What 'Law and Order' Really Means
The message is coming from all sides: it's time to bring Black people into line.
I am surely not alone in feeling my nerves spike this past week. The Jacob Blake shooting; the murder of Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, allegedly by 17-year-old militia member Kyle Rittenhouse; and the killing of a MAGA protester in Portland over the weekend have all combined to send national anxiety into overdrive. It feels as though every American sickness is colliding. It feels as though things will inevitably get worse; the wholehearted embrace of Rittenhouse by the right is a particularly terrifying omen.
Let’s be very clear: these things are happening because police keep brutalizing, shooting, and killing Black people. They’re happening because fascists are on the march across the country and are being backed to the hilt by the state. And they’re happening because we have too many guns in this country, and too many people who like guns. Take away the police violence, and the fascists, and the guns, and the scenes we’re seeing in the streets go away. Keep them there, and things escalate.
You might think that, in light of these facts, there would be a newfound clamor for governments to bring the cops in line, or for politicians to actually follow through on promises of reform instead of betraying their constituents, or for serious gun control, or even for the president of the United States to stop eagerly stoking the flames of violent fascism.
Somehow, though, the main conclusion many people are reaching about what needs to happen immediately is that Joe Biden needs to “distance” himself from the unrest in the streets and come out staunchly in favor of “law and order.”
Never mind that Biden has repeatedly condemned all forms of protest violence and bemoaned looting—whether you want him to do these things is a different question—whereas Trump has enthusiastically embraced his violent supporters. What’s happening, in the view of some of our biggest pundits, is an urgent problem for Biden most of all.
The top opinion story on the New York Times website right now is headlined “Joe Biden Had Better Watch It”; in it, Bret Stephens advises Biden to “give a stirring pro-police speech to some police union.” This follows widely shared columns on Friday from the Washington Post’s George Will and (sigh) our fellow Substack-er Andrew Sullivan, both of whom said that Biden needed that time-honored, cliched pundit favorite, a “Sister Souljah moment.” (In case you were wondering where Sullivan’s sympathies lie, he also fully signed on to the appalling conservative narrative about Kyle Rittenhouse, describing Rittenhouse as someone who was in Kenosha to “protect the businesses that were being burned down or ransacked by rioters,” and who killed people in “what appears to be some kind of self-defense.”)
This recommendation gets to the heart of why civil unrest is seen as politically risky for Biden but not Trump. At their core, the protests—whether “peaceful” or not—are responding to the need for Black liberation, and in America, that is a dangerous thing to ask for. Black people must be brought to heel for the benefit of white comfort. It is more important to keep Black people in line than, say, ask the police to stop killing them. Black death is expected; white fear is a red line.
Bill Clinton understood this back in 1992 when the Sister Souljah moment was born. He was sending the message that he would govern with white people in mind—that what mattered most was whether white people felt at ease with their place in the world. They needed reassurance that the interests of Black people would remain subordinate to theirs, and Clinton was eager to give it to them. Whether Black people felt like they were being adequately cared for didn’t enter into the picture.
What Will and Sullivan and Stephens are really doing is urging Biden to telegraph this same message once again—to tell white people that Trump is not the only one who can soothe their worries. Think about the signal it would send if Biden did what Stephens wants, and spoke approvingly to a police union. These are some of the most virulently abusive, racist, and rabidly pro-Trump organizations in the United States, and Stephens wants Joe Biden to tell them what a good job they’re doing. The fact that this would be a repugnant slap in the face to Black people is not a problem—it’s the whole point.
Biden is giving a speech today in which he will apparently try to reframe the debate by pointing out that the unrest is occurring in “Donald Trump’s America,” and demand that Trump tell his supporters to cool it. But the real question here is not which candidate is to blame for the violence breaking out. It’s about what kind of society we are to be—about how you achieve true “law and order” for everyone. Things are spiraling right now because “law and order” has been defined for far too long as law and order for white people, and because our political system constantly bends over backward to mollify white people at Black peoples’ expense. If we want real peace in this country, order has to come from justice, not from racist oppression—even if that makes the Andrew Sullivans of the world freak out.