ABC The Drum Online

The killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police in the United States have provoked angry protests — and a white backlash both in the US and now here in Australia.

On Wednesday, a New York grand jury failed to indict a police officer who killed a black man, Eric Garner, by applying a chokehold during an arrest. The chokehold, which is banned by the New York Police Department, was captured on video. An autopsy confirmed it was the cause of Garner's death. It didn't matter. It was the second time in two weeks that a grand jury excused a white police officer for killing a black suspect in a tobacco-related offence.

Eric Garner was suspected of illegally selling loose cigarettes in New York. Michael Brown had stolen a box of cigars in Ferguson. Both are dead, and the police who killed them will never face a courtroom to explain why.

The protests now spreading through New York are about the same thing as the protests last week in Ferguson. They are about the same thing as nationwide protests last year following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. The state values black lives less than white lives. Blacks do not receive the same protection from the law as whites.

As Princeton political scientist LaFleur Stephens puts it, "What does it do to the psyche of a people when those who are meant to protect and serve them can kill them with impunity?"

Michael Brown was the fourth unarmed black man to die at the hands of police in a single month. Last week, police shot dead an African-American 12 year-old in Cleveland when they arrived at a park to find him brandishing a toy gun.

It is true that black men commit criminal offences at a much higher rate than other Americans. But the assumption that all black men are violent criminals causes police and vigilantes to kill them in alarming numbers for trivial reasons. It is not surprising that African-Americans feel anger and dismay when those killings go unpunished.

According to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, this is not the problem. When asked last week about the problem of white-dominated police forces in majority-black cities, he deflected the question by complaining that "I find it very disappointing that [we are] not discussing the fact that 93 per cent of blacks in America are killed by other blacks … I would like to see the attention paid to that that you are paying to this."

Giuliani knows better than anyone how to ride a white backlash. For him and others like him, the issue comes down to tribal accounting. They believe blacks are outraged because a white man killed a black man, and that they have no right to this outrage. In backlash thinking, blacks kill each other in such hopelessly high numbers that police killings should not warrant protests. A common refrain of the white backlash is: "Where are the protests when a black man kills a white man?"

African-Americans protest police killings because they want equal protection of their lives under the law. For the white backlash, it is really about who is ahead in a game of racial tit-for-tat.

In The Australian on Wednesday Janet Albrechtsen repeated Giuliani's claims, suggesting black activists are trying to avoid "uncomfortable facts" about everyday violence in black communities. You can only believe that if you ignore everything African-Americans have ever said, written or done about violence. Cities like New York and Chicago regularly see "Stop the Violence" protests in response to killings in black communities. Barack Obama has regularly scolded African-Americans for failing to create strong communities. Black artists, musicians and filmmakers win their largest and most appreciative audiences when they depict "black-on-black" violence.

None of this matters to the white backlash. In the backlash mind, the real racists are people who say that racism still exists. As president, Barack Obama has only rarely and tepidly approached the issue of race, knowing its potential as a backlash issue. This did not stop celebrity conservative Ben Stein from calling him "the most racist president there has ever been in America" last month.

The saddest lesson of the Obama presidency is that the backlash always wins.

This article was originally published at ABC The Drum Online