The nation watched in horror as rioters trashed parts of Charlotte for the second straight night after a police shooting. The reactions of the two presidential candidates was a study in contrasts. Hillary Clinton seemed to be critical of the police in both Charlotte and Tulsa (where another controversial shooting of a black man by police took place), calling the incidents “unbearable” and saying such actions “had to stop.” Donald Trump was initially highly critical of the officer in the Tulsa shooting but then reverted to strongly backing the cops and even called for the institution of “stop and frisk” policies, which were successful in New York but are generally regarded by African Americans as a form of racial profiling.
Trump’s “law and order” pitch is aimed at white voters and it almost certainly alienated blacks who have already responded to his outreach efforts with indifference if not hostility. Clinton’s remarks reflected her desire to be seen as President Obama’s natural successor and to impress African American voters with her sympathy for their plight.
The assumption is that the disturbing video from Charlotte that dominated the cable news stations will only help Trump mobilize the white working class voters who are his base. That may be especially true in North Carolina, a crucial swing state that is also now the focus of racial unrest.
The belief that Clinton’s show of sympathy, however, will help her generate the massive turnout of minorities she needs to win in November may be mistaken. The anger and cynicism she’s addressing may be antithetical to the hopeful impulse that helped drive so many minorities to the polls in 2008 and 2012, when Barack Obama was on the ballot. Though Clinton and the Democrats have bent over backwards to appease the Black Lives Matter movement, its influence may undermine any effort to convince black voters that electing Hillary Clinton matters enough to come out and vote.
This is not just a matter of Clinton’s obvious lack of personal magnetism as compared to Obama’s. Rather, it is the result of a growing cynicism about the political and judicial system within the black community–a cynicism that seems impervious to reasoned debate. Protestors don’t seem to care that the evidence in the Charlotte shooting points to the police’s being justified in firing. The same can be said of those who protested police in Ferguson, Missouri, two years ago, and chanted a the fabricated “hands up, don’t shoot” meme. The anger at the perception of police oppression and the indifference of the political system is all that matters.
This ought to worry all Americans. But it is of particular concern to Clinton because if this is the dominant theme of discourse in the black community, voting for her won’t be seen as a priority.
This doesn’t mean blacks will be tempted to vote for Trump out of a sense that they have, as he keeps saying, nothing to lose. To the contrary, Trump’s image as an opponent of their community and an ally of alt right racists seems set in stone, and the GOP nominee will likely get an even lower percentage of the black vote than did John McCain and Mitt Romney.
But so long as an atmosphere of such frustration and depression about the state of race relations prevails, it’s hard to see how blacks can be motivated to feel the same sense of hope about the election that they did in 2008 or 2012. In that case, it won’t matter what Clinton or Trump say about police shootings. A downturn in black turnout spells disaster for the Democrats.