Democracy in Danger

Saving the rule of the people — one episode at a time.

S6 E8. Black and Blue

The cops rarely answer to the people they police. Until they do, racism in law enforcement will persist.

Protestors confront a line of police in riot gear in front of the Kenosha, Wis., courthouse the day after the shooting of 24-year-old Jacob S. Blake, on August 4, 2020. Police officers shot Blake, who was carrying a knife, seven times — four times in the back. He survived. The officers were cleared of wrongdoing. Those events set off the clashes that led to the deaths of two demonstrators at the hands of a 17-year-old vigilante armed with an assault rifle — Kyle Rittenhouse, who was later acquitted of murder charges. This time on the show, our guest reflects on America’s culture of violence and police brutality, especially against black people.

Photograph by Alexandra Campion via

Law enforcement is among the most undemocratic institutions in America, says New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie. And the effect this has on communities of color is especially stark. Bouie visits Will and Siva’s class for another live recording with their students, to discuss police brutality, the country’s culture of violence, and the shifting ground of racial oppression in U.S. history. How citizens experience government, Bouie says, depends a lot on what they look like and what levers of power they hold.

Thousands march in New York on August 14, 2014, to demand justice for Michael Brown and Eric Garner, both black men killed by police.

Photograph by A. Katz via

After graduating from UVa in 2009, Bouie took odd jobs in Charlottesville before landing a writing fellowship at The American Prospect. In the intervening years his commentary has grown into a body of publicly engaged political philosophy, arguments with a purpose. Witnessing an endless stream of violence against unarmed black people — the killing of Trayvon Martin, of Michael Brown, of worshippers in Charleston, S.C. — animated this project early on. Increasingly, Bouie’s work seeks to historicize systemic inequality and suggest a way forward.

Lately he has been thinking and writing a lot about right-wing extremism, police brutality and vigilantism. The structures of government itself shape these trends, and shape them differently for different citizens, Bouie argues. More than antibias training and body cams, he suggests, police need citizen input and citizen control. Americans take for granted that their military responds to a civilian commander-in-chief, but exert precious little influence over the cops who patrol their own neighborhoods.

All that, plus: Bouie has something to say on this episode about the American workplace. Hint: it’s not very democratic either.

About our guest

Jamelle Bouie is an essayist for The New York Times and a political analyst for CBS News. He writes on politics, race and the state of American democracy. In 2021, he received the Hillman Prize for his commentary. The Root recognized Bouie at age 25 as one of the 100 most influential African Americans, listing LeBron James in the same year. Bouie also made Forbes’s 30 under 30, in 2015, for his reporting on the protests in Ferguson, Mo. Earlier, he served as chief political correspondent for Slate and a staff writer at The Daily Beast. Bouie lives in Charlottesville, Va. Follow him on Twitter @jbouie and see his photography on Instagram, also @jbouie.

This episode was released on May 17, 2023.

What we’re reading

By our guest

A big reason we invited Bouie this season was to dig deeper on a pair of columns he wrote back in February, after the beating death of Tyre Nichols. In one essay, Bouie writes that “the institution of American policing lies outside any meaningful democratic control.”

In the other, he draws on the work of political scientists Joe Soss and Vesla Weaver, pointing out that residents of affluent suburbs experience government in largely affirming ways. In poor and marginalized communities, the government is mostly cops and treats residents as targets.

Photograph from the Everett Collection via

The United States has one of the industrialized world’s worst lowest rates of union membership. The country’s racial ideology has weakened worker solidarity movements, with few exceptions. Here, black and white miners evicted from company homes are shown living together in tents, in Lick Creek, W.Va., on April 12, 1922.

Bouie gets into the nitty-gritty of cultural history in a follow-up reflection. He argues that racial hierarchies have survived across time because each generation renews the material forces behind them. In the early republic, slavery was the driving force for which racial ideologies served as a convenient excuse, Bouie writes. Under Jim Crow, labor exploitation did that work — and in many ways still does, along with the criminal justice system.

More recently, he took Republican leaders to task for referring to high-profile vigilantes like Daniel Penny, the subway rider who killed a homeless man in New York City earlier this month, as “Samaritans.” This rhetoric misreads a parable in which an ethnic outsider shows mercy to a traveler beaten by thieves and left to die.

The dynamics of policing and justice have concerned Bouie for a long time. During the heated summer of Black Lives Matter protests, in 2020, he urged readers to understand indiscriminate police violence against peaceful demonstrators as the real rioting.

For more on the long legacy of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, read Bouie’s take on the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and its relevance today.

The tradition of black political thought, which includes Du Bois, has become more and more prominent in Bouie’s own writing. In a review of the volume African American Political Thought, he highlights thinkers in this tradition ranging from Phillis Wheatley to Bayard Rustin. Taken together, Bouie says, this literature shows that democracy, much more than a set of institutions and laws, is a way of life — a culture that calls on citizens to trust and support each other.

By contrast, the vision for the country that currently dominates among right-wing pundits is one of “fear and alienation,” Bouie writes, in which the United States becomes a giant “airport security line.” In other words, a police state.

Watch Bouie’s address at the New York Public Library in June 2022, on what American democracy lacks most amid all the disinformation, moral panic around “cancel culture” and the political rise of Donald Trump: political equality.

From around the web

The five Memphis officers charged in Nichols’s death are black. They have pleaded not guilty. A sixth officer involved in the traffic stop, Preston Hemphill, who is white, will not face criminal charges — although he has been fired.

Photograph via Wikimedia Commons

This mural on South Main Street in Memphis is a reminder that the city has long played a role in the struggle for civil rights, racial justice and fair labor practices. Designed by rap artist Marcellous Lovelace, it depicts the sanitation workers protest of March 28, 1968. Lovelace drew inspiration for the work from a photograph by Richard L. Copley.

Despite calls for accountability in cities across the country, and lower crime rates historically, funding for police departments continues to rise. In Memphis, law enforcement accounts for 40 percent of the entire city budget, and city leaders want to spend even more next year.

The Intercept takes a hard look at the $28 million spent on the Scorpion unit in Memphis. The unit was summarily disbanded after its officers brutally beat and killed Nichols.

For a sustained critique of America’s crime-fighting obsession, turn to Amy Lerman and Vesla Weaver’s Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control.

The 10-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death occasioned a number of powerful retrospectives on the national discourse about race and violence. Robert Baldwin reflects for NPR on what that tragedy revealed about the fragility of American democracy. In the Washington Post, Hannah Knowles and Emmanuel Felton document the spread of “stand your ground” laws. And for WBUR in Boston, Tonya Mosley and Samantha Raphelson tell stories of the resilience of black mothers who lost their sons — including Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton.


A transcript of this episode will be available soon.

Heard on the show

Our theme music is the title track off the 2010 album Neogrotesque, by the Montreal band Tortue Super Sonic.

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