Of all the vital questions prompted by this week’s tumult in the United States – about the depth of racism in the country, about police brutality, about America’s heritage of championing dissent, about Donald J. Trump’s response to this crisis – none is more persistent or perplexing than this one:
In a country ravaged by a pandemic, roiled by police violence and after four centuries still unable to address the grievances of minorities, what does calm, healing and change depend on at this current moment of crisis?
That question is perhaps the most important challenge facing a superpower seemingly powerless to perform a function so basic that it comprises the 18th through 20th words of its revered Constitution (“insure domestic tranquillity”). More than a week into this current crisis, it has elicited an awkward silence lasting far longer than 21 seconds.
Nor has the country devised a 21st-century answer as to how to achieve two other phrases in the very first paragraph of that 18th-century document: “establish justice,” and “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
“I keep hoping that we see a repeat of what came out of the Depression and the Second World War,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has written biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and whose latest book bears the poignant title Leadership in Turbulent Times, said in an interview. “Those two great events had great costs and made us uncertain of our future. They changed our daily lives. But at the end came changes that made our country better. We have lived through bad times before and come out stronger.”
America, to be sure, has experienced tumult, protest and violence in the past, twice in the last half-century under deeply controversial presidencies, of Lyndon B. Johnson (who watched Watts burn in 1965) and of Richard M. Nixon (whose “law-and-order” mantra helped propel him to power in 1969 and who called anti-war protesters “bums”).
But in an era of another polarizing president there may be some faint rays of hope in the differences among the episodes in the Johnson, Nixon and Trump years. The principal difference: the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis stoked outrage across generations and races.
“To Black people, we need to say racial injustice is long-standing, it has become intolerable and society understands their outrage,’’ said Larry Davis, former dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh and founder of its Center on Race and Social Problems. “To white people, we have to recognize that we see a lot of them in these protests, and we need to recognize they also can no longer abide this. Nothing will ever change until white people insist on fundamental change – because we in the Black community do not have the muscle or wherewithal to do away with this. That is what made this different, and that gives us hope."
Other glimmers of hope come from the outpouring of outrage over the Minneapolis incident from all corners of American society. No university president, no prominent member of the clergy and no famous sports star failed to issue a statement. Republicans joined Democrats in supporting legislation to stop providing military weapons to local police officers.
Mr. Trump’s threat to introduce troops to quell the violence became another lever of division until other voices, including military leaders, spoke up. George H.W. Bush deployed troops in 1992 after the Rodney King beating verdict spawned violence in Los Angeles, but generally presidents have shied away from invoking an 1807 law that allows such mobilization in cases of civil insurrection.
The past week has been full of unforgettable moments. Some, like Mr. Trump’s determination to "dominate the streets" followed by the employment of tear gas to clear his path to pose in front of an iconic church with a Bible, were scripted. Many others were unscripted, such as when police officers in Savannah, Ga., and Newark, N.J., joined the demonstrators and created a moment of solidarity rather than a moment of division.
“These sorts of things have been happening,’’ said David A. Harris, regarded as the leading American expert on police violence and the author of A City Divided: Race, Fear and the Law in Police Confrontation, published in January. “Police commanders are settling crowds by reading names of victims of police violence. Generally the more force police bring to a confrontation the worse things are. But the most important thing may be building bridges and making efforts before any of this happens. It’s easier to have trust in the bank if you already have relations with people.”
But there remains an even more fundamental summons to action, for deadly bias does not grow in sanitary laboratory conditions. From the White House down to every American’s house, the challenge of creating countrywide calm may be in examining the lyrics of a show tune from the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, with versions by James Taylor and Barbra Streisand circulating on social media that proclaim: “You’ve got to be taught/To be afraid/Of people … whose skin/is a different shade.’’