For more than 400 years, Black people have been fighting against the white supremacy and systemic racism that killed George Floyd. For a lot of white people this year, their own efforts lasted less than a season.
Soon after Floyd was asphyxiated in May under the knee of now former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, millions filled the streets to protest against racist police violence, many of them white people. That certainly wasn’t the case during previous demonstrations against the disproportionate number of Black people brutalized or killed during law enforcement encounters.
Combined with the traumatizing video of Floyd’s death, there was a sense that police violence against Black people, and the systemic conditions that sustain it, was so prevalent, many white people could no longer ignore it.
A week after Floyd’s killing, a CNN poll found that 42 percent said that “race relations” were “extremely important” to their vote for president. (Responses reflected a combination of racial groups.) That was higher than the economy, health care, or the coronavirus. In that same poll, 84 percent called peaceful protests of police violence against Black Americans “justified.”
Yet even as droves of white people protested, there were serious doubts about the permanence of their activism. In June, Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, told The New York Times, “As much as people really want that progress narrative, I don’t think it exists yet.”
It doesn’t. White participation in the protests seemed driven, in part, by the need to get out of the house. When Floyd died, the nation was nearing its third month in quarantine to stave off the spread of COVID-19. Schools and many businesses were closed, the weather was good, and people had a lot of time on their hands. The protests served both as a place to go and a way to be self-congratulatory about doing the bare minimum for racial justice.
In a movement that demands white accomplices more than allies, that’s not even ally-ship. That’s tourism. With schools reopening, and communities moving toward some semblance of normalcy — despite about 1,000 people still dying every day from COVID-19 — many white people have lost interest in issues that they believe do not directly affect them.
In June, 45 percent of white people surveyed by YouGov/The Economist said racism was a big problem; by early August, that number had fallen to 33 percent. They aren’t just ignoring injustice; they are ignoring democracy.
Three months ago, white people were cramming as if preparing for a standardized test on systemic racism. On a New York Times paperback nonfiction bestseller list, 13 out of 15 books dealt with race or racism. Several of those books remain on the list, yet with racial tensions omnipresent, one has to wonder if enough white people are reading them or just curating their bookshelves.
This, of course, does not apply to all white people. Since the racist Trump presidency began, some have even died for equality. In May 2017, on a Portland train, Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche were stabbed to death while protecting two Muslim teenagers from a white supremacist. (A third man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, was seriously injured.) Three months later, Heather Heyer was murdered when a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd protesting against a neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va.
And last week, in Kenosha, Wis., Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber were shot dead trying to disarm vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse at a Black Lives Matter march. (Rittenhouse has been charged in the killings and the shooting of a third man.) All of them stand in glory with such Civil Rights-era martyrs as Viola Liuzzo, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and the Rev. James Reeb. Then and now, they understood their moral obligation to help dismantle racist systems from which they benefited.
That is the test that white Americans still face, and too many are choosing to fail. Racism cannot be cured by Black people. Civil rights movements require perseverance and purpose, not trendy, fleeting empathy. A Black Lives Matter sign in a window does not end the ongoing racist violence abetted by white silence.
What felt urgent to white people three months ago has been dulled as they return to their lives. Black people enjoy no such luxury — that urgency is our lives.