It was only three years ago around this time that thousands of white liberals were out in the streets acting like they gave a damn about racial justice. The extrajudicial police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor influenced countless protests and a bold progressive proclamation of political stances across America.
The summer of 2020 finally felt like a step in the right direction—one where white elite liberals seemed determined to put their money where their mouths were.
Now in 2023, it’s clear that it was all smoke and mirrors, as much of the platitudes of change preached by the most privileged among us fell flat.
Those performative Black squares on Instagram, the excessive woke book clubs, and all of those mandatory DEI trainings have now taken a back seat as white guilt has been traded in for feed fatigue. What was supposed to be a sustainable movement turned into a moment for white liberals to simply virtue-signal while it was trendy.
As a Black queer millennial, it almost felt like yesterday when I witnessed several white-led nonprofits reach out to me to speak before their flock of white staffers on how to be better allies. Being a diverse voice who was often overlooked by more established white professionals in the media/public speaking space—it felt like 2020 represented a change in the climate (the good kind). The demands for DEI sensitivity trainings seemed like an effective way to engage white people seeking to be and do better.
“White elite liberals commodified the progressive movement as a way to virtue-signal without doing the necessary (selfless) work to enact real change.”
It would only be a matter of time when reports would soon reveal that a lack of evidence of such DEI efforts be deemed “disappointing.” In 2021, Elizabeth Levy Paluck of Princeton and her co-authors stated in an Annual Review of Psychology article that “much research effort is theoretically and empirically ill-suited to provide actionable, evidence-based recommendations for reducing prejudice.”
Translation: DEI trainings has been found not to be effective—no matter how many white people demand them as a way to express a desire to change. They might even be causing more harm than good as well.
Outside of performative education, perhaps the worst thing to happen since the failed promise of white change during the racial uprisings was a regression in political action. Sure, Trump would lose his presidential bid for reelection—but that’s pennies on a dollar from the perceived progressive wave initially predicted. For example, the meaningful campaign to “defund the police” largely flopped across countless city governments across the country, with their police budgets to only increase even more since 2020. Although the concept of abolition is highly unpopular, framing the reduction of massive police spending as a reallocation towards public services (such as parks and recreation, mental health assistance, and community engagement) could have been more palpable.
In major American cities, such as New York City and Philadelphia, who have a large liberal population of voters—“tough on crime” mayoral candidates won in their Democratic primaries. For all of the talk of diversity, equity, and inclusion, it didn’t help that white progressives still refuse to residentially integrate with the very Black and brown people for whom they claim to advocate. It also doesn’t help that there was a rapid decline in support for many of the ideals campaigned by Black Lives Matter activists shortly after a reduction in cable news coverage on the issues.
How did this happen? It’s simple: White elite liberals commodified the progressive movement as a way to virtue-signal without doing the necessary (selfless) work to enact real change.
We witnessed this in the self-indulgence and profiting off of the anti-racism wave from white progressive authors such as Robin DiAngelo and Courtney E. Martin, who capitalized off of preaching about “nice racism” and “learning in public.” For white liberals like them, they provided a means to an end for others to instantly perform their wokeness: Buy this book to learn how to be a better white person. At this point, the aesthetic of white progressiveness was crystalized—it was rooted in buying shit, taking DEI courses, and saying/posting the wokest things.
While these acts of conspicuous woke consumption have helped benefit some Black public figures (thinking notably of How to Be An Anti-Racist’s Ibram X. Kendi and The 1619 Project’s Nikole Hannah-Jones), they did little to truly move the needle on political change.
Today, the current social justice movement includes a bunch of white people who pretend they know better, but have yet to collectively prove otherwise. It’s hard to forget about that once viral “Toxic White Progressives” list created by a Black Democratic political operative that sought to call out the workplace racism she experienced—by those who most likely read those anti-racism books that are purportedly essential.
As we head into a guaranteed-to-be-tumultuous 2024 presidential election, a reality check is needed in order to stop history from repeating itself.
So much of the post-racial uprising conversation has been rooted in educating perceived well-meaning white people without true accountability. But it’s enough already with the virtue-signaling and social media montages.
For all of the massive protest appearances, more legislative and political impact should follow regarding public education reform, universal healthcare, increasing minimum wage, rent control, divestment in the privation of prisons, reparations, and much more.
America is truly at a crossroads at this point: We can either propel forward or regress to even darker times. Unfortunately, that will largely be influenced by how white liberals with the resources and influence decide to move.
Right now, it’s time for everyone to be honest with them and reiterate that their current moves aren’t it.