Our Racial Reckoning Could Have Come Sooner. What Made 2020 Different?

I would suggest that what conditioned the racial reckoning of 2020 was partly contingency. To wit, I think the pandemic was the determining factor.

Tragically, hideously, Americans learn of Black people dying under appalling circumstances, involving police officers, quite often. Think of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner — whether these circumstances lead to criminal convictions, or charges, which they often don’t. Few of us, especially those of us who live in New York City, will ever forget Garner’s words, “I can’t breathe,” though even his death wasn’t a fulcrum in quite the way Floyd’s was. In May 2020, there was something besides the injustice and brutality of Floyd’s murder that motivated the surge of nationwide demonstrations: the fact that we had been in pandemic isolation for two months and that around that same time it was becoming clear that conditions were not going to change anytime soon.

I don’t mean to imply that this outcry was insincere or cynical. But I suspect that what helped make the difference was the pandemic lockdown. At that unusual and challenging time, for many people, being outdoors and connecting with other people was understandably a uniquely powerful temptation. The lockdown also gave a broader range of people — beyond those already committed to activism — the time to reflect, and to devote their energies to things beyond themselves, something they may not have done under normal circumstances.

As such, it could be that if there had not been a lockdown, the Floyd protests would have been smaller in scale and shorter in duration. Further, one could surmise that if the sequence of events had taken place a few months earlier, with the lockdown beginning in the fall and Floyd’s murder happening in the colder months of January or February, this, too, would have, hypothetically, made protests smaller, less likely or shorter-term in many locations. And this probably would have decreased the chances that the protests stimulated a think-in about racism that would still be going strong two years later.

There’s a case that the pandemic shaped the racial reckoning in another way. A controversial aspect of the reckoning has been the examples of workplace disciplinary actions that have become commonplace in its wake, out of a general sense of these actions as inherent to the mission of reconsidering racism. (In this newsletter, I’ve written about more than one.) That a number of these instances involve social media should come as no surprise: These platforms place a kind of scrim curtain between people that can lessen our sense of dehumanization as unnatural.

It’s not unlike what can happen to us on video chat applications such as Zoom or messaging programs such as Slack. Contempt and condemnation can come more easily to us when directed to a static avatar on Twitter or someone in a box on a screen than to a person we are in the same room with. Chat features and direct-message side exchanges also allow factions to build up opposition as a general meeting runs, in a way that passing notes and sharing dismissive facial expressions cannot. The way we’ve learned to communicate in the past few years, sometimes normalizing real-time shaming and dismissing, has set new norms that now feel like the default, even as live meetings become routine again.

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