Commentary Magazine

The Other Forgotten America and the Coming Backlash

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

The revival of Roseanne Barr’s early 1990s sitcom has been hailed as a cultural phenomenon, and not just because it generated big ratings for network television in an age when network television no longer generates ratings.

The 18 million people who tuned into ABC to watch the sympathetic portrait of a white working-class exurban GOP voter are said to be yet another data point in an ongoing study of coastal socio-political blindness. Though many months have passed, we are still collectively dazed by the shock of the 2016 election. Marveling over depictions of Trump voters is part of our effort to achieve penance. In the Obama years, America struggled to reconcile the promise of the country with the condition of its minorities, which were previously defined by their skin color, sexuality, and gender. We overlooked minority status as defined by economics, cultural estrangement, and health outcomes. The 2016 race showed us that such blind spots set the stage for a backlash. But in attempting to make amends for our failure to see 2016 coming, have we overcompensated? Some would undoubtedly say yes.

The nation still grieves following last month’s massacre of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The marches and movements that followed have largely been focused on ostensible efforts to prevent that kind of attack—mass gun violence against soft targets. These have been predominantly white movements. MSD High School’s African-American students have not enjoyed access to the same booming microphones as their white peers, and their concerns about gun violence have not been heard. On Wednesday, they spoke out at a small press conference attended only by a few local reporters and residents about an issue that once preoccupied the minds of politicians, policymakers, and thought leaders alike: excessive and unwarranted police violence.

It was only a few short years ago that the shooting death of Ferguson, Missouri, teenager Michael Brown sent thousands into the streets and ignited nation-wide protests that crippled urban centers. The accidental strangling of Staten Island’s Eric Garland, too, ignited national paroxysms of misery and anger. The failure of local grand juries to indict the officers responsible for these events led Americans to ponder whether the grand jury system itself was overly deferential toward police officers. That was then. A new minority has since demonstrated that its political clout trumps that of the old minority. That old minority’s concerns, issues that once blotted out the sun, no longer rank.

It is not as though the arrest-related deaths of unarmed African-American men have abated just because they no longer dominate the headlines. Echoing the case of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, the 2016 shooting of Louisiana’s Alton Sterling has been found reasonable, but not before it sparked a nationwide protest movement in early 2017. It isn’t unfounded paranoia to note that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been unremittingly hostile toward the Justice Department’s review of local police practices related to arrest-related deaths, going so far as to end those reviews in September of last year. Maybe this is a welcome reversion to a mean following a period in which law enforcement was scapegoated by politicians and targeted by criminals. Or maybe, this about-face is incubating a new set of grievances in a minority group that will demonstrate their political potency again soon enough.

The Justice Department plans on opening an investigation into this month’s shooting death of 22-year-old Stephon Clark, the father of two young children who was gunned down in his grandmother’s yard by police because the cell phone he was holding appeared menacing. That fact alone renders comments made by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who called Clark’s death a purely “local matter,” conspicuously bizarre. Superficially, the officers’ actions, in this case, do not appear justified, and city-wide protests have erupted in Sacramento as a result. But you wouldn’t know that from watching the nightly news. And last week’s seemingly unprovoked shooting death of Danny Ray Thomas, another unarmed African American, could have a similar effect on the local—if not national—dialogue. Thomas reportedly struggled with mental illness and was depressed following the murder of his two young children, age 5 and 7, who were drowned in their bathtub by his wife.

Likewise, there is a forgivable perception among some that African Americans were the recent targets of a domestic terrorism campaign that unfolded as the nation simply looked away. That is the belief shared by many African Americans in and around the Austin area, who, over the course of eight days, were disproportionately the targets of a serial bomber—a campaign of violence that killed two and seriously wounded four others.

Many will say that it’s paranoid to suggest that these bombings were racially motivated; the first three victims of this murder spree were black and Hispanic, but the taped confession left by the killer revealed no racial animus. The killer wrote a 2012 blog post in which he expressed opposition to same-sex marriage, but this hardly suffices to support the claim that his crimes were hate crimes. That fact has not dispelled the impression that these were overt acts of racial violence on par with the 2015 massacre of black churchgoers in South Carolina. For some, the racism in these attacks is already an article of faith. If that is paranoia, no serious-minded political observer is saying as much. Most of them, in fact, are not paying attention at all.

Some of these grievances are genuine and broadly shared, particularly when it comes to the criminal-justice system. African Americans are disproportionately represented in arrest-related death statistics. Black offenders do face excessive sentencing for routine offenses, and they do endure higher arrest and conviction rates than their white counterparts. These issues that seemed so pressing in the Obama years, when those who acutely felt them were at the head of a dominant national coalition, no longer preoccupy our minds. But political dominance is not a permanent condition.

If Donald Trump’s job approval rating is an accurate reflection of the Republican vote share, the aura around his movement will disappear and the Obama coalition will again be ascendant. It would serve the country well to stop gauging the value of group grievances by virtue of their electoral potency. Donald Trump’s forgotten America was done an injustice by elites on the coasts, who would have preferred to go on ignoring them forever. One injustice is not remedied by another. In overcompensating, we are sowing the seeds for a backlash.

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