The Slatest

Are Conservatives Coming to Terms With Racism in American Policing?

Newt Gingrich delivers remarks to students at Georgetown University in 2012.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

It’s almost too banal to call it a prediction: The assassination of five law enforcement officers in Dallas on Thursday night is sure to further polarize the national debate over race and policing, and provide new fodder for those who reflexively oppose any suggestion that American police officers unfairly target black people.

Evidence of this has already come in, with former Rep. Joe Walsh tweeting threats at “Black Lives Matter punks” and the New York Post splashing the words “CIVIL WAR” on its front page. And yet, two pieces of writing published on conservative news sites on Friday morning, as well as an extraordinary Facebook Live chat with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, suggest that the combination of Thursday night’s carnage and the police killings of two black men earlier in the week might be changing some minds on the right.

The comments made by Gingrich are arguably the most newsworthy:

It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years to get a sense of this. If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.

The Black Lives Matter movement, Gingrich said, should be seen as a “corrective” that “initially people reject because it’s not in their world.”

The former House speaker’s remarks lit up social media, with many expressing disbelief that Newt Gingrich—the Personal Responsibility Act guy? The one angling for the VP slot on Donald Trump’s ticket?—would express such sentiments.

But Gingrich wasn’t the only conservative who was moved on Friday to break the rules of conservative discourse. Over at the Daily Caller, writer Matt K. Lewis wrote a post that opened with an unequivocal assertion: “[P]olice brutality toward African-Americans is a pervasive problem that has been going on for generations.” In the post, headlined “A confession,” Lewis grappled with the fact that, as a white person, he was raised to “reflexively believe the police” and “give them the benefit of the doubt,” while many black Americans have reasonably come to the conclusion that they and their children are “living under an occupying army.”

Lewis’ post ended with an expression of hope that videos of police encounters like the two that surfaced this week would cause “naive, white Americans” to start seeing the issue of police violence against blacks with less cloudy eyes.

One such white American has turned out to be Leon H. Wolf, managing editor of the website RedState. Friday morning, Wolf published what might be the most striking of all the conservative commentary we’ve seen on Dallas. In a post titled “The Uncomfortable Reason Why It Came to This In Dallas Yesterday,” Wolf argued that it was time to acknowledge not only the “lingering mistrust between police and minority communities,” but the fact that this mistrust is based on something real: namely, that “police often interact with minority communities in different ways than they do with the white community.”

“Look, I don’t know,” Wolf writes. “I don’t want to rush to judgment on either the Baton Rouge shooting or the Falcon Heights shooting, but based upon what we have seen, they look bad. Very bad.”

Wolf goes on to violate some basic orthodoxies of conservative commentary on law enforcement, criticizing commenters on his own website “who look for even the smallest hook on which to hang an excuse for the cops” whenever he posts a story about police violence, and questioning their “blind, uncritical belief that the police never (or only in freak circumstances) do anything wrong.”

It is surprising and intriguing to see such rhetoric from the right, especially on the day after the murder of five police officers. It’s enough to make you think even the most sturdy-seeming ideologies can be dislodged in times of crisis—and that, as horrendously sad as this week has been, it may end up being some sort of turning point.

See more of Slate’s coverage of the Dallas shooting.