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Why did Black Lives Matter protests attract unprecedented white support?

The cruelty of George Floyd’s killing resonated in the pandemic lockdown

Where did all these white people come from?

The killing of George Floyd has inspired an outpouring of white empathy in a way that the shootings of Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott or Tamir Rice – just to name a few – did not. Although white people have been part of the black freedom struggle since the days of the Underground Railroad, their current participation is unlike anything we have ever seen.

Protests in hundreds of cities, in every state, have had large and sometimes majority-white crowds. White women made themselves human shields to protect black protesters. White superstar athletes, such as NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Joe Burrow, signed petitions and tweeted support. Utah’s Republican Sen. Mitt Romney joined the cause. Apple committed $100 million to a racial justice fund; the NFL increased its commitment to $250 million. Museums and corporations supported the protests. Spontaneous reparations flowed. More than ever before in the movement that began with Martin’s killing in 2012, white people are chanting, posting, even screaming: Black Lives Matter.

The pendulum has swung so far, white people are washing black feet. It felt like Democrats in the House of Representatives verged on blackface when they appropriated Ghanaian kente cloth. White celebrities are making cringeworthy videos. The Bachelor TV show decided, for the first time, to give a black man access to its white women.

I discussed the unprecedented white response with two civil rights veterans: Mary Frances Berry, a University of Pennsylvania professor and author of History Teaches Us to Resist, is the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Michael Steinberg, a professor at the University of Michigan law school and director of its Civil Rights Litigation Initiative, brought dozens of civil rights and police misconduct cases in 22 years with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Right now, three weeks after George Floyd was killed, much of the white participation is more symbolic than strategic. Even though some of their support can feel belated or awkward, their engagement is what many have long sought: masses of white people standing with us and affirming our humanity.

Several themes emerged:

Even amid the gallery of police atrocities against black people, Derek Chauvin pressing his knee onto Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds is stunningly cruel. It followed a recent series of black executions, including Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and the national uproar over a white woman calling the police on a black bird-watcher in New York City. Floyd was killed during the coronavirus lockdown, when there were fewer distractions to national attention and massive pent-up energy to release. And the protests were an avenue for people to express their opposition to a climate of racial hostility stoked by President Donald Trump.

“I think that white people, demonstrating their privilege, were shocked by what happened to George Floyd,” said Steinberg, who is white. “Large numbers of white people thought the system [was being] fixed after Ferguson; after marches; after the Ferguson report; diversity, equity and inclusion training; racial sensitivity training; cameras worn by officers. They thought that reform would work and the system could be fixed, that it’s a matter of ‘bad apples.’

“This video was so revolting, and so many people watched it for nearly nine minutes, this smug white male officer with his hand in his pocket, carrying out a modern-day lynching,” Steinberg said. “It shocked many white people into realizing that this is not an aberration, this is part of a systemic problem.”

A protester wears a mask that says “White Silence is Violence” at Columbus Circle in New York City on June 14.

Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

For some of us black folks, it can feel bittersweet that it took such an awful killing to bring so many white people into the light. Where were these massive numbers when video emerged of an officer shooting Scott in the back, or another gunning down 12-year-old Tamir on sight, or any of the other egregious and unpunished killings of black people?

“White people should have known these things happened before the videos,” Steinberg said. “It was really a long-overdue wake-up call for many, many people.”

The alarm echoed more loudly during the coronavirus lockdown. Berry noted that Floyd’s killing landed in a space with no sports, school, family activities, vacations or other recreational pursuits that normally divert our attention. Racial issues also have a more prominent place in our recent culture, she said, with black athletes speaking out, films such as Harriet being released and The 1619 Project urging a reckoning with the full impact of slavery. “These cultural inputs, as well as the lack of diversion, created the context for people to respond viscerally and angrily,” Berry said.

“And here’s the bottom line,” Berry continued. “This whole protest, writ large, is a protest against Trump.”

Said Steinberg: “I’d like to think that if Obama was still president, there would still be protests like this. But so many people have become so enraged with Trump’s phobias and racism, especially among the young white population, they feel like they need to get out in the streets to bring about any sort of change, and just express their anger.”

So what will this new era of white activism bring about? So far, it has helped push concepts such as systemic racism and white privilege into the mainstream. It has contributed to serious consideration not of reforming the way police act, but rethinking everything law enforcement is asked to do.

Berry sees troubling signs that even with widespread white support, the movement will not fully address the underlying causes of the problems – racial disparities in poverty, housing, jobs and education that create conditions ripe for abusive police behavior. She worries that the protests will “be wrapped up in a nice little symbolic package,” like the black mayor of Washington who recently requested an increase in the police budget before painting giant “BLACK LIVES MATTER” letters on a street near the White House, or demonstrations being turned into political rallies with food trucks and festive atmospheres.

“I’m hoping that the protest movement rights itself,” she said. “It would be nice to have the white people who are involved stick with it, and Black Lives Matter get some more momentum, and keep going until they actually get something done. But it’s not going to be done without pressure.”

Right now, three weeks after Floyd was killed, much of the white participation is more symbolic than strategic. Even though some of their support can feel belated or awkward, their engagement is what many have long sought: masses of white people standing with us and affirming our humanity.

One place this happened was Clarion University in rural western Pennsylvania. Clarion’s black student population is about 300, but at a vigil and march on June 11 up to 1,000 people showed up. After the marchers knelt for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, bagpipes played.

Kevan Yenerall, a Clarion political science professor, was in attendance. “It’s incumbent on white people like myself, who’ve been very lucky and who have relatively privileged white-collar experiences, to embrace this multigenerational, multiracial movement,” he said. “It is so difficult in our imperfect system to build, mobilize and sustain coalitions. So any time you have a chance to foster this kind of movement, these kind of coalitions, to try to build some positive change, you need to get involved.”

As the protests spread across the nation, Yenerall changed the header picture on his Facebook page to an image of the Black Lives Matter letters painted on the street in Washington. Symbolic, yes, but Yenerall believes that symbols have moral and political power.

“It was simple and profound solidarity. We understand the pain being expressed, and we acknowledge systemic and structural deficiencies in our country,” he said.

“I just felt I had to. I had to. It’s the least I could do, for crying out loud.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.