Washington CNN  — 

Since the police killing of George Floyd, White Americans have been confronting the country’s racism in a way that both illustrates the work yet to be done on this score and stands out from President Donald Trump’s recent Juneteenth fiasco.

America is reckoning with allyship.

One way to parse the current political moment is via Donald Glover’s surreal and sophisticated FX dramedy “Atlanta.” In particular, Season 1’s penultimate episode explores the frequent hollowness of allyship.

“Juneteenth” follows the show’s protagonist, Earnest “Earn” Marks (who’s played by Glover), as he attends a party celebrating Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of American slavery more than two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. He’s accompanying his on/off girlfriend, Vanessa “Van” Keefer (Zazie Beetz). The event’s hosts are Craig Allen (Rick Holmes), who’s a wealthy, Hennessy-drinking White man, and his Black wife, Monique (Cassandra Freeman).

Craig performs an interest in Black culture, offering, unbidden, a litany of references to Black history: “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it,” he says to Earn, reciting the quote – by Malcolm X, naturally – that inspired his cartoonish painting of the Black freedom struggle. Later, Craig asks Earn to sit in the front row for his delivery of a slam poem (oof) about being haunted by Jim Crow (ooooof).

For all that preening, though, Craig has his limits. When Monique dismisses Earn’s cousin, the rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), as a “trifling thug,” Craig only looks away in discomfort. His silence puts distance between himself and his avowed affection for Earn (and his support for Black causes, generally). In this light, his previous words aren’t merely queasy, if hilarious; they’re empty.

Recent real-life events have foregrounded a similar tension between show and substance. Last Monday, Democratic members of the House and Senate unveiled the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which “includes measures to increase accountability for law enforcement misconduct, to enhance transparency and data collection and to eliminate discriminatory policing practices.”

Prior to introducing the bill, they held a moment of silence for the length of time former Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin pinned Floyd under his knee before Floyd died.

But the thoughtful gesture was somewhat blunted by the congressional leaders’ decision to wear matching kente-cloth stoles. The textile, which can be traced back to the Akan people of what’s now Ghana, was supposed to telegraph kinship and defiance.

California Rep. Karen Bass, who’s the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Washington Post that since Trump entered the White House in 2017, “it has become a symbol of protest about his racist depiction of Africa. On Monday, we wore the kente because we felt that after 49 years (since the CBC was formed), we were finally getting legislation about police abuse.”

And yet, the move registered more like a stunt, distracting from anti-Black state violence and mirroring what many see as the weaknesses of the bill.

“The theatrics of Monday happened to underscore the problem with the reformist legislation contained in the Justice in Policing Act,” The New Yorker’s Doreen St. Félix wrote, nodding to the ongoing debate over defunding the police versus revamping an institution rooted in racism. (Notably, while the group was mixed, the White congressional leaders were the main targets of derision.)

Of course, the Democrats’ behavior may have been embarrassing. But Trump’s has been downright repellent.

Without acknowledging the importance of the date or location, the administration announced last week that Trump’s first rally since March would be on Juneteenth, and in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of one of the country’s most violent racial massacres. Trump postponed the rally only after much outcry – Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, denounced the almost-event, calling it a “welcome home party” for White supremacists.

Attempted allyship has appeared in other ways, too, including in direct discussions of White people’s role in the work of anti-racism. The weeks following Floyd’s killing have been filled with trumpeted desires to read books on race: Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.”

These books are significant; it’s a good thing that so many White people, specifically, want to consume them, and seemingly draw a line in the sand in a way that didn’t happen during past seasons of protest. Still, it can be hard to distinguish between, as the Princeton University professor Imani Perry describes it, “expressions of solidarity and gestures of absolution (See, I’m not a racist, I said you matter!)”

In addition, while declarations of support can be valuable, they’re no substitute for more meaningful action that might help to undo the harm of centuries of bigotry.

To think otherwise is to nurture someone like Craig, depicted in “Atlanta.” He’s the kind of well-meaning White person who relishes easy, low-stakes engagement with Black culture – in, say, making his wife read Ntozake Shange’s 1976 choreopoem “For Colored Girls” – but who apparently lacks the conviction even to have a challenging conversation.

Part of the power of “Atlanta” is that it exposes this behavior for what it is: a joke that’s funny until it’s not.