t their core, the historical responses of black Americans to abuses of power by law enforcement are really a question about a foundational American principle: If we are a nation in which government derives its power from the consent of the governed, then the ability to keep that power in check rests with the people. But if a people, because of little more than their race, have been excluded from the right to hold the state accountable for its actions or inaction, then the foundation of our liberal democracy is faulty.
The current protests are not simply about race relations. They are not about whether white and black people get along better or like each other more. They are, rather, affirmations of the need for a reckoning, for an answer to the question of why race remains a distinctly divisive issue capable of exposing the gap between the nation’s ideals and its actions.
The present round of civil unrest is different — it’s more intense, widespread, sustained, and focused than previous responses to police and vigilante violence against unarmed black people. Protests have occurred in every state in the country, and the participants are Americans of every race, ethnicity, sex, age and religion. If there’s been an epiphany, it’s the same for 21st-century Americans as it’s been for those in previous centuries: Unjust and unwarranted state encroachments of individual liberty and abridgments of constitutional rights are unacceptable.
If this principle undergirding the protests is as old as the nation, then the new wrinkle is evident in how many more Americans of all kinds are explicitly insisting that the liberty of their fellow black citizens is as sacred as their own. This is no small matter. Given our nation’s origin, getting to this point is a testament to exceptionalism. But the pats on the back end there; the thing is not resolved.