Trump, race and the arc of history

Calculations about how the killing of George Floyd will affect the 2020 US presidential election will seem coldly rational — even offensive — to the thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets of America.

They, and many others, are haunted by the appalling footage of his dying moments, as he choked to death under a policeman’s knee. The protesters know that the US has a history of racial violence that goes back centuries. Even two terms in office for Barack Obama, the first ever African-American president, did not lead to the profound changes in race relations that many had hoped for.

The Black Lives Matter movement was actually founded during the Obama presidency — after the acquittal in 2013 of George Zimmerman, who was accused of the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. It gathered further momentum in 2014 — still during the Obama presidency — after the deaths of two more African-Americans, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, at the hands of the police. An academic study last year suggested that, over the course of a lifetime, black men in America have a one in 1,000 chance of being killed by the police, and are two-and-a-half times more likely to die this way than white men. African-Americans represent 12 per cent of the US population, but 33 per cent of the prison population. They are also dying in disproportionate numbers from coronavirus.

Many activists can and do argue that police violence against African-Americans reflects deep forces within society and the state that are impervious to whoever happens to be sitting in the Oval Office. But that kind of despair, while understandable at a moment like this, is too bleak. The outcome of this year’s presidential election really will matter to the cause of racial justice in America, as will the tactics employed by the candidates.

The violence and looting triggered by the killing of Floyd has brought the highest number of curfews declared across America since the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. Yet while King’s death was also a cause of rage and despair, the civil-rights movement he led did change America profoundly, and had inspired the landmark legislation of the Lyndon B Johnson administration in the 1960s.

As a result, the institutionalised segregation of the Jim Crow south is now just a shameful memory. In 1968, just 54 per cent of black Americans graduated from high school, compared with more than 90 per cent today. The poverty rate for African-Americans, which stood at almost 35 per cent in the year of King’s assassination, was down to 22 per cent in 2016, the year of Donald Trump’s election. Since then it has fallen further, though the coronavirus recession may reverse some of those gains.

Mr Obama liked to quote King’s saying: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This year’s presidential election will be a historic test of that cautious but steady optimism. On the surface, the current unrest and violence look like a disaster for Mr Trump. Yet one lesson of the riots that followed King’s murder is that violent unrest often drives voters, particularly white voters, to the right.

In November 1968, Richard Nixon won the presidency for the Republicans. Research by Omar Wasow of Princeton University, quoted in the New Yorker, suggests that counties that bordered areas affected by urban riots were 6-8 per cent more likely to vote for Nixon. The riots may have helped tip a close election to him.

The Nixonian tactic of linking Democrats to crime and disorder was highly effective. It is already clear that the Trump campaign will follow a similar strategy. Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s favourite surrogates, has pointed to “hundreds of millions of property damage” in cities run by Democrats and stated: “This is the future if you elect Democrats.”

This kind of tactic will motivate Mr Trump’s base. But, while there is much today that is reminiscent of 1968, a lot has changed. Nixon won his home state, California, with its large harvest of electoral votes. But social and demographic change means that today California is firmly in the Democratic column and Bill Clinton won the state in 1992, despite the riots that year after the acquittal of the police officers who brutalised an African-American, Rodney King.

On the other hand, Nixon had to contend with a strong third-party candidate, the openly racist George Wallace — who won five southern states that would otherwise almost certainly have gone to Nixon. Mr Trump will face no such challenge in November. He may be hoping that a racially polarised and radicalised electorate will help him in the mid-western states that were crucial to his victory in 2016.

Knowing all this, the Democrats have to tread carefully. Joe Biden, their presidential nominee, has so far taken the obvious line of denouncing both racial injustice and violence on the streets. It is a stance that has been echoed by Democratic office-holders in states and cities hit by the unrest. But Mr Biden will be under political and moral pressure to go further in expressing the anguish of the African-American community who were key to handing him the Democratic nomination in the first place.

As a politician with a well-deserved reputation for verbal gaffes and awkward phrasing, he will have to tread a very fine line as he tries to bend the “arc of history” once again.

Sign up here to the new podcast from Gideon Rachman, the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist, and listen in on his conversations with the decision makers and thinkers from all over the globe who are shaping world affairs

gideon.rachman@ft.com

Follow Gideon Rachman with myFT and on Twitter