We are in a period of post-mortem reflection following the time during which racial justice protests were at their most intense. We now must ask ourselves: What has changed and what hasn’t? Have power and privilege truly been disrupted? Has oppression been alleviated? What will be the legacy of this moment?
The historic protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing were met with high hopes and soaring rhetoric. The protests were called a racial reckoning, a long-overdue racial accounting.
We painted murals on the streets and took down some statues. Companies committed to changing the Black faces on a bottle of syrup and a bag of rice. Athletes were allowed to kneel and race car drivers held a racial solidarity parade.
There were television specials about injustice and expanded coverage of protests. Books about race rose to the tops of bestseller lists.
States like New York and California passed police reform legislation and scores of individual departments banned or restricted chokeholds and strangleholds and required officers to intervene when their colleagues use excessive force.
But, national progress, even on the issue of police accountability and reform, remained elusive. The slate of police reforms passed by the House is now bogged down in the Senate.
Donald Trump called the Black Lives Matter mural painted in front of Trump Tower in New York City a “symbol of hate,” one of his personal lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, called the group a “domestic terror group,” and his Justice Department began targeting demonstrators as terrorists.
On the Democratic side, Joe Biden quickly batted down any support of the move to defund the police, which is simply an effort to better allocate funding between police departments and social service agencies. There are also efforts at police abolition, but the defund movement is not synonymous with that effort.
More than 50 civil rights organization sent Biden a scathing letter, chastising him for his involvement in mass incarceration and the war on drugs, and demanding that he:
“Immediately incorporate the policies laid out by the Movement for Black Lives into your campaign platform, and announce the specific changes publicly. This includes their critical demands for interventions that will end state violence against Black people, end the economic exploitation of Black communities, advance reparations, and defund police, prisons and weaponry so we can fully fund health care, housing, education and environmental justice.”
BLM co-founder and activist Patrisse Cullors spoke at the DNC’s virtual party platform meeting in July and said: “Without the sea changes our movement recommended for the 2020 Democratic platform, any claims to allyship and solidarity with our work to fight for Black liberation are for naught.”
While national political progress appeared tentative, mired or weakened by intense opposition, it did feel like personal progress, on a national scale, was made in some ways.
A Pew Research Center report in late June found that 6% of American adults said they “attended a protest or rally that focused on issues related to race or racial equality in the last month.” That’s about 15 million people, an astounding number.
Furthermore, the movement had multiracial participation. The percentage of protesters who were white was nearly three times the percentage who were Black. The percentage of Hispanics taking part was higher than the percentage of Black people as well.
But even as support for Black Lives Matter grew, many Americans still opposed the things the movement demanded.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted in mid-July found that while nearly 70% of Americans believed “Black people and other minorities are not treated as equal to white people in the criminal justice system,” most still generally opposed “calls to shift some police funding to social services or remove statues of Confederate generals or presidents who enslaved people.”
Barack Obama issued a statement that read in part:
“It falls on all of us, regardless of our race or station — including the majority of men and women in law enforcement who take pride in doing their tough job the right way, every day — to work together to create a ‘new normal’ in which the legacy of bigotry and unequal treatment no longer infects our institutions or our hearts.”
I’m not sure that “new normal” is in the immediate offing. Much of what we saw in response to protests amounted to performative gestures, symbolism that cost nothing and shifted no power.
We must come to the conclusion that some of what we saw as a racial awakening was prone to whither. Some of what we saw was people cosplaying consciousness, immersing themselves in the issue of the moment.
I am very leery of tokenism, leery of the illusions of progress as the system holds fast. I’m leery of appeasement, of being told that there is a change coming as a way of quieting me in the waiting.
America has a sterling track record of dashing Black people’s hopes.
Charles M. Blow is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.