Stop Comparing Today's Protests to 1968Roundup
tags: 1968, Protest
Over the last few weeks, at least 450 protests sparked by the death of George Floyd have erupted across the United States, accompanied in some cities by incidents of looting, vandalism and burning. It has been a half century since American cities have seen such a burst of outrage. The “long hot summers” of the 1960s and, in particular, the massive wave of street protests in 1968, a critical election year, have become a touchstone for analysis of what is happening now. Have we returned to the 1960s? Is 2020 the new 1968? What lessons can we learn from that wave of urban uprisings?
The answers have implications for the next weeks and months. In the 1968 election, Richard Nixon, writes James Fallows, “knew that the specter of disorder — especially disorderly conduct by black Americans, face-to-face with police — was one of his strongest weapons.” Historian Niall Ferguson goes further, suggesting that unlike in 1968, today’s “urban unrest with a racial dimension might actually save a beleaguered incumbent.”
It is tempting but problematic to draw easy inferences linking past and present. Glib comparisons obscure what persists from the 1960s, reducing a long movement for racial justice to a comparison of presidential rhetoric. Seeing 1968 and 2020 as flash points in law and order, as moments of “culture war,” makes it difficult to see what has changed over more than a half-century. The who, the where and the why of 2020 cannot be boiled down to a reprise of 1968, nor can we predict political responses by catching a glimpse of the past through our rearview mirrors.
Why are today’s uprisings more interracial and more decentralized? Why have the targets changed? We are seeing a new, hybrid form of protest emerging in places that are responding to two interconnected realities in urban American today: racial injustice that falls especially hard on African Americans, and deep economic insecurities that affect blacks along with a far wider swath of the population, including the young whites who have joined protests in huge numbers.
The 1960s protests happened at a moment of great economic prosperity that conspicuously left a growing segment of the black population on the sidelines. The 2020 protests, by contrast, are playing out in the context of a massive economic collapse that is affecting people of color particularly harshly (half of all working-age African Americans are unemployed today) but hitting everyone hard. The diversity of this year’s protests points to the reality that during a deep recession, in the midst of a pandemic, everyone is a potential agitator.