A Great Awokening? It Still Takes Video for Black People to Be Believed | Opinion

Americans are obsessed with narratives of progress. We look for any sign that the country is moving in the right direction, especially on matters of racism. And we often measure progress by noting the distance between where we are now in comparison to where we were, rather than by examining the gap between where we are and where we could or should be.

This instinct to find any evidence of progress has become quite apparent over the past few weeks. We are witnessing the second wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, and both the media and many scholars have remarked on how many more white Americans are showing up to shout down systemic racism in policing. They have lauded the notion that white people's political attitudes around issues of racial discrimination have progressed. They say Americans are experiencing "a great awokening."

But I am only cautiously optimistic.

I've studied race and racism in America for over a decade and written two books on the matter. Despite the immense amount of existing evidence ranging from Black people's everyday experiences to empirical evidence of racial justice presented by accomplished Black scholars, white Americans have refused to believe Black people's testimonies. Black folks' insight into their own experiences, no less their claims against white people, were historically impermissible in many courts of law in this country. Indeed, "Negro evidence" was allowed only in situations where a Black person was testifying against another Black person. The stereotype of African Americans' inability to be truthful not only shaped public policy but also public opinion. Apparently, it still does.

Black Americans' contemporary, evidenced-backed claims highlighting how people of color are systematically disadvantaged in nearly every domain of American life—health, wealth, education and income, as well as exposure to man-made toxins, bad water and polluted air—are essentially dismissed as "Negro evidence." Similarly, white people's doubt swirled around the cases of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and even Breonna Taylor.

However, this current wave of multiracial protests was sparked by the indisputably brutal death of George Floyd. The video provided evidence to many white people that what Black people have been saying about the police, specifically, is true. Perhaps this was the straw that broke the camel's back—as Floyd's was one of many citizen-filmed police killings. Or perhaps this particular film proves to be solid evidence for those who had been teetering on the sidelines since the contemporary movement for Black lives went into full effect during the summer of 2014.

But why did this video galvanize white support this time? Why is this troubling?

It is now, in this era marked by the ubiquity of high-def quality mobile phone filming (and the little bit of police body-cam footage that is voluntary released or leaked), that more white folks are starting to believe what Black people have been telling them for decades. It is only in response to having an almost first-person view of one of the many gross outcomes of systematic injustice that people are finally coming around to trying to understand structural racism. Now, they see it with their own two eyes. Now, they hear Black pain with their own two ears.

Polls are trending in the right direction. But there are at least two problems that we will need be vigilant about in the coming weeks, months and years.

First, there is often a gap between white people's support for principles of egalitarianism and their preference for policies that actually produce equal opportunity. After the civil rights movement, white people were significantly less likely to support ideas of Black biological inferiority and more likely to support abstract notions of racial inequality. But white people have rarely supported policies like affirmative action—policies that would turn their principles into outcomes.

We still see this contradiction in motion today. People support ongoing protests, as well as the violent way that police are responding to them. People are buying books about anti-racism, but are balking at notions to defund police. Reparations are still off the table.

Second, while we should certainly leverage this moment of awakening to produce even a modicum of change, it is unclear whether the enthusiasm to (mildly) transform policing will spill over to other areas of American life that also lead to the slow, horrific deaths of Black Americans. The fact of the matter is that there is no corollary, clearly filmed, indisputable depiction of systemic racism in health, intergenerational wealth transfers, income disparities due to racial discrimination, access to high quality K-12 education, debt accumulation and state-profiteering on Black poverty. Ifs, ands and buts abound here, discounting "Negro evidence."

When Black women, such as Serena Williams, explain that their knowledge of their own health is not taken into account by medical professionals, the media tends to reduce these stories of survival into ones of being up for the challenge. When statistics show that Black and Latinx children are disproportionately disserved in poorly funded schools or that racial segregation in schools has increased over the past several decades, people deflect, whitesplaining local tax bases and school choice rather than interrogating white opportunity hoarding. When scholars show that the Black-white wealth gap has no signs of closing without policy intervention, people forget about federal and state policies that prevented Black wealth building or ignore white-led race riots aimed at stealing and destroying the little wealth that Black people were able to accumulate.

Black Lives Matter Protest
Demonstrators hold up banners bearing the likenesses of Philando Castile and George Floyd during a protest march on July 6 in St. Anthony, Minnesota. Philando Castile was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop four years ago. Stephen Maturen/Getty

We continue to receive data that COVID-19 is leading to the demise of a disproportionate number of Black people, but because we were required to shelter in place, we had little eye-witnessing of those Black deaths. "Negro evidence" has not been enough to persuade governors to delay reopening their economies despite new spikes in cases; deaths will follow.

I hope that the energy people are putting on the streets gets translated into real policy change. I hope that people begin to recognize that being anti-racist also means believing Black people. I hope that more people will interrogate the gap between their values and their policy preferences. But I also know that Americans are easily satisfied and often self-congratulatory with incremental change.

I won't hold my breath for radical change in policing, and certainly not in other policy areas like education. Nobody would believe my claims that "I can't breathe" anyway, unless it is clearly filmed and broadcast in real time.

Candis Watts Smith is an associate professor of political science and African American studies at Penn State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. She is author of the books Stay Woke: The People's Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter and Racial Stasis: The Millennial Generation and the Stagnation of Racial Attitudes in American Politics.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.