Last spring an all-too familiar and frankly commonplace tragedy sparked a nearly unprecedented, worldwide movement in the protests for racial justice that followed the taped killing of George Floyd. The way people of every race and nationality came together in massive protests, along with the police violence that met them, was reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement. Yet even less than a year in, the current movement does not seem to have the sustained popular support of the Civil Rights revolution, and has flagged so far when it comes to real political gains. All of the widespread support from sympathetic white allies has actually seemed to distract us from tangible progress to the appearance of being “woke” by talking about racism without much action.
Unlike the 2014 protests that sparked the Black Lives Matter movements, the George Floyd protests saw widespread support across the country and among all races, along with major corporations and media companies. But we also saw the limits of that support. Sympathetic white liberals and moderates finally engaged in the difficult conversations about systemic racism and privilege. But those conversations, already taking a backseat to the latest political news and economic woes, never seemed to yield meaningful change or resolution. Whether it was white urbanites hesitating to examine their own contributions to gentrification and racial wealth gaps, corporations putting money toward racial justice initiatives while upholding discriminatory practices and cultures, or an emphasis on statues and symbols that overshadowed ongoing police violence, the “woke” class of Americans have accomplished little when it comes to a tangible anti-racist agenda.
There were some important steps taken towards a less racist culture in the heat of daily protests throughout the spring. The recognition of systemic racism and the history of state violence against movements for Black rights is a necessary, if long overdue, step towards dismantling institutions of racism. More privileged classes who never had to confront the history of racism first hand began reading up about the history of racism in the U.S. as if they were cramming for an exam. For many, it was likely the first time they read about the police assassinations of figures like Fred Hampton, or hearing about the doctrine of qualified immunity that exempts police officers from consequences for most crimes. Many of these conversations also focused Black activists, writers, and educators, and consequently led to “buying Black” trends. Those trends encourage film studios to seek out and fund Black creators, publishers elevating Black writers, and businesses diversifying leadership. These are good first steps in promoting economic and cultural equity.
However, beyond the required reading and a push for stronger representation in politics, changes to the status quo were largely symbolic. Companies like Netflix and Disney voiced their support for Black Lives Matter, made large cash donations, and took the brave stance of denouncing the Black face and racist jokes featured on their platforms. Under a wave of black squares on Instagram, the formerly covert racist iconography of Aunt Jemima and Land O’Lakes butter fell. Even the overt racism of major NFL teams were forced to give up their racist caricatures. The overwhelming support amongst middle-class consumers forced these concessions from companies and entertainment industries, changing the spectrum of acceptable norms, and loudly denouncing any appearance of racism.
Missing in those changes is an admission of the discriminatory policies, content, and culture these organizations have allowed or encouraged in the past. Without the recognition of their own contributions to systemic racism, these cultural changes have failed to offer any redress to victims of their own discrimination. While racist mascots have changed, there has been no reform within the entirely white ownership of NFL teams, which continues to reveal a toxic and racist culture at the head of a league of mostly Black players. The league has pledged millions of dollars to ambitious social justice initiatives cultivated by those players, and reluctantly allowed some quiet kneeling on the field. Yet Colin Kaepernick has continued to be lambasted and denied employment for his early, peaceful display of solidarity with Black lives. Despite the Commissioner’s statement of regret, the league has continued to fight to deny recompense for his years of unjust exile. Nor has there been any serious reconsideration about how military and police propaganda is baked into televised sports, through expensive air force flyovers and military marketing contracts. This shows the limitations of a cultural shift in which the major cultural forces, whether brands or executives, refuse to recognize their own history of complicity.
Cultural reforms don’t go much deeper, even when looking at more liberal industries like Hollywood. In a timely response to the five year old #OscarsSoWhite debacle, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts instituted rules to ensure more Black creators and crew behind the camera for nominated films. Those rules may help with presenting fewer white faces on film screens and on award night, but it does little to change the largely white and male producers, studio executives, and writers. Those are the positions that allow a culture where Black actors are told they are more disposable, or are limited to specifically Black roles or Black films. The entropy of Hollywood’s systemic racism shows in the persistent pay disparities between white male actors and women of color. Despite their statements of anti-racism and curation of a “Black Lives Matter Collection” Netflix still faces accusations of colorism in casting. Without really reckoning with their own contributions to systemic racism, these industries will never see changes to the status quo that prove too uncomfortable for entrenched industry leaders.
This shows how the mainstream support for Black Lives Matter was successful in changing the conversation, ignoring the demands and priorities of Black communities to focus on more convenient and benign commitments. For every major company like Bank of America that puts out anti-racist statements and throws millions of dollars into racial justice loans, there is a long and recent history of discrimination against Black and Latinx families for home loans, hiring, and predatory fees that has not been answered for. Those statements and donations also help distract from the personal politics of corporate executives CEOs that quietly donate to Super PACs to personally fund politicians who actively fight against police reform or voting rights.
Smaller, less publicized versions of these statements, commitments, and conversations played out in industries and offices across the country. Non-profit organizations directed funding to causes for racial justice, educators discussed how to have conversations with their students, and tech and internet companies vocalized support. These are not removed, corporate entities, but the offices that employ middle and upper-class voters, who have spent the year working from home and reading about racism. There is a direct link between the attitudes and commitment towards racial justice from the businesses and the workers who make up their ecosystem. The harder changes that require economic sacrifice and fundamental change have gone overlooked by corporations and individuals alike.
Polling clearly shows the “wokeness” of white liberals who recognize systemic racism as a problem in racial and economic disparities. Despite the “woke” support of police accountability reforms, funding cuts for police, and criminal justice reforms to address mass incarceration, they are more hesitant to support measures that would require some personal sacrifice. Many of these liberal-leaning white allies live in major urban hubs that may vote to pass progressive policies, but continue to gentrify at alarming rates. These same liberals who decry police brutality and have important conversations with their Black friends, are also contributing to economic policies that are forcing minority communities out of cities, further from economic opportunities.
When it comes to more progressive economic policies that would address the racial income and wealth gap, “wokeness” seems to take a backseat to personal economic interests. Despite steadily increasing economic opportunities for Black Americans, rising income inequality has also widened the racial wage gap. Today Black men still make an average of 22% less than white men with similar jobs and experience, and the gap stretches to 34% less for Black women. Still, the majority of white Democrats oppose some form of direct reparation payments to Black Americans, which a clear majority of Black voters have supported for years. They even fight against basic economic reforms that threaten higher income such as the progressive tax amendment that failed to pass in the solid blue state of Illinois, largely because of waning support among suburban white voters.
White progressives also show lagging support for more aggressive school integration measures that would change the racial makeup of the majority-white schools of their children, which see better funding and higher academic achievement. The achievement gap between white and Black students has been attributed to everything from economic inequality, largely segregated school districts, and disproportionate discipline and criminalization for students of color. All of these factors play a role in denying equal educational opportunities to communities of color, and could be addressed with greater integration and more equal distribution of educational resources. The same allies who have read about the education gap and resegregation of schools have also vehemently opposed measures that would integrate their own childrens’ schools because of racist perceptions of gang activity. While these white liberals may be “woke” about wider, systemic racism, many are missing the key components of interrogating their own actions and assumptions.
As “woke” signalling took over the mainstream discourse on race, symbolic victories even became the focus of many large protests against police violence. The demonstrations that began in reaction to police violence against communities of color, moved to focusing on statues of historical racists and slaveowners. Protestors who took to the streets, marching, kneeling, or singing in solidarity against racist police violence, began gravitating towards statues as icons of racist power. In Virginia a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was toppled by protestors. In Chicago Christopher Columbus statues became a focal point of protests and a familiar battleground for clashes with police. Even in England, the monument to infamous slave trader Edward Colson was torn down. These physical symbols of America’s racist history took much of the ire of protestors, and became the flash point for the media to center around, which debated whether this was overdue condemnation of racist historical figures, or anarchical defacement of property.
It is understandable why these statues became the focus of massive, energized groups of protestors. Monuments are powerful images of our history and how it shapes our communities today. When those monuments remember or glorify slave owners, human traffickers, genocidal colonizers, and treasonous racists, they sound a powerful message to the Black, Native, immigrant, or ethnically disenfranchised members of the community who must live in the shadows of their oppressors every day. And the anti-statue movement was a resounding success. Over one hundred confederate statues were removed during the protests for racial justice. However, in that time, a negligible number of officers responsible for the deaths of numerous innocent Black victims have faced legal consequences. Officers who murdered Breonna Taylor in her bed, shot Jacob Blake in the back, and killed twelve year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, were all exonerated without charges in that time. As cathartic as tearing down slabs of stone may be, it does not accomplish the work of anti-racism, and may even serve to distract from it.
The spike in white support for Black Lives Matter, and steep downturn in public attitudes toward police, had both levelled off and begun reverting back to normal by the end 2020. A major component in the steady decline in support for Black Lives Matter since its height last summer can be attributed to images of protestors destroying property, vandalizing statues, and looting Targets. The hypocrisy and racist rhetoric of those criticisms were clear, even before the horrendous events of the insurrection at the Capitol, enabled by gilded protections of white privilege. But by focusing on physical objects that were destroyed, rather than the police violence and its victims, mostly white protestors made that rhetoric more convincing and effective for huge portions of the country.
Early in the summer there was a small revolution in self-education, in the reading and discussing of America’s racist history, and how the legacy of slavery affects our cultural and governing institutions to this day. But it seems that movement stalled at the history part. The white curriculum on systemic racism has yet to expand to modern, economic solutions. By fixating on history and its physical representations, we have lost sight of the entrenched policies and biases that still loom over us unlike so many pieces of stone. It is significant that we have begun to chip away at the mythology of that history, but now we must turn toward the mythology of ourselves, our friends and neighbors, and our politics. Now that we have toppled racists, imperialists, and slaveholders of antiquity, we must acknowledge and tear down the ones who still loom large in corporate offices, in police departments, and in newly renovated condos across the country. Doing so will take more than introspection, more than marching and even more than billion-dollar fundraising campaigns. It will take admitting guilt, making financial sacrifices, and letting ourselves feel truly uncomfortable.
Featured image is In this house, we believe… by Lorie Shaull