From Washington, D.C., to Whitefish, Montana, white America is reckoning with racism, publicly demonstrating its belief that black lives have been too long neglected and abused. There’s just one question: Why now?
According to a Civiqs poll, 53% of Americans support Black Lives Matter and only 25% oppose it — a 12-point increase in support since mid-April. By a double-digit margin, BLM is more popular than either Donald Trump or Joe Biden. As political scientist Drew Linzer noted: BLM “is the single most favorably viewed national political organization or politician in America right now.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly is driving the change. The brutal killing last month of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer was surely a dramatic event. But there have been other harrowing racial alarms in recent years.
Actual Nazis marched by torchlight in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, earning a presidential imprimatur — “very fine people” — even after a counter-protester was murdered. Ahmaud Arbery was hunted and killed by two white men in Georgia in February for an offense that all available evidence suggests entailed jogging while black. His death produced sufficient outrage to derail an official whitewash of the killing and provoke a genuine investigation. Neither tragedy ignited national protests.
This month’s widespread protests of police brutality have put racial reactionaries on the defensive. But they haven’t altered the operating manual of the Trump White House, which was in the midst of using COVID-19 to fan anti-Chinese sentiment when Floyd was killed. Trump’s overt racism has made complaints about racism more credible and perhaps easier for whites outside the White House/Fox News propaganda sphere to grasp. In one survey taken in the first days of June, two-thirds of Americans, including 63% of whites, said Trump has mostly increased racial tensions.
There may be some precedent for what we’re seeing. The enormous Women’s March, which took place the day after Trump’s inauguration, was a reaction to the election of a president with a history of sexual assault and denigration of women. The #MeToo movement, a culmination of cultural forces that have been building for more than a century, grew from that outrage. It seems unlikely that the movement’s burst of success in the past two years is unrelated to an Oval Office boor who goes out of his way to attack women.
Likewise, a white racist president may be a necessary predicate to the wave of protests unleashed in recent weeks. The election of the first black president in 2008 led many whites to conclude that discrimination against blacks was in the past. At the same time, policy and political disputes grew increasingly racialized. “Once Obama was elected and in office is when you see the big changes,” said Maneesh Arora, a political scientist at Wellesley College who researches racial appeals in U.S. politics. “Obama became racialized and the Democratic Party became the nonwhite party.”
Obama, who rarely spoke of racial issues, racialized American politics by his very existence. Trump does so by acting and speaking — through racial aggression, racist policies, demagogic rhetoric and a White House staff that, in appearance and politics, approximates Jim Crow America.
In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall surveys a range of experts about whether this time is different. There appears to be no firm consensus, and, given Trump’s political volatility and personal corruption, almost any twist in the narrative is possible.
Racial politics is more complex than it was in the 1960s, when a large white majority took a step back and watched the brutal effects of its systemic oppression of a small black minority. Hispanics and Asians, the two fastest-growing components of the U.S. population, are in the mix now, creating possibilities for new alliances and new tensions. It was only five years ago that Jeb Bush was running for president hoping to cement a conservative alliance of whites and Hispanics to create a new Republican majority.
Trump has, for now at least, demolished that plan. His racial politics seek to put whites exclusively in the driver’s seat, with rural and small-town whites elevated above the residents of cosmopolitan, multiracial, liberal America. So the emergence of protests in predominantly white small towns is perhaps the most surprising and poignant aspect of the BLM protests.
Whites in cosmopolitan America assume little or no risk in protesting — or “virtue signaling” if you prefer — on behalf of black lives. Whites in conservative small towns are more likely to face social consequences, including reputational risks. “In small, conservative, white towns there are some white people willing to step forward to protest,” said University of Pittsburgh historian Lara Putnam, who has studied contemporary grassroots politics. “In small towns, people older than 30 or 40 are living in a media environment shaped by Fox News and Facebook. Younger people are living in a very different environment shaped by Instagram and Tik Tok. They’re hearing a very different narrative about Black Lives Matter and race in America.”
If the current reckoning has staying power, it will take root in both small towns and the executive suites of large corporations. While America is vastly more diverse than it was during the civil-rights era, the hinge of racial politics is still white people. And the hinge of white sentiment and attitude is located in towns and suburbs.
Trump has placed his bet on racial tribalism backed by authoritarian impulse. In Minneapolis, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, a white police officer displayed the price that must be paid for that vision to prevail. If that proves too much for white Americans to bear in 2020, then the MAGA reaction against multiracial democracy is over. For now.