By Alex Callinicos
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Trump banks on racial polarisation

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Issue 2707
Black Live matter protests in Washington DC
Black Live matter protests in Washington DC (Pic: Victoria Pickering/flickr)

The protests against the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police are swelling into an uprising of national proportions. Of course, this isn’t the first. There were the great inner-city risings of the 1960s, the Los Angeles revolt of 1992, and the Black Lives Matter protests that began in 2014.

The African-American Marxist August Nimtz quotes Tony Bouza, a former Minneapolis police chief, who admitted that the “heart of the problem of both crime and police abuse in America is our tacitly accepted class structure separating the privileged from the poor, and along with it the systemic racism that society as a whole is not yet willing to face.”

But, of course, this latest revolt takes place in a new context, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has now taken over 100,000 lives in the United States.

This is amplifying the tensions in two ways. First, as ABC News starkly put it, “the Covid-19 global pandemic became a black, brown and working-class epidemic in America” and summarises the horrifying statistics.

In Washington DC Latinos have been seven times more likely to be infected with coronavirus than white residents. In Georgia, 80 percent of Covid-19 hospitalisations are African‑Americans.

In New York City, African‑Americans are twice as likely to die of the virus than white residents. In New York State, of the 21 zip codes with the most new Covid-19 hospitalisations, 20 have greater-than-average black and/or Latino populations.”

A New York Times columnist put it even more starkly. “This crisis is exposing the class savagery of American democracy and the economic carnage that it has always countenanced.” 

The fear and suffering the pandemic has caused among the working poor have intensified long-standing tensions. 


Time magazine reports, “The Powderhorn Park neighbourhood, where Floyd was confronted by police, is among Minneapolis’ hardest hit communities according to the city’s data.”

A local labour rights activist says, “Policing and racism are public health problems.” Floyd’s killing lit a tinder box. Secondly, there is Donald Trump, who has been busily pouring oil on troubled waters.

On Friday of last week he tweeted, quoting racist Miami police chief Walter Headley in 1967, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” 

He gloated that protesters outside the White House, if they had broken through, would “have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least.” 

Trump is also trying to pin the blame for the protests on the far left. He tweeted on Sunday, “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organisation”—a ridiculous threat since “Antifa” are loose networks of militant anti-fascists.

It’s too easy to explain away this inflammatory language by saying Trump is an irrational racist jerk. He is a racist jerk, but he’s cunning.

The pandemic has shredded Trump’s plans to win November’s presidential election on the basis of a relatively robust economy. 

Hence his eagerness to end the lockdown, even at the price of many more deaths.

But, though the stock market has revived, the general economic picture is grim. Jay Powell, chair of the Federal Reserve Board, the US central bank, has warned that even once a recovery begins, the US may face an “extended period of low productivity growth and stagnant incomes”.

Moreover, according to Financial Times columnist Edward Luce, Trump’s callous bungling of the pandemic is encouraging many over-65s to switch their support to Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate. Biden is currently ten points ahead in the polls.

Faced with this, Trump is going for his version of the old Republican “Southern strategy” first successfully used in 1968 by Richard Nixon.

He reacted to the rise of the Black Power movement and the rising provoked by the assassination of Martin Luther King by playing on white racist fears to win the presidency.

Trump’s rhetoric is giving racist cops and National Guardsmen the green light to run amok. He clearly hopes that stoking racial polarisation will keep him in the White House.

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