“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
— Kerner Commission Report, 1968
If you were in grammar school in the late 1960s and it was summertime, you would wake up and look at television in the morning and watch the previous night’s riots in one or more American cities.
The footage of burning buildings and looted stores became part of the fabric of everyday life, as unremarkable as the scenes of American troops fighting in the jungle and the rice paddies in the never-ending war in Vietnam.
The war in Vietnam finally ended in 1975, but not before taking 58,000 American and millions of Vietnamese lives.
The riots finally ended, too, though the scars they left could be seen in some of the cities for several more decades.
For much of the past half century, it felt as though America had gotten past the horrible divisiveness of the late 1960s. Blacks moved steadily into the middle class. Multiculturalism flourished. Intermarriage between blacks and whites, actually illegal in the 1960s in more than a few states, grew. Barack Obama, the child of a black father and a white mother, a man who self-identified as black, was elected president in 2008 and reelected in 2012—an unimaginable prospect in 1968.
But the open wound of racism in America, a wound that dated back to the beginnings of the nation, remained unhealed.
There were warning signs—among them the Los Angeles riots in 1992 that followed the police beating of black motorist Rodney King, and more recently the 2014 and 2015 riots in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old black man.
The Black Lives Matter movement arose, drawing attention to the unarmed black men who had been shot by police officers, most often white.
Last week, in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, a black man named George Floyd died pinned to the street by a white police officer. Cellphone video captured the officer pressing his knee onto Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as Mr. Floyd gasped, “I can’t breathe.”
Protests and riots followed in Minneapolis. As the week went on, they spread to a slew of cities across the nation, including Washington, DC, where rioters lit fires near the White House.
Fifty years after the tumultuous late 1960s, children in grammar school—now kept at home because of the coronavirus pandemic—can turn on the television in the morning and watch footage from the previous evening of burning buildings and looted stores, not to mention violent confrontations between police and protesters.
For a man to be killed in police custody—the police officer who pressed his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck has been charged with murder—is wrong.
Mr. Floyd’s death, however, is part of a pattern: an American pattern of white police and civilians killing unarmed black men.
The pattern goes back to the very beginnings of the nation—the ultimate assertion of power by whites over blacks.
Only in recent decades, with the advent of cellphones with cameras and the development of social media, are the incidents quickly and widely spread, prompting viral outrage over the kind of behavior that for centuries occurred out of public sight.
Racism pervades America. Blacks routinely encounter it, even if they’ve never been beaten by a white police officer or a fellow white civilian. That’s why protests and riots have spread in the past two weeks to more than 140 cities across the United States.
If you aren’t black, imagine how you would feel if you were—if you had grown up with racism always in the background if not in the foreground, if people reacted to you based on the color of your skin.
Chances are that you’d be angry and resentful. So too are many non-blacks, who are angry and resentful over the continuing, festering racism that penalizes people over the color of their skin.
Most of the protests have been peaceful. But that hasn’t stopped violence and destruction from breaking out, especially at night.
Police, admittedly placed in very trying circumstances, shoulder some of the blame. Across the country, a number of officers have beaten and tear-gassed peaceful protesters who were exercising their First Amendment rights to assemble and petition the government for a redress of their grievances.
In the most appalling example, a phalanx of federal law officials on Monday, June 1, brutally cleared law-abiding protesters in a public park next to the White House so that President Donald J. Trump could walk to St. John’s Church for a photo op.
But the world also has changed since the late 1960s. A number of police have taken a knee or walked with peaceful protesters in solidarity, something you couldn’t begin to imagine the Chicago police doing in 1968. While many have seen their businesses burned or looted by rioters, more than a few are surprisingly forgiving or philosophical, saying they support the protest even as they regret their loss.
The past two weeks have been a convulsion of America. They are going to make a difference in ways the wave of mass shootings never could. The general election is just five months away. America has a real chance to address and close its racial divide, to become the kind of nation it always should have been.