Anti-racist protests, the coronavirus onslaught and the dizzying rise in unemployment illustrate a challenge of unprecedented consequences to the United States.
H. A. Guess’s law firm, destroyed in 1921, reopened; Dr. H. J. Watson’s office, destroyed in 1921, reopened; Allen’s tailoring shop, Twine real estate … The Greenwood neighborhood, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was known as Black Wall Street because at the beginning of the 20th century, it became a segregated but prosperous pillar. Today, the slabs on the ground record the greatest racist massacre following the end of slavery. During a period of lynching and the expansion of the Ku Klux Klan, that community seemed like an island where musicians, professionals, merchants and maids who returned from work came together. In the heat of the economic boom, people’s expectations grew, further encouraged by African American veterans from World War I who had seen the world, a world in which they were not reminded of their recent slave past at every turn. They were free, but they were not considered full-fledged citizens with equal rights in the United States. Their prosperity caused fear and anger.
The spark that lit the fuse was the arrest of an African American boy who was suspected of assaulting a white woman in an elevator. Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, a mob of white men demolished the neighborhood. Historians calculate that 8,000 residents, nearly 80% of the total population, lost their homes, that most lost their businesses, and that 300 people died. According to Harvard historian Hannibal B. Johnson, not a single white person was charged for the attack, but dozens of African Americans were accused of inciting the unrest. Today, it is a transitional neighborhood, where ghostly blocks live alongside trendy establishments in industrial buildings made of exposed brick.
The Tulsa Massacre was revisited in the past few days amid a wave of protests against racism, because Donald Trump chose this city to resume his large campaign rallies following the health crisis. Posters with Black Lives Matter slogans have multiplied in the streets. Elizabeth Henley, a 36-year-old African American artist, and other graffiti artists spent all Friday painting an enormous mural with those words. “I think everything emerged with such power because everyone was already on edge with the pandemic,” she said.* “This movement emerged, which recognizes racism as something systemic, but the ugliness and the division are more visible.”
Only three city blocks from there, but separated by a railway, 50 Trump supporters waited in tents to hear the president’s speech this Saturday. “Those people (the anti-racist protesters on the other side) are being deceived by those who want to divide this country in a time when we need to be together,” said Carson Kurtright, 33, speaking in a completely different galaxy from Henley.* The newsstands with Republican propaganda are the only commercial establishments open in a city center shut down by the coronavirus and the economic crisis.
These three city blocks in Tulsa illustrate the convulsion of the last few months. Deadly crises have the capacity to transform a country, and the United States, the most powerful in the world, is going through three of them at the same time.
Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin, an expert on social movements and editor of the magazine Dissent, has not found any precedent. “There is no analogy for this situation. There are similarities between 1968 and the African American liberation movement. There was also discontent with Lyndon B. Johnson’s unfulfilled promises about the Vietnam War, similar to Trump with the coronavirus crisis; it was also an election year; however, the economy was doing well. During the 1918 pandemic (the so-called Spanish flu), indeed there was an economic decline following World War I, and there were many racial riots; however, the economy recovered in the beginning of the 1920s. I do not recall three crises at the same time,” he said by phone.*
The Great Depression stimulated nationalism and World War II, but it also resulted in New Deal social programs and sowed the United States’ rise as a great world superpower. The Great Recession is attributed to the anti-establishment wave, the rise of the political left and Trump’s rise to power. What can emerge from the current multiple crises? Does the future resemble more the graffiti on the side of the railroad or does it resemble the tents where people wait for Trump’s rally?
“Populations can be summoned to heroic acts of collective self-sacrifice for a while, but not forever. A lingering epidemic combined with deep job losses, a prolonged recession, and an unprecedented debt burden will inevitably create tensions that turn into a political backlash—but against whom is as yet unclear,” said Francis Fukuyama in a lengthy article published last week in Foreign Affairs. It is his understanding that this pandemic will further the expansion of nationalism, of xenophobia and attacks against the liberal order around the world. That being said, the shock may also generate positive political results, pushing toward structural reform. The coronavirus has shown both faces of government: its failure to address the issues, but also the capacity to seek out solutions and mobilize collective resources.
According to the nature of the threat, the feeling of danger can bend the population to the left or to the right. A 2018 study by Fade R. Eadeh, from the Carnegie Mellon Institute, and Katharine K. Change, from the American National Institute of Mental Health, reveals that health crises, climate problems and business corruption increase support for progressive politics, while national security concerns regarding foreign attacks drive more conservative politics, seen as “more effective at dealing with terrorism (Newport, 2014), whereas liberal parties (Democrats) are perceived as better at handling health care and environmental issues (Saad, 2007).”
In America, society’s own attitude toward a phenomenon such as the health crisis is dealt with through a partisan lens. According to data from the Pew Research Center in an early May survey, 87% of Democrats declared they were concerned that social distancing measures were being lifted too soon, something that only concerned 47% of Republicans, and this gap is growing. A month earlier in April, the percentages were 81% to 51%.
The decision to use or not to use masks has become a matter of principle for certain people. Trump has refused to appear publicly in a mask and it is less common to see masks among supporters of the Republican president than among the general population. On Friday afternoon, among the 50 people who were waiting for the rally, only one was wearing a mask. Amid the wave of protests, while the progressives and some of the Republicans see racism as a systemic problem that must be confronted, Trump supporters see it as an individual problem that requires individual solutions.
According to Kazin, “Polarization has been occurring since the ‘90s, when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans assumed control of the House of Representatives. The expansion of conservatism makes them very secure and intolerant against their opponents. Consequently, people on the left developed their own intolerance.”* So “we live two intolerances – it is not a civil war, but there are deep divisions, which I believe will continue into the future, because this is a very heterogeneous nation. There were also these divisions during the ‘30s; people forget that many did not like the New Deal.”* This social climate extended to the personal aspect of life. “I have only one Republican friend who voted for Trump; years ago, it wasn’t like this. I recall that Karl Rove (an adviser to George W. Bush) invited me to lunch at the White House to discuss my new book. Today, that is unimaginable,” the historian said.
Professor Steven Levitsky, author of “How Democracies Die,” expressed a similar fear in a 2019 interview with El Pais. “There are few places in the U.S. where Democrats and Republicans coexist. Where I live, in Boston, I have to drive 20 kilometers [approximately 12.4 miles] to find a single Trump supporter. That is not normal. On the other hand, if you go to Oklahoma, you`ll find entire towns that vote 99% for Trump, with no Democrats in them. The citizens have lost the custom and capacity to coexist.”*
Unlike three months ago, the duel between these two Americas is happening during the bleakest economic scenario since the Great Depression. The worldwide self-imposed halt to economic activity done to slow down the spread of the virus has plunged the United States into a recession, after a decade of success. Unemployment went from 3.5% in February to 14.7% in April, a steep jump in a country with a fragile social safety net, in comparison to European standards. This blow led to something unheard of in these times: Republicans and Democrats unanimously approving a billion dollar stimulus package in the Senate.
The first indicators from this crisis point to even greater economic disparity and the intensification of the power of big technology. Amid widespread small and medium business bankruptcies, Amazon’s stock price is close to an historic record, the company is worth $1.19 trillion, and its founder, Jeff Bezos, increased his net worth by nearly $30 billion in a single month.
The United States is also a country undergoing a metamorphosis. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority, decided by a vote of 6-3 that LGBT workers will be protected from discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Until now, sexual orientation and sexual identity were not considered to be protected under this act. According to a CBS survey, as many as 82% of Americans (including 71% of Republicans) thought that it was necessary to change this situation to protect gay and transgender people.
This is a nation that is becoming increasingly diverse. In 2011, for the first time in history, more minority children were born than white children with European ancestry. According to renowned demographer William Frey, non-Hispanic white people represent the only population group in decline, and by 2060, this group may come to represent less than 50% of the population.
Over the past few years, tensions have generated a sudden catharsis. There has been greater awareness of sexual and racial discrimination, demonstrated by movements like #MeToo and now by the wave of protests resulting from the death of George Floyd, an African American man. Nike suddenly made June 19, the date that is celebrated for the abolition of slavery in the U.S., a paid holiday for its employees. NASCAR circuits have prohibited the exhibition of Confederate flags, and Merriam Webster has announced a revision of the definition of racism, in order to define its systemic manifestations.
University of Pittsburgh sociologist Suzanne Staggenborg, an expert on social movements, believes the United States is living through an inflection point in the fight against racism. But why now? Why did Floyd’s death spark this, if there were so many other police brutality incidents before he was killed? “One factor was how impactful the video was. However, more than that, it is due to the years of mobilization by Black Lives Matter (founded in 2013). Its prior organizational work was crucial, the same way the Women’s March was crucial to feminism. There is also the Trump resistance movement, which was already underway and found another unifying cause,” Staggenborg explained.
The Trump presidency has brought about an unprecedented opportunity to bring thousands of Americans, from different generations and of different origins, to the streets against chauvinism, against guns, for climate action and against racism. Few groups other than Republicans are able to so greatly exasperate both progressives and moderate Democrats, and this triple crisis was no exception.
Five months away from the election, the president focused on the violent unrest from the wave of protests and not the problem of racism; and waved the flag of law and order at what he calls the radical left.
Trump insisted on denying the pandemic for weeks, saying even on Feb. 27, that like a miracle, it would disappear, and later equating the outbreak to the common flu on March 9. The Republican president had been warned from the moment he stepped into the White House that a pandemic such as this one was a very real threat. But, not only did he fail to prepare a response; over the past few years, he cut back the means to deal with it. Since mid-March, when the severity of the crisis was evident, Americans saw the most outlandish version of Trump, who, during a press conference, even suggested injecting disinfectant into the body to kill the virus.
Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer said that the president reacted to the pandemic and its subsequent problems “by amplifying and increasing divisions from his podium like a bully; instead of trying to erase them, he makes it much harder to give a coherent response.”
This convulsing country, which began 2020 by putting its president on trial in the Senate, will vote in November. To Kazin, who is working on a book about the history of the Democratic Party, the left in the United States has been growing at least since 2008, and a victory for Joe Biden would consolidate that transformation. Trump is trying to guarantee reelection by following the 2016 playbook. Now he’s returned to his rallies, this time with one important twist. Spectators and journalists have to sign an agreement not to sue him if they become ill from the virus.
*Although accurately translated, these quoted remarks appear to have either been made directly to the author or made otherwise and could not be independently verified.
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