative” regime balanced precariously on the backs of black Americans.
Moreover, I tell them that some points of view are more accurate than others. Some points of view are more helpful to understanding politics as it really is. If we do not understand politics as it really is, we cannot perform well our duties as citizens. There are forces at work in our society, I hasten to add, that would very much like us to misunderstand our politics in order that we perform poorly our civic duties. Then I tell students the best way to understand politics is by seeing it through a black lens.
Once white people see American politics from the perspective of the African-American experience, they understand, or at least have an inkling, that what they thought was their country isn’t. It’s a political fiction created for reasons good and bad, but mostly bad, and that continuing to see politics through a white lens not only harms the republic but enables the always-subliminal variants of American fascism. (Disclaimer: I do try in subtle ways to express gratitude to my students of color who don’t need a white visiting professor of public policy explaining their lives to them, and to encourage them to share experience and wisdom vital to our learning together.)
Don’t forget the tip jar!
As a teacher, my goal is reaching students individually. That’s how teaching usually works. Even here, in this edition of the Editorial Board, I do not expect to persuade more than one person at a time of the moral and epistimological rightness of viewing politics through a black lens. This week, however, I’m witnessing teaching on a mass scale. It seems the citizenry is teaching itself, and it’s extraordinary. Out of the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder by the hands of a white cop, many Americans, many white Americans, are seeing finally what black Americans have always seen, and that the spirit animating the black experience has always been a yearning for freedom.
To be sure, white Americans, especially white liberals, understood at least in principle that bad cops do bad things sometimes to black Americans. That, however, wasn’t enough to embrace fully Black Lives Matter. While a black man sat in the Oval Office, Black Lives Matter didn’t seem like a life-saving effort to broaden the republican virtues of the Declaration of Independence and the 14th Amendment, but instead a fashionable gesture toward progressive pieties with little bearing on the republic.
Things are different now. Among other reasons, things are different due to the Trump administration’s decision to gas peaceful protesters to make way for the president’s photo op. Things are different now that the Republican Party, once celebrated for its rugged defense of individuals and states against “government tyranny,” is silent in the wake of Donald Trump’s militarized response to the exercise of civil liberties, in the wake of policemen literally criminalizing speech and assembly, and the freedom to petition the government “for a redress of grievances.” Things are different now due to a deeper awareness among white Americans, more so than during the Obama years, that racism isn’t about race per se. It’s about an abuse of power so sadistic that the founders of this country might have recognized it as being worthy of overthrow.
Even George W. Bush sounds like a traditional liberal.
A president who views himself as the embodiment of the state, by which he is not only above the law but the law itself, is creating conditions in which white Americans are starting to see the connection between authoritarianism and systemic racism, that they overlap and intertwine, whether expressed individually or societally, and that by fighting one, white Americans can fight the other, using their privilege as a weapon. After Trump’s forces flash-bombed peaceful protesters Monday, crowds in Washington appeared to increase, perhaps even double, in size the following day. What started as a call for justice for George Floyd is evolving into demands for the end of a 40-year “conservative” regime balanced precariously on the backs of black Americans.
People who used to call themselves conservatives are discovering that in the age of Donald Trump their conservatism depends on the integrity of traditional American liberalism (civil right and civil duties, separation of powers, representative government, checks and balances, etc.) and that without that liberal foundation—when that foundation is undermined by politics—their conservatism turns into something else, something ugly, something akin to America’s enemies foreign and domestic.
No one would question George W. Bush’s conservatism. But in a statement yesterday, in response to Floyd’s murder and outrage over it, the former president said not a word that could be interpreted as conservative. Bush sounded liberal. Bush sounded almost black. Points of view are never set in stone. They evolve and they change. They depend on the stakes. For Bush, and many others, the stakes are liberty and justice for all.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.