There was no racial reckoning
Updated 8:18 AM ET, Mon April 19, 2021
(CNN)They tell me I've experienced a "racial reckoning."
I keep seeing that phrase pop up in news stories. I hear politicians and CEOs use the term as if there's no doubt it's true. I even put the phrase in one of my own headlines without ever asking myself what a racial reckoning meant.
It's hard to avoid using that phrase, because it reflects a consensus. Nearly a year after the death of George Floyd, many Americans routinely describe the protests that followed last summer as a singular, racially transformative moment.
But as the trial of the police officer accused of killing Floyd nears its end, I've reached an uncomfortable conclusion:
Floyd's death did not lead to a racial reckoning. And those who care about racial justice should welcome the absence of one -- or at least the version I'm talking about.
The "racial reckoning" phrase has become a rhetorical decoy, a way to avoid facing the deepest problems about race in America instead of a call to confront them.
What racial reckonings and cicadas have in common
I know that sounds blasphemous. Floyd's death sparked what some called the largest protest movement in US history. White support for the Black Lives Matter reached an all-time high. Demonstrators toppled Confederate monuments. And so many people bought books on antiracism that booksellers had trouble keeping them in stock.
It seemed as if we were finally turning the corner. Maryland lawmakers passed a series of police reforms that limited no-knock warrants. The Seattle City Council banned chokeholds and tear gas by police. Small predominantly White towns held Black Lives Matter rallies.
A renowned Yale University professor described the wave of protests as an "awakening" that is "rare in our history."
"This is the time to strike, the time to take audacious steps to address systemic racial inequality -- bold, sweeping reparative action," Yale psychologist Jennifer Richeson wrote in an essay last September.
Yet look at what happened in the months after the US experienced its racial "awakening" following Floyd's death last May.
A group of audacious Americans did strike -- at the heart of our democracy. A mob staged a "White riot" on the US Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of last year's presidential election. Former President Trump, viewed by many as a racist, received more votes than any other presidential candidate in history except for his opponent.
And Republican lawmakers in more than 45 states are now mounting what some call the most sustained assault against Black civil rights since the Jim Crow era by introducing more than at least 361 bills to restrict voting, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice.
So why do we keep saying that the country has experienced a racial reckoning?
Part of it is habit. White America has been telling itself that it is experiencing a racial awakening for decades. These awakenings are like the cicadas that emerge every 17 years. The phrase resurfaces in headlines whenever some shocking act of racial brutality happens and White America is shocked and moved to tears. Then the moral outrage fades and the news cycle moves on.
The evidence of these periodic racial awakenings can be found in old news clippings.
"Racial Reckoning Goes to the North." That was the headline from a story in an August 1974 issue of the Palm Beach Post, which described the furious resistance Northern Whites mounted against busing Black children to their virtually all-White public schools.
"Facing a racial reckoning." That was a headline in a 1987 story in the Christian Science Monitor that described the hate civil rights demonstrators encountered when they marched in a White rural country in Georgia.
"A day of racial reckoning." That's how one Associated Press reporter described The Million Man March on Washington in 1995.
If we keep on having so many racial reckonings, why does it feel like nothing has changed for so many people of color?
It's because we've been living with two contrasting definitions of a racial reckoning.
Gestures by White people do not equal true change
For some, a racial reckoning occurs when enough White people suddenly realize that the country's racial problems are much worse than they thought. It's often triggered by a brutal image, like the photographs of police dogs lunging at Black demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. Or Floyd going limp as a White police officer placed his knee on his neck.
It's that moment of shock that meshes with how the dictionary defines the word, reckoning: an "appraisal or judgment," a "computation" or "counting of the cost." Such moments have led to transformative change. The images from Birmingham helped lead to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which struck down segregation in public accommodations.
That the was the history a BBC correspondent Nick Bryant was thinking of last May when he became the first journalist to use the term "racial reckoning" in connection with Floyd's death, according to a LexisNexis search. Bryant wrote a 600-word story declaring that the US is "now in the midst of another racial reckoning."
"It struck me as a historical moment, like the pictures of the police dogs lunging at protestors in the streets of Birmingham or the Rodney King beating," says Bryant, author of the book, "When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present."
"As somebody who studied the civil rights movement," he says, "I knew those kinds of moments led to a reckoning and led to change."
But there is another definition of racial reckoning that many people of color and their White allies subscribe to. In this definition, the emphasis is not on White remorse but on fundamental change. And the expectation is nothing less than a dramatic improvement in the lives of ordinary people of color.
Can we honestly say that life is dramatically different for people of color one year after Floyd's death?
The sheer Groundhog Day repetition of seeing one Black person after another die on camera is one reason why some people are furious about the recent shooting of Daunte Wright, a young Black man killed during a traffic stop in Minnesota. The shooting has led to at least six nights of protests outside the Brooklyn Center Police Department.
Jelani Cobb, a writer for The New Yorker, wrote a recent column on the trial of Derek Chauvin, the officer accused of killing Floyd, in which he asked what has changed since last year's protests. Cobb cited some changes: the "mercenary corporate endorsements of the phrase 'Black Lives Matter' as well as substantial legislative and policy changes in policing."