Protests can be one of the most effective ways to produce change. America's Founders understood that. Indeed, the United States is a country today and not a British colony because our Founders protested the tyranny of George III. So committed were they to the importance of protest that they then enshrined the right to protest in the Constitution.
The civil rights movement also effectively used peaceful protest in the 1960s to challenge Jim Crow laws and deeply entrenched racism. Sweeping changes resulted, both in the laws but perhaps more importantly in people's hearts.
Similarly, this year's protests communicated wide-scale condemnation of the injustice of George Floyd's death. The protests also effectively launched a national conversation about the racism that remains. But whether those protests will bring about racial equality depends on three factors:
First, protests can be effective when they remain peaceful. Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of nonviolence and the accompanying peaceful protests elevated the civil rights agenda in the public consciousness. But when protesters used violence, it weakened their cause.
Moreover, the destruction harmed the Black populations the protests were ostensibly trying to help. As economists Robert Margo and William Collins found, “The riots were unambiguously negative. They reduced incomes of African American's employment, and they reduced housing values.” In 2020, the wide-scale violence is drowning out the conversation about racism and other social ills and hurting Black business and property owners and wage earners.
Second, protests are effective when the conversation is truthful and well reasoned. The Founders meticulously documented the “long train of Abuses and Usurpations” that justified independence from Britain. Today's protesters have weakened their cause by straying from the facts (claiming all white people are racist, all police abuse their power), and calling for unrealistic changes, such as abolishing the police.
Third, whether the street protests will bring about racial equality will depend on what the protesters are ultimately advocating. Some call for the overthrow of the American system and the introduction of Marxist socialism. That will certainly fail because socialism never brings about equality, except perhaps equality of poverty.
Socialism has always resulted in tyranny, corruption and stagnation. The U.S. constitutional order, on the other hand, has provided more people with opportunity, prosperity and the freedom to pursue their dreams than any other country in history.
Can we do better? Without a doubt. But history tells us that the best chance we have for success is to build on the foundation we currently have.
This piece originally appeared in CQ Researcher