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Excerpted From: Angela Onwuachi-Willig, The Trauma of Awakening to Racism: Did the Tragic Killing of George Floyd Result in Cultural Trauma for Whites?, 58 Houston Law Review 817 (Symposium, 2021) (Address) (120 Footnote) (Full Document)
Daryl Austin is a white, male, heterosexual business owner, journalist, and father who works and resides in Utah. He voted for Donald Trump to be President of the United States in November 2016. In an opinion piece published in the Salt Lake Tribune on February 29, 2020, Austin openly debated whether he would vote for Trump again that same year, but he did so without raising any concerns about what others viewed to be racist rhetoric from Trump on the campaign trail and during his presidency. Instead, in his Salt Lake Tribune piece, Austin focused his concerns on President Trump's name-calling, bemoaning how the official had not been a “kinder president.” on June 14, 2020, Austin, a self-identified Republican, published another opinion piece, sharing the epiphany he had recently experienced about racism, specifically structural racism, in the United States after the horrific killing of George Floyd. Austin wrote about how he had begun to think differently about race and racism--at least when it came to his responsibility to identify and confront racism as a white person. He further acknowledged that he had “[f]or far too long ... lived the life of a privileged white man, unable or unwilling to believe that racism still exists in the world around” him and “[w]orse ... [that he for far too long had] never confronted any of the prejudices that ... live within” him. Horrified by the brazen manner in which former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a white man, had killed George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old black father, son, brother, partner, and friend, in broad daylight in the middle of the street, Austin penned a piece for NBC News in which he proclaimed the following:
Like many other people, I watched in horror and with anger when I saw former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine agonizing minutes as Mr. Floyd pleaded for air to breathe and two additional officers used the weight of their bodies to push Mr. Floyd's body into the filthy concrete. I could not help but wonder how everyone could participate in such an act of sheer inhumanity; I didn't understand how it could have come to pass that they somehow saw George Floyd as being less.
Seeing it unfold before my eyes--or maybe seeing this act unfold after seeing so many other, similar acts unfold in a similar fashion over the last few years--has had a profound effect on me. George Floyd's death was a tipping point, not just for the BlackLivesMatter movement or the movement to reform policing, but even for many white Republicans like me who once chose to believe--perhaps were taught to believe--that the fight to end institutionalized racism had already been won. Something inside me had been reluctant to believe the system was still being perpetuated today. No more.
I've accepted that something in my white heart still needs to change. I am pushing myself to come to terms with my own heritage, my white privilege and my flawed beliefs, as well as to develop a better understanding of the experiences that people of color have living in America today. even Austin noted in his NBC News opinion piece, he was not alone among Whites in this awakening to the prevalence of institutionalized racism after the tragic slaying of George Floyd. Indeed, as protests around the nation during summer 2020 revealed, the very act of witnessing the killing of George Floyd helped to shift many Whites' thinking about policing--specifically, racialized police brutality--across the United States and around the world. For instance, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo described how the “murder” destabilized the ways in which many Whites had always viewed the world around them. Russo asserted,
For many white Americans, George Floyd's murder is the falling beam that “takes the lid off,” that makes it impossible for us to see life as operating the way we once imagined. ... [W]e feel that we will “never know peace again” until we adjust to this new reality. We've glimpsed the way life works for Black people and feel “impacted.” for white individuals with a daily connection to black people, the killing of George Floyd jolted them into another reality. Consider these words from Arick Wierson, a forty-five-year-old white man married to a black woman, with whom he has two biracial, black-white, children. Speaking of how the video clip of George Floyd's death had forever changed him, Wierson declared:
That cry [George Floyd's cry, “Mama”] pierced the bubble of my own White blindness, awakening me to the reality of what it means to be a parent to Black children. For too many years--my entire life, in fact--I had failed to realize that by and large law enforcement has one set of rules for dealing with White citizens and another for people of color.
[. . .]
I'm also angry and extremely disappointed with myself for never having seen things for what they were before Floyd's death. I understand why so many White Americans are in denial about the racial bias of law enforcement; like me, they probably have never had a single disagreeable interaction with cops beyond the occasional traffic violation. White America was and still is largely brought up to venerate law enforcement. data suggests that many other Whites experienced an awakening to the realities of racism after the sickening killing of George Floyd. Although Blacks and Whites continue to report divergent views about the connections between race, racism, and policing in our society, the percentage differences between the views of Blacks and Whites have meaningfully decreased since the brutal slaying of George Floyd. media reports either intimated or argued that the protests that were inspired by the tragic death of George Floyd were different. For example, a New York Times article entitled One Big Difference About George Floyd Protests: Many White Faces highlighted how “large numbers of white and highly educated people” were not only joining the protests against police brutality and racism, but also “going through a wave of self-examination, buying books about racism, talking to black friends, and arguing within their own families.” Similarly, on June 8, 2020, a BBC article proclaimed: “[T]his time seems different, with the responses more sustained and widespread,” with “sports and businesses ... readier to take a stand,” “with the Minneapolis city council pledging to dismantle the police department,” and with “BlackLivesMatter protests ... more racially diverse.” Along the same lines, an August 9, 2020, CNN article entitled George Floyd's Death Ignited a Racial Reckoning That Shows No Signs of Slowing Down declared that the “George Floyd police brutality protests [were] different” from past protests. The article explained that, although BlackLivesMatter “was for years unutterable among swaths of the White population,” in summer 2020, BlackLivesMatter protests were “erupt[ing] not only in cities with vibrant Black communities (Detroit, Baltimore, Atlanta, et al) but also [in] the largely White enclaves of Prairie Village, Kansas, Northfield, Minnesota, Pullman, Washington, and notably, Portland, Oregon.” In that same article, Emory University Professor George Yancy asserted that even he “would have to grant something bigger is happening here.”
Looking at the experiences of Austin, Wierson, and many other white Americans whose polling results reveal a shift in Whites' overall perceptions about the connections between racism and policing, this Article considers whether Whites may have experienced a cultural trauma in response to witnessing the killing-- or to many, the murder--of George Floyd on video. For nearly two decades, cultural sociologists have explored the idea of “cultural trauma” or group-based trauma, as opposed to individual or psychological trauma, by focusing primarily on the experiences of marginalized peoples across the world. Specifically, Professors Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ronald Eyerman, Bernhard Giesen, Neil J. Smelser, and Piotr Sztompka have built on Professor Kai Erikson's groundbreaking scholarship on collective trauma, to construct a framework for understanding when a disorienting tragedy becomes a cultural trauma. In so doing, these scholars have sought to explain the pattern to this form of collective trauma. Out of their work, a definition of cultural trauma has emerged. As these scholars have explained, a cultural trauma “occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.” And, a cultural trauma is a socially mediated process that arises out of an unexpected tragedy, whether real or imagined, that produces a meaning that forever alters the perceptions of the group. According to Alexander, Eyerman, and their colleagues, what most determines whether a tragic occurrence results in a cultural trauma is the trauma process: how the tragedy is understood, interpreted, and communicated by the carrier group.
To explore whether white Americans' widespread viewing of the killing of George Floyd resulted in cultural or group-based trauma for them, thereby creating unprecedented opportunities for real, long-term change with respect to policing in the United States, this Article examines accounts by Whites who have offered emotional, social, intellectual, and political responses to witnessing former Officer Derek Chauvin kneel, with a smirk on his face and under no duress and threat at all, on George Floyd's neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds, which ultimately caused the death of the forty-six-year-old African-American father and partner.
Part II of this Article provides a brief introduction to cultural trauma theory, detailing for readers how cultural trauma differs from psychological trauma and explicating the parts of a cultural trauma narrative.
Part III of this Article considers whether the response of many Whites to the George Floyd killing satisfies the components of a cultural trauma narrative. Before doing so, Part III first looks to critical race theory to understand how and why Blacks and Whites have perceived the links between race, racism, and policing so differently. Part III then examines national polling data over the past fifteen years to see how Whites' views on racism and policing, especially as compared to Blacks', changed very soon after then-Officer Derek Chauvin brazenly killed George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Studying this data, along with quotes by various white citizens who explained in newspapers and other interviews how the killing of George Floyd transformed them and their thinking on race, Part III then contemplates whether witnessing the killing of George Floyd on video, as opposed to the many other police killings of black people captured on video, really resulted in the emergence of a cultural trauma for Whites, which is the type of permanent group-based trauma and change that could maintain the momentum needed in the current movement to produce lasting social, political, and legal reform in the United States. Ultimately, Part III concludes that no such trauma arose and ends with data showing that the shifts that occurred in some Whites' thinking about the connection between racism and policing after the killing of George Floyd seems to be temporary rather than enduring. Additionally, Section III.B details how certain components of the “master narrative” for cultural trauma are not present for Whites in relation to their response to the killing of George Floyd
[ . .]
In the end, the brutal killing of George Floyd has brought our society both tremendous grief and hope. His tragic death sent yet another reminder of the ways in which black people are dehumanized and devalued in the United States. It revealed the structural dimensions that make black people vulnerable to overpolicing in black communities as well as increased interaction with the police, both of which increase the chances of a tragic ending for black individuals, particularly when the very work, training, and policies that undergird policing reinforce the racial biases that can work to dehumanize and devalue black bodies and minds. the same time, the tragedy left us with hope for change as protestors helped to ignite social and legal reforms that were once deemed unimaginable in cities across the nation. It brought hope through a multicultural protest movement that was partly motivated by a new awakening to, and reckoning with, racism by many Whites who had to bear witness to George Floyd's execution by former Officer Derek Chauvin.
What it did not bring was a cultural trauma narrative for Whites, one that could promise lasting changes in today's civil rights movement, because of the ways in which Whites' identities, thinking, and feelings had not been forever changed by witnessing racialized police brutality. As Professor Hakeem Jefferson of Stanford University proclaimed,
All of these white people on the front lines of these protests go back to their white neighborhoods and their overwhelmingly white and better schools. ... They protest alongside [Blacks], but they don't live alongside them. ... As much as people really want that progress narrative, I don't think it exists yet. the fact that a cultural trauma did not emerge for Whites following the horrific killing of George Floyd does not necessarily portend more of the same in terms of racism, both structural and individualized, and racialized policing. An uncontroverted truth is that a greater awareness exists, and some are awake to the realities of racism for the first time. Being awake is a long way off from being woke, but it is the necessary first step.
Dean and Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law.
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