In 1963, the African-American novelist James Baldwin published “The Fire Next Time” about rage over racial injustice reaching the boiling point. More than half a century later America’s major cities are burning, as they have once and again during the intervening years, and for the same reasons.
Working-class cops, white more often than not, confront the left-behind lumpen proletarian youth of the black inner city over an incident that snaps the tense peace, whether the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and the verdict that acquitted the police the next year or, this time, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The mainstream of the marginalized and concerned, properly furious over the injustice at hand, fill the streets in peaceful protests. Then come the looters who burn and raid shops. As the sharp edge of anger, they force the deeper issue into the open. This week in L.A., you could watch in real time on TV as vandals pathetically ran off with the high-end tennis shoes from Nike and others (mostly made by low-wage labor in China) that are the status symbol of aspirations out of reach, of the “dream deferred” in the famous words of Langston Hughes, when the social order as usual holds.
In 1967, Martin Luther King gave a talk at Stanford condemning such violence. “A riot,” he said, “is the language of the unheard.” The problem all along has not been that the enraged and dispossessed are not heard. It is that they are unheeded.
Will the fire this time be any different? Or will it be the same pattern we’ve seen over and over again? Not without incident, the National Guard will restore order. New engagement rules will be put in place for police departments. Civil rights leaders and community representatives will be appointed to strengthened oversight commissions. A task force of eminent citizens will examine the causes of the upheaval and recommend remedies. Ribbons will be cut when a Walmart opens in a poor neighborhood. Redlining policies by banks or savings and loan institutions will be repealed, only to be reinstituted later. Other ideas to reach the root of the problem will sprout, but wither into neglect until the fire next time. Repeat.
This time could be different than before. It could even be worse. Because of the COVID crisis, we are entering the steepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Opening the fiscal spouts to buffer that catastrophe is already driving U.S. debt to over 100% of GDP, leaving little room for any new spending initiatives. State and municipal budgets are bust. And, surely, all those cheek to jowl protestors, rightly screaming at the top of their lungs for justice, all the while spewing out viral droplets, will end up as clusters of contagion, the contacts of which can’t be traced.
Unlike previous social explosions when the American president sought to sooth hatred, cool tempers and comfort the victims, Donald Trump is following his demagogic instincts and fanning the flames. At this perilous stage of the game, it is no longer paranoid to suspect that his constant invocation of the Second Amendment right to bear arms in the midst of the present crisis seems baldly aimed at stoking a race war, perhaps even hoping in his dark mind that such a cataclysm would cancel the election.
But this time could also be different if we go beyond the band aids to address the systemic issues. In 1969 the great debate within the Students for Democratic Society was whether race or class was the key divide in American society. That debate was so fierce it ended up dividing the SDS itself into militant factions, some turning to bombs and bank robberies. In later years, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson put his finger best on how to describe the problem. “It is not class or race, but the fusion of the two into a kind of caste system for black Americans,” he once told me. As long as that caste status is not broken, there will always be a fire next time.
Even when empathetic leadership occupied the White House, responses to the uprisings were targeted at the communities calling for justice instead of to the system as a whole from which the injustice derived. After King’s assassination, the Johnson administration focused on “urban renewal” of the inner-city. After the Rodney King riots, the George H.W. Bush administration employed former football star and Congressman Jack Kemp as the Housing and Urban Development secretary to organize “enterprise zones” in poor neighborhoods.
Today, there is little to show for these efforts. Like all other such social policies in democratic societies, they sooner or later lose the support of the public as a whole since they only benefit those on the other side of the racial divide or some other designated minority. Ignoring this reality that systemic change requires the buy-in of broad constituencies to endure only ensures that one step forward will propel two steps back down the road.
As long ago as 1991, the African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson recognized this conundrum and called for “race-neutral” policies instead of “race-based” policies as the only way out of this repeat cycle to systemic change. In a conversation back then, he readily acknowledged that “we have not yet reached the point as a society where people are judged solely on the basis of merit,” and thus laws on housing and employment discrimination must be maintained. And he agreed that the advance of minority professionals was attributable to affirmative action. But while such policies may be a necessary corrective, they are not the solution. For Wilson, race-neutral policies in the stead of Social Security such as public school reform and universal health care should be emphasized “because they help all Americans, but help the disadvantaged disproportionately.”
Today, we might add to his agenda more progressive taxation on the richest to fund job-creating public investment in infrastructure and bolster the plummeting finances of public higher education — the key ladder of upward mobility in an information society — ending tax avoidance by multinational companies and making sure all Americans whose taxes are used to bail out companies risking failure in the COVID depression get a piece of the upside when prosperity returns. Ultimately, inequality will only seriously diminish not only when the concentration of wealth is broken up at the top, but built up from below. That means not just redistributing income but the “pre-distribution” of wealth in the first place, with all owning a share of the economy through universal basic capital.
Combined with strengthened civil rights protections, only such proactive, structurally transformative policies that accrue to the benefit of all can break the caste condition at the root of the problem. Another round of reactive patches to yet another social explosion will lead nowhere.
The chances are none to slim that leadership on this front will come from the White House, at least until the hoped-for regime change of the next election. As in the COVID crisis, it will for now be up to the governors and mayors to resist Trump’s twisted machinations, heed what they are hearing in the streets and save the endangered republic before it is too late.