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Has (Some of) White America Discovered its Conscience?

June 4, 2020


On the optimist/pessimist continuum, I tend to lean slightly toward the latter, but watching the ethnically diverse crowds protesting racist police violence in cities across the country has lifted my spirits a bit. I think it is significant that so many white Americans have turned out to march day after day. I’m trying to understand what that means and why this tragedy has produced this result when so many others in the past did not. What’s happening here and how deep does it go?

Obviously, not all of white America has been similarly moved by the murder of George Floyd, but the marching crowds we’ve been watching on our TV screens often have been predominately white. I think this is something we haven’t seen before in protests of other, arguably equally egregious, killings.

First, there is the unavoidable evidence of the video. There have been videos of other inexcusable killings of black people, but never before have we been compelled to actually watch the face of the killers as they took a man’s life. I think it’s the casual indifference on Derek Chauvin’s face as he looks boldly into the camera while he slowly asphyxiates another human being that so profoundly horrified people who saw it. He clearly was unconcerned about any consequences. This time there was no possibility of throwing up mitigating circumstances or justifications. You just had to confront what was there before your eyes.

I think it’s safe to say that most white people do not want to be associated with that, and many are looking for a way to state publicly that they don’t condone such actions. There is increased awareness that policing in this country is not equally applied, and most white Americans find that offensive, at least in principle, because it clashes with their idealization of what America is supposed to represent. As case after case has made local and national news, often through the fortuitous existence of cell phone videos, white Americans have begun to realize just how commonplace police abuse of black Americans really is. Before video, you could plead ignorance because you never personally witnessed it and probably had few, if any, black friends would would tell you about it, but now you really can’t avoid it anymore.

I also believe that the dawning acceptance that White Privilege really exists has started to influence how many white Americans, especially younger ones, see the world. Most white people don’t want to think of themselves as racist, but there has always been a large amount of self-delusion about what racism really meant and how it operated in ordinary life. I think, perhaps, there is beginning to be a greater realization, at least among some white people, of how thoroughly racist assumptions and actions permeate American society.

It’s my belief that virtually every white American carries a buried reservoir of collective guilt for the crimes committed against black Americans throughout our history up to the present day. We process this guilt in many different ways–sometimes constructive, sometimes not, and sometimes grotesquely twisted. For those who do acknowledge that guilt, at least internally, turning out for these demonstrations may feel like an act of penance and a way of saying: “See, I’m not like that, I’m one of the good ones.”

Let’s just stipulate that the presence of thousands of well-meaning white people in these demonstrations is a Good Thing and represents a little progress towards reducing the willful blindness of white America regarding what Michelle Alexander has called “the New Jim Crow”. If there is greater white support, maybe some police reforms will come out of this. Maybe there will be less gross disparity in arrests and sentencing when whites and blacks commit the same crimes. When you think of it, those are really pretty modest goals. These protests could be the start of ending racially abusive policing and mass incarceration, but that will require sustained attention and political pressure against entrenched resistance.

When the memorial services are over, and the protests subside, and everyone goes back home to their own neighborhood, the challenge for white Americans of good will is to examine their own assumptions and attitudes and actions to see how they may contribute to the persistence of racial inequality in our country.

When a black family moves into your block, do you worry that it will affect property values? If you send your child to private school, is it really about academics and safety or something else? If you like the idea of diversity in your child’s public school, is there a point where it becomes “too diverse”? Do you feel awkward or uncomfortable in a conversation with a black person? Do you have any black friends that you actually socialize with outside of office lunches with co-workers? If you walk into a bar or restaurant and most of the clientele is black, does it make you feel anxious and a little foreign? If an unknown black person knocks on your door, what is your first thought?

The point here is that the policing we now have is a cruder reflection of the fears and prejudices of white America, which has generally been obliviously comfortable with it because it makes us feel safe, even if once in a while we are appalled when forced to look at a specific result. It’s not just rednecks and MAGAts, but nice liberals in nice neighborhoods who have tacitly authorized the system that we have.



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