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'Something is not right.' George Floyd protests push white Americans to think about their privilege

Tyrone Beason, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

GUALALA, Calif. -- Mike Sexton is white and a Republican who lives in an affluent suburb of Fort Worth, where many neighbors back President Donald Trump and some work in law enforcement. Rage wells up in his voice as he says that George Floyd, a Black man, was "basically lynched."

Shawn Ashmore is an independent who lives nearby in east Dallas. He's using Floyd's killing to teach his young sons uncomfortable lessons about the privileges their family enjoys because they're white -- how, for instance, they'll never fear for their lives during an encounter with the police the way some Black men do.

Lisa Joakimides lives in rural Northern California and considers herself a well-meaning Democrat. After the election of Barack Obama in 2008, Joakimides, who is white, convinced herself that America was finally making amends for its history of mistreating Black people.

As Joakimides got down on both knees to honor Floyd at a roadside demonstration in early June, she wondered how she could have been so naive.

Floyd's killing in Minneapolis, captured in witness videos showing then-Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd's neck, has led white Americans to call out racism against Black Americans more vigorously than at any moment in recent memory. And it's prompting many white people to think more deeply about the color of their own skin.

Why now? Chicago-based sociology professor Jacqueline Battalora believes that after three wearying months of social isolation and economic upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Floyd's killing was yet another blow to the illusions of safety, security and equality that many white people harbor about America.


"The police are fair; institutions are fair -- white people have been so happy to believe those things," said Battalora, a former police officer and author of "Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today." "What this signals is that a good chunk of white people now have some recognition that something's not right."

For Sexton, Ashmore and Joakimides, the killing of Floyd and outpourings of rage have forced them to see that expressions of sympathy and displays of solidarity with Black people are only the beginning. America won't change its racist ways, they say, unless white people use this period of protest and reflection to change too.

What's different this time, Sexton said, is that white people have gained a better sense of where that outrage comes from, and how insulated they are from the racial injustices that provoke it.

Sexton, 45, said he can't sit on the sidelines of the protest movement, or shy away from the national conversation about racism and police brutality, simply because he votes red instead of blue.


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