Ongoing racial reckoning in the post-George Floyd era - Salish Current
February 9, 2023
Ongoing racial reckoning in the post-George Floyd era
Vernon Damani Johnson

Marchers in one of several Black Lives Matter rallies in Whatcom County were among many thousands across the country in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by police. Three years on, resistance on the part of some Americans to broader, more inclusive ways of understanding our society still exists, even as police killings of Black people continue. (Salish Current file photo)

February 9, 2023
Ongoing racial reckoning in the post-George Floyd era
Vernon Damani Johnson


The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is nearly three years since the Summer of Racial Reckoning of America occasioned by the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Unhappily, we are also mourning the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis and the police killings of two Black men and one Brown man in Los Angeles right after the New Year.

The miserable state of police-Black community relations was called into question in 2020. But the entire host of inequities between the races was also laid bare in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. These included health care access, and who put themselves at risk to deliver health care and get food from farm to table, along with policing and criminal justice. Across that summer progressive activists and intellectuals condemned our entire set of institutions for “systemic” or “structural” racism.  

The mass street demonstrations of 2020 were the most widespread protest seen in the country since the Black Power rebellions of 1967–68. Racial disparities across a range of issues were openly debated. Liberal politicians began to decry systemic racism. They were joined by institutional leaders, now “woke’” from education, the arts, sports and even the corporate sector. After winning a narrow victory for the presidency that was buttressed by strong turnout from progressives, Joe Biden declared that Americans must “come together” to “root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system.” 

But we live in a divided country, and indeed in my writings I have argued that we live in two nations: one liberal and “progressive,” and the other “traditional” and conservative.

Predictably, a traditionalist backlash was mountedWhile many states have passed police reform and oversight laws since 2020, many others have passed laws to increase police funding. And it has proved impossible to move the dial on qualified immunity, the policy shielding police officers from being sued by individuals unless they can show that their rights were violated.

In education, traditionalists reacted to demands by for more racial diversity and inclusion in school curriculums, claiming that progressive educators were insinuating critical race theory (CRT) into their classrooms. CRT has origins in Marxism as well as Black nationalism. Students should be in college classrooms to be exposed to it. Even there, it is in contention with other theoretical approaches, and students learn from different professors teaching other theories. This is as it should be in college classrooms. The sizable majority of K-12 teachers concerned with diversifying their syllabi today are not teaching CRT. They’re simply offering a more holistic narrative about American history and contemporary society.

A Brookings Institution report found that by 2021 several red states had passed legislation to “ban the discussion, training, and/or orientation that the U.S. is inherently racist as well as any discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression.”  At the local level school districts have turned to book banning. In 128 school districts in 32 states, 5,049 schools, with a combined enrollment of nearly 4 million students, have banned 41% of their books because of LGBTQ+ protagonists or themes and banned another 40% that were predominantly about race. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2024, signed three bills into law in 2021 that direct how race and gender will be discussed from kindergarten through college. He stated that his goal was to combat the “woke” agenda. Since the beginning of this year he has banned the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course and announced his intention to terminate “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and Critical Race Theory (CRT) programs within the public school systems and reset scholar’s eyes upon the histories and philosophies of the West.” (The Floridian Jan. 31, 2023)

All this intense resistance to broader and more inclusive ways of understanding our society comes as cops continue to kill Black people in the streets with impunity! What’s wrong with traditionalist conservative America? They can deride wokeness, but the alternative to being awake before our growing diversity is to be asleep, sleepwalking through a fast-changing world and wishing it weren’t so.

The Biden presidency has placed the ship of state and nation in neutral, stopping it from careening into the abyss of Trumpian MAGA America. But for the foreseeable future we will continue to witness the battle between an American traditionalism whose base is the rich and the white working class against the multiracial (and multi-gendered) progressive majority. The future of democracy demands that progressives win this historic contest to define the American nation in the 21st century.

— Contributed by Vernon Damani Johnson

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