Julian E Zelizer writes: “All of us, as Americans, should be troubled by these shootings, because these are not isolated incidents,” said President Barack Obama following the horrific shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. “They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal-justice system.” In an American tragedy of the nation’s own making, Obama will end his historic presidency with racial turmoil rocking the nation. The person whose election brought so much hope about the trajectory of race relations in the United States, a country that has perpetually suffered from the original sin of slavery, is spending these days desperately trying to calm the anger over police killings of African Americans and the protests and violence that have ensued.
Today, America has a president who understands the urgent need to address the problems of institutional racism that have been broadcast to the entire world through smartphones and exposés of a racialized criminal-justice system. But this conflict is taking shape right in the middle of a heated election season—one that includes a candidate who has made draconian proposals for national security and who appeals to the “Silent Majority.” Following the events in Dallas, Donald Trump released a statement that read: “We must restore law and order. We must restore the confidence of our people to be safe and secure in their homes and on the street.”
This is not the first time this has happened. When questions over race and policing were front and center in a national debate in 1968, the federal government failed to take the steps necessary to make any changes. The government understood how institutional racism was playing out in the cities and how they exploded into violence, but the electorate instead was seduced by Richard Nixon’s calls for law and order, as well as an urban crackdown, leaving the problems of institutional racism untouched. Rather than deal with the way that racism was inscribed into American institutions, including the criminal-justice system, the government focused on building a massive carceral state, militarizing police forces, criminalizing small offenses, and living through repeated moments of racial conflict exploding into violence. [Continue reading…]