A Year After George Floyd’s Killing, White Allyship Fades

Support for the Black Lives Matter movement soared last summer, but as the protests died down, so did the commitment.

Based on the name alone, it’s hard to mistake the social and political leanings of Reparations Club, a low-profile Los Angeles independent bookstore. Jazzi McGilbert, the proprietor, says it’s a cheeky “calling card” to her clientele, a not-subtle hint that her stock consists almost entirely of books about Black issues by Black authors, from WEB Dubois to Colin Kaepernick.

Last spring, amid intense demands for racial justice after the police killing of George Floyd, a surge of white customers swept into her shop, clamoring for books on race, African American history and literature. They were heeding the call of Black Lives Matter movement leaders, who urged aspiring white allies to educate themselves before linking arms with protesters – and fill the coffers of Black-owned businesses in the process.

That kept McGilbert’s cash registers ringing: In June alone, “our sales topped the entire previous year,” she says, a big boost for a fledgling business struggling to survive during a recession and a global pandemic. “We’re still here because of that shift.”

But what went up eventually came down: A year later, McGilbert says, sales “have definitely tapered off,” with far fewer whites have come to her door.

“I anticipated that people’s energy and attention spans would wane and shift, and they have,” says McGilbert, 33. “When support of Black business is at the mercy of the news cycle and Black trauma, it creates a pretty turbulent business dynamic.”

That dynamic could easily apply to white allyship for the Black Lives Matter movement, according to experts who study the fault lines of race in America. A combination of factors, they say – from fatigue and frustration at the relatively slow pace of change to a growing backlash on the right against efforts to call out systemic racism and white privilege – has led to a decline in white support for the Black Lives Matter movement since last spring, when white support for social justice was at its peak.

A year ago, when the video of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck went viral – and as a deadly pandemic that kept people on lockdown revealed stark health and economic disparities between Blacks and whites – many whites were as outraged as African Americans.

The shocking images of Floyd’s last moments, pleading for his mother, coupled with news that Black Americans were dying from COVID-19 at nearly twice the rate of whites, seemed to energize white people: Video and data confirmed decades-long complaints about police brutality and the effects of structural racism.

For months, from Washington to Portland, whites marched shoulder-to-shoulder with Black activists, Black Lives Matter signs sprouted like dandelions on suburban lawns and institutional racism was a hot topic for news outlets. Even corporate America got involved, holding urgent conversations and workshops on the racial divide.

At the time, “We saw an increasing number of people reading about anti-racism,” says Pearl Dowe, a professor of African American studies and political science at Emory University in Atlanta. “We saw the conversations and the marches and this call for allyship.”

But as the BLM protests waned during the fall and winter and President Joe Biden replaced Donald Trump in the Oval Office interest seemed to wane. At the same time, under closer media inspection, the magnitude of systemic racism became more apparent: One headline after another revealed racial disparities in nearly every aspect of American life, from death rates for women during childbirth to household wealth.

Given those developments, Dowe says, it’s not surprising white allyship gradually faded, despite clear evidence that the “race problem” in America is far from solved.

“What tends to happen is that in these moments, the idea of allyship becomes a cliche” as the amount of work necessary to solve racism becomes apparent, she says. “And the deeper conversations about what allyship and alliance really is, doesn’t happen.”

Meanwhile, there have been three high-profile police killings of unarmed African Americans in recent months, including the death of Daunte Wright, who was fatally shot in suburban Minneapolis, not far from the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd. There were protests after each killing, but none on the scale of the ones demanding justice for Floyd.

Without angry protests making front-page news, experts say, support for the Black Lives Matter movement has faded and some of the country has moved on. While African Americans still support the movement and some white allies remain steadfast, Dowe and others say, the less committed have retreated to the sidelines.

Data tells part of the story.

In June 2020, amid nationwide demonstrations, public support for the Black Lives Matter movement was at 67%, including 6 in 10 whites overall and nearly 40% of Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center. Among Democrats, support for the movement soared to 92%, while Black support for the movement reached 88% percent. In September, support had dipped to 55% of adults, but remained strong among Black Americans according to Pew.

Another poll found 60% of Americans trusted the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020, but nearly a year later, the same USA Today-Ipsos poll found 50% of Americans trust the movement. Meanwhile, trust in law enforcement, which was at 59% overall last spring, has risen to nearly 70% this year.

By contrast, African American support of Black Lives Matter is north of 80%, but their confidence in police barely reaches 50%, according to the poll.

Joe Flynn, an African American studies professor at Northern Illinois University, says the decline in white support within a year of Floyd’s killing is nothing new. Enthusiasm from would-be allies, he says, usually runs headlong into the seemingly intractable battle for civil rights – a fight that has taken place across generations but still hasn’t been won.

Some whites “don’t really necessarily appreciate how deeply embedded race and racism are in all of our institutions,” says Flynn, author of “White Fatigue: Rethinking Resistance for Social Justice.” Nearly every American institution, he says, “has racist coronations” that can be difficult for some to understand “because they haven’t ever really been dealt with.”

To be clear, he says, white allies have been critical in the African American fight for equality, from abolitionists demanding an end to slavery in the 1800s to white Freedom Riders who were beaten and jailed for marching with Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s. Exhibit A, Flynn says: King’s historic Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

A scathing essay written behind bars, King excoriates white religious leaders who criticized him for moving too quickly and making whites uncomfortable with his demands for immediate change. But he also calls out whites who backed his movement yet didn’t speak up when police used snarling dogs against protesters, the Klan bombed Black activists’ homes or politicians undermined the civil rights movement.

Fair-weather supporters, King wrote, were nearly as bad as the segregationists.

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” King wrote. “Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

If King were still alive, Dowe says, he would have reached the same conclusion about today’s fickle white allies.

“When progressive movements happen, whether that’s social action or policy, there is always a groundswell that eventually kind of just fades away,” Flynn says. “Learning to understand race and racism is more than just reading one or two books. It often comes down to examination of one’s life, one’s assumptions about others, one’s identification of their own privilege.”

Accepting that challenge, Dowe says, can be daunting for some.

“Whether we’re talking about policing, whether we’re talking about someone not getting tenure in higher education, or someone getting fired or not getting promoted, or a family’s house not being appraised the way that it should – racism is at the heart of all these issues,” she says. “Do you see Black people as human and deserving of the same rights that white Americans have?”

Another factor Flynn says: Conservative backlash to the movement, including derision of “woke culture,” the conflating of Black Lives Matter with antifa, and condemnation of “critical race theory” – an academic theory that examines the intersection of race, culture and law.

“Oftentimes when that backlash comes, it comes really hard, really fierce, and can cause some folks to be frustrated,” Flynn says. “Things just kind of die down as the news cycle changes. You still have some folks that continue to do the work, while others rest on the notion of, ‘Well, I’ve learned a little bit more, and I understand a little bit more.'”

Back in Los Angeles, McGilbert, owner of Reparations Club, agrees. While the burst of white patrons was good for business, she says, the decline in white allyship is disheartening.

“I worry about what happens after they buy my books – if they’ve been read at all,” she says. “I wonder what conversations people, especially white people, are having after the fact, and with whom.”

Nevertheless, McGilbert takes the long view: Whites engaged in the quest for racial justice, even if only temporarily, which is a significant change from before. If just a handful of people became more insightful, and a handful more actually participated in the struggle for equality, the surge in allyship was a success.

“History shows us that it sort of comes and goes,” McGilbert says. “I think there was a shift that happened that we are not going to go back from.”

Source Url : https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2021-05-25/a-year-after-george-floyds-killing-white-support-for-black-lives-matter-fades

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