It’s Not Our Politics. It’s Us.

As racial tensions and strife rise over police violence in 2021, how do we respond to the inevitable fanning of the flames by Fox News and others?

OPINION, April 12, 2021

It feels an eerily familiar cycle: Police in the Midwest city shoot a young black motorist after stopping him for a minor infraction, in the middle of an already tense moment for racial justice and accountability. Protests erupt and turn destructive. Focus turns from the racial killing to the war in the streets. Fox News ratings soar. The police dig in.

Throughout the 2020 campaign, the GOP and right-wing media leaned into the Black Lives Matter protests, airing campaign commercials and non-stop footage of stores burning and chaos in the streets, even though the protests were in the vast majority of instances peaceful. This created two realities again in America, one where places like New York and Portland—two notorious “anarchy jurisdictions”—were in flames and ready to collapse, and another, made famous by viral Tik Tok videos, of ordinary citizens in those cities enjoying meals outside, no protests or fires in sight.

One of these “realities” was of course a fabrication aired to tens of millions of conservative Americans who lived nowhere near these alleged war-zone epicenters of racial unrest. Nor did the airing of this footage, starkly labeled as “Biden’s America,” result in much critical thinking among viewers: After all, we were at that point still very much in Trump’s America.

With Joe Biden in the White House now, however, Fox News is eager to capitalize upon the bad optics. All of a sudden, racial strife (and border crossings by brown-skinned migrants looking to take good American jobs) will be squarely on the Biden White House. Looting, burning, violence—all Biden’s now. We know this will happen because they ran it as a fear tactic during 2020. So how do we respond? 

For starters, we need to keep history in mind and take several steps back to gain a clearer and broader view. Like immigration issues at our border, state brutality against minorities isn’t something that began recently. Police killings of unarmed black men have been happening with such regularity and for so long that it now is one of the leading causes of death, with 1 in every 1,000 young black men killed by the cops in this country. That’s the equivalent of having a raging Covid-19 epidemic, going on now for decades upon decades, centuries upon centuries. This is not intended to normalize this but rather to restrain the intellectually dishonest tendency to say this happens under Republican or Democratic presidents. It isn’t a political issue, it is a moral one. It is a societal one. 

Second, this broader context provides a startling opportunity to find at least some common, albeit grim, ground with our political adversaries. When the issue is politicized, we have a chance to temper passions if we choose to take it. The reasons for the violence, and the protests that result, are no more about Biden’s America than they were about Trump’s America. They run far deeper, and go back further than any one of us has been alive. It can be disarming to respond to someone pointing to a racially charged riot as evidence of Democratic disarray and say simply, “You know, this problem is bigger than MAGA or BLM. It happened in 2020 under Trump. It’s happening in 2021 under Biden. It happened under Obama, and it happened under Bush. It’s not about politics.”

Finally, while we won’t be able to stop Fox News and their ilk from stirring up race-based fears about angry black mobs, or frightening surges of migrants at our border or minorities determined to effect the Great Replacement, we do have one basic tool that the far-right seems not to possess: compassion. It may sound trite, but when we see the anger play itself out in the streets, when we see the desperation and the horrific conditions at our border, we can deploy that tool of compassion by seeing not crowds but individuals, not numbers but people, not them but us.

It became popular during the Trump years to see horrific videos and images on social media and admonish others. “Don’t look away,” many urged. But in 2021 and beyond, we must go deeper. We must fix our eyes and our emotional centers upon other people, especially those who do not look like us and who experience a world wholly different than our own. This means reading past the headlines and spending the time to explore actual human stories. It means viewing and sharing photos of victims that represent their individuality and character, not their shortcomings. It means not just saying their names, but actually demanding justice as if we were their own family and friends. That, and not our politics, is how we break this cycle.