Historians will trace the various streams that swelled to create a surge for racial justice in the summer of 2020, but whatever its sources, the river has broken a damn. When McDonald’s is ready to say Black Lives Matter and Major League Baseball takes a knee, something has changed. Just as white Americans hit rock bottom in 1963 and recoiled at the sight of Bull Connor’s dogs attacking children in Birmingham, Ala., millions of us shuddered at what we have become when we saw the look on Derek Chauvin’s face as he casually choked the life out of George Floyd.
But the more remarkable fact of America’s story is not that white people have occasionally hit rock bottom, but rather how we’ve regularly accepted and justified brutal inequalities that destroy the lives of millions.
As federal security forces occupy Portland, Ore., scenes of tear-gassed moms and unarmed veterans receiving blows shock viewers at home again. “What have we become?” we ask ourselves, even as Black, brown, and poor people who have been terrorized by security forces for generations continue to note that this is the underside of what we have always been. The question isn’t whether we can be shocked sober by a glimpse of ourselves at rock bottom. Can America learn to live without the high that the lies of whiteness offer?
According to an analysis by the Pew Center, two out of three Americans now support Black Lives Matter. Even more strikingly, almost as many understand today’s protests to be “rooted in longstanding concerns about the treatment of black people in the country.”
But what took so long? When Confederate flags blossomed like spring tulips to celebrate Trump’s promise to make America great again, many white people held their nose or suggested we “give him a mulligan” as they celebrated his embrace of “traditional values” and disdain for government. When white nationalists marched in Charlottesville chanting, “You will not replace us!”, those who today are proclaiming their support for BLM felt uneasy but remained silent. When Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest police brutality in solidarity with communities that were shouting, “Black Lives Matter,” so-called “moderate” white people wondered aloud whether a football field was the right place for activism.
The brutality of George Floyd’s murder was not unique, nor was the courage of Darnella Frazier, the 17-year-old girl who bore witness with her cell phone so the nation could see just how normal police brutality seemed to those who carried it out on a Minneapolis street corner that day. For 400 years the witnesses of America’s Black-led freedom struggle have spoken out, written, and risked lives to remember the victims of white supremacy and expose the normalcy of America’s barbarity. Mountains of data attest that the same brutality we see in cell phone footage of encounters with the police plays out in slow motion through racially disparate outcomes in our schools, hospitals, workplaces, and neighborhoods. None of this is new.
“Black Lives Matter” is only the most recent summation of the Black-led freedom movement’s testimony that things do not have to be this way. We could remake the country we are living in so that every person has access to high quality public education, healthcare, a guaranteed basic income, clean water to drink, and affordable housing. Such policies would in fact benefit more poor white people than any other racial group. But too many have been persuaded by the lies of whiteness that greater equality would somehow compromise who they are.
We do not lack the plans that could make America better nor the resources to implement them if the wealthiest Americans paid their fair share and we re-allocated money from bloated police and military budgets to address inequalities. But the same whispers of whiteness that prevented millions of Americans from saying, “Black Lives Matter” for the past five years also keep many of us from confessing that we must make our society over again if it is ever to live up to its most basic promises.
The lie is whispered in a thousand different ways, but its claim is always the same: “Give those people what they demand and your whole world will come crashing down.” Maybe your world is the economy. Maybe it’s your traditional values. Maybe it’s the political fate of your party’s nominee. The whispers of whiteness have their more conservative and liberal inflections, but they consistently beckon white people who like to think of themselves as reasonable to accept the world as it is.
For a moment in the sun of 2020’s summer, a majority of white Americans sobered up and confessed that this is not who we want to be. But those whispers will not go away. They are as embedded in our psyche as they are in the laws and practices of this nation. What remains for all who’ve hit rock bottom is the long road to healing. We must admit we're addicts and embrace a new community that can help us become whole. We need nothing less than for America to be born again, this time without the lies that whiteness has whispered in our ears for 400 years.