George Floyd protests make white Americans look inside

Mike Sexton is white and Republican and lives in a prosperous suburb of Fort Worth, where many neighbors support President Trump and some work in the police. Anger breaks out in his voice when he says that George Floyd, a black man, was “basically lynched.”

Shawn Ashmore is an independent who lives nearby in East Dallas. He is using the Floyd murder to teach his young children awkward lessons about the privileges his family enjoys because they are white – how, for example, they will never fear for their lives during a police encounter like some black men do.

Lisa Joakimides lives in rural Northern California and considers herself a well-intentioned Democrat. After the 2008 election of Barack Obama, Joakimides, who is white, became convinced that the United States was finally making peace with its history of mistreatment of blacks.

When Joakimides knelt to honor Floyd at a road rally in early June, he wondered how she could have been so naive.

Captured in witness videos that show then-officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis has led white Americans to denounce racism against African-Americans more vigorously than at any time recently. And it’s prompting many white people to think more deeply about the color of their own skin.

Because right now? Jacqueline Battalora, a Chicago-based sociology professor, believes that after three grueling months of social isolation and economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Floyd’s murder was yet another blow to the security illusions that many whites harbor about America. .

“The police are fair; institutions are fair: whites have been very happy to believe such things, “said Battalora, a former police officer and author of” Birth of a White Nation: Whites’ Invention and Its Relevance Today. “” What this indicates is that a good part of whites now have some recognition that something is not right. ”

For Sexton, Ashmore and Joakimides, the murder of Floyd and the outbursts of anger have forced them to see that expressions of sympathy and displays of solidarity with blacks are only the beginning. The United States will not change its racist ways, they say, unless whites also use this period of protest and reflection to change.

Lisa Joakimides kneels during a George Floyd protest along Highway 1 in Gualala, California.

(Tyrone Beason / Los Angeles Times)

What’s different this time, Sexton said, is that whites have had a better idea of ​​where that outrage comes from and how isolated they are from the racial injustices that cause it.

Sexton, 45, said he cannot stay out of the protest movement, or avoid the national conversation about racism and police brutality, simply because he votes red instead of blue.

“It is not right versus left,” he said. “It’s okay versus it’s wrong.”

Sexton said he was no stranger to racial discrimination. Every black person he meets has shared stories of being followed and detained without reason by the police.

But the video of Floyd’s murder, which captured him yelling “I can’t breathe” and calling his mother dead, made Sexton realize the helplessness and total panic that blacks often experience in the presence of officers.

He said it’s crazy that it took him and other white people so long to fully understand the horror of police brutality, “but for us, we wouldn’t have understood it if it weren’t for the video.”

“Now,” he said, “we are listening.”

Sexton, a vendor, recently organized a rally for police accountability in a high school parking lot near where he lives in Grapevine, Texas. It attracted some 200 protesters, most of them white.

Members of the clergy and Grapevine Police Chief Mike Hamlin attended. One of the speakers was a Trump supporter.

A black teenager told the crowd that she was afraid to bring children into the world because she feared she would not be able to protect them from law enforcement or the country’s racism.

“That broke my heart to pieces,” said Sexton.

After weeks of protests, views on police violence appear to be changing, but there is still a big gap between whites and blacks on whether it represents a national crisis.

In an AP-NORC survey conducted in mid-June, less than half of white respondents, 39%, believe that police violence against the public is an extreme or very serious problem, compared to 80% of black respondents.

Those numbers showed a narrowing of the gap between how black and white Americans view the issue. The same survey was conducted in the early stages of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015, and then only 19% of whites said police violence was a serious or extreme problem, compared to 73% of blacks.

“He created this opening for whites,” Battalora said of Floyd’s murder. “But that’s different from saying we ‘get it.’ That will be more of a process. “

It remains to be seen whether the spectacle in recent days of white people holding hands to protect black riot police protesters, or participating in the overthrow of monuments to Confederate soldiers and slavers, represents a return point.

“You have those historical moments when the nation can go one way or another,” said Clayborne Carson, a civil rights scholar at Stanford University.

“But you just have to ask yourself: why did it take so long?” said Carson, the founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute and senior advisor on “Eyes on the Prize,” the public television series on the civil rights movement. “It is not as if George Floyd was the first black man killed by the police.”

Carson was a student activist in the 1960s at Watts, then a very black community. He saw firsthand how the riots over police brutality resulted in a backlash from the eager whites, many of whom flocked to “law and order” politicians like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, who vowed to crack down on the protesters.

“You want to expect it to go in a more positive and progressive direction, but there is also a strong element in America’s history of handling the wave of resentment towards people pressing for change,” Carson said.

“That is always the political choice. Do you vote for fear fueled by racism or vote for the hope that things will get better? But fear is powerful.

:: ::

As a parent raising two children in Dallas, a city with its own history of racial tension and fatal police Ashmore, 38, said he is focused on making sure his children don’t grow up with fear or suspicion of blacks.

Many black parents give their kids “the talk” to teach them how to stay safe when they meet the police. Ashmore faces a different challenge with her children, who are 6 and 8 years old, explaining how wrong it is that their black classmates do not live in a world as fair and safe as the one they live in.

Shawn Ashmore and his family, dog included, sit on the steps outside their home.

Shawn Ashmore, right, with her family, has tried to teach her children lessons about race and the privilege of whites after the murder of George Floyd.

(Shawn Ashmore)

“We have a lot to give us because of the color of our skin,” Ashmore recalled telling his children. “Mom and I try to make sure that we don’t use our perks to hurt other people.”

“If we do,” he said, “we are wrong.”

Floyd’s murder has filled Ashmore with sadness, anger, and doubt.

Keep thinking about the detached expression on the police officer’s face as he knelt on Floyd’s neck.

“The eyes,” he said. “It seemed so cold blooded, heartless. “

Ashmore said he can’t imagine treating a black person that way.

“I am a good person; I cannot be a racist.” Ashmore has said those words to himself in the past, and he knows that other white people also say them.

“But do I have parts that are buried somewhere I have kept protected?” he has thought to himself.

“What are my blind spots” as a white man? “What am I disconnecting?”

Ashmore has learned that he can be a good man and a great father and aspire to make the world a better place, but still benefit from a racist system that values ​​his life more than that of the black men, women, and children captured in those scenes. heartbreaking. of abuse and death.

“We are going through serious surgery,” Ashmore said of the self-examination among whites.

That inner conflict, between thinking of yourself as a decent person and recognizing the possibility that you may be contributing to racial injustice in some way, has left Joakimides feeling disappointed.

“It’s hard to see yourself as part of the problem when you’ve spent your whole life trying not to be,” said Joakimides, a chef in the town of Point Arena in northern California, located in an area of ​​Pacific beaches hit by the wind and redwood forests. about a three-hour drive north of San Francisco.

She was one of two dozen protesters waving posters, almost all white, who had gathered to demonstrate alongside Highway 1 in the nearby city of Gualala.

They had all come to show solidarity with those across the country who demanded an end to police brutality, despite living in a remote corner where black faces are few.

Wearing a mask to protect himself from COVID-19, Joakimides held back tears and solemnly looked at the ground.

He held a cardboard sign for anyone who still isn’t convinced it can help overcome racism: “Be an ally. Become the solution. “

All she could say about the Floyd murder was, “I’m horrified.”

“I thought we were making progress towards equality,” he said. She let out a long breath. “But things keep happening.”

Even as a progressive who feels she is on the right side of history by supporting efforts to tackle climate change, sexual harassment, and racist surveillance, Joakimides knows that she, too, must be more honest with herself about what it means to be white in U.S. .

“It is very easy to get used to the privilege of a safe life,” said Joakimides, 57. “It is time to acknowledge my privilege and use it to combat oppression.”

Sexton, the Texas vendor, said he encouraged him that as many white people in his community seemed as passionate about stopping police brutality as he was.

But he’s also seen derogatory posts on Facebook about his efforts, including a detractor’s post that wrote “White Lives Matter” in response. Still, he remains adamant that white conservatives like him must look beyond ridicule and racist comments within their own ranks. and do your part.

Like Ashmore, he understands that change doesn’t start in government halls and police departments, but at home.

Sexton speaks proudly of his 11-year-old son, Tyler, who was at his side of the rally with a sign he made only to express outrage at the time the officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck.

It said, “It shouldn’t take 8 minutes, 46 seconds to see that Black Lives Matter is important.”

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