Tag Archives: race

How Should American Policing Change?

“Actually, we’re just getting started.”

This week it’s been easy to assemble video collections of misbehaving police. The current crisis began with a Minneapolis policeman killing George Floyd — not instantaneously, by shooting him in a moment of confusion or fear, but slowly, by kneeling on his neck as his life ebbed away. In the two weeks since, we’ve seen phalanxes of militarized police attack angry but non-violent crowds of protesters on multiple occasions. Friday, the NYT’s Jamelle Bouie put together a list:

Rioting police have driven vehicles into crowds, reproducing the assault that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. They have surrounded a car, smashed the windows, tazed the occupants and dragged them out onto the ground. Clad in paramilitary gear, they have attacked elderly bystanders, pepper-sprayed cooperative protesters and shot “nonlethal” rounds directly at reporters, causing serious injuries. In Austin, Texas, a 20-year-old man is in critical condition after being shot in the head with a “less-lethal” round. Across the country, rioting police are using tear gas in quantities that threaten the health and safety of demonstrators, especially in the midst of a respiratory disease pandemic.

That list is sadly incomplete. For example, Bouie’s “elderly bystander” is not the one you’re thinking of. These bystanders are in Salt Lake City, not Buffalo. The video Bouie linked to also shows an old man being pushed to the ground, but he falls on his chest rather than striking the back of his head.

It is tempting to keeping throwing more and more videos at the dead-enders who refuse to see the widespread problem in American policing. But those who are not convinced by now will probably never be convinced, and in the meantime we have let them freeze the conversation. Something similar happens with climate change: A handful of stubborn denialists can freeze a conversation at the is-it-real stage, and prevent reality-based people from discussing what to do about it.

It’s time to ignore the dead-enders and move forward without them.

More than a few bad apples. It also time to start ignoring people who make the few-bad-apples argument, as White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien did recently. If there were no systemic problem, that handful of bad cops would be easy to identify and remove from the force. (Don’t tell me the other cops don’t know who they are.) But the problem is not just the occasional officer who violently abuses his power; it’s all the other cops who cover for him and resist any attempt to hold him accountable.

The initial police statement on George Floyd mentioned nothing about Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, but was titled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” When Buffalo police shoved a 75-year-old protester — a white man, in this case — who hit his head on the pavement and soon had blood pooling around his ear, their initial statement said:

A 5th person was arrested during a skirmish with other protestors and also charged with disorderly conduct. During that skirmish involving protestors, one person was injured when he tripped & fell.

In both cases, that false account probably would have stood if not for bystander video, leaving us to wonder how many police assaults and murders are routinely covered up — not just by the “bad apples” who commit those crimes, but by the criminally complicit police around them.

The Buffalo situation demonstrates an even deeper rot. When bystander video showed that the police report was a lie, Buffalo’s police commissioner suspended without pay, pending investigation, the two officers who pushed the man down. (The officers who knowingly allowed a false report to be issued have not been punished.) But even this small move towards accountability was too much: All 57 fellow active members of the Buffalo Police emergency unit resigned from the squad (but not from the police).

“Fifty-seven resigned in disgust because of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply executing orders,” Buffalo Police Benevolent Association president John Evans told WGRZ on Friday.

Their orders were to clear the square of protesters, not to assault old men. (The two officers were charged with assault Saturday. Over 100 police and firefighters showed up at the courthouse to support them.) But not a single member of the emergency unit looked at that video and said, “Hey, we shouldn’t be doing things like that.” They have chosen their side. There aren’t two bad apples on that squad; there are 57 bad apples. There’s probably no bureaucratic mechanism that can bring about this outcome, but none of them should ever be police anywhere again. (According to the local ABC TV channel, though, two of the 57 claim the union manipulated this outcome by saying they could no longer defend members of the emergency unit under these conditions.)

What can be done? We need to be thinking on multiple time scales. Some significant changes need to be announced immediately, while the crowds are still in the streets. But problems this deep and old resist quick fixes. So the country needs a long-term plan, but that plan has to visibly begin right now.

In Minnesota. In the specific case of George Floyd’s murder, most of what the protesters want has already been achieved: All four officers involved have been arrested and charged. Derek Chauvin is charged with second-degree murder, and the other three face aiding-and-abetting charges. Unless we want to see the officers handed over for mob justice, that’s all that can be done right now. The legal process will play out over months, and ultimately a jury will have to decide what happens to them.

More broadly, the Minnesota Commissioner for Human Rights filed suit against the City of Minneapolis and its police department on Tuesday, claiming that

the City of Minneapolis Police Department has engaged in a pattern and practice of race-based policing in violation of the [Minnesota Human Rights Act]

Friday, the Commissioner and the City agreed to a plan that they have asked the Court to impose as an injunction. The plan has six provisions:

  • Ban chokeholds and neck restraints of any kind.
  • Police officers who witness another officer’s unauthorized use of force have an immediate duty to report the incident to their commanders.
  • Police officers who witness another officer’s unauthorized use of force have a duty to intervene “by verbal and physical means“, or face the same punishment as the offending officer.
  • Crowd control weapons (chemical agents and rubber bullets are specifically mentioned) can only be used after authorization by the Chief of Police.
  • Pending disciplinary actions must be decided within 45 days. Future actions have to be decided within 30 days.
  • The City’s Office of Police Conduct Review can audit body-camera footage “proactively and strategically”. (Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucerno explains: “Right now, body cam footage exists. However, it’s only reviewed when there’s a complaint.”)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his own proposal, which requires action from the legislature:

  • Make police disciplinary records transparent
  • Ban chokeholds
  • Make false race-based 911 reports a hate crime
  • Attorney General must act as independent prosecutor for any police murder case

Several other states and cities have announced plans to ban either chokeholds or tear gas or both.

8 Can’t Wait. Campaign Zero is an organization devoted to ending police violence. It put out the “8 Can’t Wait” agenda, of steps any city could take right away. (The “Data proves …” claim in the graphic below is theirs, not mine. I have not tried to evaluate it.)

Matt Yglesias explains the 8 in more detail, and looks at some of the supporting statistics. Some are easy to understand: banning chokeholds and the duty to intervene are already part of the Minneapolis agreement discussed above. The ban on shooting at moving vehicles and requirement to warn before shooting are self-explanatory.

A comprehensive reporting requirement means that officers need to report each time they use force or threaten to use force against a civilian. … The use of force continuum is a specific set of requirements governing what kinds of weapons can be used versus what levels of resistance. And a deescalation requirement mandates that officers try to secure their personal safety through distance and communication before resorting to force.

Medium-term proposals. A number of ideas are included in the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which Democrats in the House and Senate are introducing this morning. It’s hard to imagine Mitch McConnell allowing any of these reforms to be passed in time to bring this season of protest to a successful conclusion, but the problem isn’t going away until we have reforms more significant than anything that can happen quickly.

  • a national database of deaths in police custody. It’s hard to believe this doesn’t already exist, but apparently not.
  • a national police misconduct registry. So that bad cops fired in one city can’t just get a new job somewhere else.
  • ending or altering “qualified immunity”. Qualified immunity shelters government officials from civil lawsuits for violating someone’s rights, “unless the victims of those violations can show that the rights were ‘clearly established’.” In practice, this has made such suits almost impossible for plaintiffs to win.
  • changing the standard for police use of force. “victims of excessive force or other violations need only show that officers ‘recklessly’ deprived them of their rights. The current statute requires victims to show that officers’ actions were ‘willful’.”
  • formalize the Justice Department’s oversight of police departments with a history of bad practices. During the Obama administration, Justice took oversight of local police seriously, but when Jeff Sessions became attorney general, he abandoned those efforts.

A change more likely to be made on the state level than the federal level: setting up a special prosecutor or special process for investigating killings by local police. In Minnesota, for example, the state attorney general has taken over the prosecution of the George Floyd officers. Some states already have state guidelines for investigating officer-involved deaths that make sure police departments aren’t investigating themselves. All states should.

And finally, cities need to change their relationships with police unions. In general, unions are good, and collective bargaining for better wages and benefits is fine. But too often police unions intent on protecting their members torpedo any move towards public accountability.

Long term: police culture. Welcome as reforms like those mentioned above would be, many doubt they would solve the problem.

Two aspects of the problem are more complicated than just changing a few rules and hiring better people:

  • The institutional culture of police departments needs to change.
  • The tasks that belong to police departments need to be rethought.

Both of these are too big for a few paragraphs at the end of a long article, but here are some thoughts to get you started.

Friday night, Chris Hayes interviewed Patrick Skinner, a former CIA counterterrorism officer who came home to be a beat cop in Savannah. One of the themes of their conversation was the dysfunction of the “warrior” mentality of police. Skinner said that police would do better to think of themselves as neighbors rather than warriors. In a recent Washington Post op-ed he wrote:

As I got better at being a rookie cop, I kept asking myself this question: “If I didn’t have a badge and a gun, how would I handle this call?” Whatever I came up with that was legal, transparent and kind, I would try.

Hayes reviewed the video of the 75-year-old man being pushed down in Buffalo, and observed that probably none of the officers present would act that way in everyday life: They would not push an old man out of their way, and if they saw an old man bleeding on the pavement, they would stop to help. Somehow, their police training overrode those human reactions.

Long term: defunding. Philip and Thenjiwe McHarris note all the reform efforts by the Minneapolis police — none of which saved George Floyd’s life. They think it’s foolish to expect similar small-scale reforms to end the killing of black people in general.

The focus on training, diversity and technology like body cameras shifts focus away from the root cause of police violence and instead gives the police more power and resources. The problem is that the entire criminal justice system gives police officers the power and opportunity to systematically harass and kill with impunity.

The solution to ending police violence and cultivating a safer country lies in reducing the power of the police and their contact with the public. We can do that by reinvesting the $100 billion spent on policing nationwide in alternative emergency response programs, as protesters in Minneapolis have called for.

In most American communities today, police get called to deal with all manner of disorder, from the homeless man sleeping on your stoop to the loud teen-age party next door to domestic violence to drug overdoses to episodes of mental illness.

But what defines the police is their ability to use force, all the way up to deadly force. Their very presence is a threat of force, and opens the possibility that someone could end up dead. I sincerely doubt that the clerk who called the police on George Floyd intended for them to come and kill him. The store owner now says: “If I was [there] I don’t think the authorities would have been called and we would have policed our own matters.”

Often situations would be better addressed by a civic official with different capabilities, different options, and different training. Or perhaps the disorder would not exist at all if some kind of preventive service had been provided during the previous weeks. But cities don’t have the resources for such alternatives precisely because they’re spending so much money on police.

Moves to cut both the responsibilities and the budgets of police, and to use that money to provide services in alternative ways, are often promoted with slogans like “Abolish the police”. This is poor messaging, in my opinion, and opens itself up to easy caricature from police advocates. (Are cities going to stop enforcing their laws? Should citizens buy more guns and take the law into their own hands?) But what abolish-the-police advocates really want is something far more reasonable: Reduce to the absolute minimum the number of occasions when Americans come into contact with people who could kill them and get away with it.

This Week, Democratic Protest Outlasted Riot and Repression

Fascism got out to an early lead, but a late comeback won the week for democracy.


A week ago, peaceful protests by day were competing with violence by night: violence by protesters, violence by opportunistic looters, violence from mysterious agitators seeking a wider conflict, and violence by police. President Trump seemed to think this unrest worked in his favor politically — perhaps his re-election campaign could ride a wave of white backlash, as Richard Nixon did in 1968 — so he ignored the peaceful protests, denounced the rioters, and focused on “dominating” American streets with overwhelming force.

That cycle peaked Monday. Washington D.C. had no governor with the authority to object, so Trump brought in National Guard units from across the country, and moved 1,600 active-duty troops to nearby bases. (According CNN, those troops were not used; “no active duty forces have entered the city yet to respond to civil unrest.”) CBS News reported a heated meeting at the White House Monday, when Trump demanded that the Pentagon deploy 10,000 active-duty troops in the streets in cities across the country. (To get around the restrictions the Posse Comitatus Act puts on military law enforcement, Trump would have had to invoke the Insurrection Act.) Defense Secretary Esper, Attorney General Bill Barr, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley all opposed the idea.

But if the Army wasn’t deployed, another ominous force was: unidentified federal police, who would say only that they came from the Department of Justice. They had no name tags or other means of identification, and hence zero accountability. One protester nailed the issue:

God forbid if there’s an escalation of violence and there’s a video circulating of an officer using his baton on a protester, and there’s no way to identify who that officer is,

Also Monday morning, after a conversation with his autocratic mentor, Vladimir Putin, Trump berated governors in a teleconference, calling them “weak” if they did not call out the National Guard and “dominate the streets”.

Trump also claimed to know the sinister conspiracy he needed to dominate: Antifa, which Wikipedia describes as “a diverse array of autonomous groups”. Trump is often best answered by laughter, so the satire site Beaverton posted: “ANTIFA surprised to discover it is an organization“.

“All this time all I thought I was doing was taking direct action to fight nazis,” stated self-professed anti-fascist Mattheus Grant of Eugene, OR. “But when I learned that I’m actually a member of an organization, I got so excited! Maybe we can get an office now?”

More seriously, The Nation obtained a situation report on the D.C. protests from the FBI’s Washington field office (WFO):

based on CHS [Confidential Human Source] canvassing, open source/social media partner engagement, and liaison, FBI WFO has no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence.

So either Trump knew more than the FBI, or he just made this up.

The photo op. Trump’s photo-op stunt with an Episcopal Church as a backdrop and a Bible as a prop happened Monday evening.

That PR gimmick began a half hour before curfew with an attack on peaceful demonstrators in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. After the crowd was cleared away, Trump walked from the White House to St. John’s Church to have his photo taken holding up a Bible. Brandishing the Bible like a weapon seemed to be the only use he could think of.

Leaders from The Episcopal Church have condemned the reported use of tear gas and projectiles to clear clergy and protesters from the area around St. John’s Episcopal Church, across the street from the White House, so President Donald Trump could use it for an unauthorized photo op on June 1.

Video of the attack is disturbing in some places and boring in others, but I recommend watching chunks of it, particularly after the 30-minute mark when the police begin moving the crowd.

What I see in that video are angry but entirely non-violent demonstrators, mostly young adults and a surprising (to me) number of whites. Police push them back with gas, exploding projectiles, shields, and horses.

Perhaps even more disturbing was the baldly false statement issued by the Park Police afterwards:

At approximately 6:33 pm, violent protestors on H Street NW began throwing projectiles including bricks, frozen water bottles and caustic liquids. … As many of the protestors became more combative, continued to throw projectiles, and attempted to grab officers’ weapons, officers then employed the use of smoke canisters and pepper balls. No tear gas was used by USPP officers or other assisting law enforcement partners to close the area at Lafayette Park

The video shows none of this, and none of the journalists covering the demonstration saw it. In the video, the police look entirely undisturbed. They do not flinch to avoid projectiles, and nothing bounces off their shields. After the police begin to fire gas and advance, I noticed two or three water bottles hit the pavement in front of them. The bottles hit with a splash — they are not frozen — and do not hit the police. No one appears to be trying to grab police weapons.

As the week went on, more and more people in the administration claimed to have nothing to do with the decision to launch this attack. No one was responsible. Not Mark Esper. Not General Milley. Not even Bill Barr. Success has many fathers, the proverb says, but failure is an orphan. By that standard, Trump’s church-and-Bible photo op was a failure.

Damage to America’s standing in the world. If you think this combination of factors — calling out the military against protesting crowds, blatant lying, secret police, using low-flying military helicopters to intimidate dissidents, attacking journalists, and denouncing imaginary conspiratorial enemies — sound like the kind of autocratic response to dissent that the US usually condemns, you’re not the only ones who noticed. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen, who learned about autocracy by studying Putin, described it as “the performance of fascism“.

A power grab is always a performance of sorts. It begins with a claim to power, and if the claim is accepted—if the performance is believed—it takes hold. Much as he played a real-estate tycoon in the most crude and reductive way, Trump is now performing his idea of power as he imagines it. In his intuition, power is autocratic; it affirms the superiority of one nation and one race; it asserts total domination; and it mercilessly suppresses all opposition.

China noticed too, and gloated. The editor of China’s Global Times tweeted:

The US repression of domestic unrest has further eroded the moral basis to claim itself “beacon of democracy”. The era that the US political elites could exploit Tiananmen incident at will is over.

And Thai Enquirer couldn’t resist an ironic jab at the oh-so-superior United States: “Unrest continues for a seventh day in former British colony“.

The United States has had a long history of suppressing and persecuting its various ethnic minorities since the country gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1776.

The treatment of its indigenous ‘Native Americans,’ its imported Asian and Black communities, and its Hispanic community has long been a source of friction.

American black minority groups were under a program similar to South Africa’s Apartheid policy until as recently as 1964. Today, the ethnic black community is still detained and killed with impunity by the state security forces and black Americans make up the majority of those incarcerated under the country’s archaic judicial system.

Religion also plays a major role in governance with religious beliefs separating key state organs including the country’s highest court where many social laws are passed based on the justices’ personally held religious convictions.

In short, US ambassadors around the world have just seen their moral authority collapse.

In addition to Trump’s proposed misuse of the Army, his unilateral dismantling of America’s soft power is probably a major factor causing previously silent military figures to speak out: Trump’s ex-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to name two out of many.

Peaceful protest wins out. But if Trump imagined that unleashing police power on the protesters at Lafayette Park would intimidate them, he was wrong. On Tuesday they were back in larger numbers, and have not stopped protesting near the White House since. Friday, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed the section of 16th Street that ends at Lafayette Park “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and painted an enormous “Black Lives Matter” on the pavement. (In the vanishing point of the photo below, you can barely make out the White House.)

Bowser’s move was an institutional version of the well-known protest chant: “Whose streets? Our streets.”

Wednesday, President Obama filled the healing role that Trump has left vacant, urging young African Americans to “feel hopeful even as you may feel angry”. Don’t choose between protest in the streets and action within the political system, he advised. Do both.

This is not an either-or. This is a both-and. To bring about real change, we both have to highlight a problem and make people in power uncomfortable, but we also have to translate that into practical solutions and laws that can be implemented. … Every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals, has been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable. And we should all be thankful for folks who are willing in a peaceful, disciplined way to be out there making a difference.

A memorial service for Floyd was held in Minneapolis on Thursday, and another in Raeford, North Carolina (where he was born) on Saturday. Both were surrounded by emotional, but nonviolent, crowds.

That turned into the pattern across the nation. As the week went on, violence faded and peaceful protest gained momentum. The largest protests occurred this weekend unblemished by violence from either looters or law enforcement.

Strikingly, protests occurred all over the country, in small towns as well as big cities, and included many whites as well as people of color. (Mitt Romney marched Sunday in Washington.) In this photo, taken Wednesday a few blocks from where I live in Bedford, Massachusetts, two passing police stop in the Great Road to take a knee in front of the protesters on the town common. The officers were later commended by the police chief, and every protester I’ve talked to was touched by the gesture. (Our local protests continued all week; I attended on Friday.)

There are two ways to interpret the late-week peace. In one narrative, the overwhelming display of force on Sunday and Monday sent the message that protester violence would not be tolerated. As rioters went away, law enforcement withdrew. But in another narrative, it was law enforcement’s lower profile that de-escalated the cycle of violence.

One inarguable point, though, is that the absence of burning buildings and marauding police left the media little to cover other than the substance of the protests. By this weekend, there was increasing discussion of proposals to get America’s police back under control. (See the next article.)

Thoughtful people can disagree about whether the early-week violence was necessary to focus the nation’s attention. But it was clearly necessary for that violence to end so that the message could be absorbed.

In the end, on balance, it was a good week for democracy and for the nation. But we’ll need a lot more good weeks to see change take root.

The Three Stories of George Floyd

The George Floyd story is really three separate stories: how he died, how he fits into the larger story of police brutality against black people, and the demonstrations and riots that have happened around the country since his killing.

His death. The first story is the most difficult to watch, but the easiest to tell: Last Monday in Minneapolis, police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck “for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, with 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that occurring after Floyd was unresponsive”.

We know the timing that exactly because a bystander uploaded a video to Facebook. It shows Floyd repeatedly complaining that he can’t breathe, and then becoming motionless while bystanders plead with police to “check his pulse” and ask the policeman who was keeping the growing crowd away “You going to let him kill that man in front of you?”. Chauvin doesn’t get off Floyd’s neck until an ambulance has arrived and a stretcher is ready to receive his (possibly already lifeless) body.

The police account, from a few hours before the video went viral, tells none of that. The New York Times summarizes:

Minneapolis police said they were investigating an accusation of forgery on Monday night in the southern part of the city. They confronted a man who was sitting on the top of a blue car. The police said the suspect had “physically resisted officers” as he was placed in handcuffs. He appeared to be “suffering medical distress,” according to the police statement released on Monday night after an ambulance was called to the scene.

That account is true, as far as it goes. Floyd was being arrested on a complaint that he had tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a local grocery. NBC reconstructed the arrest from a number of video sources. At times Floyd struggled with the police arresting him, but he presented no weapons and was always greatly outnumbered. (According to the criminal complaint against Chauvin, the struggle you can barely make out in the NBC video is Floyd resisting being put in the squad car.) At no point did he seem to be getting away. When Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck, Floyd was already handcuffed.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey commented:

The technique that was used is not permitted; is not a technique that our officers get trained in on. And our chief has been very clear on that piece. There is no reason to apply that kind of pressure with a knee to someone’s neck.

The four police officers involved in the incident were fired on Tuesday. On Friday, Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. [1] According to the local Star Tribune, he is the first white police officer in Minnesota to be charged in the death of a black civilian.

The other officers have not been charged with anything, but the county attorney says they are under investigation and charges are expected. Local Channel 9 speculated on what those charges might be:

The most serious charge the other three fired officers could face is aiding and abetting the murder. “That could be giving him a tool or weapon, it could be keeping people away from interfering with that was going on,” Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor, told FOX 9.

Friday, a Washington Post editorial expressed dissatisfaction with the official response:

Minneapolis’s own police have done little to suggest they can earn the trust of the community they are sworn to serve. They have not released body-cam footage of Mr. Floyd’s arrest, nor apologized for the specious statement they published about the incident, which elided the fact that Mr. Chauvin’s knee choked Mr. Floyd. The head of the city’s police union, Lt. Bob Kroll, said “now is not the time to rush to judgment” on Mr. Chauvin or the other officers at the scene, who did nothing to interfere as Mr. Floyd begged for his life.

Racism and American police. Excessive violence against black people accused of crimes is a very old story in America. By various accounts, thousands of blacks were lynched between the Civil War and the 1930s, often on little more than a false accusation. By definition, a lynching is an extra-judicial killing, but local law enforcement officers commonly either participated or looked the other way. (For example, the local sheriff was identified as a conspirator in the Mississippi Burning murders of three civil rights activists in 1964.) I don’t know any estimate of the number of African Americans who have died in police custody since the end of slavery. Such killings were easily attributed to the suspect resisting arrest, attempting to escape, or committing suicide in prison.

For most of my lifetime, whites have regarded police brutality against black people as a they-said/they-said story. Blacks almost universally complained that police treated them more harshly than whites, and statistics showed that blacks were arrested, charged, and convicted far more often. But police said that blacks committed more crimes and were more likely to have a bad attitude towards police. Most white people never saw police arresting or otherwise accosting blacks, so the problem was easy to deny, ignore, or minimize.

The advent of ubiquitous video has changed all that. In recent years, the whole world has seen police choke Eric Garner to death while arresting him for selling untaxed cigarettes, shoot 12-year-old Tamir Rice dead for playing with a toy gun, shoot Walter Scott in the back while he was running away from an officer who had stopped him for having a bad brake light, and many similar incidents.

Those videos made us see other incidents differently, even if the actual death was off-camera: John Crawford III was shot dead in a WalMart for carrying a toy gun he was thinking of buying. Stephon Clark was shot dead in his grandmother’s back yard when police mistook his cellphone for a gun. Philandro Castille was riding with his girl friend and her four-year-old daughter when a policeman stopped the car. Castille informed the officer that he had a legal gun in the car, and the officer shot him dead. Freddie Gray died from a “rough ride” that police gave him back to the station after arresting him for carrying a knife.

The great majority of these incidents — even the ones caught on video — resulted in no jail time for the police involved. No one was indicted for Garner, Rice, Crawford, or Clark’s deaths. The officer who killed Castille was acquitted. Gray’s death resulted in a mistrial, some acquittals, and dropped charges. Walter Scott’s killer was convicted on federal charges, eventually, after his trial on a state murder charge ended in a hung jury.

Police have also tended to look the other way when white civilians kill blacks. Trayvon Martin was shot dead by a neighborhood watchman as he returned to his father’s fiance’s house after buying Skittles at a convenience store. Rather than treating the shooting as a crime, police returned the shooter’s gun and sent him home. Massive protests pushed local authorities to indict the shooter eventually, but he was acquitted.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the American justice system doesn’t regard the killing of a black person as a big deal. The anti-brutality movement is called Black Lives Matter in response to the apparent reality that they don’t. [2]

Recent events. By the time Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, outrage had already been building for some while.

In late February, Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Brunswick, Georgia by two white men (a retired police detective and his son) while he was out jogging. The killers told police they suspected him in some local burglaries. For months the police took no action and the case got no attention in the press. But in early May, a video of the incident (which police seem to have known about all along) went viral. It showed Arbery being chased down and shot by three men in two trucks. It looked a lot more like a lynching that the resisting-citizen’s-arrest story the killers told.

Within two days of the video’s release, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had gotten involved and arrested the two men in the lead truck. The third man, who videoed from the second truck, was arrested later.

How, the nation wondered, could police have sat on this video for months without making an arrest? If the video hadn’t leaked, would the killers have gotten away with it?

Another recent case generating outrage: Breonna Taylor, a Louisville EMT. Plain-clothes police with a no-knock warrant burst into her home (her boyfriend claims without identifying themselves as police), setting off a gun battle in which Taylor was killed and her boyfriend wounded. The warrant was to look for drugs, which they did not find. The boyfriend’s story — that he thought he was defending against a home invasion by armed criminals — seems pretty credible.

Echoes of Ferguson. Before we get into this week’s demonstrations and riots, I want to talk about the last time something like this happened.

In 2014, after the Michael Brown shooting in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, demonstrations erupted and sometimes turned violent. I commented at the time on the coverage from Fox News and other conservative media, which framed the community reaction as a great mystery: Most of these people never knew Michael Brown and had no idea whether the police were telling the truth or not about his killing. What riled them up so much that they had to go break windows or burn down a store?

If you came to the Ferguson story with that question in mind, racist stereotypes provided an obvious answer, which Fox didn’t need to spell out (though some right-wing voices did): The Brown shooting was just an excuse for young black men to indulge their inherently lawless nature.

I addressed this “mystery” in “What Your Fox-Watching Uncle Doesn’t Get About Ferguson“, a piece that I think holds up pretty well after nearly six years. What Fox did wrong was present the Brown shooting as a one-off event, when the real story was the ongoing predatory behavior of the Ferguson police towards the black community. [3]

The right story begins not with Officer Wilson’s bullets, or even with Michael Brown in the convenience store, but with a community where lesser forms of police abuse are an everyday occurrence. … So it’s no mystery at all why people who never met Michael Brown have been out on the streets. Brown’s death is part of a bigger issue that they all have a stake in: How can the police be gotten under community control, and disciplined to treat the community with respect? …

What’s rare about the Brown shooting isn’t the shooting itself, but how visible everything is: The body was lying in the street for hours. The eyewitnesses have been on TV. Nothing in the autopsy or other available evidence contradicts their testimony. If the police don’t have to answer for this, then what are the limits? Is there anything they can’t sweep under the rug?

This week’s responses. That’s the context to keep in mind as you think about the sometimes-violent demonstrations that we’ve seen around the country since Floyd’s killing. It isn’t that thousands of people have suddenly decided to care about a guy they’d never heard of a week ago, and it’s not that lawless animals have been turned loose. The anger being expressed in these demonstrations, by both peaceful and violent demonstrators, is largely personal anger. George Floyd symbolizes that anger, but it’s much bigger than him.

Very large numbers of black people have had their own bad experiences with police, incidents where they felt humiliated or threatened or disrespected. (One young man in Ferguson schooled a condescending Fox News reporter: “We go through this shit every day.“) And for the most part they have had no recourse; no one who had the power to demand justice would take their complaint seriously.

So when they see the tape of Chauvin killing Floyd, their response isn’t, “Oh my God, can you believe that?” but “There! Look at that! That’s how they are!” Not “I can’t believe stuff like that happens in America” but “Finally somebody got the goods on them.” [4]

And at the same time, there’s the fear that even with this kind of evidence, nothing will change. Maybe Chauvin will be tried and maybe he’ll even be convicted, but maybe he’ll get off somehow, as so many others have. Maybe the other cops have been fired, but probably somebody — maybe even Minneapolis again — will hire them and put them back on the street. Or maybe they’ll be the rare cops to pay some kind of price for their racism, but the racist policing system as a whole will rumble on.

There is no reason for the demonstrators to have faith that something else will happen, that America finally gets it now. That’s why they’re on the street.

For comparison, think about school shootings. Again and again — Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland — an event is so shocking that it rises above the usual platitudes. And for a moment you think: “Now. Now something will change, because things like just can’t go on.”

But they do go on. Sometimes nothing happens, and sometimes there’s some incremental change in how we sell or track guns. But before too long there’s a new shooting, one even more horrible than the last one. And we go through it all again. Remember how that feels?

Riots. What we saw rising through the week and then reaching a crescendo over the weekend was a pattern of peaceful demonstrations by day and violence by night — not just in Minneapolis, but in cities across the country.

I don’t know how to cover the destruction, or even how to grasp it. A news network may show you a store being looted or a police station being burned, but are all the stores being looted? Is the whole city burning? The destruction seems widespread, but I don’t know how to get a handle on it.

I think it’s important, though, that riots not become the story. The original injustice — both specifically in the Floyd case and generally in the racial bias of our law enforcement — needs to be the story. Yes, the riots need to stop. Yes, people who use the cover of the chaos to commit crimes should be arrested and punished. And we need to take a hard look at crowd-control policing to see whether its tactics set off people who might otherwise disperse on their own. But just returning to the status quo is not a solution, because before long there will be another George Floyd, and then it will happen all over again.

I think it’s important to remember that peaceful protest was tried and it failed. Remember Colin Kaepernick? What he was protesting when he knelt during the national anthem was precisely the racist nature of policing in America. The main result of Kaepernick’s protest was to end his NFL career, largely because Trump wouldn’t let up. LeBron James reminded us of this by posting this photo with the comment “This is why”

When you suppress peaceful protest against legitimate injustices, and punish the people who do it, you make violent protest inevitable.

And I don’t want to hear the platitude that violence never changes anything. In fact it does, and I think we’re seeing that now. The riots are sending white America the message that this can’t go on. It could have heard that message when Eric Garner said, “I can’t breathe.” It could have understood that message when football players knelt. But it refused. Now the message is being sent with fire and broken glass.

This can’t go on.

The agitators. Finally, there’s the mystery of the Umbrella Man, and an indeterminate number of others like him. A white man dressed in black, hiding his face behind a gas mask and an umbrella, got the Minneapolis riots started by calmly and methodically smashing the windows of an AutoZone with a hammer. He then walked away. He does not seem to be either a protester or a looter; he’s just there to catalyze the transition from protest to riot.

There are many similar stories of mysterious people, many of them white, who perform some initial act of violence and then vanish. Sometimes they arrive in trucks with no license plates.

So far, a lot more is being said about these mystery men than anyone actually knows. Some say they’re white supremacists trying to set off the race war that their rhetoric says is coming. Trump says Antifa is behind it. [5] A number of protesters in Minneapolis suspect undercover police of agitating the violence to discredit the peaceful protests. (In the Umbrella Man video, bystanders keep asking “Are you a cop?”)

Any of those stories might have been false originally, and then become true. If you’re an isolated white supremacist or a left-wing anarchist, and you hear a false report that people like you are trying to turn the protests into riots, maybe you go out and do it without orders from anyone.

All those explanations need to weighed against the need of local officials to deny that their own constituents are so disillusioned that they’re ready to start burning stuff down. Blaming it all on “outsiders” is an easy out for them.

My advice: Pay attention to actual cases and the observations of specific witnesses, but don’t take anybody’s conclusions seriously yet.


[1] A local TV station summarizes what Chauvin was and wasn’t charged with.

A person commits third-degree murder when the person does not intend to kill another person but does so by acting recklessly, or “without regard for human life.”

It can lead to as many as 25 years in prison. The manslaughter charge carries a sentence up to 10 years, and is easier to prove.

A person commits second-degree manslaughter when their negligence causes another person’s death. Manslaughter only requires the person to create “an unreasonable risk,” while third-degree murder requires the person to act “without regard for human life.”

The more serious charge of second-degree murder would require establishing that Chauvin intended to kill Floyd, and first degree would mean that he planned the killing.

So it depends on what Derek Chauvin was thinking. If he walked into the situation thinking “I’m going to kill that guy”, it’s first degree. If in the moment he realizes “I’m killing this guy” and continues, that’s second degree. If he just thinks “Eh, if he dies he dies”, that’s third degree. If he should have known that Floyd’s life was at risk, it’s manslaughter even if he didn’t know.

In my personal opinion, the Floyd killing is second-degree murder. But if I wanted to give myself the best chance to win in court, I’d do what the prosecutor has done. I’m not sure I could prove to a jury that the thought “I’m killing this guy” went through Derek Chauvin mind (though being surrounded by people yelling “You’re killing him” should have given him a clue). Proving that Chauvin acted recklessly and should have known Floyd might die seems much easier.

[2] That’s why the response “all lives matter” is so off-base. If all lives really did matter, there would be no need to assert that black lives matter.

[3] That behavior was laid out in detail months later in a Justice Department report. One key quote:

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.

In other words, the police went into the community looking for things to fine people for, not to protect life or maintain order. The racial attitude of the police was characterized by things like this:

A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

[4] The Trump administration is still in denial about this. Sunday on CNN, White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien rehashed the full a-few-bad-apples story.

No, I don’t think there’s systemic racism. I think 99.9% of our law enforcement officers are great Americans and many of them are African-American, Hispanic, Asian. They’re working in the toughest neighborhoods, they got the hardest jobs to do in this country. … There are some bad cops that are racist, there are cops that maybe don’t have the right training,. There are some that are just bad cops and they need to be rooted out because there’s a few bad apples that are giving law enforcement a terrible name.

What the administration sees is a PR problem, not a race problem. The thing to fix is not black people getting killed, but police getting “a terrible name”.

A lot of people on social media are sharing this Chris Rock quote:

Some jobs can’t have bad apples. Some jobs, everybody gotta be good. Like … pilots. Ya know, American Airlines can’t be like, “Most of our pilots like to land. We just got a few bad apples that like to crash into mountains. Please bear with us.”

[5] Over the years, Trump has said a lot of nonsense about Antifa, which is not even an actual organization so much as a collection of local groups who share some ideas and tactics. The general idea is that fascists are violent, so anti-fascists need to be prepared to match their violence. But Trump needs a left-wing group to distract from white supremacist violence, so Antifa is it.

Don’t Panic

Trump is using the same tactics that failed so badly in 2018. It’s not some stroke of genius. It’s all he knows.


I know. I felt it too.

When that crowd in North Carolina started chanting “Send her back. Send her back.”, it was like watching the videos of the Nazi book-burnings, when the flames shot into the sky, and people kept tossing more books onto the pile with a look of revelry on their faces.

The world just goes crazy sometimes. And once it starts, why should it stop? Why won’t that wave of insanity just sweep away everything in its path, leaving behind a country forever changed into something dark and unrecognizable?

Don’t panic.

The news coverage didn’t help. Pundits of the left and right alike were telling us that Trump had seized control of the narrative, and so the 2020 election won’t be about health care or climate change or anything Democrats want to talk about. It will be Trump against “radical”, “socialist” women of color. You may want to discuss democracy and corruption and the rule of law, but the only response you will get is to be asked why you hate America so much.

Don’t panic.

This isn’t some masterstroke of political genius. It’s a one-trick pony performing his one trick.

It’s frustrating, because there’s no immediate way to prove to ourselves that this appeal to America’s darkest impulses won’t work. It’s tempting to want to lash back somehow, but the election won’t happen for another 16 months, and that’s the response that really matters.

There are immediate things we can do, of course: Write a check to candidates with a healthier vision for America, or to organizations that do good work on issues we care about, or to any group that makes us feel hopeful. Volunteer. Organize. March. We can show our courage in public. (My hat is off to the 150 or so constituents who greeted Rep. Ilhan Omar, the target of the chants, at the Minneapolis airport. “Welcome home,” they chanted.)

I grant you: None of that will strike the decisive blow immediately. But what we need isn’t to lash out. It’s to be determined. Figure out what kind of determined mindset you can hold for the next 16 months, and get there as soon as you can. Battles like this aren’t won with flashes of anger. They’re won with day-in, day-out effort.

And don’t panic. Laugh, if it helps. Here’s how Trevor Noah handled the racist tweets that led up to the North Carolina rally. I found it hilarious.

And don’t forget: We’ve seen this before and it didn’t work. In the lead-up to the 2018 elections, Trump similarly seized control of the narrative. He turned the focus of the news towards immigrant caravans that were “invading” America, and painted the Democrats as the party of MS-13 and open borders. The result was the most decisive popular-vote total in a long time: Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats won 53%-45% nationwide. (Only gerrymandering stopped the Democrats from having the largest House majority in decades.)

2018 proved that Trump’s one trick could firm up his support among his base. That’s probably why Democrats lost Senate seats in North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana. But it’s also probably why they won in Arizona. Trump’s base is not a majority of the country. It’s not even the 46% who voted for him in 2016. Chants of “Send her back” won’t just bring Trump’s followers to the polls, it will bring the marginal voters Democrats need in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.

We’ll get through this, as long as we don’t panic, don’t get intimidated, and don’t lash out. Channel your anger into determination.

Fear of White Genocide: the underground stream feeding right-wing causes

The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto is a Rosetta Stone for multiple strains of crazy.


I don’t usually recommend that you read something I totally disagree with, but this week I’ll make an exception: If you have the time, look at the the 73-page manifesto posted by Brenton Tarrant, who apparently killed 50 worshipers Friday at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. If you don’t have quite that much time, just look at the Introduction on pages 3 and 4.

Manifestos of terrorist murderers are usually described in the press as the incoherent ramblings of diseased minds. And perhaps sometimes they are; I haven’t read that many of them. But reading this one struck me the opposite way: The ideas fit together, and once you accept a fairly small number of baseless notions and false facts, everything else spins out logically. What’s more: this ideology links a large number of right-wing notions that we on the left usually imagine as separate pathologies, and either ignore as absurd or argue against in a whack-a-mole fashion.

So I think it’s worth trying to understand.

The assumption in the background. One idea seems so obvious to Tarrant, and presumably to his target readers, that it goes without mentioning until fairly deep in the text: Races are real things. So there is a White race, and its members are united by something far greater than a tendency to sunburn. Whites are a “people” who have a culture. [1] Whiteness is an identity, an Us that exists in an eternal evolutionary war with all the Thems out there.

To Tarrant, there is some essential nature to all the races and peoples.

Racial differences exist between peoples and they have a great impact on the way we shape our societies. … A Moroccan may never be an Estonian much the same as an Estonian may never be a Moroccan. There are cultural, ethnic, and RACIAL differences that makes interchanging one ethnic group with another an impossibility. Europe is only Europe because if its combined genetic, cultural, and linguistic heritage. When non-Europeans are considered Europe, then there is no Europe at all. [2]

Birthrates. There’s a worldwide phenomenon that is fairly well understood: When a society becomes wealthy, educates its women, and gives them opportunities in addition to motherhood, birth rates go down. A woman who has a shot at being a CEO or a cancer researcher may or may not decide to have children, but she almost certainly won’t have 7 or 8 of them. That’s why educating women is seen as a possible long-term solution to the population explosion.

There’s nothing about this phenomenon that is specifically white — it applies equally well to Japan, for example, and countries in Africa have seen the same effect among their educated classes — but European countries (and countries like the US and Australia that were largely settled by European colonists) do tend to be wealthy and relatively feminist. So birthrates are down across Europe. And in the US, recent immigrants of non-European ancestry have higher birthrates than whites.

So largely as a result of their own economic success, majority-white countries tend to have birthrates below replacement level. As economic growth continues, opportunities open up for immigrants, who retain their higher birthrates for a generation or two after they arrive. All over the world, then, majority-white countries are becoming less and less white, with the possibility that whites themselves might eventually become a minority.

One recent estimate has the United States becoming a minority-white country by 2045. As I pointed out in August, we’re-losing-our-country is an old story in the US: Once the US was majority-English, until German immigrants (and Africans brought here by force) made the English a minority. For a while longer, it was majority-Anglo-Saxon, until a wave of Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants put an end to that. Each time, alarmists claimed that the nation was losing its soul — Ben Franklin worried about the arrival of the Pennsylvania Dutch — but somehow America continued to be America.

But now combine the diminishing white population with the conviction that race really means something. Sure, 21st-century Americans can laugh at Franklin’s fear of people who put hex signs on their barns and make all those buttery pies. But now we’re talking about a whole different race. This was a white country, and now it’s being taken over by other races! Other peoples are taking what’s ours, but they’re doing it through demographics rather than warfare.

We are experiencing an invasion on a level never seen before in history. [3] Millions of people pouring across our borders, legally, invited by the state and corporate entities to replace the White people who have failed to reproduce, failed to create the cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base that the corporations and states need to thrive. … Mass immigration will disenfranchise us, subvert our nations, destroy our communities, destroy our ethnic bonds, destroy our cultures, destroy our peoples — long before low fertility rates ever could. Thus, before we deal with the fertility rates, we must deal with both the invaders within our lands and the invaders that seek to enter our lands. We must crush immigration and deport those invaders already living on our soil. It is not just a matter of our prosperity, but the very survival of our people.

Tarrant presents demographic estimates of what will happen:

In 2100, despite the ongoing effect of sub-replacement fertility, the population figures show that the population does not decrease in line with these sub-replacement fertility levels, but actually maintains, and, even in many White nations, rapidly increases. All through immigration. This is ethnic replacement. This is cultural replacement.

THIS IS WHITE GENOCIDE.

If you believe in this demographic invasion that is taking your people’s lands, then it follows logically that there are no non-combatants. People are stealing your country simply by being here.

There are no innocents in an invasion. All people who colonize other peoples’ lands share their guilt. [4]

In particular, children are not innocent. They will grow up and vote and reproduce (probably in large numbers, because “fertility rates are part of those racial differences”). So Tarrant was not worried that he might kill children. The point here is not to kill all the immigrants, but to kill enough to drive the rest out and deter future immigrants from coming.

Few parents, regardless of circumstance, will willingly risk the lives of their children, no matter the economic incentives. Therefore, once we show them the risk of bringing their offspring to our soil, they will avoid our lands. [5]

Why don’t I fear losing my country? As I said, Tarrant’s demographics aren’t wrong, at least in the US. (White nationalists in European countries tend to overestimate how many non-whites surround them. France, for example, is still about 85% white. The prospect of whites becoming a minority there is still quite distant.) So why don’t I, as a white American, feel as alarmed as he does?

And the answer is that I don’t see any reason why non-whites can’t be real Americans. Back in the 90s, my wife and I went to China to support our friends as they adopted a baby girl. That girl is now in her mid-20s, and I have watched her grow up, including seeing her on every Christmas morning of her life. To the best of my ability to judge such things, she is as American as I am. I do not worry in the least that some essential non-American nature is encoded in her genetic makeup, or that her presence is turning America into China. [6]

In my view, America (or Western culture, for that matter) isn’t something that arises from the essential nature of the White race. America is something we do, not something we are. It is an idea that can be shared by anyone who is inspired to share it.

So when I picture that white-minority America of 2045 (which I have a decent chance of living to see), I don’t see it as a country that “my people” have lost. That’s because I already see the idea of America and Western culture being shared by lots of other folks that Tarrant would see as invaders, like, say, Fareed Zakaria, Ta-Nahisi Coates, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I have faith in the continuing strength of the American idea, which I believe will continue to inspire a majority of Americans well beyond 2045. California, where whites are already less than half population, still feels like America to me.

Assimilation. Tarrant lacks faith in assimilation, because he sees race as having a direct effect on culture. This is a common belief among white nationalists, and many whites who resonate with white-nationalist concerns, even if they don’t identify with the movement.

A frequent complaint on the American right, which you will hear often on Fox News, is that recent immigrants are not assimilating the way previous waves of immigrants did. The data does not bear this out, but it is believed because white-nationalist ideology makes it seem necessary: Hispanics and other non-white immigrants can’t assimilate the way Italians and Poles did, because they aren’t white.

In memory, we tend to forget how long it took waves of European immigrants to assimilate. Whites who can remember their grandparents speaking Hungarian at home are somehow appalled that Hispanic immigrants don’t instantly learn English, or that they form ethnic enclaves (like, say, Little Italy in New York). American Catholics may feel that immigrant Muslims are changing the essential Christian nature of their country, but they forget that America once saw itself as a Protestant nation, and many felt threatened by immigrant Catholics in precisely the same way. (Catholicism was viewed as a fundamentally authoritarian religion that could never adapt to republican America.)

In fact, Catholics from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other European countries did change America. But America also changed Catholicism. The same thing is happening with Islam.

Anti-democracy. If shared genes are what makes us a people, if immigrants by definition can’t join us, and if my people are in danger of losing their land due to a demographic invasion, then democracy as it is currently practiced — where immigrants gain citizenship and become voters — is just part of the national suicide process. An invasion isn’t something that can be voted on, especially if the invaders are allowed to vote.

Worse, even before the invaders become the majority, democracy has been corrupted by those who hope to gain from the invasion and the “cheap labor, new consumers, and tax base” that it brings. So Tarrant has no love of democracy.

Democracy is mob rule, and the mob itself is ruled by our own enemies.

Until now, I’ve relegated comparisons to American politics to the footnotes. But this is where it needs to come into the foreground. Because several important Trumpian concepts have moved onto the stage:

  • the notion of a unified corporate/government “elite” whose interests are at odds with the American people
  • a fundamental disrespect for democracy
  • the righteousness of violent action if and when the wrong side wins elections.

Trump and his allies have not come out and said openly that democracy is bad, but the notion that gerrymandering, the Electoral College, purging legal voters from voter lists, and various forms of voter suppression are undemocratic carries very little weight with them. The myth that undocumented immigrants vote in large numbers, which circulates despite an almost total lack of evidence, persists as a stand-in for an unspoken underlying concern: that immigrants become citizens and vote legally.

Trump fairly regularly either encourages violence among his supporters or hints that violent action might follow his impeachment or defeat.

All of this makes sense if you believe that democracy is only legitimate as a way for a People to govern itself, and becomes illegitimate when a system designed for a People becomes corrupted by the votes of invaders.

Sex and gender. Tarrant’s manifesto is addressed almost entirely to White men, whom he urges to defend their homelands.

Weak men have created this situation and strong men are needed to fix it.

He has little to say about women, but the implications of his beliefs should be obvious: If the underlying problem is a low birthrate among whites, the ultimate fault lies with white women. Women who let their professional or creative ambitions distract them from motherhood, who practice birth control, abortion, or lesbianism — their failings aren’t just matters of personal morality any more, they’re threats to the survival of the race.

The closest Tarrant comes to addressing this is:

Likely a new society will need to be created with a much greater focus on family values, gender and social norms, and the value and importance of nature, culture, and race.

But it doesn’t take much imagination to picture this new society: It will have fewer opportunities for women, and less acceptance of women in roles other than motherhood. It will also discourage men from abandoning their procreative roles through homosexuality, and will in general support the “traditional value” of separate and unchanging gender roles.

It is easy to see the attraction of this ideology to a variety of crazies, including incels, who have themselves at times become violent terrorists. The same opportunities that have diverted women from motherhood have likewise made them more picky about the men they choose to procreate with, with the result that some men find themselves unable to have the active sex lives they feel they deserve. Incels are already overwhelmingly white, so the attraction of a white-nationalist ideology that would restrict women’s choices should be obvious.

Power and purpose. All of these positions enhance the power of groups that are already privileged: whites, the native-born, Christians, and men. They could be attractive to those groups on that cynical ground alone. But cynicism alone seldom succeeds for long, because the pure quest for power and advantage only inspires sociopaths. The rest may pursue that quest, but never without misgivings.

The charm of an ideology, though, is that it can give power-seeking a higher purpose: I seek these advantages not just for myself, but to save my people from annihilation!

The underground stream. Few American politicians openly embrace white nationalism as a label, even if their views align with it. Even Steve King disclaims the term, and Republicans who share many of his white-nationalist views have felt obligated to distance themselves from him.

At the same time, though, something is motivating them. It is hard to listen to Trump’s litany of falsehoods about the border without wondering what the real justification for his Wall is. Obviously it’s something he doesn’t think he can get away with saying in so many words.

Similarly, it’s hard to see what other ideology unifies the full right-wing agenda: anti-illegal-immigration, anti-legal-immigration, anti-democracy, anti-abortion, anti-birth-control, anti-women’s-rights, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-black, and so on.

When asked about white nationalist terrorism after the Christchurch shooting, President Trump waved off the problem, saying: “It’s a small group of people.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps it is the ideology that dares not announce itself: Its followers just “know” the truth of it, but can’t say so because of “political correctness”. More and more, white nationalism — and the demographic fear at its root — looks like the underground stream that feeds all the various insanities of the Right.


[1] I discussed and rejected this notion a couple years ago in a piece called “Should I Have White Pride?” The artificiality of “white culture” becomes obvious to me when I start trying to imagine a White Culture Festival: What food would we serve? What traditional costumes would we wear? It makes sense to hold a German Festival or a Greek Festival, but a White Festival, not so much.

[2] The evidence for this impossibility is of the we-can’t-imagine-that variety. If you picture a Moroccan and an Estonian next to each other, they just seem different, at least to Tarrant and his target audience.

But of course, the same is true for any lands that are far apart, even within Europe. Italians seem different from Swedes, when you picture them, but somehow they are all white Europeans. To see if the concepts of whiteness and European-ness have any real substance, you’d want to check what happens at the boundaries. So better questions would be: Could a Greek become a Turk, or vice versa? Could a Moroccan became a Spaniard? Those transformations don’t seem nearly so difficult, and in fact are easier for me to imagine than a Spaniard becoming an Estonian.

But in fact, such transformations happen all the time, particularly here in the United States, where we have a long history of light-skinned blacks passing as white, to the point that after a few generations the shift may be forgotten. If you have a Greek-American immigrant living on one side of you and a Turkish-American immigrant on the other, you might have a hard time telling the difference, either racially or culturally. Both would likely have dark hair and make baklava and strong coffee. Both sets of children will likely be as American as yours.

[3] President Trump agrees with Tarrant about this. On the same day as the 50 murders — and, in fact, during a public appearance that began with his statement of support for New Zealand in dealing with these attacks — Trump announced his veto of the bipartisan Congressional resolution to terminate the national emergency that he intends to use to commandeer money to build his wall. Within a few paragraphs, he went from denouncing the “monstrous terror attacks” in New Zealand to echoing the attacker’s rhetoric.

People hate the word “invasion,” but that’s what it is. It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people.

[4] Several people have cited this and many other of Tarrant’s statements as examples of projection. Who, after all, has done more colonizing of “other peoples’ lands” than Europeans? Isn’t that how the US, New Zealand, and a bunch of other places became “White nations” to begin with?

Though accurate, I doubt this observation would unsettle Tarrant. “Guilt” here is a relative concept, and is not related to a universal morality. Of course peoples contest with each other for possession of lands in the evolutionary Us-against-Them struggle for survival and dominance. Of course native peoples should have regarded colonizing whites as invaders and tried to repel them.

[5] There’s a strong resonance here with the Trump administration’s family separation policy. Like Tarrant’s attacks, it is an intentional cruelty whose purpose is to deter future immigrants by threatening their children.

[6] Iowa Congressman Steve King disagrees. He tweeted:

[Dutch nationalist leader Geert] Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.

I See Color

Five reasons whites shouldn’t colorblind themselves.


Tuesday night, CNN (for reasons I still don’t understand) decided to devote an hour of evening air time to billionaire Howard Schultz (a.k.a. Daddy Starbucks) answering questions in a town hall format. While answering a question about a racial incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, Schultz said this:

As somebody who grew up in a very diverse background as a young boy in the projects, I didn’t see color as a young boy and I honestly don’t see color now.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of a statement like that, or how to respond to it. It’s far from the first time I’ve heard another white person (it’s always a white person) say that he or she “doesn’t see color”. Typically, people who make this statement think they’re saying something virtuous — that they’re not prejudiced against non-whites, that they try to see each person as an individual rather than through the lens of a racial stereotype, or that they treat people of all races the same. If you question them, you’re likely to hear the famous Martin Luther King quote:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

By “not seeing color”, then, a white person is trying to live Dr. King’s dream: I’m not judging your children by the color of their skin; in fact, I’m not even noticing it.

So what’s wrong with that? Many of the people who say they don’t see color really do mean well — though some don’t; we’ll get to that — so I think they deserve a clear and honest answer.

1. It’s probably not literally true. I’ve occasionally been surprised to find out that someone I’ve known for a while has Jewish ancestry, or was born in another country and speaks English as a second language, or was brought up in a family very much richer or poorer than mine. Apparently, I really don’t “see” those things, at least not all the time. But I’ve never, ever been surprised to discover that somebody is black. I’ve never, ever had anyone say to me, “Did you realize Marcus is black? I never noticed before.”

I know that mixed-race people are sometimes hard to classify. So “Do you think of yourself as black?” can be a meaningful question. But even then I have usually spotted the uncertainty. Because I see color. I believe just about everybody does.

So “I don’t see color” has an element of willfulness to it. At best, it’s not about perception, it’s about habits of thought. Probably the more literal statement would be, “I don’t think about race.” Or maybe: “I try not to think about race.”

But even when we try not to take race into account, we often do. I try not to be prejudiced or to act in any way that promotes bigotry. But I also score badly on the implicit racism test. Like most people, I see color even when I think I don’t.

2. That’s not how dreams work. But what about the dream of a colorblind society? I mean, the one where people might notice each other’s skin color in the literal sense I just talked about, but it just doesn’t matter, because all people are judged “by the content of their character”. Race might still be part of your heritage, but in the here and now, it would only matter to the extent you want it to.

A lot of white identities are like that now. I come from German stock, while somebody else might have Polish ancestors. Germans and Poles have been at each other’s throats for centuries, but in America today none of that matters any more. Maybe we’ll trade mock-hostile barbs when Germany plays Poland in the World Cup. Maybe your grandmother taught you how to prepare kielbasa while mine taught me schnitzel. (Actually she didn’t, unfortunately.) But in all the ways that count, the ones that might re-ignite the conflicts of our ancestors, neither of us cares.

We can imagine a society where race is like that. “Your people came over from Africa? That’s interesting. Have you traced what part?” But when employers are deciding whether to hire you, police are deciding whether to arrest you (or just shoot you), or Starbucks managers are deciding whether to call 911, your race wouldn’t play any role. The percentage of the population that is in poverty or in prison or in management or prematurely in the grave wouldn’t depend on race in anything but a round-off-error sort of way.

Is that a worthy dream? I believe it is.

But I’m not trying to pretend it’s true now, because dreams don’t work that way.

If you dream about being a billionaire like Howard Schultz, the way to get there isn’t to start living like a billionaire in all the ways you can. Quite the opposite: Every time you go to the kind of restaurant a billionaire might frequent — or as close to one as your credit cards will allow — you get a little farther away from actual wealth.

I dream of a society where all people have access to health care, but I don’t bring that day closer by pretending that they already do. I dream of a world where refugees aren’t desperate to get into the United States, because their home countries are doing fine and they have lots of other good places to live. But having that dream doesn’t make me any less callous when I ignore those refugees.

I dream of a world where everyone is honest, and I can leave my laptop sitting unattended on my table at Starbucks when I go off to the bathroom. But I never do that, because dreams don’t work that way.

A colorblind teacher in a white neighborhood school would see the new black kid being picked on and think, “I wonder what that’s about.” A colorblind warden would be oblivious to the racially segregated gangs in his prison.

In American society today, race matters. You can’t deal with that reality unless you see it.

3. Having a choice about whether or not you’ll notice race today is an element of white privilege. As I write this sentence, I’m sitting in the breakfast area of a La Quinta somewhere in Maryland. A couple of hotel employees are responsible for keeping the coffee urns full and the steam tables stocked with scrambled eggs and sausages. None of them are in my line of sight right now, and I realize I don’t know what race they are. To that extent, at least, I’ve been colorblind this morning.

I can do that, because whether they’re white or black or something else, they’re here to serve me.

Similarly, when Howard Schultz sits down with a stack of resumes, thinking about who Starbucks’ next CFO should be, he can decide to ignore race if he wants to. (But given that Philadelphia incident and the bad publicity that came with it, he probably shouldn’t. Some highly visible black face would do Starbucks some good right now.)

But think about what happened to John Crawford III. He was shopping in a Wal-Mart near Dayton, Ohio, when he picked a pellet gun off a shelf and began carrying it with him while he shopped (and talked on the phone). A white customer saw him and called 911, telling police that a black man was waving a gun around at Wal-Mart. (He wasn’t.) A few minutes later, a white policeman barked orders at a very confused Crawford, and then shot him dead when he didn’t respond fast enough, because the cop believed Crawford “was about to” raise the gun. (The officer wasn’t charged with any crime, kept his job, and went back to full field duty after the investigation was complete.)

Now imagine that you’re a black parent trying to raise a son. What will you tell him that Crawford did wrong there? What do you want your boy to do differently if he’s in a similar situation? I think you warn him that Crawford didn’t see color that day. He didn’t think: “There are white people in this store who expect black men to be dangerous.” He didn’t notice when white police walked into the store, and immediately assume they might be looking for him.

The white people in the Wal-Mart could choose to be colorblind if they wanted (though the guy who called 911 clearly wasn’t). John Crawford III couldn’t get away with making that choice.

Of course, you also tell your black son about Martin’s Dream. But you’re very careful to teach him not to lose sight of the difference between the Dream and the Reality. Confusing the two could get him killed.

4. Colorblind whites make bad allies. Think about the teacher and the warden I mentioned above. Racism is real in America, and you’re not going to be much use in mitigating it if you refuse to see it.

Most racism in America today tries not to draw attention to itself. It often pretends to be something else, and has a semi-plausible explanation of its actions. If you’re not paying close attention, you might not see through that explanation.

For example, during the Obama administration, the First Family was often faulted for doing things that white First Families had done without drawing criticism. Barack was photographed putting his feet up on a historic desk. Family vacations cost the taxpayers a lot of money because of the entourage that had to come along. The White House Christmas card didn’t display any religious themes. The White House is equipped and staffed to provide a posh lifestyle, as it has for decades.

Lots of people objected to this stuff without consciously thinking about race. It wasn’t that the Obamas were black, it’s that they were living wastefully or disrespecting some important American value. But somehow that disrespect didn’t register in the same way when the president was white.

In order to notice that kind of thing and address it appropriately, you need to see color. You need to be sensitive to the idea that racism constantly lurks in the background of American society, even when the foreground looks fine.

A lot of today’s racism is baked into the system, and doesn’t depend on any individual’s prejudice. The pipeline that sends black children to mostly segregated schools, funds those schools inadequately, criminalizes discipline, and channels students in the direction of prison — it operates with or without the racism of any particular teacher or principal or policeman or judge. If they all suddenly became colorblind, the system would continue to function.

5. Idealizing colorblindness gives cover to people who invoke it in bad faith. Trump has often claimed to be “the least racist person” — the least racist person you’ve met, ever interviewed, and so on. He has made that claim while trying to ban Muslims from entering the country, building a wall to keep out Hispanics, saying that neo-Nazis are “very fine people”, and pushing the baseless theory that the first black president wasn’t really an American.

He gets away with that, at least among certain segments of the electorate, because he doesn’t explicitly invoke color. This is a constant theme in conservative circles: If I don’t explicitly mention color, I’m not racist. On paper, the law has explicitly been colorblind since the 1960s. So racism effectively ended then — except for the affirmative action programs that disadvantage whites. Non-whites are still much poorer than whites, and are under-represented in elite schools, corporate boardrooms, and high-paying professions, while over-represented in prisons and poverty programs. But any attempt to remedy those problems can’t be colorblind, so they get tarred as “reverse racism”.

 

I’ll give the last word to Khalil Gibran Muhammad author of The Condemnation of Blackness,

If we’re going to do something differently in the 21st century than what was done in the 20th century, it’s going to take a whole lot more white people in everyday experiences to be anti-racist and to stand up for racial justice.

Not non-racist, anti-racist. And you can’t fight what you can’t see.

Ralph Northam and the Limits of Forgiveness

Friday, a 35-year-old yearbook photo of Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam exploded across the internet. The picture shows two men, one in blackface and the other wearing a KKK hood, on Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook of the Eastern Virginia Medical School, where he was a student. Northam apologized for the photo, without saying which of the figures was him. Later, he said neither was, but that he had worn blackface to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest around the same time.

Immediately, there were calls for him to resign the governorship he won in 2017. By the weekend, they were coming from all the major Virginia Democrats, including Senators Kaine and Warner. So far, Northam has refused to resign, but he still may.

I admit to being torn about this. My initial reaction wasn’t that this was a resign-immediately offense. But being so out of step with most other Democrats makes me acutely aware of the limitations of my point of view. This is a moment where I am very conscious of being white. The photo wasn’t intended to offend me, so it’s easy for me to say, “It was a long time ago. Let’s accept his apology and move on.”

I’m also conscious of being old. I remember Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who served in the Senate from 1959 until his death in 2010. Byrd was a member of the Democratic leadership in the Senate: majority leader from 1987-1989, and President pro Tempore of the Senate (next in line for the presidency after the Speaker of the House) from 2003-2007. In short, he was not some shameful figure the Democratic Party hid in the attic.

Byrd hadn’t just taken a photo dressed up as KKK (or next to somebody dressed up as KKK). In his youth, he actually was KKK.

In the early 1940s, Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to create a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Sophia, West Virginia.

How was that possible? Well, he changed.

In his last autobiography, Byrd explained that he was a KKK member because he “was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision—a jejune and immature outlook—seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions.” Byrd also said in 2005, “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times … and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again. I can’t erase what happened.”

When he died, civil-rights hero Congressman John Lewis wrote a tribute calling Byrd “a true statesman“.

Not so long ago, change of that magnitude could be accepted. Late in his career, even famous segregationist George Wallace changed.

In the late 1970s, Wallace announced that he was a born-again Christian and apologized to black civil rights leaders for his past actions as a segregationist. He said that while he had once sought power and glory, he realized he needed to seek love and forgiveness. In 1979, Wallace said of his stand in the schoolhouse door: “I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over.” He publicly asked for forgiveness from blacks.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Wallace hadn’t changed at all: Maybe he had been an opportunist as a segregationist, and he was still an opportunist when he asked for forgiveness. The difference may not have been anything that happened in Wallace’s conscience, but the fact that by the late 1970s blacks were voting in large numbers. I don’t think we’ll ever really know.

And perhaps the people who accepted these sorts of conversions were also simply being pragmatic: In the Alabama and West Virginia of the late 20th century, just about every white person had some kind of racist past. A party that was too pure to reclaim them would give up any possibility of being a majority.

Maybe we’re past all that now. Maybe we can throw out all the whites who have any racism in their past, and still hope for a majority. Maybe we can also throw out all the men who have ever done anything sexist, and all the straights who have a history of homophobia. Maybe America has changed so much that a party of people who don’t need any forgiveness can be a majority now.

But I have to confess, I have my doubts about that.

I worry that we’re playing into Trump’s hands when we drum Ralph Northam out of the Democratic Party. As I interpret it, Trump’s message to wavering whites and men and straights goes something like this:

You’re never going to be pure enough to satisfy the liberals. So you might as well wear your MAGA hat and fly your Confederate flag, because no matter what you do, there’s never going to be a place for you on the other side.

I’m open to the idea that Ralph Northam can’t be governor any more. Virginians seem to be saying that, and ultimately it’s their decision. I also like the idea that there’s a clear difference between the parties: Democrats would never let a man become president who brags about his sexual assaults while claiming that his accusers are too unattractive to be worth assaulting.

But as we watch Northam leave the public stage, as I suspect he will, I hope that doesn’t end the discussion. We need to think hard about where the limits of forgiveness are and how one seeks it.

Because I don’t think we’re ever going to find enough pure people to form a majority.

Racism, Hot and Cold

It’s hard for conservatives to talk about race. Maybe we could make it easier.


Liberal/conservative conversations about race often go like this one that happened on MSNBC at the end of March.

There is an incident (in this case Sean Spicer scolding a black female reporter, April Ryan) that shows lack of respect for a person of color. The liberal (in this case, Jason Johnson) places it in a larger context, a pattern of disrespect, and calls it out as racism. The conservative (Matt Schlapp) takes offense at the accusation and a shouting match ensues, ending any real exchange of ideas.

To an extent, I think this is a calculated tactic on the part of conservative pundits (or, at least, somebody calculated it at one point and others have imitated): There can be no discussion of patterns of disrespect based on race or gender. Any attempt to start such a discussion has to be shouted down.

Accordingly, any individual incident has to be presented as a unique occurrence and explained by the details of that particular situation. (Schlapp explains that Spicer “got feisty” with Ryan because he was under pressure to get through a lot of news that day.) Attempts to put a racial context around the incident have to be shut down. [1]

But whatever Schlapp or other talking heads might have in mind, it’s worthwhile to consider why their conservative viewers approve of this tactic and never see it for what it is: In conservative circles racism has a very specific meaning that usually doesn’t apply to the situation at hand. To conservatives, racism means conscious hatred, an intention to harm or humiliate a person purely because of his or her race. It isn’t that racism doesn’t exist, but it applies only to the KKK or the Nazis.

To Schlapp, then, it is absurd and outrageous to imagine that Sean Spicer is at his podium thinking “I’m tired of black reporters getting uppity with me, so I’m going to slap this one down.” That’s what Schlapp means when he says, “You don’t know what’s in Sean’s heart.”

But of course, Johnson had never claimed to know what was in Spicer’s heart, or to see conscious hatred there. He was pointing to a pattern of behavior both for Spicer and throughout the Trump administration, in which non-whites are shown less respect. There might be all kinds of reasons for such a pattern.

For example, what if Spicer simply sees blacks (or women) differently than he sees whites (or men)? [2] What if it’s his mental habit to interpret black actions more negatively, and to feel that harsher responses are appropriate? In that case, he might have been entirely unaware that he was treating April Ryan differently than a white White House correspondent like Peter Alexander or Jeff Zeleny, because even if Alexander or Zeleny had done the same thing, it would have looked different to him.

To the conservative mind, though, that’s not racism. If there is no conscious hatred involved, then it’s totally unfair to suggest comparisons to the KKK, as they feel racism does.

“So fine, then,” a liberal might say, “give me the word that applies to this situation and we’ll use it.”

But then you hit the root problem: There is no conservative term for the habitual and perhaps unconscious tendency to see people of another race differently, judge them more negatively, and react to them more harshly. In the absence of such a term, there is no way to point out the phenomenon and discuss it. You can’t ask about the elephant in the room, because elephant refers only to mastodons, who died out ages ago. There is no word for the big, gray animal swinging his trunk around, so any attempt to discuss him inevitably veers off in some other direction.

A conservative might respond that I’m describing an esoteric phenomenon of so little consequence that it doesn’t really need a name or a discussion. But that is completely unconvincing after eight years of the Obama administration, during which conservative media outlets repeatedly raised their audience’s outrage when Obama did things white presidents had been doing without incident for decades. I don’t claim to know what was in the hearts of the people who felt that outrage — I doubt that most of them were consciously aware they were applying different standards to Obama — but the pattern of observable behavior was clear and obvious. [3]

Likewise, this is the whole issue behind Black Lives Matter. It isn’t that people become cops because they like to kill blacks. (I mean, some small number probably do, but I doubt it’s typical, and I believe the system tries to weed those guys out.) But white guys can safely carry semi-automatic rifles through Target, while a black guy in Walmart gets gunned down for picking up a toy. Cops just see young black men differently, judge their actions more negatively, and respond more harshly. We can’t have a rational discussion of that issue because conservatives refuse to call it racism, but don’t offer any alternative term for it.

We could give them one.

I know this isn’t a new idea. In liberal circles, there is already a distinction between conscious and unconscious bigotry. We often talk about implicit bias, and there is even a test you can take for it on the internet. But every term I’ve heard smacks of some liberal bastion like psychology or academia. None of them would sound right rolling out of a conservative mouth. A conservative talking about implicit bias would impress his fellow conservatives about as much as a macho man talking to his locker-room buddies about relationships and commitment.

If we want a real discussion to start, what we need isn’t technical jargon appropriate for an academic journal, but some ten-cent words already in everyday use, taking advantage of some metaphor that ordinary people might come up with if they happened across the phenomenon on their own, without ever attending a course in racial studies.

Here’s a common metaphor that might work: Emotions have temperature. Hate and anger are hot. If you feel a vague aversion towards someone, you are cool to them, and if the aversion got stronger you might want to freeze them out.

If we apply that metaphor to racism, then the kind conservatives already acknowledge, the conscious hatred that Emmett Till‘s killers must have felt, is hot racism. When Richard Spencer calls for “ethnic cleansing” to turn American into a “white ethnostate”, that’s also hot racism.

Cold racism, on the other hand, doesn’t actively wish harm on people of color, but simply fails to factor in their interests or to weigh them as heavily as the interests of whites. Those who watched Eric Garner die saying “I can’t breathe” and felt motivated to make excuses for the police choking him — most of them probably weren’t feeling hatred or anger towards Garner, they were just failing to feel compassion for a fellow human being. The problem wasn’t their heat it was their coldness. [4]

The kind of racism that whites can live with and not notice — the kind that simply sees blacks differently and then acts in a way that feels appropriate to that harsher perception, without any awareness of personal animus — could be described as room-temperature racism. The room-temperature racist feels like he is the one acting normally, and doesn’t understand why others are getting upset with him.

That, I believe, describes Sean Spicer. An avowed white nationalist like Richard Spencer knows that race is an issue for him. But Spicer just believes he’s responding appropriately to what he sees. The details of the Holocaust (to bring up another recent example) just don’t stick in his head. Why, he probably wonders, are Jews so bent out of shape about that?

If liberals started consistently applying a temperature gauge to racism, I think most moderates would understand the metaphor without much explanation, and conservatives might eventually get it in spite of themselves. Some talking heads — the ones who are consciously looking to disrupt discussions of race — might keep reacting with outrage to any mention of racism, regardless of temperature. But part of their audience might realize that finding room-temperature racism in the patterns of Spicer’s responses isn’t the same as fitting him for a white hood. They might eventually recognize that there is a consistent phenomenon in the incidents that carry that label.

Elephants, they might come to understand, are not mastodons. Occasionally there is one in the room. Maybe there should be a conversation about it.


[1] Conservatives, in their usual pot-and-kettle way, claim that it is liberals who shut down discussions by bringing up racism. But this is true only if you begin with the premise that racism can never be discussed. Apparently, it is impossible for conservatives to respond to “That’s racist” with a skeptical “How?”.

[2] In this article I’m going to focus specifically on racism, but what I’m saying could apply to any form of bigotry. We could talk about hot and cold sexism, hot and cold nativism, and so on.

[3] In 2014, I documented a long series of examples, but two moments should stand out in everyone’s memory: State of the Union addresses have contained debatable statements for as long as I can remember, but no white president was ever interrupted by “You lie!“. And the entire Birther theory, which as late as last summer was still given credence by a majority of Republicans, demonstrated that a large number of Americans were ready to believe anything negative about Obama, regardless of evidence.

There are comparable examples of baseless conspiracy theories about white presidents — that George W. Bush was complicit in 9-11 or FDR was secretly Jewish. But all of them stayed on the fringes of public debate. None ever caught on like Birtherism or stayed viable in the face of clear evidence and repeated debunking.

Now, does that mean that Joe Wilson was consciously thinking, “I can’t let that nigger get away with saying that”? Am I implying that everyone who doubted Obama’s citizenship is a potential cross-burner? Not at all, but it is part of a long pattern of seeing blacks differently, judging them more negatively, and responding to them more harshly.

[4] When I google “cold racism”, most of the examples are of the form “stone cold racism”, which is a different thing. It’s the hardness of the stone that’s being evoked, not the temperature of the feeling.

Justice and the Police

Inside our nation is a colony of poor, mostly non-white communities whose police are not under their democratic control. Jeff Sessions wants to keep it that way.


Recalling Ferguson. I remember exactly when I came to accept that Darren Wilson should not be prosecuted for killing Michael Brown: when I read the Justice Department’s report on the shooting. Until then, no entity I trusted had been able to examine all the evidence and report its findings to the public.

From the beginning, the Ferguson police had shown no interest in uncovering the truth; Wilson was their man, and they wanted him to go free. The local prosecutor, likewise, did not want to get on the wrong side of the police, and even Missouri’s Democratic governor saw the case as too hot a potato to pick up.

Only the Obama administration’s Justice Department was far enough removed from the local power structure to be objective. So its report was what finally convinced me: Wilson’s account of the incident was closer to the evidence than the hands-up-don’t-shoot narrative that had been echoing through Ferguson’s black community.

Even after that report, I still believed that Wilson’s animalistic (and at times even demonic) description of Brown was racist. I will never be convinced that killing Brown was his only option, or that he wouldn’t have found another way to resolve the situation if Brown had been white and middle-class. But even so, I knew that if the case went to trial and I were a juror, I could not vote to convict.

Simultaneously, though, Justice issued a parallel report about the general state of policing in Ferguson. The primary mission of Ferguson’s police, the report found, was not public safety, but generating revenue for the city by citing poor blacks for violations that carried fines. Likewise, the municipal court’s mission was to monetize those violations, and if possible to multiply them by making the court process as difficult as possible to navigate without incurring further fines.

The community’s response to Brown’s killing, the two reports implied, was based not so much on the facts of that particular case as on a hope: Maybe finally the police had done something so egregious that the outside world would have to notice the illegal and unconstitutional abuses Ferguson’s black citizens had to endure every day.

The Justice Department had noticed. It worked out a consent decree with the city to change how its police and court systems operate. It is one of many consent decrees Justice has worked out with cities all over the country.

But it’s not going to do that any more.

From oversee to overlook. This week, the Trump Justice Department, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, gave notice that it was getting out of the business of overseeing local police. In a memo to his department heads and to local U.S. attorneys, Sessions wrote:

Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies. [1] … The Deputy Attorney General and Associate Attorney General are hereby directed to immediately review all Department activities — including … compliance reviews, existing or contemplated consent decrees — … in order to ensure that they fully and effectively promote the principles outlined above.

That memo had immediate effects, though perhaps not entirely the ones Sessions intended. His subordinates tried to torpedo the consent decree that Obama’s Justice Department had worked out with Baltimore just before leaving office. But the presiding judge was having none of it, ruling that

The case is no longer in a phase where any party is unilaterally entitled to reconsider the terms of the settlement; the parties are bound to each other by their prior agreement. The time for negotiating the agreement is over. The only question now is whether the Court needs more time to consider the proposed decree. It does not.

Having received the judge’s blessing, the Baltimore agreement is now in force. However, the outline of an agreement that had been worked out with Chicago is not yet official, and may well go back to the drawing board. Mother Jones paints the larger picture:

A report released in February by Samuel Walker, a police reform expert at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, determined that most consent decrees enforced by the Department of Justice since 1994—when Congress passed legislation granting the DOJ oversight authority over local police agencies—have been successful in achieving long-term reforms. Consent decrees are binding legal agreements, and once signed, they are overseen by a federal judge and an appointed monitor. The DOJ’s ability to interfere with that process is limited, [former Obama Justice official Jonathan] Smith said.

But there are things the DOJ can do to undermine it. It could ignore violations of decrees and stop taking police departments to court because of them. It could also seek to renegotiate the terms of a decree or to have it dropped altogether—though that would be difficult even with the cooperation of a police department, Smith said. “After all, these injunctions are entered to protect the public interest,” Smith said.

Why isn’t local accountability enough? But even if we recognize the damage likely to result from Sessions’ decision to stop overseeing and start overlooking police abuses, we have to admit that the first line I quoted from his memo is quite true:

Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective policing.

The obvious question to ask, then, is why such local accountability doesn’t exist in so many places. The black citizens of Ferguson live in a democracy, after all, and local elections are held on a regular basis. Why did they — or the black citizens of Baltimore or Chicago or dozens of other cities — have to raise the attention of the national media and of Washington in order to get local reform?

The answer to that question is in Chris Hayes’ fortuitously timed A Colony in a Nation, which came out last month.

This book makes a simple argument: that American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land. … If you live in the Nation, the criminal justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.

Ferguson and the Founders. Hayes begins, like I just did, in Ferguson, where the goal of policing is not public safety, but revenue enhancement. And he draws a parallel I would not have thought of: to the American colonies in the decade before the revolution.

In high school American History, we were all taught that the revolution was about “taxation without representation”. But in fact, Hayes argues, the colonies had existed under onerous tax-and-tariff laws for a long time. From Britain’s point of view, the purpose of the American colonies had always been to produce raw materials for British industry and markets for its finished goods. From the beginning, the colonies had been barred from trading with rival powers and taxed steeply when they traded with the homeland.

And from the beginning, the colonies had been rife with smugglers, some of whom (like John Hancock) achieved great prestige. Colonial life was largely one big smuggling conspiracy. Ordinary people did their best to interfere with customs agents, and juries often let guilty smugglers go.

What changed after the French and Indian War wasn’t so much the British laws and taxes, but their policing regime: They began trying to collect the taxes the law said were owed.

The British crackdown essentially inaugurated America’s first tough-on-crime era. It was a classic crackdown: more customs officials were granted more expansive powers, while courts were streamlined to produce swift punishment and avoid the maddening jury nullification … After 1763 customs officials no longer looked the other way in exchange for small bribe. Instead, they began operating in ways that looked a lot like what we now call “stop and frisk.” … American colonists were subject to British invasions of their carriages, ships, and homes without the safeguards enjoyed by their English cousins.

It wasn’t the financial burden of taxes that caused the revolution, it was the “insulting and humiliating” policing necessary to collect those taxes.

No wonder places like Ferguson sometimes seem so rebellious now.

Real community policing. Among law-enforcement theorists, community policing means that police maintain relationships with the local community. The image of community policing is the cop walking a beat, recognizing and being recognized by the people he passes.

But Hayes raises the stakes, pointing out what community policing might mean: Not individual cops maintaining relationships, but an entire system of policing — what laws get enforced and how — that is responsive to the community being policed.

That sounds incredibly utopian until Hayes points out that such systems already exist: on college campuses. First he describes the lax enforcement of drug laws he remembers from his student days at Brown. But then he reports the shock to his Ivy League sensibilities when he got a job in Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin.

Nothing I’d seen during my college years quite prepared me for the sheer insanity of a big football program home game. Tens upon tens of thousands of people, of all ages, were shit-faced drunk. Frat row was in a state of debaucherous pandemonium, with dozens of students passed out on lawns and outdoor couches, amid no small amount of vomit, urine, and broken bottles.

He wonders about the role of race.

[W]ould all this (mostly harmless) mayhem meet with such enthusiastic tolerance if it were a hundred thousand drunk-as-hell black folks streaming through downtown Madison? Something tells me, no chance.

The couple I was staying with had season tickets to the games, and while they rolled their eyes a touch at some of the excesses, they were part of a community, and they understood and embraced that this was a community ritual, a norm collectively arrived at.

Compare that mental image to the militarized police rolling down the streets of Ferguson during the Michael Brown demonstrations. Was that display of force also “a norm collectively arrived at”? Or was it control from the outside?

If you took a lot of [student] behavior out of the Nation and put it in the Colony — say, out of Harvard Yard and into a big city housing project — if would provide the material for dozens of articles on the pathologies of poverty that hold back poor people of color. People sleep all day; they engage in loud, frequent relationship dramas while having numerous different sexual partners, and they get into drunken arguments and brawls and consume ungodly amounts of controlled substances.

University police know that their job is to serve the interests of the students they police (and their parents, who pay the bills). No one wants to pay hundreds of thousands to send their children to college, only to have them sent from there to jail, or to come home with a criminal record. So universities are policed in a way that minimizes those outcomes.

No doubt citizens of the black and Hispanic neighborhoods of New York didn’t want to be routinely stopped and frisked, or to see minor confrontations spiral out of control until their fellow citizens were imprisoned or dead. Black citizens of Ferguson didn’t want police to see them as prey, as sheep to be sheared for the benefit of the municipal budget. But they lacked the power to get the policing they wanted through local democratic channels. And now, under the Trump administration, they will also lack the power to go over the heads of local political interests and get a sympathetic hearing from federal officials.

Larger factors. So far, my summary sells Hayes’ book short: It paints a far larger picture, including discussions of white fear, the difference between law and order (and public safety, which is a separate consideration), and the financial value of order to owners of real estate.

But the book will have done an important job if it simply gets its central image into the public discussion: Some parts of the United States are nothing more than colonies run for the benefit of other parts.

To the Colony, Jeff Sessions is like the new governor sent over by George III to maintain control. And the next time there’s a shooting like Michael Brown, we will never really know what happened, because no disinterested party will ever investigate.


[1] Actually, it is the responsibility of the Justice Department. In essence, Sessions is saying that he will not enforce the following paragraph of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

§ 14141. Cause of action

(a) Unlawful conduct

It shall be unlawful for any governmental authority, or any agent thereof, or any person acting on behalf of a governmental authority, to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers or by officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the administration of juvenile justice or the incarceration of juveniles that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.

Can We Get Real About Opioids?

The problem isn’t in Mexico or on our southern border. It’s here, and it’s us.


All my life I’ve been hearing about the drug problem, but mostly what I’ve heard are attempts to dodge responsibility. Those attempts have taken two main forms:

  • It’s not my problem. The middle-aged, middle-and-upper-class whites who run the country project the problem onto inner-city blacks or white-trash teens, who can be written off. In other words: I don’t need to do anything, they just need to shape up.
  • The solution is to punish somebody else. The problem isn’t the American demand for drugs, it’s the supply chain. If we just extend the death penalty to pushers, or seal the border, or launch para-military operations against drug cartels, or spray enough herbicide on the poppy fields of Afghanistan or the coca fields of Columbia, that’ll fix it.

In recent years, though, that first dodge has been breaking down. The opioid problem has started to climb up the national agenda not just because the overall number of deaths has increased, but because drug abuse has increasingly begun to affect whites, rural and suburban communities, and people who are both over 30 and above the poverty line. In cynical political terms: people who matter.

Let’s review a little: Drug overdoses killed 52,000 Americans in 2015. That’s more than car accidents (35K) or gun deaths (36K). The National Institute of Health estimated that in 2013, 1.9 million Americans were dependent on pain relievers, with another million or so dependent on heroin, sedatives, and tranquilizers.

That’s such a big deal that it’s pushing down the national life-expectancy-at-birth numbers, which in 2015 fell for the first time since 1993, from 78.9 to 78.8. (That’s the National Center for Health Statistics number. For cross-country comparisons, the World Health Organization figures slightly differently. It rates the U.S. at 79.3, well below Japan at 83.7 and culturally similar Canada at 82.2.)

But what makes this a politically serious problem is that it’s hitting white people: The 2015 national life expectancy decline might turn out to be a statistical anomaly, but white life expectancy has barely budged since 2010.

That doesn’t just change the importance of the problem, it changes the rhetoric. If drugs aren’t just a problem for “those people”, then we can’t solve it by telling them to shape up. The rhetoric has to soften, and lean more towards empathy than tough love. During the campaign, Trump said this about the opioid problem:

We’re going to take all of these kids — and people, not just kids — that are totally addicted and they can’t break it. We’re going to work with them, we’re going to spend the money, we’re gonna get that habit broken.

But so far that’s been a shaky promise. The for-now abandoned TrumpCare plan would have eliminated the ObamaCare mandate that insurance policies cover addiction treatment, not to mention the millions of people it would have left without insurance entirely. He claimed to increase funding for addiction prevention and treatment by $500 million, but apparently that was just him taking credit for the 21st Century Cures Act passed under Obama.

But Wednesday was opioid abuse day at the White House, so Trump appointed a commission that will issue a report in October. That’s some real action for you.

While he waits for that report Trump continues to use the second dodge: He’s spinning drugs as a border-protection issue that the Wall will solve. Wednesday, after listening to several people’s stories of addiction that began with prescription drugs, he said:

So it’s been really — it spiked over the last eight to ten years.  Would that have anything to do with the weakening of the borders? Because a lot of it comes from the southern border.

Like so many Trump statements, this presents a thicket of misperceptions that you have to hack your way through. First, the border hasn’t “weakened” in recent years. We’ve had more fences and border agents than ever, and fewer people crossing illegally.

And then we get to the reality of the drug problem: About a third of the 52,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2015 were from prescription drugs, and many of the illegal-drug ODs are simply the end of a story that began with legal drugs. Even if we could shut off all the heroin and fentanyl coming from overseas — it’s mostly from Mexico right now, but that doesn’t mean drug importers would give up if we capped that particular pipe — the problem wouldn’t be solved.

And then there’s the assumption that the Wall would stop Mexican drugs cold. Even granting the shaky assumption that Mexico lags behind in crucial ladder technology, bags of pills or powder are not that hard to throw. Fill a football with them, and any high school quarterback could complete the pass.

In short, the only real way to attack this problem is on the demand side, not the supply side. We have to prevent people getting addicted to prescription opioids, and help current addicts (to both legal and illegal drugs) quit. The Great Wall of Mexico won’t do that.

What would? Three things:

  • Finding ways to manage chronic pain without addictive drugs.
  • Reducing the overall level of despair among people that the 21st-century economy is leaving behind — over-50 folks in rural areas as well as non-white inner-city youth.
  • Funding effective rehab programs for everybody who wants to quit.

None of those is a just-do-it thing. We know how to build walls, but chronic pain and despair and effective rehab are much harder questions. The difference is: They’re the right questions, rather than just new ways to dodge the problem.