A reckoning is not an action item on a wish list. It is a thing. An accomplishment. A checked box. A reckoning by definition refers to the moment when we finally deal with an ugly situation. It is more than just admitting that there’s a problem.
This is why I ask us to consider the use, or dare I say the overuse, of this word.
I myself have been guilty of this. The word has salted more than one of my columns over the past year. But none of us should close out the year under the assumption that we’ve had a true racial reckoning. We’ve not had a full settling of accounts.
To be sure, there has been progress. Confederate statues fell. Aunt Jemima was retired. Juneteenth became a paid holiday. Books about race burned up the bestseller list. This was a year when corporations and campuses were forced to explain why their records on diversity were so often at odds with their aspirations.
The debate around the phrase “defund the police” will continue long after 2020, but it’s clear that the Black Lives Matter movement is having a real impact on police funding, training, hiring and monitoring.
Opinions on racial justice and police brutality shifted dramatically. In a poll released in early June — just after George Floyd’s death — 76 percent of Americans said racial and ethnic discrimination was a big problem. That’s a 26-point increase from 2015, the year Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore.
Attitudes about policing changed, too. The poll found that 57 percent of Americans said police officers were more likely to use excessive force toward Black people. But it took a particularly heinous act of police brutality — an officer kneeling on a man’s neck for almost nine minutes — to convince a majority of Americans that racism is a problem and a daily reality.
Did that happen in part because we were in a period with no concerts, no vacations, no sports, no travel and no dining out? Because the world was shut in and we had to watch what happened in Minneapolis and absorb the full whoosh of the aftermath?
I think so. As the world slowed down, it was like traveling below the speed limit on life’s highway. The landscape wasn’t a blur. You could “see” travesties on the screens that became our windows to the world. You could not track the spread of the covid-19 virus without also seeing the ways it claimed a disproportionate number of Black and brown lives.
Stuck home during the day, you saw who delivered your packages and your takeout. And when or if you did venture out, you noticed who clocked in during the lockdown — the grocery workers and paramedics. The garbage collectors and nursing home attendants who cleared bedpans and changed sheets. We watched with fewer distractions.
But when life returns to its normal rhythms, will those epiphanies last? Will people do more than acknowledge the scourge of racism? Will they commit to the much harder work of erasing it?
Understand this. An epiphany is not the same thing as a reckoning.
We can’t increase racial equity without eradicating white supremacy; we cannot fix the anti-Black and anti-brown racism that underpins policies and decisions that drive hiring, mortgages, transportation grids, WiFi access, education and accumulation of wealth.
We don’t like to say it out loud. People get itchy or defensive when phrases such as “white privilege” and “white supremacy” are dropped into conversations. Yet the enhanced value placed on White life is the United States’ default setting, and has been since the formation of this country. Unspooling that will require more than just a year of so-called reckoning. It requires a full reboot and a commitment to let go of the things to which people cling, consciously or subconsciously, because going through life with advantages has its perks.
A new default where working alongside, living next to, hiring or sharing power with people who are seen as different is something we can’t just will into existence. We can’t legislate it. We can’t even easily get people to admit to real, historic or unconscious bias. So, let’s not tell ourselves that a summer of disruptive discovery is going to get us there.
As James Baldwin put it, “People can cry much easier than they can change.”
As the year ends, some will proclaim 2020 as a year of racial reckoning. I understand why. The phrase carries weight and gravitas and sounds important. But we cannot lull ourselves into thinking that the progress made this year deserves a victory lap. The race toward equality isn’t over. It has barely begun.