Hannah Fizer was driving to work at a convenience store in Sedalia, Missouri, late on a Saturday night in June when a police officer pulled her over for running a red light. According to police reports, Fizer was “non-compliant” and threatened to shoot the officer, so the officer shot and killed her. In fact, Fizer did not have a gun and, now that she is dead, cannot tell her side of the story. Her friends and family want answers, and they want justice. “She was a beautiful person,” a coworker recalled.
Amid widespread protests against police killings of black people, it seems a familiar story: an unarmed person smart-mouths a police officer and dies for it. But Hannah Fizer was white. That should not surprise anyone. According to a database of police shootings in the United States since 2015, half of those shot dead by police—and four of every ten who were unarmed—have been white. People in poor neighborhoods are a lot more likely to be killed by police than people in rich neighborhoods. Living for the most part in poor or working-class neighborhoods as well as subject to a racist double-standard, black people suffer disproportionately from police violence. But white skin does not provide immunity.
Nor does white skin provide immunity against police clad in riot gear and armed with military-grade weapons violating freedom of speech, assembly, and worship. Just ask Martin Gugino, the seventy-five-year-old man who spent a month in the hospital with a fractured skull after he was knocked down by police in Buffalo, and received death threats as a reward. Or ask white clergy and others beset by tear gas and military helicopters to clear space for a photo-op for President Trump during the “Battle of Lafayette Square” in early June. Militarized attacks on unarmed, peaceful protesters have taught thousands of previously uninvolved Americans that they, too, have a stake in curbing the excessive use of force by the police.
As historians, we instinctively look to the past for hints about the present. The tumultuous decades before the Civil War carry resonant echoes today. In that moment of profound political upheaval, a new political party forged a potent antislavery coalition. How did they do it? How did the antislavery Republican Party win power in a racist country?
The answer is that overreaching by the slaveholders taught many white Americans—at least in the North—that the agenda of the slaveholders threatened their own rights. The Gag Rule 0f 1836–1844 prevented members of the House of Representatives from considering antislavery petitions from their own constituents. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, federal marshals could require Northern citizens to assist in recapturing fugitive slaves. The Kansas–Nebraska Act set off a bloody contest over the introduction of slavery into territory where it had previously been banned. The Dred Scott decision called in question the ability of white citizens to exclude slavery anywhere in the country. These milestones of antebellum politics convinced many white Northerners that their own rights would be trampled and their livelihoods cramped—and that they, too, could be made into slaves—if the “slave power” were left unchecked. Even white Northerners who mistrusted abolitionists and disdained black people were attracted to the new antislavery party.
The rise of the Republican Party posed a dilemma for radical abolitionists who believed in equality. The party, some of whose adherents opposed slavery out of hatred for black people, fell short of their ideals. Should abolitionists hold their noses and support it, hoping to push the party in a more egalitarian direction? Frederick Douglass, the fiery orator who in 1852 asked “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” struggled with the question. He endorsed the Republican presidential nominee John C. Frémont in 1856 but not Abraham Lincoln in 1860. At the same time, he fought against Jim Crow in New York state, where black men had to pay a discriminatory tax in order to vote. In the end, the victory of the Republican Party broke the grip of the Slave Power.
The election of 2020 is not the election of 1860, but the rise of the Republican Party during the 1850s holds lessons for today. The main lesson is that a successful national political movement must appeal to the self-interest of white Americans. The growing number of nonwhite voters may appear to have reduced the need to appeal to white voters, but white voters remain two-thirds of the electorate. The Republicans can still win a national election without a critical mass of nonwhite voters, but the opposition cannot unseat them without a critical mass of white voters.
Therefore, those seeking genuine democracy must fight like hell to convince white Americans that what is good for black people is also good for them. Reining in murderous police, investing in schools rather than prisons, providing universal healthcare (including drug treatment and rehabilitation for addicts in the rural heartland), raising taxes on the rich, and ending foolish wars are policies that would benefit a solid majority of the American people. Such an agenda could be the basis for a successful political coalition rooted in the real conditions of American life, which were disastrous before the pandemic and are now catastrophic.
Attacking “white privilege” will never build such a coalition. In the first place, those who hope for democracy should never accept the term “privilege” to mean “not subject to a racist double standard.” That is not a privilege. It is a right that belongs to every human being. Moreover, white working people—Hannah Fizer, for example—are not privileged. In fact, they are struggling and suffering in the maw of a callous trickle-up society whose obscene levels of inequality the pandemic is likely to increase. The recent decline in life expectancy among white Americans, which the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton attribute to “deaths of despair,” is a case in point. The rhetoric of white privilege mocks the problem, while alienating people who might be persuaded.
Through its astonishing incompetence and its outrageous deployment of militarized force against peaceful protesters, the Trump GOP has provided an opening for a new and truly democratic politics to flourish. But there is no guarantee that it will, no matter how many statues come down. Building solidarity on the basis of common threats to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness posed by vicious inequality, overreaching capital, and police-state power is the only way to achieve a society in which everyone can thrive.
Adam Rothman is the author of Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery. He teaches history at Georgetown University.
Barbara J. Fields, with her sister Karen E. Fields, is co-author of Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. She teaches history at Columbia University.