Over the past six months since violence erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting death of an unarmed black man, the nation has been engaged in an ongoing, at times tedious, dialogue about race. The conversation began anew in recent days when Baltimore, Maryland was overcome by riots following the death of another black man while in police custody.
We’ve learned a lot about our leaders in government and how our media report on race. We’ve also learned that electing the country’s first black president wasn’t the magic cure-all for racial strife that some had hoped it would be.
This recent civil unrest will have an impact beyond the directly affected areas of Baltimore and Ferguson. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted last week found that 96 percent of those surveyed expect more such incidents to occur. However, there is a divide along racial lines as to the perceived causes of the unrest.
Sixty percent of black respondents maintained these incidents are a result of “long-standing frustrations about police mistreatment of African-Americans,” with 27 percent of blacks claiming this was being used “as an excuse to engage in looting and violence.”
Among white respondents the findings were reversed, with 58 percent arguing these frustrations with the police were being used as an excuse to loot and 32 percent saying the events were tied to frustrations with police treatment.
What if these findings manifest themselves in our politics, particularly the upcoming contest for the White House?
In the 1960s, then-Gov. Spiro Agnew (R-Maryland) faced a similar situation in Baltimore. Just days after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, riots broke out in many cities, including Baltimore, where the black community already was feeling a sense of despair with an unemployment rate at twice the national average.
Agnew, who had run two years earlier as a pro-civil rights Republican, immediately activated the National Guard in the face of the riots. And 5,800 arrests later, the violence was quelled. His response to that situation caught the attention of Richard Nixon, who later that year selected Agnew as his running mate and went on to win the election.
What if history repeats itself? What if the Republican electorate, made up of older white voters, nominates someone perceived to be tough on crime and willing to express his or her desire to clean up America’s inner cities so that this unrest doesn’t happen again?
Often overlooked are those who suffer from civil unrest. Our media devote a lot of time trying to psychoanalyze the rioters. Meanwhile, everyday life is thrown into disarray, commerce is disrupted and people lose their needed sense of security.
Civil unrest may continue as we enter summer, which will coincide with the race for the political parties’ presidential nominations. This could be New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s moment.
As U.S. Attorney for New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, Christie took on gangs and corruption as a prosecutor. If he can ever get beyond the so-called Bridgegate controversy, he may be the one Republican voters will rally around for the 2016 presidential contest if civil unrest continues.
On the Democratic side of the equation, it’s less clear how this unrest may factor in.
There is undoubtedly a feeling of despair in the minority communities of America’s urban centers. How would a Democratic candidate address that? What can a Democratic candidate offer that is different from our current president?
It would behoove a 2016 Democratic presidential candidate to go beyond simply launching blue-ribbon committees and task forces. There needs to be a discussion about improving the economics of the inner city or spending more on law enforcement.
Rudy Giuliani’s bid for mayor of New York City at the end of last century is another example of how unrest can sway an electorate.
In the 1990s in New York City — hardly a place known for conservative politics — New Yorkers voted in former federal prosecutor Giuliani, who was seen as being tough on crime compared to David Dinkins, whose tenure was marred by racial strife, including the 1991 Crown Heights riots.
Giuliani lived up to his promise and cleaned up New York City, which helped him win a second term.
When the dust settles a year from now and we likely will know the names of the two major parties’ presidential nominees, don’t discount the ongoing influence of what we’ve seen take place across the country. There are still deep problems involving race in the United States, and the public’s tolerance for civil unrest is something that will be reflected at the ballot box.