The 2020 George Floyd protests and riots were a pivotal moment in the nation’s history, though not for the reasons many of the protestors think they were. They were the culmination—and hopefully the peak—of a renewed sense of racial grievance that had been building at least since the politicization of the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. That sense of grievance had been a constant in certain domains of American political life for a long time before 2012. But after Martin’s death, what had been a relatively niche critique of racial justice and (so-called) white supremacy was transformed by opportunistic media and political figures into a national issue.
How did we get here? And what must we do to move past all of this? Those are tough questions. Luckily, we’ve got a tough-minded commentator in Clifton Roscoe, who writes in with a diagnosis of the problem and some thoughts about what we must do to pull out of the untenable situation in which we find ourselves. Clifton offers a characteristically detailed, data-driven analysis here, so I present it below without further ado.
This post is free and available to the public. To receive early access to TGS episodes, an ad-free podcast feed, Q&As, and other exclusive content and benefits, click below.
I recently read an essay that Democratic strategist Mark Penn wrote for the New York Times (“American Voters Haven’t Been Afraid Like This in a Long Time”). The gist of Penn’s argument is that Americans are awash in fears about economic security, border security, international security, and even physical security. Penn’s a political guy, so he devotes most of his piece to outlining the things he believes Team Biden needs to do in order to avoid a wave election in November. It’s hard to argue that Americans aren’t anxious or even fearful when it comes to the issues Penn notes. My concern is that we’re not responding well to problems as a nation and that our poor responses will be more consequential than a wave election.
The economic security issue has been brewing for a while. Macro-level forces (e.g., globalization, automation, and immigration) have chipped away at the odds that younger Americans will achieve the American Dream, the idea that each generation will earn a better living, adjusted for inflation, than their parents. In 2016, Raj Chetty and a team of researchers at Stanford published an analysis (“The Fading American Dream”) that has resonated with me since I first read it. The short version is that people who were born in 1940 had a better than 90% chance of earning more, adjusted for inflation, than their parents. The odds of achieving the American Dream have faded badly over the years. Those born in 1980 have only a 50% chance of earning more, adjusted for inflation, than their parents. What was once a sure thing has become a coin flip. Here’s a graphic:
The sense that the economic rug has been pulled out from under folks is palpable if you spend time in parts of the country where manufacturing facilities used to employ lots of workers at good wages and with good benefits. Companies often reduce labor costs by offshoring and outsourcing parts of their operations to low-cost regions of the world, using machines and software to eliminate work that was formerly done by humans, and by hiring immigrants to do jobs that Americans supposedly don’t want.
Inequality has increased as the American Dream has faded. The economic playing field has tilted in a way that favors those with college degrees and/or specialized skills. Having a college degree is no guarantee of success, however. Data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that over 30% of all college graduates (defined as those between the ages of 22 and 65 with a bachelor's degree or higher) and over 40% of recent college graduates (defined as those between the ages of 22 and 27 with a bachelor's degree or higher) are underemployed. In other words, they're doing jobs that typically don't require college degrees.
We have an economy where things are going well for some, but large swathes of the country have been left behind. In the absence of prosperity, resentment and identity politics have set in.
Class and race issues were brewing during the Bush 43 presidency, but they intensified and exploded during the Obama presidency. First came the Occupy movement after the Great Recession. Then came the Trayvon Martin case, the emergence of Black Lives Matter, and riots in response to the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. By the time President Obama left office, many people felt they were getting a raw deal. An NPR poll from 2017 showed that a majority of whites, blacks, Asian-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and LGBTQ adults thought their group faced discrimination.
BLM, with assists from Team Obama and an indulgent press, forcefully declared that racist law enforcement agencies were killing large numbers of innocent black people, especially black men. Established civil rights organizations that had been struggling for relevance jumped on the bandwagon. Everybody was demanding policing and criminal justice reforms, but not many people took the time to do an honest assessment of what was happening. Part of the problem was that reliable numbers for police killings weren't available. The Washington Post and the Guardian began to collect the data in 2015, though the Guardian stopped collecting the data after a year or two.
The FBI has yet to develop a good database. Another issue was that nobody wanted to be on the “wrong side of history” or to be called a racist for questioning some of the claims made by activists. Ferguson suffered through rioting before people began to realize that the “Hands up, don’t shoot!” Michael Brown narrative was false.
Baltimore was next. It experienced extensive rioting before all the officers who were accused of mistreating and killing Freddie Gray were either found not guilty in court or had cases dropped by prosecutors. Progressive DA's won elections in several places and began to assert themselves while law enforcement began to pull back. Two decades of improving homicide rates began to reverse themselves. Don’t take my word for it. Here are graphics from Pew Research that illustrate the point:
Here’s another graphic from Peace for D.C. that shows a similar homicide pattern in our nation’s capital:
As worrisome as the homicide trends had been toward the end of the Obama presidency, they only got worse on President Trump’s watch. Some argue that economic conditions correlate with violent crime, but the rise in violent crime rates that took place during the Trump presidency occurred despite steadily improving economic conditions for all Americans until the beginning of the pandemic in Q1 of 2020. A look at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta's Wage Growth Tracker, for example, shows that wage increases for non-white workers were growing faster than inflation and faster than wages increases for white workers.
Real median household incomes for blacks hit an all-time high in 2019, according to the US Census Bureau.
The black poverty rate hit an all-time low in 2019 as well:
Last but not least, the black unemployment rate hit an all-time low toward the end of 2019. Here’s a deep dive over at the St. Louis Fed's FRED (Federal Reserve Economic Data) site.
Black America did reasonably well on President Trump's watch from an economic perspective, but President Trump had a knack for rubbing a lot of black people the wrong way. His "law and order" stance in response to the violent crime wave was the final straw for a lot of black activists. They were convinced that he was a hardcore racist. The 2018 midterm election led to the emergence of the Squad and a new group of progressive elected officials. The publication of the 1619 Project, the emergence of new voices like that of Ibram X. Kendi, and the heavy toll the pandemic placed upon communities of color added to a sense among black activists that their grievances were legitimate and had to be addressed in short order. A racial powder keg was set. All that was needed was something to ignite it. Things took a terrible turn for the worse after George Floyd died. Demonstrations, riots, and looting took place all over the country. An estimated $2 billion in damage occurred in cities across America. Here's a graphic from an analysis by Verisk, an insurance rating bureau, that was published by the World Economic Forum:
The social unrest and property damage were bad enough, but homicides spiked in 2020 by about 30%, the worst one-year increase the FBI has ever recorded. Data from the CDC says that 24,576 Americans were homicide victims in 2020, compared to 19,141 homicides in 2019, a 28% increase. Black America bore the brunt of the increase, with the number of Black homicide victims going from 10,187 in 2019 to 13,780 in 2020, a 35% increase. Use this link if you want to do a deep dive.
The number of homicides continued to rise throughout 2021 and is still rising in several cities today. Homicides in Atlanta, for example, are up 59% through April 30th, compared to the same period in 2021. Keep in mind that Atlanta homicides in both 2020 and 2021 were up 60% compared to 2019. You can find the data here.
Several factors contribute to social unrest, according to another analysis from Verisk. Here's an excerpt:
According to analysis by Verisk Maplecroft, the drivers of unrest are manifold:
Acute political polarization and ongoing distrust in the legitimacy of the electoral process: The year 2021 began with an unprecedented attack on the United States Capitol and polls suggest that a segment of the public believes the 2020 election was illegitimate—potentially powerful kindling for future clashes.
Divisions over criminal justice and police reform: The focal point of multiple protests in 2020 remains a highly contentious issue as 2021 closes.
Broader socio-economic inequities: U.S. income inequality remained high in 20213 and research suggests that when a society already beset with high income inequality emerges from a pandemic, it’s ripe for further disruption.
There are other flashpoints with the potential to trigger bouts of civil unrest, including mask and vaccine mandates and their extension from the public to the private sector. These mandates have been the rallying cry for angry protests and even violent confrontations.
These are among the factors accounting for the United States’ 71st rank in Verisk Maplecroft’s Civil Unrest Index for the fourth quarter of 2021. The Index assesses the risk of disruption to business in 198 countries caused by the mobilization of societal groups in response to economic, political, or social factors. It captures a broad spectrum of incidents of unrest, from peaceful protests, to violent mass demonstrations and rioting.
Verisk Maplecroft sees protest rates as likely to remain broadly stable between the fourth quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022, but unlikely to fall back to pre-2020 levels, keeping the U.S. firmly in the “high risk” category.
We shouldn't minimize the importance of political polarization, distrust of elections, and economic inequality, but race, violent crime, and disagreements about policing and criminal justice reforms seem to be the biggest contributors to social unrest. I’ve got too much respect for the folks who visit this site to claim I know how to solve this problem, but here are what I hope are a few areas of agreement:
Demonizing, demoralizing, and de-funding the police are counterproductive. We should do what we can to make sure law enforcement treats everybody fairly, but let’s not fool ourselves into believing that violent crime peters out on its own. Putting law enforcement under constant scrutiny is counterproductive as well. Tanaya Devi and Roland Fryer’s work has shown that “Pattern of Practice” investigations of police departments after “viral” police incidents involving deadly force have resulted in 900 extra homicides and 34,000 extra felonies:
False narratives about policing often lead to bad outcomes. The Washington Post’s database, for example, shows that 140 unarmed black people were shot dead by law enforcement between 2015 and 2021. That’s an average of 20 per year. Every life is precious, but we have to be honest about the size of the problem. A separate report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that the lifetime odds of a black male being killed by law enforcement are about 1 in 1,000. The lifetime odds of a black female being killed by law enforcement are less than 1 in 20,000. To put these numbers in context, the National Safety Council says the lifetime odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash are 1 in 101. To be fair, the lifetime odds of a white male being killed by law enforcement are about half of those for black males. .
We need to be willing to reverse course when policing and criminal justice reforms yield bad outcomes. A recent Siena College poll shows that 67% of New Yorkers support efforts by the governor and state legislature to amend the 2019 law that did away with cash bail. This long Chicago Sun-Times article raises legitimate questions about how we should handle teens with a history of violent offenses.
We need to start paying attention to victims. Activists have ignored them for way too long. The lives of murdered children like Sincere Gaston from Chicago matter, too.
Violence saps the life out of a community. The pain and suffering felt by victims, their families, and others who care about them are real. There are economic consequences as well. Here’s an excerpt from the same Peace for D.C. post I referenced above:
Each additional homicide in a census tract was significantly associated with two fewer retail and service businesses the next year. For census tracts with available gunshot detection technology data, every 10 fewer incidents of gunfire in a census tract were significantly related to one new business opening, the creation of 20 jobs in new businesses, $1.3 million more in sales at new businesses, and one fewer business closure.
This Washington Post article says fatal shootings costed Washington, D.C. $1 billion last year. Violence is also a critical issue when it comes to getting white collar workers to return to their offices. An article from Politico quotes researchers who say NYC workers who cut their time in the office in half will spend $6,730 less per year in the city. Those kinds of losses hurt all the shop owners and their employees who depend upon office workers for their livelihoods. Fewer workers in their offices also translates into fewer people using public transportation, which eventually yields service cuts, fare increases, higher government subsidies, or a combination. These things create economic death spirals for cities.
The people who visit this site are wise and smart, so I welcome your feedback. Maybe we can help improve the quality of what has been more than 10 years of a very disappointing debate and set of outcomes.
Hope you're all well!
Well written. This kind of data driven breakdown really works for me. I do have one critique. If you are interested in reaching someone who is skeptical, you should try to anticipate and acknowledge their feelings whenever you can. Not saying to pander, but where there is common ground, make sure they notice it.
"Things took a terrible turn for the worse after George Floyd died"
It may seem small, but "when George Floyd was killed" would go a long way.
"when George Floyd was murdered" would be consistent with the conviction and go even further.
Thanks Glen, for this thoughtful article. But it sorely misses some things. We’ve just had 10 people murdered because they are black by a self proclaimed white supremacist. We have now a Republican party (not the one I joined 30 years ago) that now boldly perpetuates racist tropes and has given a comfortable home to white supremacist and their grievances. And happily divides us. Republics-white- is good. Democrat- blk- is bad/dangerous to country. Our own FBI has for a number of years now warned of the growing numbers of avowed white supremacist within police forces across the country. Do you not think that these need addressing in the most strenuous and swift manner? Our politicians on the right along with their mouth pieces at Fox News should seriously be held accountable. They are fomenting hate. It seems You’re letting them off the hook here. Platforms online are radicalizing young white men, turning them into hate-filled murdering terrorists. Those platforms need to be held accountable. We’d do so if there were Muslims being radicalized, right? The willingness to harm or kill blk bodies didn’t begin with Travvon but many many years before that.. we all know this. There’s a deeper, nasty history there and it’s not been handled well. We’ve a very serious problem here. I find it quite interesting to talk about the “low” number of unarmed blk men shot and killed by officers. Both Dylan Roof and the heavily armed Payton Gendron after slaughtering numerous innocents were taken into custody.