As the movement toward racial justice gathers momentum, there’s a danger of mistaking symbolic change for the real thing
The June protest was small, maybe 100 people, held Downtown on the streetside patio of Jamaican restaurant Jammyland. Family members from across the country told harrowing stories of how their loved ones were killed by police.
It was, in its way, a modest protest — organizers had bottled water on hand, and everyone wore a mask. It was just a few days after the protests on the Strip that resulted in both a protester, Jorge Gomez, being shot and killed by Metro police officers, and a police officer, Shay Mikalonis, being shot in the head, allegedly by Edgar Samaniego. But the emotions were heavy.
As the crowd chanted the names of victims, many speakers fought back tears to tell the stories of those unable to tell their own. “We are fighting for you on the other side of the fence,” said Katrina Johnson, whose cousin was killed by police in Seattle three years ago. “We are fighting so your loved ones don’t die, so that you don’t die. So that you never feel the pain that we feel.”
Since George Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis, we have seen protests sweep the nation unprecedented since the 1960s. George Floyd’s face is being painted on murals around the world. What has changed now? Floyd is only the latest in a long line of Black victims of police violence: Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Eric Garner. In Las Vegas, Byron Williams.
Why now? Part of it was the grisly spectacle — the naked indifference Derek Chauvin embodied as he pinned Floyd to the ground for almost nine minutes, and his colleagues stood by and did nothing. Part of it was the timing of similar tragedies — Ahmaud Marquez Arbery was gunned down by white vigilantes in Atlanta in February; Breonna Taylor was gunned down by Louisville cops executing a no-knock search warrant in March. Part of it was the exposure of a generation’s worth of limp “diversity training,” best exemplified when Amy Cooper tried to weaponize the cops on Chris Cooper, a Black birdwatcher in Central Park.
Throw in three-plus months of quarantine, three-plus years of Donald Trump, and 300-plus years of racial oppression, and here we are. According to The New York Times, between 15 million and 26 million have participated in some kind of protest, making Black Lives Matter the largest protest movement in American history.
Ideas floating around progressive circles for years are quickly becoming normalized. White privilege. Defunding the police. Ending mass incarceration. Universal basic income. Even, a little farther out there, abolishing whiteness itself as a category.
Seeing the reality of racism on TV or online is having a galvanizing effect on people, especially white people, many of whom are experiencing an “I didn’t know shit was that bad” moment. That’s good. What the larger society is starting to realize is that the problem of “race relations” is (and has always been) about the way white people have tilted every lever to their advantage, as well as their own profound and unresolved fears about Black people.
It’s a heady moment. It feels real, too, a moment that could sustain itself longer than just a moment. But I am concerned, in our spectacle-addled culture, that people will think some of the symbolic changes we’ve seen, such as the removal of offensive statues, are the change. I’m not saying they aren’t a start. If these gestures put enough psychic discomfort in the body politic, lasting change may be possible. But if they ameliorate that discomfort too readily, too easily — post a BLM-positive message on Facebook and you’re good — then we’re apt to squander the moment. We’ll end up, for instance, celebrating the renaming of the NFL’s Washington Redskins and not give much consideration to life as it is lived on Native reservations.
The fact that the March 1965 “Bloody Sunday” clash between civil rights protesters and Alabama state troopers on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, was televised to millions of Americans helped pushed the Voting Rights Act through. White discomfort with the status quo is mandatory before there can be real change. But it’s not enough. What we need is white outrage at the status quo. And we need real, not symbolic, change.
What is real change? Legislative action. Laws or policies that would systematically close racial gaps in education, incarceration, police interaction, and income- and wealth-building. Even in fairly well-integrated Clark County, Black median income trails white median income by almost $23,000.
I don’t know what those laws are. But city by city, state by state, we need to drill into the thicket of laws and policies we have on the books that are contributing to our increasingly unequal world, and write better laws, and enforce them.
It’s the difference between, as The Atlantic points out, social radicalism (a Black CEO is named at Company X) and economic radicalism (Black workers at the same company are paid the same as white workers).
The road from symbolic change to actual change won’t be an easy one. The Black Lives Matter movement is strong because it’s not centralized around a leader who can be targeted, marginalized, critiqued. It’s diffuse and pervasive. Activists, journalists, politicians, corporate CEOs, regular people taking video with their smartphones — all of these people can take part in the movement, if only for a critical moment.
But this can be a liability, too. New York Times writer Jay Caspian Kang worries that “if white people keep coming to the protests, how do you prevent this Black protest movement from becoming a vehicle for white progressives to try to advance all their other hobbyhorses?” Fair enough, although this implies that there is a definitive goal of Black protest that can be hijacked. The diffuseness of Black Lives Matter means that the movement will likely have to decide what that goal is: specific reform to police departments and the criminal justice system or a broader agenda that engages the intersection of Black people with a host of massive societal challenges, such as the climate crisis or increasing automation. Or is the goal to move beyond the hierarchical structures of capitalism itself?
If we’re not prudent, these symbolic changes will herald only a generation of Central Park dog owners who wear Black Lives Matter T-shirts and know better than to call the cops on innocent Black people, but still inadvertently displace poor Black residents in gentrifying neighborhoods and still profit from access to greater capital — social, educational, and financial.
If the end game is reparations, let’s have the debate. Author Nikole Hannah-Jones rightly notes that “this nation must move beyond slogans and symbolism,” but she argues that the real hurdle is mustering the political will. “The technical details, frankly, are the easier part.” I think she has it backward: The technical details will be the key to garnering the political will.
At the end of the June protest, we walked along Charleston Boulevard to Boulder Plaza in the Arts District. We chanted; the protesters at the front carried a sign, “Families are the front line.” Passing drivers honked their horns. The sun set, a few more speakers told their heartbreaking stories, and it was clear that, modest as it was, these folks would carry this ache with them the rest of their lives.
We should not be looking to return to the more comfortable days before George Floyd, before COVID-19, before Trump. Because those days weren’t that great. And we shouldn’t settle for hope and rhetoric. We should carry the ache, too, this year of utter heartbreak, and use it to decide what kind of nation and people we will be. American preeminence is no longer a guarantee. China will eventually surpass our economic reach. The United States’ response to COVID-19 has been outclassed by dozens of other countries. If our diversity is indeed our greatest, most competitive advantage, it’s time we did our damnedest to make sure our most historically disadvantaged people, Black people, are made whole. The full equality of Black citizens, de facto and de jure, is the foundation with which we can build an America that we can be truly proud of.