No sooner had the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns started to ease, and economies come back to life, when the second crisis of 2020 struck: an explosion of protests and disorder, including looting and property destruction, across America, sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, by Minneapolis police during a botched arrest. The mayhem in many cities inflicted serious damage—both physical, in torched buildings and shattered storefronts, and social, with demoralized police backing off enforcement in minority neighborhoods, as shootings and murders spiked. Cities already reeling economically face an enormous challenge.
In “The Nemeses of Cities,” economist Edward L. Glaeser, whose work has celebrated the creative dynamism and opportunity of urban life, warns that contagion and disorder are perennial threats to such flourishing, as are local arrangements that entrench insiders at the expense of striving outsiders. What cities need to succeed, Glaeser argues, are “capable, pragmatic leaders who dedicate themselves to preventing pandemics, promoting opportunity, and ensuring that policing is both effective and humane”—people like nineteenth-century philanthropists Peter Cooper and Stephen Smith, whose visionary efforts in education and public health helped make New York a great metropolis.
Social theorist Martin Gurri’s “Everything Magnified” explains why the riots and protests proved so intense. The first reason: the ubiquity of media, which allow visceral images, like Floyd’s death under a cop’s knee, to spread virally, sweeping millions of people into collective passions. A second reason, Gurri maintains, is our fractured politics, with citizens forming themselves into competing “war-bands,” utterly opposed to the existing order and ready to burn it down. Finally, we’ve witnessed a collapse in the self-confidence of ruling elites. These overlapping trends risk destabilizing democratic government, and we need to find ways to counter them.
For Heather Mac Donald, the biggest failure of elites has occurred in the academy, where the response to Floyd’s death and the subsequent urban violence has been to double down on the pernicious notion—itself born in the university—that America is a bastion of white supremacy. Her “Conformity to a Lie” warns that propagating this idea will further erode American institutions.
Rafael A. Mangual’s “New York’s Department of Overcorrection” shows how the distorted narrative that African-Americans are victimized by out-of-control racist police forces was influencing law-enforcement policy even before this year’s events, jeopardizing the gains in safety that brought New York and other cities renewed vitality over the last few decades. While certain changes might make sense, reform for its own sake is a mistake, Mangual argues—all the more so when it flies in the face of the evidence.
Just as crucial to the city’s future will be rescuing public transportation, explains Nicole Gelinas. With ridership shrunken because of fear of infection, the transit system faces a profound short-term and long-term budgetary crisis. “How to Save Gotham Transit” shows what officials need to do to turn things around.
“Does Covid-19 Discriminate?” So asks Kay S. Hymowitz in an illuminating essay on the virus’s impact. Covid-19 unquestionably has hit different demographic groups disproportionately, exposing stark inequalities. But as Hymowitz shows, this reality holds true across societies, including those with the most generous welfare states. When occupational patterns and preexisting health conditions differ according to ethnicity and race, certain groups inevitably find themselves at greater risk during a pandemic.
Questions of race, culture, economy, justice—Thomas Sowell has explored them as deeply as anyone, observes new City Journal contributing editor Coleman Hughes in “The Nonconformist,” his survey of the economist’s brilliant career. Whether defending market prices against central planners or studying the intersections of culture and wealth, Sowell has provided a model of rational thinking and limpid prose. Sowell’s rise from humble beginnings to the heights of intellectual achievement is a story that runs sharply counter to the idea that America’s overriding truth is victimization.
—Brian C. Anderson