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Racial inequality has been a central part of the American story since European settlement. From the founding, through debates over the admission of slave or free states to the Union and the Civil War, through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the Great Migration, desegregation, the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s and the consequent reorientation of US politics - time and time again the United States is torn by its great, unfinished business: that America’s guarantees of liberty and justice for all be delivered without regard to race or ethnicity.

400 black Americans have been killed by police each year, every year for the last five years. Study after study reveals striking and persistent racial disparities in all forms of contact between Americans and the criminal justice system, ranging from the administration of stop and frisk policies, to arrests, convictions and sentencing. Non-whites account for 52 per cent of the more than 16,000 police-caused deaths in the United States since 2009. About 150 US law enforcement officers die in the line of duty each year.

COVID-19 and its economic devastation is also following contours of racial inequality in America. Black Americans are suffering a virus mortality rate that is 2.4 times higher than white Americans. Less than half of black American adults now hold a job.

This was the powder keg ignited by George Floyd’s death, captured on smartphones, with long summer evenings and mass unemployment helping deliver thousands to the streets in protest. Police shootings in Louisville and heavy-handed responses in New York stoked the outrage. After dark, peaceful protests have given way to property damage and vandalism. Historic St John’s Church in Lafayette Square — in front of the White House — was set on fire on Sunday night.

Monday in the United States saw Trump take a number of dramatic steps: urging state governors to use the National Guard to “dominate” their cities, threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 so as to deploy US armed forces on the American homeland, and — most spectacularly — using a mixture of military police, Federal and local law enforcement agencies to clear Lafayette Square of largely peaceful protesters before posing on the steps of St John’s.

Australian journalists in Lafayette Square for the Sunrise program — Australia’s most-watched breakfast television program — were punched and clubbed by police, with the footage replayed all over the world. Both Australian Ambassador Sinodinos in Washington and US Ambassador Culvahouse in Canberra have responded, the event prompting surprising, concerning and appalling many Americans and Australians.

All of this takes place set against the context of the upcoming election. Trump declared himself a “law and order” president on Monday, signalling his embrace of a political narrative that puts distance between his failures as a “ war-time” president in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.   

Echoes of Nixon’s 1968 campaign abound, and not just in Trump’s use of Nixon’s “law and order” slogan. American was beset by multiple crises that year. MLK was assassinated in April of that election year and protests erupted in over a hundred US cities. Robert Kennedy was assassinated on 6 June, the Vietnam War was raging and yet the Apollo program showcased American technological and engineering prowess. That race so powerfully under-girds US politics 52 years later underscores the value of the Centre’s mission, to educate Australians about the United States, drawing out the implications for Australia and Australia’s national interests.

Professor Simon Jackman
CEO, United States Studies Centre