“There is always something happening that seems like the defining issue of the campaign and there are very few real defining issues.”– David Axelrod, CNN Senior Political Commentator and chief strategist for President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 White House campaigns speaking on CNN Thursday morning about police shootings, unrest in Charlotte, and the responses of each of the major party presidential candidates.
“Their [the rioters’] goal is not to contribute to a discussion. Their goal is destruction and anarchy and that is something our nation cannot accept.” — North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) in a telephone interview with CNN Wednesday night, explaining a decision to begin the process to deploy the National Guard to restore order in Charlotte.
In the moment, the details can overwhelm.
They can distract. They can impede the kind of rational thought and judgment that current events demand and that history will judge.
There have been riots on the streets of Charlotte, a major city in a swing state coveted by each of the major party’s presidential candidates. Property has been damaged. A man has been critically wounded. And the riots themselves were set off by an African American officer’s decision to shoot and kill a black man who police say may have been armed with a gun and what his family insists was only a book.
Police have, thus far, refused to make public video of the incident or share its contents with the victim’s family. And, despite the grim and seemingly constant nature of similar events in cities around the country this year, the most definitive action taken or suggested by a public official has been to summon the National Guard due to the destruction of property.
The constancy of a kind of policing in which black Americans are far more likely to be killed and the inability or unwillingness of the justice system to hold individual officers or departments to full account has, at best, been reduced to an afterthought. Yet it is, without question, the issue at the center of all the complicated matters above. The way that race shapes what is regarded as reasonable and lawful policing continues to push the veracity of this country’s claim to be one where equality, justice and liberty prevail into an unflattering light on the global stage.
On Wednesday, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump moved from questioning the bravery and judgment of a female police officer involved in yet another police shooting of a black man in Oklahoma to suggesting that America’s real problem — violence perpetrated by criminals who, if caught, will unquestionably be prosecuted — could be resolved by nationalizing a New York City police practice that a federal court declared unconstitutional. The program was suspended in New York and deemed illegal precisely because of overwhelming evidence that police in one of the nation’s most diverse cities used the program to overwhelmingly stop and frisk people of color. Most of those who were stopped and frisked had done nothing wrong and did not even warrant a ticket.
Trump, of course, began his presidential campaign with what has been repeatedly described as a racist or xenophobic statement. In describing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and criminals — a vast generalization that is demonstrably false — Trump made his candidacy a referendum on group suspicion, alleged group behavior and the codification of unconstitutional group surveillance and control. He has enriched his offerings in this arena by suggesting that monitoring or tracking all Muslims and their places of worship should become a law enforcement priority. And now, after denouncing his previously long-held suspicion of the citizenship of the nation’s first black president, Trump has suggested that the black Americans who live in crime-ridden communities — or at least Chicago — should accept a form of policing that a court has deemed unbefitting any person in the United States.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has called for improved police and community relations via unspecified means and made a direct appeal to what can only be described as a the better angels of white America’s nature. While there is something to be said for the logic of a call for a different sort of policing, unmitigated faith in white America’s willingness to demand justice and equality is not.
In truth, most of us know that white America’s commitment to full justice and equality has, historically, been less than constant. And beyond the realm of history, there is also this. Well after the overwhelmingly disparate impact of “stop and frisk” had been published and quantified in the nation’s leading newspapers and news magazines, a significant majority of white New Yorkers — 57 percent — expressed support for the program in a New York Times poll. Similarly, well after the disparate impact of voter ID laws has been demonstrated in court and documented in widely read publications along with stories about the extreme rarity of in-person voter fraud, a majority of white Americans have expressed support for voter ID laws. What is more, Clinton herself — in the not at all distant past — employed language to describe repeat criminal offenders that is typically reserved for wildlife. She said these things in support of her former President Bill Clinton’s criminal justice policy and components, which created vast racial disparities in incarceration.
As Jim Wallis, author of the book, “Race America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America,” has said again and again in the months since his book was published, race — or more specifically, the way in which generation after generation of Americans have to some degree accepted the idea that race mitigates the type of life and even citizenship that different Americans merit — amounts to this country’s continuing sin. There is no way around this. And as the country becomes a more diverse place where more Americans are convinced of their rightful claim to the full mantle of citizenship, the nation’s repeated bromides about American unity will not go down easy. They are also exceedingly unlikely to resolve the problem.
Without question, order will have to be restored in Charlotte. The National Guard is equipped with both the training and the equipment that will make their presence impossible to overcome. But once that work is done, the direction that North Carolina’s much-talked about swing voters — many of them transplants from the Northeast — and voters in many other states around the country ultimately decide that the country should be led will judged by future generations of Americans who have the distinct benefit of distance and time.
It’s unlikely that those future Americans will tell with great pride the story of an America in 2016 that cannot abide the destruction of property but can abide the selective devaluation of some American’s citizenship, liberty and lives.