Note: This essay is the first of a three-part series titled To Protect and To Serve, discussing police brutality and racial conflict not only as a domestic problem but also as a national security issue. As a Chinese international student, I hope to offer a perspective from outside the US; however, I do not claim to fully understand the daily experiences of Black Americans.
The President uses his powers to target immigrants, the free press, and political opponents who do not subscribe to his ideology. The sheer level of executive overreach shocks citizens, pundits, and academics alike. Tensions amount among the nation’s political elite, leading to a dysfunctional Congress, embroiled in senseless conflicts and meaningless outrage to score political points. Both sides have grown increasingly distrustful of each other and the partisan politics has extended to the public: people with different political beliefs in urban communities hold separate Fourth of July ceremonies; live in separate neighborhoods; and attend different churches. On the streets, mobs brawl as shops are raided and property destroyed. To us, this precisely describes American society today. Indeed, we have never seen this level of political polarization in modern American politics, with much of the partisan divide occurring across racial lines (Pew Research Center). Because of this ideological rift, most Americans have lost faith in each other and in the government (Rainie and Perrin). These sentiments among the electorate suggest that the democratic process is failing, posing a threat to the Great American Experiment itself.
Now, our readers may have good reasons to think that the opening passage of this piece describes the present. However, the year I describe is 1798, not 2020. The President you believed to be Donald Trump was actually John Adams. The two parties were not the Democrats and the Republicans, but were the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. Regardless, the two fundamental questions that divided the factions then have remained the same – What does America stand for? And who counts as American? The Federalists, based in New England, prized their pure, Protestant-American identity and resented Catholic immigrants. Democratic-Republicans at the time chided the Federalists for championing ‘we the noble, chosen, privileged few’ in lieu of ‘we the people.’ Far from being the ‘land of the free’ and ‘home of the brave,’ the early republic by no means realized the self-evident truths of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for its people. The bold democratic ideals of freedom, equality, and government by consent enshrined in the funding documents of the nation were paired with practices, actions, and norms that made a mockery of them. American society unashamedly sanctioned the brutal practice of slavery and the lack of women’s suffrage. It was only after nearly a century of struggle that slaves were freed and became American citizens; only after more than half a century later did women gain the right to vote.
However, the great historical struggle over the meaning of America and the ideals of its people never went away. In the present day, this struggle has manifested itself once again in the forefront of American politics. Indeed, one of the greatest political issues in the United States today concerns race. This is evidenced not only by the fast-growing Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement on the political left, but also by how the President on the political right has increasingly portrayed himself as a defender of white America (Baker). Although the president does not explicitly endorse white supremacists, he has on many occasions failed to condemn white supremacy groups (Burns, Martin and Haberman), perhaps out of a recognition that they form a significant part of his base. What does America stand for? Who truly counts as an American? Do Black lives really matter? These are still questions that America asks itself today.
Indeed, the particular level of polarization based on group identities that we see in the present has occurred in US history before, not just during the presidency of John Adams as already described, but also during other political eras. Most notably, the nation was divided on the racial issue of slavery during the Civil War. Other examples include economic divisions during the Gilded Age, the Great Depression, and political divisions during the Vietnam War, and the Watergate Scandal. All of these episodes have profoundly tested the limitations of a working democracy. An analysis of American history by Cornell Professor Suzanne Mettler and Johns Hopkins Professor Robert Lieberman reveal that four characteristics of disruption (Mettler and Lieberman) typically emerge from these periods of political division: polarization, racism, inequality, and excessive executive power. These agents of chaos (in combination or by themselves) have threatened the republic numerous times in the past and have caused setbacks to democracy. In the 1850s, divisions over slavery – an issue fundamentally based on racism – tore the country apart in a bloody civil war. In the 1890s, labor conflicts caused millions of Black Americans (Kousser, Issacharoff and Karlan) to lose their voting rights. During the 1970s, amid the unrest over racism and the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon attempted to exercise his executive power as a political weapon against his enemies, creating a constitutional crisis.
However, what is alarming about the present is that all four factors have manifested themselves in the current political order. Mirroring those episodes of ages past, we see that racial grievances are at the forefront of all four factors. First, it is straightforward to see how political polarization relates to racial issues when one considers the social consequences of racially biased police violence: the BLM movement, founded in 2013, exists entirely because of the excessive killing of Blacks by the police. Half the media calls them riots and (Graziosi) the protesters themselves thugs, while the other half insists that they are mostly peaceful (Mansoor) and fighting for a just cause. Moreover, the deep divide caused by the issue of police violence has led to cases where protesters are killed (Trump supporters, protesters clash in Portland; 1 killed) by other ordinary citizens simply for having a different opinion – an occurrence that should not be happening in a well-functioning democracy. It should therefore be clear to people on both sides of the aisle that problems relating to race are causing the extreme polarization in American society. Second, it should be obvious that racism is the inherent cause of racial issues. Third, we can also see that economic inequalities are inherently linked to racial inequalities in the United States as Black neighborhoods are often underdeveloped by lack of public funding and infrastructure (Ellison). Indeed, a person’s zip-code can decide the type of school they go to (Darling-Hammond), the security of their lives (Balko), and the quality of their health (Egede), since investment in education, policing, and healthcare often vary greatly between different areas of the same city. These inequalities among many others, are being laid bare with the Covid-19 pandemic (A tale of two New Yorks: pandemic lays bare a city’s shocking inequities). Finally, the use of excess executive power is evident in how the President has driven out protesters so he can stage a photo-op in front of a church. Considering how racial grievances are at the forefront of all four factors which are currently causing great harm to the fabric of American society, it becomes evident that the long-term health of American democracy simply cannot be preserved without addressing race. Moreover, it should be self-evident that it is impossible to address racial issues as a whole in America without addressing the most blatant problem of police violence.
We have hence established that America today stands as a house divided. At politically turbulent times in the present as in the past, the divides that separate the nation run deep through the founding ideals of the nation – ideals that were often proclaimed yet took time to actualize. Moreover, patterns in the history of the nation’s crises reveal that the four characteristics of polarization, racism, inequality, and excessive executive power pose the greatest threats to the well functioning of the republic. Finally, we have shown that racial issues, and especially of police violence, are intrinsically linked to all four characteristics of disruption that we see in American politics today. It follows that resolving the problem of police violence is arguably one of the most pressing tasks facing the American people not only because the wronged souls of the victims cry out for justice, but also because the stability of American democracy is at risk. More directly put, Americans today have both a strong humanitarian and a strong pragmatic reason to resolve the excessive and racially disparate use of force by the police.