Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Footnote On Baltimore and History

My last post discussed the importance of knowing history to understand the protests in Baltimore, but over the last few days I've been thinking that knowing history is also necessary to understanding the backlash against them.

One of my favorite Twitter accounts is of someone embodying (you really can't say parodying) Richard Nixon, and tweeting as if the Dark Lord were still alive, commenting on current events.  Having an unhealthy obsession with Nixon, I can vouch for the accuracy of the tweets, which have got me thinking about how Tricky Dick used white racial resentment to overpowering affect in the 1968 election.  George Wallace, running as a third party candidate, made such appeals more overtly, getting support not just in the Deep South.  Nixon could claim to be more palatable than Wallace, all the while touting "law and order."

His campaign ads in '68 trumpeted this theme time and time again.  One ad, juxtaposing Nixon's words with scenes of violence in the streets and bloodied protestors over discordant music, ends with Nixon intoning "the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence, and so I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States."  The uprisings in the ghettoes were, in this interpretation, to be seen merely as chaos to be stopped, not the result of legitimate grievances.  The whites who made up Nixon's "Silent Majority" felt the same way, and rewarded him with the White House.  Once in office, Nixon supported the FBI's infamous COINTELPRO campaign, which set out to destroy the Black Panthers and similar organizations by any means necessary.

That did not necessarily have to be.  The Kerner Commission, set up by LBJ to investigate the causes of the destructive urban uprisings of 1967 in Newark and Detroit (among other cities), concluded in its 1968 report that racism and economic privation were at the heart of the matter.  Instead of addressing these problems head on, the government kept spending money to send more young men from the ghettoes to die in Vietnam, and Nixon unleashed the FBI.  In the ensuing decades, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, the War on Drugs and the prison industrial complex made the backlash even worse.

Today I fear a repeat of the past.  So many in white America are still blind to the reasons why African Americans in Baltimore are so upset, and that blindness is on the tipping point of becoming fear.  When white America's racial fear buttons get pushed, bad bad things happen.  There's always another Nixon there, ready to exploit it.  The key this time is for right thinking people to be prepared to fight back.

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