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White Backlash Is A Type Of Racial Reckoning, Too

For more coverage of the Jan. 6 attack, read our collection of essays and reflections examining where we are as a country one year later, including what has — and hasn’t — changed since a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol.


On May 25, 2020, George Perry Floyd Jr., a 46-year-old Black man, was murdered in broad daylight by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer with the Minneapolis Police Department.

In the days and weeks following, millions took to the streets in the U.S. and around the world, with chants of “Black Lives Matter” and calls for racial justice that reimagined policing in America. Public opinion was increasingly supportive of the protests. Given both the suddenness and the scale of the response to Floyd’s murder, something felt different. We weren’t always certain what that difference was, but there was something that seemed to distinguish this moment.

Pundits and politicians, including President Biden, said this was a moment of “racial reckoning” — a moment for some optimism, despite the tragedy of it all. This optimism seemed rooted in the belief that if there was ever a moment to unsettle America’s racial hierarchy, this was it. Now was the time, we were told, to bring relief to those who had long lived under a regime of racial oppression. Some of us were skeptical, but the general consensus was that racial progress was on the horizon — that better, brighter, more equitable days were ahead.

But for a reckoning to occur, there has to be more than just an acknowledgement of injustice. There has to be action. Reckoning implied a reprieve for the Black Lives Matter activists who had spent the years since Trayvon Martin’s killing protesting police violence. Reckoning implied transforming public safety. Reckoning implied support for policies to intervene in the yawning racial wealth gap, the perpetual employment gap, and the growing life expectancy gap

In short, a reckoning suggested the country was on the cusp of lasting change. But to the extent that a reckoning occurred, it was short-lived and didn’t lead to fundamental changes

Support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which peaked in the days following Floyd’s murder, declined precipitously. Police departments were, by and large, not defunded. Although some cities had minor cuts (often related to pandemic austerity), law enforcement budgets remained stable — or even rose slightly. And in recent months, faced with outcries about public safety from residents, local government officials are turning to a familiar solution: reinvesting in policing and the carceral state

The economic and political fallout from the pandemic has also deepened existing racial inequalities. The pandemic wiped out any progress made in the last decade in closing the Black-white gap in life expectancy. It turned the job categories where Black Americans are overrepresented from dangerous and devalued to deadly. America’s history of segregating Black Americans into substandard housing also meant that many who were infected with COVID-19 couldn’t quarantine effectively, spreading the disease to their families. Black and Latino children were about two and a half times as likely to lose a primary caregiver than white children. Native American children were over four times as likely. Other markers of inequality persisted, too. Ultimately, there is little evidence that the promise of racial progress has borne much fruit, at least for those who live closest to the margins of American society.   

But a racial reckoning that ushers in racial progress is only one type of racial reckoning. Racial backlash is a kind of racial reckoning, too. And the racial reckoning of this moment — one characterized by white backlash to a perceived loss of power and status — seems poised to be much more consequential.

Evidence of this racial reckoning was most stark on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol to oppose the certification of Biden’s victory over Trump. As one of us (Jefferson) wrote that week, those who gathered in Washington, D.C., had “not simply come in defense of Donald Trump. They [came] in defense of white supremacy.” 

This was especially clear from the symbolism of Jan. 6 — a Confederate flag carried into the Capitol, and a “Day of the Rope” gallows drawn from the white supremacist manifesto “The Turner Diaries.” Jan. 6 was a racial reckoning. It was a reckoning against the promise of a multiracial democracy and the perceived influence of the Black vote.

The riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6

Related: How White Supremacy Played A Role In The Riots Read more »

Recent research suggests that those who participated in the insurrection were more likely to come from areas that experienced more significant declines in the non-Hispanic white population — further evidence that the storming of the Capitol was, in part, a backlash to a perceived loss of status, what social scientists call “perceived status threat.”

Some Republican politicians condemned the attack on the Capitol in its immediate aftermath, but they and the rest of the party soon called for the country to move on, to forget this open and violent attack on American democracy. Similarly, businesses that initially pulled support from those who backed the open attempt at a coup nonetheless returned to funding lawmakers who supported Trump’s “Big Lie” that the election had been stolen from him and inspired the violence we witnessed that day. 

But as horrific as the events of Jan. 6 were, they were only the most vivid rendering of the racial reckoning currently taking place in the United States. In Republican-led states across the country, state legislators have fast-tracked a series of voter suppression laws reminiscent of laws passed post-Reconstruction in the late 1870s. These laws not only make it more difficult to vote, but also make it easier for Republican officials to supplant the will of the people by allowing state legislatures to replace local elections administrators with ideologues who have publicly embraced lies about election fraud.


How healthy is US democracy one year after Jan. 6? | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

The counter-reckoning has even trickled down to Democratic strategists and center-left pundits who decry what they perceive to be an over-emphasis on race and identity. To win white working class voters, these strategists contend, the party must change course. Few have said it so bluntly, but in this moment of racial backlash, the lesson appears to be that the more racially progressive party should abandon its public commitments to racial justice, lest it upset those who have made their opposition clear.

Consider this. In the days and weeks following Floyd’s murder, books about race and racism, including historian Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist,” became bestsellers. Today, this text among others, including The New York Times’s 1619 Project, are targets of right-wing think tanks and Republican-controlled legislatures and local school boards. At least nine states have passed legislation (with at least 20 others considering similar laws) to ban the teaching of “critical race theory,” a legal scholarship framework that has been coopted by the right as a buzzword meant to encompass everything that children are learning about racial inequality in schools. But many of these laws are so broad that the mere acknowledgement of racial inequality would seem to run afoul of the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.

Americans love the mythology of racial progress that highlights the brief flurries of progressive change around the period of Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. To be sure, the heroism of these movements was remarkable. A full accounting requires that we acknowledge the vast political power African Americans wielded in the aftermath of the Civil War, in a period known as Radical Reconstruction. But this racial reckoning, which promised to change the material and social conditions of newly freed Black people in the U.S., was met with another racial reckoning: The birth of the Ku Klux Klan and racist Jim Crow-era policies were reactions to Reconstruction-era progress. 

Responses to the civil rights movement were similarly dramatic. White families uprooted entire communities to avoid integrated schools. Even relatively minor reactions — such as affirmative action in college admissions — were met with decades-long programs of delegitimation. Such resistance hasn’t ended, but has evolved. The Supreme Court’s removal of the Voting Rights Act preclearance procedure in 2013 eroded a signature achievement of the civil rights movement. In 2021, state legislatures introduced hundreds of bills targeting voting rights, resurrecting Reconstruction-era tactics by proposing facially neutral policies that are nonetheless racially targeted. And recent attempts to outlaw and restrict constitutionally protected protest activity, for example, were clear reactions to the multiracial protests of 2020.

Yes, there are periods of racial progress that follow moments of reckoning that call the nation to live up to its ideals of liberty and justice for all. But what is more characteristic and consequential are the long periods where the status quo goes unchanged, where various forms of racial oppression are taken as given. In these moments, we see evidence of what civil rights lawyer and academic Derrick Bell called “racial-sacrifice covenants,” or the trading of gains for Black Americans in the name of white appeasement politics.

This is precisely the moment in which we find ourselves today. 

The idea that the racial reckoning of 2020 would last preyed on some of the most pervasive myths about race in America — in particular, optimism about what would come out of the protests and activism of 2020. It required that one believed, as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 

But history presents a much more complicated story than an optimistic read of King’s famous quotation suggests. Racial progress has never been linear, nor has it ever been wholly forward-moving.

Yes, there are moments of racial reckoning — fleeting though they often are — that go some way to improve the lives of racial and ethnic minorities. But these moments that hint at a change in the racial hierarchy and a change in the status and social position of Black Americans are never met with uniform support from the American public.

Instead, these moments are often met with violent responses. They are also often met with new laws that attempt to weaken the political power of Black people while strengthening the political power of white people. And, yes, these moments are also often met by attempts to ensure a particular telling of American history that helps to maintain the mythology of racial progress that so many Americans find so deeply attractive. 

For those committed to racial justice, the so-called racial reckoning of 2020 was likely a disappointment, for all the reasons we lay out above.

For those whose commitments to justice remain, there appears to be a long and cold winter ahead, because the racial reckoning of the current moment is moving full speed ahead, with no signs of quieting anytime soon.

Images from Jan. 6, 2021

Related: A collection of essays and reflections on the Jan. 6 insurrection. Read more. »

Hakeem Jefferson is an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University, where he is also a faculty affiliate with the Center for Comparative Studies of Race & Ethnicity and with the Stanford Center for American Democracy. He is an expert on issues of race and identity in American politics.

Victor Ray is an associate professor of sociology and criminology and African American studies at the University of Iowa and a nonresident fellow at The Brookings Institution. His research applies critical race theory to classic sociological questions.

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