the national interest

Why Should Black Protesters Trust a System That Underrepresents Them?

Photo: Michelle Boorstein/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Throughout the Derek Chauvin trial, the conservative mind has remained fixated on the threat of violent protest rather than the underlying injustices that create those protests. Right-wingers warned that the mere prospect of rioting deprived Chauvin of a fair trial. Republican legislatures are enacting a national crackdown on even the most ancillary participation in violent protest, including attacks on property.

The extreme version of this worldview, which is hardly marginal among the Republican Party, is easy to mock and dismiss: Many Republicans still refuse to acknowledge widespread abusive behavior by police and the poisonous fear this engenders among Black people in particular.

But the moderate version of this worldview is also worth engaging with. That view holds that, while there may be some problems with police, the important thing is that reform is carried out through peaceful means. Mitt Romney is a serious conservative who marched in a Black Lives Matter protest last year and has demonstrated sincere interest in police reform.

“I am very appreciative of the institutions in our country that provide for stability and predictability,” said Romney the other day. “The judicial system worked,” he noted after the verdict, “but a man is dead. So that’s a very high price to pay. And avoiding more circumstances like this, more events like this, is still a huge priority.” He proposed, in particular, working off the reform bill sponsored last year by Senator Tim Scott.

Here is the Romney synthesis: Trust the system, work within it, push for reforms through elected channels.

It’s a position with which I have a great deal of sympathy. Violent protest tends to politically backfire, not to mention the fact that chaotic, lawless conditions tend to be especially harmful to low-income people. I happen to believe nobody deserves to be accosted or have their livelihood destroyed because third parties behaved abusively. In the long run, humane policing will require fundamental reforms through democratic means.

What this argument fails to grapple with, however, is just how undemocratic the “democratic” channels for reform actually are.

Passing police reform through the Senate already puts Black Americans at a staggering disadvantage. The Senate gives far greater representation to people who live in small states than large ones, and since small states tend to be heavily white, this effectively gives white people far more power in the chamber than their share of the voting population.

Advancing a bill through a one-state, one-vote chamber is not a level playing field. It is a system that dilutes Black voting power and gives white people a disproportionate say in the outcome.

Atop this formidable barrier is a second obstacle: the legislative filibuster. And while fiscal bills or appointments to the courts or executive branch can pass with a majority, non-fiscal legislation like police reform requires a 60-vote supermajority. This raises the threshold for reform even higher, forcing police-reform advocates to reach very deep into conservative white America to gain the necessary support to pass a law.

But Romney, notably, opposes doing anything about either problem. He has fiercely defended the legislative supermajority requirement. And just yesterday, he opposed granting statehood to residents of the District of Columbia. D.C. statehood would not erase the Senate’s heavy pro-white bias; it would just ameliorate it slightly. But even such a modest nudge in the direction of less inequality is too much for the most reasonable Republican in Congress.

The problem with Romney’s insistence on working within the system is not that he fails to take systemic racism seriously — it’s that he fails to take the unfairness of the system itself seriously. He is instructing Black Americans to put their faith in an electoral process that inherently devalues them and refuses to permit even modest measures to redress its imbalance. If Romney wants Black people to value the system, he should care about making the system less undemocratic.

Why Should Black Protesters Trust an Undemocratic System?