Note to readers: This is the debut of a monthly column called “The Racial Reality.” Florida Gulf Coast University associate professor of sociology Dr. Ted Thornhill. Thornhill’s mission for “The Racial Reality” is to provide insightful and provocative analysis about racial matters of local and national importance. Ultimately, Thornhill hopes to stir the hearts and minds of readers and move them to act boldly in the service of racial justice in Southwest Florida and beyond.
Anniversaries provide an opportunity to remember, reflect and recommit. They can also be painful reminders of loved ones lost and justice long denied. In the case of police killings of Black people, it is always a reminder of both.
George Floyd didn’t choose to be tortured for nearly 10 minutes by four Minneapolis police officers before being executed. He didn’t choose to become a symbol of the anti-Black police violence long present in this country. Still, his death a year ago invigorated the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked global protests against police violence, systemic racism and white supremacy.
‘We will celebrate my brother’s life’: George Floyd’s family to hold rallies, marches for one-year anniversary of his death
‘First martyr’: How a Black man’s death in 1965 changed American history
The bravery of 17-year-old Darnella Frazier made the difference. Her sense of duty and humanity compelled her to record the murderous actions of those police officers. In doing so, she ensured that prosecutors would have the damning video evidence necessary to secure a murder conviction against Derek Chauvin. Hopefully, it will produce the same outcome for the three officers who cooperated with him. And they must all be sentenced accordingly.
That viral video removed any interpretive wiggle room from those who blame unarmed Black people for getting maimed or killed by police. Of course, the most depraved among that group tried to do so with George Floyd too, but this time they looked especially wicked and stupid, like a few of the witnesses Chauvin’s defense team put on the stand.
‘Daddy changed the world’; George Floyd’s death bring anti-racist changes
In the days following George Floyd’s death, his 6-year-old daughter Gianna Washington said her “Daddy changed the world!”
Gianna’s right. Her daddy’s death initiated anti-racist changes that likely wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and others not as soon as they did. For instance, long-intransigent Washington Football Team owner Daniel Snyder agreed to eliminate the team’s racist name and mascot. Mississippi’s majority white electorate finally voted to adopt a new state flag without the Confederate battle emblem. Mars, Incorporated decided to rename its popular rice brand and remove the racist caricature. And the Quaker Oats company did the same with its pancake mix and syrup.
Yet, inoffensively branded sports teams, parboiled rice and pancake syrup does not constitute racial justice. It is what we should all expect. Further, racist symbolism is not easily erased from the minds of millions when it has existed on t-shirts, in grocery store aisles, advertisements and kitchens for decades. It will take many generations for those racist associations to fade from the public consciousness.
Across the country, Confederate statues were righteously damaged or destroyed by protestors, or removed by authorities. Corporations made donations to Black non-profit and civil rights organizations and vowed to institute more racially equitable policies, practices and programming. Foundation dollars flowed more abundantly, and in new directions. Some municipalities reformed their policing practices. Colleges and universities made varying degrees of change in the direction of greater racial equity.
This is but a sampling of the actions taken by social collectives compelled by the weight of the moment and the fear of the public relations and financial consequences that could greet them for doing nothing.
Change hasn’t continued; white backlash quickly followed
So, in the weeks and months that followed Floyd’s killing, the nature, pace, source, and degree of change was indeed collectively momentous. But it didn’t last, at least not in the fullness of its potential. Because, after all, “This is America,” as actor and rapper Donald Glover — aka Childish Gambino — succinctly but deftly put it in his 2019 Grammy Award-winning song and video by the same name.
Because the inevitable white backlash was brewing.
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But 6-years-olds can’t be faulted for their inability to comprehend the sweep, insidiousness and resilience of systemic white racism and its assiduous and indefatigable custodians — on this issue many adults’ heads remain stuck in the ground or lodged somewhere just above it.
So, Gianna was right, but she was also wrong.
The countervailing force of white backlash is powerful, deadly real and predictable. History testifies to the ways in which Black gains, real or perceived, are regularly and quickly followed by white rage, white violence and white machinations intended to reclaim their property interest in whiteness, as critical race legal scholars Derrick Bell and Cheryl Harris put it.
Indeed, in every era where Black people have achieved a greater portion of the long-denied promises of this nation, tens of millions of white Americans have redoubled their efforts — individually and organizationally — at maintaining the unmerited advantages of whiteness, be they psychological, political or material. Consider that white backlash in earlier eras produced the inhumanity and terrorism of the Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow Laws, White Citizens’ Councils, COINTELPRO and more.
More recently, white backlash has fueled the attack on affirmative action, the emergence and rise of Fox News, birtherism and the Tea Party, the political fortunes of Donald Trump and the white supremacist insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Now, white backlash is manifesting in the raft of racist legislation passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures and signed into law by Republican governors across the country. They’re going after it all. Voting rights. The right to peaceably assemble. Diversity and inclusion trainings. Critical race theory. Stay alert, they’ve only just begun. Again.
If you were indifferent about George Floyd’s killing, you’re the problem. If you don’t support the Black Lives Matter movement, you’re the problem. If you were disgusted and enraged last summer, but you’ve allowed those feelings to dissipate in the short span of a year, to the point where you’re no longer actively working to effect change within your community, workplace, place of worship or other groups of which you’re a member, you, too, are part of the problem.
Don’t make excuses. Don’t be the person who engages in mental gymnastics and attempts to convince yourself that systemic racism isn’t real or that you have no responsibility to help redress it. Use the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, and the global racial justice protests it inspired, to do something meaningful to frustrate the designs of those who seek to maintain a racially inequitable society. Don’t be like the “not racists” who’ve deluded themselves into believing that if they aren’t like Archie Bunker, David Duke, Marjorie Taylor Greene or some other unabashed racial bigot, then they’re not the problem — I assure you they are.
Ted Thornhill, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology and the founder and director of the Center for Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University.