White nationalism has found expression not merely in Trump’s defence of the Charlottesville white nationalists as ‘very fine’ people, or in the building of the wall against migrants from Mexico and Central America, but in his attack on ‘shithole countries’ and his decision to remove the US from the World Health Organisation in the middle of the pandemic – ‘white flight’ translated into foreign policy.
And then there’s the pandemic itself. Floyd’s murder came just as the US death toll exceeded a hundred thousand. An alarming number of those who have died have been people of colour, especially black people, many of whom suffer from pre-existing health conditions and don’t have access to adequate healthcare. Covid-19 has made clear how little black lives matter in the US, even as it has underscored the country’s dependence on black and brown ‘essential’ workers, who provide care, deliver packages and prepare food – all lines of work that have exposed them to the virus. The growing awareness that Covid-19 is a ‘black plague’, as the Princeton academic Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has called it, has inspired a call to action among civil rights activists. But many whites, especially in red states, have responded with demands to end the shutdown. Trump cheered on the armed and unmasked white protesters in Michigan who seized the state capitol and advocated ‘liberation’ from the shelter-in-place order issued to limit the spread of the virus. When Georgia (whose governor, Brian Kemp, a right-wing Republican, won the election from the Democrat Stacey Abrams through brazen voter suppression) reopened, the New York Times ran a front-page photograph of a black woman in a white mask, serving coffee to a white man without a mask at a lunch counter, a reminder that Jim Crow hasn’t so much died as been reconfigured. The message of such scenes was that whites had no reason to concern themselves with a ‘black plague’, except to make sure the help was taking precautions.
The method of Floyd’s killing is no less significant. It almost doesn’t matter whether Chauvin intended to kill him; he didn’t care whether he lived or died. Trump did not kill Floyd, but he has fanned the politics of white supremacy and sanctioned the humiliation of black Americans. It is this assault, on Floyd’s dignity as well as his person, that has provoked the most serious challenge yet to Trump’s presidency.
Trump couldn’t care less about the international outcry. He wants to divorce the rest of the world and retreat to his fantasy of an armed white America as conjured on Fox Television. But the United States now faces a serious challenge to its international legitimacy – as serious as the one it faced during the Jim Crow era. The demonstrators have put not just the police but the nation on trial. As much as structural change, they’re fighting for what Martin Luther King, in his 1967 Riverside Church speech against the Vietnam War, called a ‘revolution in values’. They may not look on each other as ‘lovers’, as Baldwin urged the ‘relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks’ to do in The Fire Next Time, but they are trying, in their own fashion, and in their own language, to ‘achieve our country and change the history of the world’. For the moment, they are all that stands between us and the ghosts of our ugly past.