Today’s racial violence echoes 1960s’ backlash

University of Washington Tacoma professor Michael Honey.
University of Washington Tacoma professor Michael Honey.

A black woman interviewed on NBC News after the police killings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota last week told the interviewer that America is at a “tipping point” with the issue of police brutality.

A few hours later, a black military veteran in Dallas opened fire with an assault rifle, killing five white police officers and wounding many more.

Many of us remember “the long hot summers” and the white racial “backlash” of the 1960s. Are we going back there?

For my entire adult life, I have seen police brutality fuel riots, rebellions and mayhem. In 1967 in Detroit, the hometown of my parents and grandparents, repeated incidents of police violence and systemic inner-city poverty and unemployment combined to touch off widespread rebellion in the corridor along 12th Street (now Rosa Parks Boulevard).

Police and National Guard troops occupied Detroit amid fires and looting, and 43 people died. Most were African Americans, including black men lined up against a wall and shot in the back by police at the Algiers Motel.

Our country’s long and sad history of lynching and racial violence is haunting us again. As in the 1960s, our violent culture is fueled in part by poverty and high crime levels in poor, racially segregated communities. It’s also fueled by the politics of what we used to call white racial “backlash.” In 1968, the backlash gave us the shameful presidency of Richard Nixon.

White racial backlash has happened whenever African Americans have made gains, as it did following the election of a black president in 2008, enabling Republicans to solidify their base in the South, undermining black voting and economic advances.

How can we move in a better direction? First, we can reject backlash politics and address the racial and economic inequalities that drive systemic violence. Voters need to make their choices carefully.

Second, we can reject the myth that we are safer if we all carry weapons. The black men killed by police in Baton Rouge and St. Paul both carried weapons, but that only precipitated their deaths. In Dallas, a few demonstrators against police brutality carried rifles in the streets, as is allowed by state law.

I wonder how police officers felt about this — or the fact that the shooter, as in so many other incidents, had access to an assault rifle that enabled mass murder? Police and all citizens have the right to not be assaulted and killed. Most Americans want assault weapons banned, but Republicans in Congress won’t allow it.

Our country is awash in weapons, with 30,000 gun deaths a year. Reportedly, 560 Americans, including 123 African Americans, have been killed by police in 2016, and the year is only half over. We should not tolerate this culture of gun violence.

History teaches that we can bring about change by both our actions and words, that we are capable of moving forward against overwhelming obstacles, and that we can curb racial violence and unite for a better world.

Georgia Congressman John Lewis reminds us that the majority of white people do not accept gun violence or racial backlash. President Obama said last week that systemic violence is not a “black issue;” it affects every American.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, and as people in the Black Lives Matter movement keep reminding us: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We should listen up.

Michael Honey is on faculty at the University of Washington Tacoma as the Fred and Dorothy Haley Professor of Humanities.