George Floyd’s death spurred nationwide protests against police brutality. At long last, Mr. Chauvin, the officer filmed with his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck, will be tried in criminal court for his actions. He faces charges of manslaughter and second-degree murder.
In May, it seemed almost certain to me that Mr. Chauvin and the other three officers who watched him slowly kill Mr. Floyd would face swift punishment for their actions. Today, I am uneasy about the trial, mostly because I am convinced the former officers will be acquitted on all charges.
It was indeed a moment in history; the killing brought tens of millions of people into the streets to demand racial justice. Now, that national attention has dissipated, and white people are increasingly hesitant to call Mr. Floyd’s death a murder.
White Flight from Meaningful Change
Truly devastating to those of us who saw 2020’s protests as real progress towards racial justice in America’s criminal justice system, USA Today’s recent survey revealed that “75% of Black people but just 42% of white people express trust in Black Lives Matter [to promote justice and equal treatment for all], while 77% of white people but just 42% of Black people trust local police.”.
This stark divide stalled any federal legislation to rethink, retrain, or reform bloated and trigger-happy police departments (the George Floyd Act recently passed in the House but will likely die in the Senate). Furthermore, some activists’ calls to defund the police have been met with increased police spending since Floyd’s death (even the Democrat’s new legislation would give police departments hundreds of millions of dollars in extra funding).
With the excruciating video of Mr. Floyd’s death in the rearview of their minds, it may be easier for white people to make excuses for Mr. Chauvin’s actions than to take stock in the ways they benefit from a society founded by white supremacist thinking and governance.
It may be easier to stay indoors (or at the brunch table) since the Orange Instigator is out of office and off of Twitter, but this thinking is a total failure in white allyship when so many of yesterday’s problems remain.
What Does a Better Ally Look Like?
To become a better ally, one must understand what kind of allies exist. Writer Jodi-Ann Burey divides them into five categories.
First, there are the lazy and secretive allies. These “allies” only express belief in social justice causes like LGBT rights or police reform in private conversations with people they know they can trust. They take no risk and fundamentally change nothing.
Next up, the opportunistic and performative allies. Because being against racism is en vogue these days, this is where most white Americans fit in. This is your friend who took a selfie at a big march in June, posted that black square on Instagram, and called it a day. They engage in virtue signaling and gestures lacking in measurable actions or real risk-taking advocacy.
Finally, you have “true” allies. Many of them never went inside when protests lost steam through the winter. They use their white privilege as a tool. Rather than shouting down their ideas or trampling over them to be the center of attention, they empower Black and brown activists. Police and conservatives have targeted and smeared many of them for their sustained pressure on our racist criminal justice system. To be a true ally is a risk, not a résumé booster.
Being a Better White Ally
Charles M. Blow’s recent piece in the New York Times calls out underperforming white allies for engaging what he described as a “seasonal solidarity.” To many white protesters who were initially outraged by Mr. Floyd’s death, that season has passed.
Maybe he’s right. The pandemic, while still raging, feels like less of a threat to young people than it did in May 2020. Perhaps it was lockdown fatigue that sprung so many into action, not a newfound desire for racial justice.
If the officers who killed Mr. Floyd walked free today, do YOU think public outcry would be large enough to affect change? Would it be sustained or fizzle out quickly? Will the people who went inside for the winter (or even earlier) mobilize, or is the brunch table just too comfortable?
At this point, I’m just not sure. If you are genuinely interested in becoming a more proficient and less performative white ally, the first step is to engage in some self-reflection; examine your true beliefs.
Ask yourself, was your attendance at a Black Lives Matter rally primarily self-serving? Did you learn something when you were there? Did you take steps afterward to confront your implicit biases afterward? It is important to be honest with yourself.
I will admit I am not the supreme ally. In my southern upbringing, I endured homophobia and witnessed racism up close. Still, even on a good day, I probably fall into the “performative” sect more than being a “true” ally, depending on who you ask.
And while I am in no way a perfect ally, I can tell you I am working towards being better. Not for myself, not for clout, but for my Black and brown friends, neighbors, teachers, and teammates that helped me grow into the person I am today.
After personal self-reflection, you may find being a “true” white ally means different things to different people. Black Lives Matter was never a monolithic movement. Some activists are for incremental policy reforms, some protest for total police abolition.
Regardless of where you fall ideologically, true white allies must be prepared to take to the streets in large and sustained numbers if Derek Chauvin walks free for the murder of George Floyd. Start planning now, get organized and get angry again.
Because without justice, there cannot be peace.