Shots rang out from a downtown high-rise. An African-American sniper targeted police officers in retaliation for what he believed was their role as enforcers of white supremacy in black neighborhoods. No, I’m not referring to Dallas in 2016, or Baton Rouge on Sunday, but New Orleans in 1973. Navy veteran Mark Essex shot and killed five police officers before he was shot to death on the roof of the Howard Johnson’s hotel on Loyola Avenue.
In both 1973 and 2016, rage at racist police wasn’t unfounded, even though we rightly excoriate the counter-productive method of redress chosen by the angry black men. Racial strife erupting into gunfire isn’t the only déjà vu of 2016, though. The predictable way that American conservatives pour gasoline on the fire for political expediency is also a familiar script.
“Law and order” is the answer, said Nixon in 1968 and now Trump in 2016. Out-of-control law and order is what led police to kill Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, yes, and to beat thousands of Civil Rights protesters throughout the South in the 1960s. Despite the obvious logical contradictions, the GOP’s racially tinged fear mongering worked great in 1968. So, with the party convening this week in Cleveland to nominate Trump for president, here we go again.
The question of why innocent black men are still disproportionately killed by police, with predictable (but occasional) eye-for-an-eye retaliations, is inevitable, the answer disheartening. Racism and, more specifically, anti-black racism (the mother of all- American racism) doesn’t seem to want to go away.
Nietzsche wrote about “eternal return,” the idea that history is tediously and often violently repetitive, making the notion of historical “progress” a vain ideal with little basis in reality. I used to like Marx more than Nietzsche, because of his dogged faith in the ability of human beings to shape a more just society through struggle. I suppose they’re both right to a certain extent. There’s no question that black lives are valued more today than they were 50 years ago. The chances of a police officer dying in the line of duty are also much reduced since 1980. Violent crime in general is way down since a deadly peak a generation ago.
But pointing out how things are better has a way of sounding like an apology for the status quo. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “the mythical concept of time” — rejecting the idea that mistreated people should settle for rejoicing that their descendants will probably (maybe) get treated better.
And then, of course, we have problems other than race. This violent July calls our attention to continuing racial strife, but also to the problems of an over-armed as well as over-policed society. The costly and painful foreign wars that Republicans have insisted will “make us safer” may also be implicated, since the men who fired on police in Dallas and Baton Rouge (and in New Orleans in 1973) were all recently discharged veterans who had been deployed overseas.
What’s sad is how the other serious problems we face — easy access to killing machines, zero-tolerance policing, 10 years of repeated deployments for military families, declining incomes for the vast majority of Americans — are too often used as diversions. They are mustered rhetorically as reasons to downplay the force of persistent racism, when instead they should be recognized as accessories to or enablers of it. The very normal social mess of American society is best described by both/and rather than either/or terms.
But people who stress that our society is over-policed for all races shouldn’t be on a different team than Black Lives Matter. The Washington Post has recently compiled data on people killed by police across the country. The data should alarm us, no matter how the numbers are diced. More white people were killed by police in 2015 than any other race, but the percentage of murdered black citizens is far higher. The same holds true for stats on poverty, government assistance, etc.
These numbers mean that black people continue to be disproportionately victimized by our economy and by the laws meant to enforce the economic status quo, but that, yes, there are significant numbers of white losers, too. Putting these numbers in perspective should in no way be spun as a denial of the continuing existence of racial disparities — how could they be?
The argument over whether “black lives matter” or “all lives matter” is part of the same pointless shouting match. All lives matter, yes, but black lives are the ones that have been disproportionately devalued. I don’t understand why that formula is so difficult for people to grasp and agree on. Oppression takes place on multiple fronts. Reducing everything to race alone is almost as crazy as the familiar conservative refrain that “race has nothing to do with it.”
One of the most baffling responses to the persistence of racism is the formalized confession of white cluelessness. Blog posts crop up instructing white people how they should respond, how they should speak to black people about these issues, and, most pointedly, what they are NOT to say. Facebook is filled with protestations by well-meaning white people that until just now — Eureka! — they have had no understanding of the black experience.
One of the most embarrassing installments of this genre came from the guy I voted for in the presidential primary, Bernie Sanders. “When you’re white,” Sanders said, “you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.”
I have no doubt that black listeners knew Sanders’ heart was in the right place, but they may have been discouraged by his reductive expression of what it means to be black, and by his apparent lack of exposure to actual black persons. By now, however, Republicans have learned the lingo, too. Newt Gingrich said on July 8, “If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America.” When a Newt Gingrich parrots the same ritualized magic words, we should realize that our latest white mea culpa is as disingenuous as it is cowardly.
I have a question for white people whose response to continuing racial oppression is “OMG, I had no idea!” Really? Why not? Where are you from? Where do you choose to live?
My experience has been very different, which is why my reaction to the rekindled discussion of police violence against black people has also been different. As a young child, I was convinced that most of the world was black. Before I knew anything about racism, I assumed that white people were a minority and always had been.
As a teen, I learned some of the history of racism, both in and out of the classroom, and more about population statistics outside New Orleans. I learned about black people who hate white people in a very first-hand way, from fists and pointed guns (that thankfully were never fired at me).
In the late 1970s I was convinced that a race war was either coming or already happening. Yet I knew that my anti-racist white mom, my black neighbors, black friends, and, especially, black teachers, were not willing to be part of it. I came to view that period of history as an understandable explosion of black rage after centuries of oppression, accompanied by white panic and ham-fisted political reactions. But I thought things would smooth out, that racial equality would increase exponentially, and that white people would get over their fear and resentment. So why didn’t that happen?
This is the one answer that the gutlessly “sensitive” white liberal professions of cluelessness typically leave out — probably because the record is so partisan. It begins with conservative hero Ronald Reagan and the election of 1980. That was the moment that decisively swung the pendulum away from the painful work of redress and reconciliation that Lyndon Johnson and his generation of white leaders had bravely begun. Republicans — beginning with Richard Nixon — had been telling America that the “silent majority” didn’t want to go through the hassle or the embarrassment of facing up to the crimes of racism and taking the tough steps needed to prevent Nietzschean recurrence.
When I hear people ask today how we can “heal” from the most recent expressions of our ancient disease, I just get angry. We’ve been on chemo for 50 years, but we can’t “heal” because political voices on the right keep telling us we’re not sick, or that the treatment is worse than the illness. And now again, American conservatives shout at us that “law and order” is what the patient needs: shock therapy, since a little more pain will hopefully numb us into submission.
My recommendation for working toward a less racist society is the same as it would have been in 1980. Never vote for a Republican — ever. Whatever else they may profess to stand for, the modern Republican Party is the inheritor of the old Confederate and segregationist legacies of American politics.
The events of early July show that there’s no need for white conservatives to “take their country back.” We’ve already got the America white conservatives apparently want, one in which poor people, usually of color, are brutally penalized, and where the easy availability of powerful weapons allows for occasional violent reprisals against the wrong people (in addition to the unending grind of daily crime that makes us all legitimately afraid and too emotional to think clearly).
Those who thought the Republican Party could be reformed, or could maintain an ounce of integrity, have their answer with Trump. In a far less subtle way than Nixon in 1968, Trump is using the persistence of racial injustice, for which his party is largely responsible, as an excuse to cry out for even more of the brass-knuckled “law and order” governance that pits police against the communities they serve. Those who call for reconciliation, like the President, are branded as “weak.”
One of Trump’s Louisiana yes-men, state GOP chair Roger Villere, mouthed the official line on NPR Monday morning, but also bungled it a bit. When a reporter had the temerity to raise questions about the use of high-powered guns to kill police in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Villere argued that guns “had nothing to do with it.” For Republicans, guns and race are the two things that “have nothing to do with” racially motivated shootings. He said the real problem was that “anarchists” were planning attacks all over the country. Anarchists? I thought it was supposed to be terrorists? Or Civil Rights protesters, the group a Trump insider insists are thugs and criminals in disguise.
With his blather about anarchists, Villere sounded like he had fallen prey to the Red Scare hysteria that swept America after the First World War, forgetting that the GOP talking points are meant to be evocative of 1968.
The confusion about what era we’re going back to after Trump makes “America safe again” is understandable. The radical right has too many past “triumphs” to lay claim to: the bloodbath lynchings and night riding that came with the end of Reconstruction? The 1919 pogrom against leftists and immigrants? The Joe McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s? Or the more recent GOP-led backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and its legacy? — take your pick.
Republicans blabber on about “healing” just like liberals do, but the Republican idea of “healing” means a return to the illusion of racial harmony that they’re convinced existed before Obama (or before Civil Rights agitators or Communist infiltrators or abolitionist meddlers). Now they promise to take America back again — and again, and again.
C.W. Cannon’s most recent novel is “Katrina Means Cleansing.” He teaches writing and New Orleans Literature at Loyola University.