As the Black Lives Matter protests continue to grow throughout the United States, the discourse generated by its activists has evolved. What began as an outcry against police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the demands of protestors have developed into specific demands for institutional restructuring and legislative change.
With the US presidential election taking place in November, both the Republican and Democratic candidates have shifted their campaign platforms in a reactionary manner. Trump has zealously embraced a ‘law and order’ rhetoric, positioning himself as the bulwark that stands between white America and the threat of ‘urban lawlessness’, while Biden has frantically interjected himself into the reformist discourse, in an attempt to assert himself as the progressive ally of the disenfranchised black community.
Their attempts to utilise the social crisis for political gain are as immoral as they are expected. Incumbent presidents and hopeful rivals have repeatedly treated black citizens as political tools, appropriating and discarding black suffrage in pursuit of the white vote. Indeed, as BLM’s momentum continues to build, its reformist ambitions stand the risk of being utilised to suit electoral agendas filled with misappropriated, false promises.
A Legacy of Manipulation
The relationship between the Democratic Party, the Republican Party and black citizens has been predominantly exploitative in nature. Pro-black enfranchisement policies have often been abandoned if the white ‘Silent Majority’, who have historically formed a large proportion of the electorate, is seen to disapprove of such a progressive agenda.
The disproportionate amount of ‘value’ placed on the white vote has only been heightened through a litany of discriminatory practices that have been aimed at non-white citizens over the years. The Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws and the mass incarceration have been purposely designed to isolate African Americans from the ballot box, and have created a political landscape in which black voters are a non-autonomous ‘captured’ group.
In other words, presidential candidates manipulate black citizens to suit their own agendas. They are either appealed to under the false façade of allyship to compound pre-existing white support (Kennedy’s 1960 election, Clinton’s 1996 election), scapegoated as the causation of domestic failings (Nixon’s 1968 ‘law and order’ campaign, Reagan’s 1984 ‘war on drugs’ agenda), or portrayed as a threat to incentivise white reactionary support (Trump’s 2020 platform).
Each of these forms of manipulation are equally destructive, as they prioritise the short-term appeasement of white voters over the long-term enfranchisement of black citizens. Indeed, despite the stark contrast between the campaign platforms of Trump and Biden, they share an equal complicity in attempting to repeat such historical injustices.
The traditional role carried out by the US president during periods of civil unrest is that of a unifying figurehead. Their demeanour and attitude should reflect conventional social values of composure, security and rationality. Trump, perhaps more so than any of his predecessors, has demonstrated an unapologetic willingness to ignore such ideals. In repeatedly displays of hostile partisanship, he has vehemently attacked calls for social reform, lavished praise on right-wing agitators, and urged police forces to ‘dominate’ protestors through violence and force.
Trump’s decisions to act were deliberate, calculated and driven predominantly by his re-election campaign. While peaceful BLM protestors were met with tear gas, police brutality and rubber bullets, the heavily armed anti lockdown protestors of Michigan, New York and Colorado received tweets of encouragement and verification that their complaints were justified. Such responses were not dictated by feelings of empathy, and rather they worked as deliberate displays of solidarity towards the cornerstone of his voter base – white, working-class, conservatives.
His subsequent condemnation of the BLM movement as a threat to the ‘security and safety’ of America is an extended continuation of such racially charged pandering. Rather than addressing the specific calls for institutional reform that BLM is demanding, Trump instead chooses to focus explicitly on the few examples of looting and property damage that have occurred concurrently with the protests. Such an approach both discredits the civil rights agenda at the heart of the BLM movement. It seeks to affirm the discriminatory far-right narrative that ‘black urban lawlessness’ is a real domestic threat to ‘white America’.
Fundamentally, he is using BLM as a political piece to ‘double down’ on his pre-existing support base in the run-up to the November election. By choosing not to engage productively with any calls for reform, he is effectively appropriating the movement into an extended electoral propaganda campaign, for which there seems to be no end in sight.
The Façade of Allyship
Indeed, while Trump’s actions are deplorable, it could be argued that they are at least an honest reflection of his campaign strategy. Biden’s efforts to appropriate the BLM movement are far more insidious in nature.
During his first televised address to the nation after George Floyd’s murder, Biden focused predominantly on what he saw to be Trump’s central failings: his mishandling of Covid-19, the rise of unemployment and ‘nonpresidential’ form of leadership. While he established that America had a ‘problem’ and that ‘it was time’ to listen to black voices, he failed to say anything constructive beyond a conventional rhetoric of ‘understanding’ and sympathy.
At no point has Biden publicly stated that ‘Black Lives Matter’. In the weeks following the first series of protests in Minneapolis, he spoke about how the police should shoot suspects ‘in the leg instead’ of the chest, rather than denounce police violence in its entirety. He has claimed to recognise the need for institutional reform but has categorically refused to support any calls to ‘Defund the Police’. He has denounced black republican voters as being ‘[not] black’ and demonstrated that he does not view black voters as autonomous agents, rather citizens who have an obligation to support him as a candidate purely on the basis that he’s ‘not Trump’.
In essence, Biden is moving through current events under a façade of performance allyship. He has avoided making any potentially controversial pro-BLM statements due to fears of alienating the white swing voters of middle America and is following the established trend of prioritising white support over any moral responsibility to pursue progressive reform.
If not them, who?
The difference between genuine allyship and empty rhetoric can be difficult to decipher from candidates on the campaign trail. However, it is crucial that such facades are identified, deconstructed and their users held to account, in order to ensure that promises of legislative reform are not replaced by a blasé passivity once an election has been won.
Regardless of who becomes president this coming November, neither Trump nor Biden will be the individual to enact the long-term structural transformation that is so sorely needed. The position of Commander in Chief is intrinsically tainted by its obligation to the demands of white middle America. As a result, its capacity to enact reform falls drastically short. Grassroots activism must instead strive to retain its specific identity as apart from the Democratic and Republican parties and focus on establishing progressive governance at a local level, through city councils, school district and state courts.
The US electoral game is a structure that has been built over several centuries. It is only through a collectivised effort to shift its foundations that the mistreatment and devaluation of the black community can be successfully challenged. Whether political actors or presidential candidates choose to assist or inhibit such actions, remains to be seen.