As the coronavirus pandemic loosens its grip on America’s cities, America’s president is losing his grip on reality. As Monday dragged on for seemingly a year’s worth of instability and extra-legality emanating from Donald Trump and his allies, culminating in his bizarre march from the White House to the Episcopal Church across the street, with soldiers tear-gassing and rubber-bulleting him a path so that he could pose for pictures, two things became obvious.
The presidency is vacant; and the way for Joe Biden to fill it is to get on a plane to Minneapolis, now.
Biden began to emerge from the basement where he’s done TV appearances for the past few months, showing up at gatherings near his home in Wilmington, Delaware. But Wilmington isn’t where the nation’s attention is riveted, or where the crisis is hottest now. Neither is Philadelphia, where he is now. That would be Minnesota, where the death of George Floyd set off civil disturbances that have supplanted even corona as America’s dinnertime conversation.
America’s needs now to dovetail with Biden’s strengths: a heart-on-his-sleeve empathy, and an instinctive drive towards fairness. As Franklin Roosevelt said, the presidency is pre-eminently an office of moral leadership. Of all that’s missing from Trump’s vacant head, morality (as three wives might attest) is high on the list.
So lead, Joe. Go to Minneapolis. Go at night. Be dramatic. Stand on the barricades if you have to, the way the late Rep Elijah Cummings did in his beloved Baltimore – six blocks from my old apartment – during the Freddie Gray riots in 2015. Help neighbours talk to each other – cops, community leaders and everyone else.
Bring your team, Joe. The single biggest thing Biden could do right right now is make a personnel choice that shows he’s serious about civil rights, and urban policy generally. If he’s going to name a black running mate or an attorney general with a real civil-rights pedigree – for example, Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative and the subject of 2019 movie Just Mercy – now would be the time.
Showing up with Stevenson and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (who would work as vice president or AG) would fix Hillary Clinton’s black turnout problem, lickety-split, and lock in the election. What Biden says is less important than the fact of his listening. And people know this: Personnel is destiny. Show them personnel that will attack fundamental injustice, and they will understand you’re serious – or if you’re not.
Trump himself proves that.
The president’s next trip is scheduled to be a schlep to a remote Maine factory that makes swabs for coronavirus tests – something Trump took two months to get around to expediting as he watched his own impeachment trial on TV. There, he’ll pose for pictures with oversized Q-Tips, while Biden, if he dares, begins the real work of healing wounds reopened by George Floyd’s murder.
Trump wants to ride the riots to the campaign trail, portraying cities as Ground Zero of the American Carnage he says he alone can solve. Pundits speculate that somehow this will resemble Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, where Nixon squeaked out a win on fears of urban decay.
As a child of the white flight generation, let me explain how race and cities looked to white-flight families, then and now. It’s kinda different.
Nixon’s strategy worked because cities actually were falling apart in 1968.They were hollowing out from early waves of de-industrialisation, plus housing and transportation policies (led by new interstate highways) that promoted suburban development. Schools were collapsing – my mother’s high school has a mean SAT score today of 859, 200 points below the national average. And crime was rising, sharply, in ways some politicians made efforts to conflate with race. We left Jersey City, NJ in 1962.
One legacy of that is Twitter today being full of Republicans selling the trope that Democratic mayors ruined the likes of Minneapolis, Atlanta and New York, leaving them ripe for rioting.
But Minneapolis has a AAA bond rating – higher than the federal government – and has cut its murder rate in half; metro Minneapolis had 2.6 per cent unemployment as recently as last fall. New York has its highest bond rating ever, with serious crime down 82 per cent since 1990. Same story in Atlanta: Population up a quarter, AA+ bond rating, and even the mean public-school SAT scores are a respectable 997.
Even America’s drug problem is primarily a rural-exurban thing now.
A generation after we left Jersey City, my sister opened a pub in Pittsburgh – at the time, said to be among the first significant new businesses in the desolate Strip District in decades. Now the Strip’s one of the best neighbourhoods in town: Barack Obama used to hit Pamela’s Diner, a block from Mullaney’s Harp and Fiddle, for their signature crepe-pancakes.
My family came full circle with cities, and so has America.
So, Joe, go to Minneapolis. Remind Americans that cities are us. And that they work, better than the resentment, incompetence and – sadly and finally – would-be dictatorship in the White House.