The Chauvin verdict isn't a turning point in equal justice. But it does suggest a new political norm
Compromising with liars is no longer respectable.
There was a little “post-racial America” in the air Tuesday after a jury found former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin guilty in the murder of George Floyd. It felt similar to the night Barack Obama was elected. If a Black man can be president, the thinking went, the old racist America was redeemed. If a white cop can be found guilty of murdering a Black man, its old racist system of justice was similarly redeemed.
Well, yes, in a very small way. But no, in a very big way. I think Noah Feldman, the Harvard professor of constitutional law who writes for Bloomberg Opinion, is correct to say justice was served in this particular case. As for its meaning more widely, it’s too soon to say. “We often want our criminal-courts system to bear tremendous symbolic burdens, whether negative or positive,” he wrote. “The truth is that the courts are only a small part of a bigger system. A jury verdict can send a message, or try to do so, but a jury has no power to fundamentally change the system. That work is on the rest of us.”
The key word is “work.” For a lot of people, which is to say, for a lot of respectable white people, which is to say, that globular middle of American politics, the work came to a conclusion after Obama was elected in 2008. Problems in “race relations” were in the past. Respectable white people were told that, from now on, things would be different. Respectable pundits like David Brooks said we now live in a “post-racial America” where the new center would be socially liberal but fiscally conservative. Then came a fascist backlash that put the lie to that. Then came a would-be fuhrer-king representing a wholly imagined confederacy seeking to restore the glories of a past in which “real Americans” lived lives separate and unequal from everyone else’s.
Even as the Fox fascists accused the Minneapolis jury of caving to violent threats by a “woke mob,” respectable white people saw for themselves that a rare instance in which a white police officer is convicted of murdering a Black man did not, in reality, spark street violence. Instead, it was jubilation.
That someone like Professor Feldman is writing a piece like his in a publication like Bloomberg Opinion suggests, to me, that respectable white people understand better, or are coming to understand better, that the work of racial justice and equal treatment under law is, for now, an ongoing endeavor. It suggests a new assumption has taken shape, or is taking shape, in the aftermath of the Trump era, a period that ripped the bark off “conservatism” in ways respectable white people had never admitted before.
Accusing a jury of “mob justice” in ruling that a white cop is guilty of murdering a Black man might have resonated with a lot of respectable white people if not for the fact that a real mob, incited by a real aspiring fuhrer-king, sacked and looted the United States Capitol in an attempt to overturn the result of a free and fair election. Nearly all the credibility the GOP once had with respectable white people was spent down on January 6. It was bankrupted the day the Senate Republicans acquitted the traitor.
That exhausted credibility is coupled with replenished credibility in the multi-racial corps of activists working broadly under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Even as the Fox fascists accused the Minneapolis jury of caving to violent threats by a “woke mob,” respectable white people saw for themselves that a rare instance in which a white police officer is convicted of murdering a Black man did not, in reality, spark street violence. Instead, it was jubilation. Turns out good things happen when good things happen. Most Americans say finding Chauvin guilty was the right thing to do.1
The Republicans’ influence over respectable white people—again, that globular middle of American politics—was only as strong as the willingness of respectable white people to accept, or at least overlook for personal financial gain, the Republicans’ lies. Trump, in accusing Joe Biden and the Democrats of stealing the election, and forcing Republicans at the state level to pass anti-democratic election laws, has made that arrangement impossible to sustain. He has forced respectable white people to choose between the GOP and their reputations as respectable white people who appear to care about America’s greater good by doing, or appearing to do, “the right thing.”
In forcing respectable white people to make their choice, the former president, almost certainly without knowing it, established a new assumption that’s unlikely to undo itself any time soon, an assumption that not only understands the work of liberty and justice for all is ongoing but that the Republicans’ lies are no longer worth accepting or overlooking. The world saw Derek Chauvin squeeze the life out of George Floyd. No lie could hide that. The world saw the former president try squeezing the life out of democracy. No lie can hide that either. Compromising with Republican lies used to be the reasonable thing to do. That’s why the Democrats did it so often. It’s unreasonable now. That makes the truth, after many decades out of favor, the new respectable norm.