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America Boils Over

by Ian Buruma Saturday, Jun. 06, 2020 at 1:50 PM

A lot will depend on how hot this summer gets. If people think sensibly in November, it is hard to imagine that they will cast enough votes to keep this hair-raising government in power for another four years. But fear is the worst enemy of reason.

America Boils Over

George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer has triggered protests across the United States and laid bare the country’s racial, economic, and political divisions. How, if at all, might America heal – and does history offer any guide?

In this Big Picture, Harvard’s Khalil Gibran Muhammad traces today’s crisis to the United States’ founding and argues that overcoming it will require fundamental political and economic reforms. Above all, elected US officials should put racial justice at the center of their vision for a new America.

Focusing on America’s long-standing problem of racist law enforcement, Jeffrey Sommers of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee says that a multi-pronged strategy is needed to reduce the pressures on both urban communities and the police. New York University’s Jorge G. Castañeda, meanwhile, believes that today’s multiple crises point – more than at any time since 1932 – to America’s need for sound leadership and a full-fledged welfare state.

Hospital physician and human-rights advocate Akash Goel finds an example of the vision America needs in a 1968 US presidential campaign speech by Senator Robert F. Kennedy, and explains why Kennedy’s diagnosis of America’s cultural ills remains accurate today. But Ian Buruma draws a different lesson from that tumultuous year, and asks whether a Republican presidential candidate could again win in November by pledging to restore law and order. America Boils Over - Project Syndicate

America Boils Over - Project Syndicate

Mass protests over racial injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a sharp economic downturn have plunged the Unite...

A long hot summer for America

Many Americans are appalled by the crass and inflammatory words of Donald Trump. But will their disapproval outweigh their fear of violent social unrest? Will age-old racial prejudices lead them to vote again for the deceptive security of an uncouth white tyrant? Some would suggest it's far from certain.

By Ian Buruma

The White House in Washington is in the dark.[Iam Buruma is a Dutch writer and essayist. Up to 2014, he was director of the renowned New York Review of Books.]

[This article published on 6/4/2020 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

The lights are out in the White House, while outside there are protests against racism and police violence. Donald Trump has retreated to the basement. Maybe to avoid seeing the protesters, maybe because he's a coward.

Could the United States be facing a repeat of the summer of 1968? Even then, the world saw the wrath of angry Americans boiling over as predominantly African-American inner-city neighborhoods went up in flames and young people were shot at with tear gas, attacked and often brutally beaten by riot police and National Guard.

Despite two Obama terms in office, racism is virulent

The result of the civil unrest was what some liberals in America feared over the course of this year. Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon promised the "silent majority", the "non-clamourers" and the "non-demonstrators" that he would restore law and order by force. Devastated, mostly African-American neighborhoods were stripped of federal funds and further isolated, white suburbanites bought more weapons, and police forces were armed as if they were a branch of the military.

Even the riots of 1968, like the protests today, began with anger at the oppression of the black population in America. The day after Martin Luther King Jr. declared that "the nation is sick," he was shot dead by a white racist criminal. The protests that followed were not only an expression of rage over King's assassination but also over the lack of economic and educational opportunities that were the result of a long and often violent racist history.

Despite the two terms of an African-American in the White House, conditions today are hardly any better - and in some respects worse. This year it is the death of George Floyd, the defenseless 46-year-old black man in Minneapolis, who was killed by a policeman kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes, that recalls the murder of Martin Luther King.

On top of that, Covid-19 has hit African Americans particularly hard because many of them do not have financial savings and are forced to work in risky areas, as nurses and other "systemically important workers," often without proper medical care. Once the global recession has really hit, many will have nothing to cushion the impact.

Donald Trump is crossing a street, with armed police officers shielding him left and right.

The last appearance of the US president was particularly bizarre. He had demonstrators outside the White House driven away with tear gas to go to the nearby St. John's Church to hold up a Bible. It was all about a photograph.

And yet there are important differences between today and the summer of 1968, apart from the fact that the music was more interesting back then and there were more opportunities to have sex. The last point is quite serious. It may have increased the discontent of many young people to be locked up in relative isolation for several months, and they are only too willing to vent this displeasure in the streets.

In bad times the challenger has an advantage, as Joe Biden

The 1968 protests were not only about racial discrimination, but also about the Vietnam War. The two issues were related. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who was responsible for the escalation of this ruthless and cruel war, was a Democrat - the same man who passed civil rights laws. They did indeed improve the lives of African Americans, and therefore provoked the hatred of many voters in the southern United States who switched to the Republican Party and helped push it further to the right.

The "screamers" and "demonstrators" Nixon railed against were not only blacks, but also young whites who resisted having to fight in a war they considered immoral. Robert F. Kennedy, the candidate who promised to end the war and who visited the burning ghettos to appease the fears of African Americans, was murdered two months after King.

Nixon won the election in that November not only because he appeased the panicked "silent majority" with the promise of law and order, but also because Hubert Humphrey, a respectable mainstream Democrat, refused to condemn the Vietnam War. Joe Biden, the Democrats' likely candidate for this year's presidency, has shown, despite all his weaknesses, that he will not be another Hubert Humphrey. His sympathies are clearly with the protesters. Biden has publicly recalled many cases of police violence against unarmed blacks and promised to reform police work.

In bad times, the challenger has a certain advantage. Just as Johnson was blamed for the escalation of an increasingly unpopular war, the current incumbent in the White House will have to shoulder the sickness of today's America. Donald Trump cannot be blamed for the Covid 19 pandemic, but he can be held accountable for the bumbling response to the crisis.

Joe Biden sits next to Barack Obama and listens to him.

Joe Biden and Barack Obama - here both in a session during their term in office at the White House - have responded sympathetically to the demonstrations against police violence in speeches and have called for reforms to prevent incidents like the murder of George Floyd in the future.

Nor did the institutional racism that is once again setting America's streets ablaze begin with Trump. But he has deliberately poured oil on the fire by insulting dark-skinned immigrants as criminals and calling armed white racists decent, by disqualifying angry black demonstrators as "thugs" and by encouraging militias, guardsmen and police to use more violence with a growling, "Please don't be too nice".

Trump quotes racist police chiefs from the sixties to provoke a "race war

While some extreme right groups in the US are hopefully talking about a coming "race war", Trump is doing nothing to dampen their violent enthusiasm. On the contrary, he seems to revel in it. Trump's recent tweet "when the looting begins, the shooting begins" is a quote from the Miami police chief who in 1967 ordered his police officers to point their guns at demonstrators from his city's "black neighborhoods.

In the USA, this is called "stirring up the base". And much of Trump's base will certainly be stirring up. The big question in November will be what will the voters do who voted for him in 2016 but are not so fanatical in their support. How do white women in American suburbs, Midwest workers and older Southerners (who are among those most at risk of Covid 19 infection) think today?

Many Americans are obviously appalled by the crass and inflammatory words of their president. But will their disapproval outweigh their fear of violent social unrest? Will age-old racial prejudices, often unspoken or even openly admitted, lead them to vote again for the deceptive security of an uncouth white tyrant?

A lot will depend on how hot this summer gets. If people think sensibly in November, it is hard to imagine that they will cast enough votes to keep this hair-raising government in power for another four years. But fear is the worst enemy of reason.

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