By Barbara Becnel
When thousands of people of all backgrounds marched shoulder to shoulder on city streets, during a pandemic in June 2020, to protest the killing of George Floyd, civil rights leaders and BLM activists could be seen on American television nearly in awe of the phenomenon. White people had finally joined the fight against deadly race-based treatment of black men by mostly white police officers. Such multi-racial participation in this campaign for justice inspired a new narrative among black politicians and BLM advocates. ‘This time is different,’ they all gleefully proclaimed on news programs.
A national survey found that in the beginning of the protests, sixty percent of whites supported the BLM movement, compared to eighty-six percent of blacks (Pew Research Center). By September 2020, only forty-five percent of whites still supported this movement — a drop of fifteen percentage points in just four months. Meanwhile, the percentage of blacks supporting the protests increased by one percentage point to a total of eighty-seven percent. So, what happened in just a few months to undermine the upward trajectory of what had been assumed, at least by black social justice advocates, to be a powerful black-white allyship in the making? In seeking to understand this disappointing outcome, my focus is on three key questions: Why were white people BLM allies in the first place? What influenced how far they were willing to go? Should black people reimagine the concept of allyship?
Why White Allies Now?
Did white people become BLM allies in part because they finally believed black people’s laments — that they faced far more danger than white people when encountering white police officers?
The standard argument explaining such disbelief considers white people’s typically benign engagements with police as making it difficult for them to conceive of the vastly different lived experience of black people and the police. As the argument goes, this makes it hard for whites to empathize with any truth other than their own. My suspicion is that the pejorative imprimatur of white people’s social construction of black people has prevented them from valuing messages of police brutality delivered by black people. Given the black-as-criminal trope that is prevalent in America white people generally feel that the harsher treatment white police officers tend to impose on black men is deserved. ‘They should just do what they’re told by police,’ is a common refrain made often by white television commentators. I would argue, therefore, that the inability to empathize with an unfamiliar circumstance is not the driving force in white people’s disbelief of black people’s report of harm at the hands of the police — racism is.
A breakthrough occurred in this pattern of racial bias, albeit short-lived, because the George Floyd video was unbearable to watch at a vulnerable time in American society afflicted by a confluence of hardships: a pandemic, recession-level unemployment and mandated social isolation. But as the country reopened, white allyship waned and old patterns of racialized denial re-emerged. In a National Public Radio/Ipsos survey conducted in August 2020, nearly seventy-five percent of white respondents were optimistic that police would start behaving better in their treatment of black people. Black people had a starkly different prediction.
How Far is Far Enough?
An element of Critical Race Theory (CRT) — interest convergence — also plays a role in understanding the inherent tension barely below the surface of black-white allyship. Interest convergence is when the change sought by black people can be framed in such a way as to align with a concern that is likewise desired by the white majority. In simple terms, the protester’s chant, ‘No justice, no peace,’ comprises an interest convergence. Black people want justice, it is assumed, while white people want peace on the streets. Black people also want peace and white people also want justice, at least for themselves and for certain other people if the price is not too high to secure that peace. But the essence of interest convergence is that it must include something of sufficient value to be considered a benefit by the white populace from whom black people are seeking support.
But the primary interest for convergence these days that means a great deal to white people involves damage to property, rather than damage to black people. This poses a conundrum for black-white allyship, in that the hurt imposed upon black people is, in fact, the paramount interest for black people. But it tends to lose its significance with white people if during street-level protesting stores are looted and commercial buildings are destroyed through fires and vandalism. So, the respective interests of blacks and whites do not comfortably converge in this instance, which accounts in part for the high drop-out rate of white allies sticking with this cause. White people had limits as to how far they were willing to go in support of the BLM movement. Their interest convergence had never included much beyond fighting for the end of police mistreatment of black people. Confronting systemic racism had never been a broadly supported interest on the part of some whites in America though it is of considerable concern to black people.
Given the above, this allyship was in trouble from the start.
Given America’s tenuous black-white allyship, the ties that bind black and white people are not as strong as we have conjured them to be.
Though white support for the BLM movement dropped fifteen percentage points in four months, during that same period Asian support only dropped six percentage points. This left sixty-nine percent of Asians surveyed still supportive of the BLM movement. Hispanic support dropped by eleven percent, leaving sixty-six percent of Hispanics still in support of the movement.
Blacks make up a bit more than thirteen percent of the overall population in the United States. Asians comprise nearly six percent of the country’s populace. Hispanics represent almost seventeen percent of the citizenry. Combined, these three minority groups tally more than one-third of the American people.
Strategically, then, African Americans would do well to entertain the possibility of reimagining the concept of allyship. This could be done by purposefully constructing BLM ally relationships with Asian and Hispanic communities, along with those remaining white allies for whom eliminating racism across the nation’s many systems matters.
Barbara Becnel is an African American PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, who is part of the Advance HE project ‘Tackling racism on campus: Raising awareness and creating the conditions for confident conversations’ funded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). Barbara is an author, journalist, film producer and social justice activist. She has led a large non-profit social services agency in northern California. She organised an international media campaign to try and prevent a judicial execution of a reformed black gang leader Tookie Williams. Barbara co-produced the Golden Globe nominated film Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story.