We are witnessing a sea change in racial attitudes

Dahlia Lithwick amasses a wealth of evidence to argue that we have seen a significant positive shift in the attitudes of white Americans on the issue of race during the Trump presidency. While that is good for the country, it does not bode well for him or the Republican party.

To be clear, Republicans have got a majority of the white vote in elections for the past 56 years and will likely get it again this year. But the large margins that they obtained previously are dwindling, and it is their determined efforts at gerrymandering and driving down the minority vote that has enabled them to stay in power despite alienating every other group. As that margin of white majority becomes smaller, it may not be enough to compensate for their losses elsewhere. So we can expect even more desperate efforts at increasing the white vote with racist and xenophobic fearmongering, coupled with even more intensive efforts at minority voter suppression. But that too can backfire. As we have seen in recent state elections, the efforts at voter suppression have angered minority voters who have become even more determined to vote despite the obstacles placed in their way.

What has been astonishing to me is the rapidity with which changes are occurring in the cultural and symbolic worlds. Why has this shift occurred this time, when previous calls for change following previous acts of brutality did not have any lasting impact? I think it may be because there is a symbiotic relationship between public opinion and the actions of corporations and public institutions. People have been clamoring for a long time that the country should rid itself of symbols that represent and even honor the ugly chapters of its past. These calls have been ignored or resisted in the name of preserving history or maintaining traditions or even that those things were not racist and that there was no systemic racism at all but that any ugly things that happened were the isolated actions of a few bad people.

But the protests following the death of George Floyd seem to have had a huge impact. The sight of tens and even hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating all over the country, of all races and ethnicities and ages and socioeconomic groups, seem to have been like a slap upside the head of corporate America that made them realize that the country has a hell of a problem with race and that they had better become part of the solution if they did not want to be consigned to the dustbin as upholders of the worst of America.

The recent unrest over police brutality has galvanized corporate America to re-examine their policies and attitudes and the kinds of images they were using to sell their products. Those images were always problematic but the companies defended their continued use in various ways, that they were not ‘really’ racist but had benign origins or by updating them to have a more modern look while still retaining the basic elements. But now we see the sudden elimination of the images of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Mrs Butterworth from the products they graced for so long, despite earlier protests. The character on the Cream of Wheat box, known as Rastus, is also likely on the way out. And when corporate America accepts the legitimacy of the complaints and the message of the protests, suddenly it becomes mainstream.

The speed with which the changes have occurred have been simply staggering. Within the last two weeks the NFL has reversed course on player keeling protests. NASACR has banned the confederate flag at all its events. When what seemed initially to be a noose that was found in the NASCAR garage of the black NASACR driver Bubba Wallace (but was later deemed to be not), other drivers reacted with outrage and in a symbolic gesture of support, they all pushed his vehicle to the track. Editors at the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer have had to resign for being tone deaf to the issues confronting the country.

Long running reality TV shows like Cops and Live PD have been cancelled. These shows teamed up with police departments to go with them when they chased after mostly black criminals, often using force. These were essentially propaganda vehicles for the police and apparently perpetuated the image that black people were a danger to everyone and that it was the police that kept them in check. Rich Benjamin writes that TV’s anti-black, pro-police programming goes well beyond these cop shows.

To enjoy “Cops” is to relish seeing black, Latinx, and poor men harangued, choked, slammed, shot at, and handcuffed by police officers, with no meaningful context or resolution to any given human being’s situation, whether it be mental illness, substance addiction, or wrongful accusation. Weekly footage exhilarated viewers through jerky bodycams capturing men of color getting snared and engrossed them with narrative idolatry lavished on white cops. All of this reflected and abetted structural flaws in law enforcement, as well as racial and class bias in the criminal justice system.

Then of course there are the statues and monuments honoring people who supported slavery and fought in the confederacy to preserve it. For the longest time, calls to remove them were resisted. But now protestors are tearing them down, burning them, and dumping them in rivers. Even statues of former presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses Grant who were not part of the confederacy are being removed because of their racist attitudes. Jon Schwarz reminds us of Roosevelt’s racist and genocidal views. Statues of Christopher Columbus are being toppled all over the place. Even a statue of Francis Scott Key, composer of the national anthem, has bitten the dust.

In a desperate attempt to regain his mojo after the Tulsa debacle, Trump says that he will sign an executive order to protect these racist monuments but that horse is well out of the barn and has disappeared over the horizon.

Through all this, the NFL’s Washington DC football team has not said anything about changing its racist team name and logo. Its owner Dan Snyder is an utterly odious person who has scornfully rejected earlier calls to do so, emphatically saying in 2013 he would never agree to any changes. The question is whether he will continue to hold out in the light of the NFL’s new attitude and what he will do when his players kneel before games. The walls are closing in on him. A statue of the former owner of the team George Preston Marshall, a dyed-in-the-wool racist, was removed from the front of RFK stadium last week, the former home of the team. With the NFL suddenly making statements about the need to fight racial prejudice, they will need to exert pressure on Snyder to show that they are serious about this new attitude.

And then there is the utterly ghastly Chief Wahoo image of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. Bowing to pressure, the team removed the logo from its uniforms a year or so ago but continues to sell merchandize with it. That needs to stop too.

Whatever other changes may come as a result of these protests to rectify the systemic racism, what has happened already is permanent. There is no going back to honoring racists and preserving racist icons.


  1. Matt G says

    If there weren’t buildings in the way, I could hit a baseball into Columbus Circle in NYC. That statue to a genocidal monster is on a pillar that has to be 30-40 meters high. It won’t be all that easy to topple….

  2. says

    As devastating as smart phones have been to privacy, having most people carry good quality video cameras in their pockets and purses has done a lot of good. The usual suspects have tried, but it’s impossible to defend a cop calmly kneeling on a Black man’s neck as his life starts ebbing away and people have been seeing how abusive cops have been during the protests. Beyond that, every few days it seems like there is a new video of a Karen getting upset over a Black person existing in a place they have every right to be.

    It’s getting more and more difficult to argue that America is “post-racial” when most people can see and hear the video evidence right in front of them. Even the right is backing away from arguing that there is no racism anymore (though they are trying to put it all at the feet of Democrats).

  3. garnetstar says

    The factors that Mano and Tabby Lavalamp @2 are both really big ones. And, I’d like to add two words to the sudden sea change in the racist behavior of corporations: social media.

    That plays a huge role now in corporations’ advertising and flogging their brand and in-general PR and the like. They’ve learned that they need to be able to play there credibly, and move as quickly as those media do, to preserve their brand.

    A fortunate confluence of many novel factors. Again, as @2 points out, another (rare) benefit of phones.

  4. ardipithecus says

    Those are all good points. The phenomenon appears to be world-wide, and I think that a pandemic that forced most people to be aware of and to respect all the people around them has crystalized attitudes that have been creeping along for quite a while.

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