How to Get Yourself Stuck in a Political Quagmire – Why Nothing Will Change after Tyre Nichols

If you haven’t been living in a cave, you’ve likely heard recent news involving an innocent black man being brutally beaten to death by multiple police officers. As someone who supports greater oversight and accountability for police officers, let me make a prediction. Any bipartisan outrage that currently exists, will in time be replaced by partisan trench warfare along existing BlackLivesMatter-vs-BackTheBlue battle lines. Democrats might be able to claim some minor legislative progress – but without bipartisan support, nothing of real significance will ultimately happen.

I say this because we’ve seen this story before. We’ve seen it with Rodney King in the 90s. We’ve seen it with George Floyd just a couple years ago. And now we will see it again with Tyre Nichols. For one simple reason – Americans do not respond well to racial framing around political issues.

If you tell people that “police brutality is a problem. We need better training, oversight, and accountability for police misconduct” you’ll get widespread support. In addition to the usual progressive groups, you’ll also hear support from libertarians, small-government proponents, and anyone suspicious of government overreach. There are a significant number of conservatives who are deeply suspicious of government tyranny intruding on the lives of private citizens. This shouldn’t be surprising – we’re talking about the same demographic that wants to eliminate the IRS and roll back government regulations.

But if you tell people that “police brutality is a problem, especially for African-Americans who are disproportionately the victims of police racism”, a lot of your support immediately evaporates. All of the conservative factions mentioned above will immediately stand opposed to your movement. And even many moderate progressives are turned off. We can debate the facts endlessly, but it is indisputable that half the country thinks systemic racism ended when Obama was elected President. Half the country is convinced that African Americans today are given a fair shake by society for the most part. And a large fraction of them also think that the best way to achieve social progress and racial equality is to not talk about race so much, and not to allege racism so frequently.

When we frame police brutality as a racial problem, we immediately lose the support of half the populace. Even those who can be easily convinced that police brutality is a problem worth solving. What could have been a bipartisan push to reduce police brutality and introduce better oversight, instead becomes a partisan quagmire where nothing gets done.

Sound hard to believe? Just consider the opening paragraph from the following WSJ op-ed:

A New York Times article last week on Tyre Nichols managed to work multiple references to “the old Confederacy” into a news story about the death of a black suspect pummeled by black police officers in a city with a black police chief. Such is the desire of the media to shoehorn this tragedy into a predetermined racial narrative.

People are still wrapping their minds around the recently released video, and conservatives have already found their main line of criticism: the racial framing used by progressives. And this isn’t a problem that is unique to police brutality. The exact same dynamic comes into play for a wide variety of socio-economic issues.

  • “We need better public schooling for students in failing school districts”
    plays a whole lot better than
    “We need better public schooling for students in failing school districts, who disproportionately tend to be Black or Latino, leading to a White-Black achievement gap”
  • “Students who grow up in poverty aren’t being given the opportunities they need to succeed. We need affirmative action to level the playing field”
    plays a whole lot better than
    “Black students who grow up in poverty aren’t being given the opportunities they need to succeed. We need affirmative action to level the playing field”
  • “We need a higher minimum wage to help those struggling with poverty”
    plays a whole lot better than
    “We need a higher minimum wage to help those struggling with poverty, who are disproportionately racial minorities”
  • “We should increase taxes on the wealthy in order to reduce income inequality”
    plays a whole lot better than
    “We should increase taxes on the wealthy in order to reduce income inequality, as well as racial income/wealth inequality”

I wish I could claim sole credit for the above ideas, but this isn’t new. People have even done entire studies on this topic. To quote one such study:

A large body of research finds that highlighting the benefits of progressive policies for racial minorities undermines support for those policies. We demonstrate that despite leftward shifts in public attitudes towards issues of racial equality, racial framing decreases support for race-neutral progressive policies. Generally, the class frame most successfully increases support for progressive policies across racial and political subgroups.

Yet, in recent years, Democratic elites have started centering race in their messaging, even on topics not explicitly about race. Decades of political science research would suggest linking progressive policies with race would decrease support for those policies, particularly among white Americans. Yet, increasingly, Democratic elites are talking explicitly about race.

Our results are consistent with much of the existing research that shows many white Americans, and Republicans in particular, remain wary of endorsing policies explicitly aimed at achieving racial equity. Furthermore, we find that a class frame that speaks to the economic impacts of these policies is generally the most effective at increasing policy support across a wide range of demographic subgroups.

Among Republicans the race-class frame causes a statistically significant decrease in policy support… Among those subgroups (Democrats, racial minorities) who might be expected to be responsive to racial framing, we find no differences between race and class framing. However, among Republicans, we generally find evidence of backlash from race framing.

Despite increasing awareness of racial inequities and a greater use of progressive race framing by Democratic elites, linking public policies to race is detrimental for support of those policies

And they have even provided multiple examples of influential politicians going out of their way to frame race-neutral economic issues through a racial lens:

Pres. Joe Biden: “President Biden is calling on Congress to make a historic and overdue investment in our roads, bridges, rail, ports, airports, and transit systems.. . . These investments will advance racial equity by providing better jobs and better transportation options to underserved communities.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: “Student loan cancellation is a matter of racial and economic justice across our country. . . Black student borrowers are forced to borrow more than their white peers and are five times more likely to default on a student loan.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren: “Canceling $50,000 in student loan debt is a matter of racial justice, it is a matter of economic justice, it is a matter of generational justice”

Rep. Barbara Lee: “Black, brown, and low-income communities bear the brunt of pollution and environmental degradation, accelerated by climate change. . . thats why addressing climate change is not just an environmental issue, but also an imperative to achieve racial and economic justice.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders “Raising the minimum wage is not just about economic justice – it is about racial justice. Nearly half of Black and Latino workers in America make under $15 an hour. We must end starvation wages, and give 32 million Americans a raise by increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour.”

The final conclusion from the above paper is particularly illuminating:

Democrats are correct in perceiving that their best interests lie in shifting the electoral agenda away from race and toward economic issues on which blacks and working class whites can agree. The Democrats can still pursue racially liberal policies while in office, and in fact it is in their interest to do so. By eroding racial inequality they will aid in bridging the racial divide that renders them so electorally vulnerable. But as many African Americans recognize, highlighting these efforts to white voters is likely to erode Democratic support among whites… Democrats’ use of racial frames in describing their progressive policies may inadvertently make it harder for them to adopt public policies that will advance racial justice.

Even if your goal is to achieve racial justice and end racial inequities, framing the issue as such is completely counter-productive. The best way to save Black men from police brutality is to call for an end to police brutality. Period. Black men are indeed significantly impacted by police brutality. But if you’re debating this issue with your lunch buddies and the only examples you bring up are Tyre Nichols, George Floyd, and Rodney King, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Police brutality affects people of all backgrounds. Daniel Shaver, a White middle-aged white-collar worker, was gunned down by police while trying his very best to comply with their commands. Kelly Thomas, a White mentally ill homeless man, was beaten so badly that the bones on his face were broken and he choked on his own blood. If progressives brought up those examples as well, and framed the issue as a moral and humanitarian one that transcends race and unites all of us, we may stand a chance of seeing real change.

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