National news outlets presented 2020 as a year of expansive progress on the journey toward racial justice in America, a racial reckoning so to speak. George Floyd’s death –– as well as Ahmaud Arbery’s and Breonna Taylor’s –– started a nationwide crisis of conscience, as the country’s eyes were opened to the horrors of police and vigilante violence against Black Americans. The response was tremendous. People took to the streets by the millions, celebrities donated large sums to social justice organizations, major corporations announced new DEI initiatives and bookstores started stocking their shelves with anti-racist works.
The size and reach of 2020’s movement led many to compare it to the 1960s civil rights protests, the protests that helped produce the landmark Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Whether you were in favor of the movement or not, it seemed a foregone conclusion that significant social and institutional changes were bound to take place. But, a year and a half removed from the height of that movement, not much has changed.
I voiced skepticism about the 2020 social justice efforts at the end of that summer, pointing out how nothing became of either of the two federal police reform bills that were proposed that summer and how support for Black Lives Matter, which had peaked that summer, fell below its pre-2020-movement level. These facts seemed an omen of the inaction to come. Still, in that moment I held out hope that at some point, something substantive would get done.
But that is clearly not the case.
Take, for instance, the financial promises top companies made in support of racial justice. A Washington Post report found that 90 percent of the nearly 50 billion that America’s top companies pledged to racial justice was “allocated as loans or investments they could stand to profit from, more than half in the form of mortgages.” Setting aside the dubious alignment of profit incentives and racial justice, the report also found that the companies’ investments would only make a small dent in racial wealth and homeownership gaps, gaps that those companies had a large role in creating.
But what we may not expect companies to do –– take sweeping action to promote equality –– we should expect the government to do. And yet, many recent legislative attempts at starting racial justice initiatives have failed in unsurprising, but still disappointing, fashion. The Congressional hand-wringing and speech-giving has yielded little more than a few empty pedestals, a new federal holiday and an amusing photo of Democrats in kente cloth. One could attribute this lack of progress to gridlock and an obstructionist party. But there is something to be said for Democrats’ deprioritization of protecting voting rights, an issue that Black activists had long been advocating for federal action on. I don’t make a habit of quoting Sen. Mitch McConnell, but he has a point when he says “Citizens are meant to believe a return of Jim Crow is on the table, but [federal voting rights legislation] was only President Biden’s sixth priority.”
In recent months, much of the country has begun to sprint away from the concept of racial justice altogether. Critical Race Theory has become an imprecise catch-all for everything about racial progress that white people fear, and Republican-led state legislatures have used this new boogeyman to effectively ban any mention of contemporary racism in the classroom. On the legislative front, our country went from talking about how to remedy systemic racism to denying that it even exists, and the swiftness with which that change occurred is terrifying.
If you paid any attention in history class, you would know that these developments are unsurprising. Each move we make toward racial justice is met with a countermove that reestablishes racism in a different form. Legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw describes the phenomenon well, saying “…reform [will] inevitably reproduce retrenchment and backlash. That has been the history of progress around race in the United States: Modest reform creates tremendous backlash. And sometimes the backlash is more enduring than the reform.”
While institutional efforts to achieve racial justice have stagnated, there is room for all of us to take responsibility in allowing for that stagnation. At some point between George Floyd’s death and now, we stopped caring. The social justice slideshows flooded Instagram and then they disappeared. The Black Lives Matter donations rolled in, until they didn’t. The protests swelled in size and then dwindled in number. We moved on with our lives, and in doing so we conceded that we were okay with the status quo, that there were more pressing things for us to do than advocating for racial justice, that our work was done.
So it seems we will remain in this sad equilibrium until the next murder stirs us to action, and we will go through the motions of fighting for racial equity again, and there’s a good chance we will end up going nowhere.