New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg recently pointed out that 2020 started off like 1974 (an impeachment crisis), quickly became 1918 (a pandemic), turned into 1929 (an economic crash), and then became 1968 (massive urban unrest). Any country that endured so much in so short a time would lose its way. But over the last month, despite the increasing political polarization and strife, America has made some real moral progress on issues of racial justice. That is a far cry from many other countries, including India, my native land, where the pandemic has aborted the struggle to win basic rights and protections for persecuted minorities.
The turmoil in America after a cop’s brutal murder of George Floyd is giving authoritarian rulers around the world a serious bout of schadenfreude. China’s state media has gone into an overtly gloating mode. The Global Times‘ editor-in-chief wrote that he hoped U.S. politicos were enjoying what they were seeing “from their own windows,” given that Nancy Pelosi “once called the violent protests in Hong Kong ‘a beautiful sight to behold.'” During a phone call with Trump to discuss the pandemic, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the opportunity to express concern about the “ongoing civil disturbances in the U.S.” and wished Trump luck in bringing things under control, slyly suggesting that America’s travails with black agitation were no different from India’s with Muslim unrest.
And truth be told, judging by government tactics during the protests, there often isn’t much that separates the land of the free from other countries.
American law enforcement has responded to the protests over police brutality with…police brutality. It has deployed the same methods—tear gas, rubber bullets, batons—that China and India have deployed against protesters. And just like the leaders of those countries, Trump has suggested protesters are “thugs.” The Chinese media might be overstating matters by suggesting that its autocrats have responded to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters with more restraint. But Trump doesn’t exactly help by repeatedly tweeting “Law & Order” to signal the iron fist of the state. Or when he fantasizes openly about unleashing the most “vicious dogs and the most awesome weapons” against demonstrators.
And then there was his Bible photo-op, which primarily served to remind religious conservatives to stick with him through this period of unrest, just as he is sticking with them. This is exactly in line with Modi donning traditional Hindu saffron attire to rally his base, especially when he’s in political trouble.
But the moral compass of a country is not set by what the government does; it’s set by how the people respond to what the government does. And on that there is a world of difference between America and many other countries, especially India.
India’s Muslims are struggling not to upgrade themselves from their status as second-class citizens but just to remain citizens. Modi is an unabashed Hindu nationalist whose first act last August after his landslide re-election was to scrap the governing autonomy of majority-Muslim Kashmir, a northern state bordering Pakistan, and put it under federal control. It was a wildly popular move, even among the country’s secularly inclined Hindus, even though Modi put Kashmir’s duly elected leaders under house arrest, imposed a curfew, shut down schools, blacked out news, and suspended the internet. (Even during the pandemic, Kashmiris are being forced to travel several hours by train to neighboring states to access the internet and get basic information.)
That’s not all Modi did. He also obtained a favorable ruling from the Indian Supreme Court to build a Hindu temple on the site of a mosque that Hindu militants, himself included, razed with their bare hands some decades ago. And then he launched a diabolical scheme to scrap the citizenship of millions of Indian Muslims and ultimately send them to detention camps.
When this triggered protests by India’s Muslims and their progressive backers, especially on college campuses, the Modi government responded with brutal violence. The police stormed Muslim colleges and bashed unarmed students, and they allowed private militants associated with Modi’s party do the same on a prestigious New Delhi campus.
Hindus have long stereotyped Muslim men as inherently dangerous and excused all kinds of harsh tactics to “domesticate” them. So in the wake of the growing state violence, Muslim women took it upon themselves to use Gandhian tactics of civil resistance to spearhead a movement for Muslim rights. They cobbled together a site in southeast Delhi for a 24/7 vigil, drawing tens of thousands of protesters—many of them Muslims, but also others.
Far from taking their plight seriously, the broader Hindu community complained bitterly about the traffic disruptions, prompting some local Hindu politicians to call the protesters “traitors.” The result? Even more violence, resulting in a mini-pogrom in February.
Worse, whatever little goodwill the Muslim women enjoyed evaporated as soon as the pandemic hit. Many Indians openly pilloried them as scientifically backward Neanderthals jeopardizing public health for the sake of an overblown crusade—never mind that many of the protesters took social distancing precautions. Authorities used coronavirus as a pretext to unceremoniously evict them in late March, although the virus didn’t stop Modi from holding prayers ahead of breaking ground for the temple on the site of the razed mosque.
Contrast this with how Floyd’s murder galvanized the movement against police brutality in America. Spontaneous protests erupted in 2,000 cities and towns across the country. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the Republican contender for the presidency in 2012 and not exactly the activist type, joined the Black Lives Matter march in Washington, D.C.
Even when the protests turned rowdy and violent, the broader American public did not turn its back on their cause. In the two weeks immediately after Floyd’s death, there was a 20-point jump in support for Black Lives Matter. A Monmouth University poll found that a whopping 76 percent of Americans have come to regard racism and discrimination as a “big problem,” up 26 points from 2015. The poll also found that 57 percent of voters thought the anger behind the demonstrations was fully justified.
This is simply stunning, given that when Black Lives Matter was launched in 2013, it was widely regarded as an extremist, America-hating outfit. Now far more people are taking its concerns about systemic racism in policing seriously.
Even the political classes are taking their demands seriously. Confederate symbols are finally being purged everywhere—including such stubborn bastions as Mississippi. (Arguably, the danger now is that the pendulum might swing too much in the opposite direction.) There is growing local momentum for reforming violent policing practices with a dozen states working on laws to ban chokeholds and kneeling on suspects. There is a new openness to experiment with new forms of community policing (some of them rather daft) that don’t involve cops, to demilitarize the police, and to scale back police funding.
At the national level, even Trump has realized that simply harrumphing “Law & Order” won’t cut it anymore and has signed an executive order encouraging police reform. Police unions are no longer a political sacred cow, not even for Republicans. The GOP has floated a criminal justice reform bill in the Senate to counter the more sweeping reform bill proposed by the Democratic House. The House bill even takes aim at “qualified immunity,” the doctrine that has protected rogue cops from civil liability. This has been such a sacrosanct doctrine around the country that The Washington Post‘s veteran criminal justice writer, Radley Balko, recently observed that if someone had told him two months ago that qualified immunity would be on the political chopping board, he would have laughed.
America obviously has a long way to go to end police brutality and achieve anything approaching full racial justice. (And under Trump, it has taken a disturbingly draconian turn on immigration.) But there is a growing urgency to get there, even during a pandemic and political tumult, which shows just how deeply moral striving is woven into the American psyche. In India, the more the state brutalizes persecuted groups, the more the dominant majority turns on them. Americans, by contrast, never stop facing up to their country’s manifold injustices and sins.
That’s what makes America great—and will continue to make it better, regardless of the antics of its rulers.
A version of this column appeared in The Week.