The Trauma of Awakening to Racism: Did the Tragic Killing of George Floyd Result in Cultural Trauma for Whites?

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University of Houston Law Center




The act of witnessing the killing of George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old, African-American father, brother, partner, and son, at the hands of the police caused many white individuals to experience an epiphany about racism, specifically structural racism, in the United States. Following the horrific killing of George Floyd, many white people began to shift their thinking about the existence and prevalence of racialized police brutality, reconsidering the manner in which they had always viewed the world around them. Indeed, many white individuals began to recognize and acknowledge the varied ways in which whiteness worked to privilege them in our society, even if they found themselves disadvantaged on other dimensions. Many also began to acknowledge their responsibility as white citizens of the world to not only identify but also confront racism, which led to an unprecedented number of white people participating in protests across the nation. Although the protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s killing were not the first protests against police brutality and racism, they were different from those of the past. During the protests of summer 2020, white faces filled the crowds that gathered all across the country, even in predominantly white communities.

This Article considers whether white people as a collective experienced a cultural trauma in response to witnessing the killing of George Floyd on video, thereby creating unprecedented opportunities for real, long-term change with respect to policing in the United States. To explore whether white individuals’ widespread viewing of George Floyd’s killing resulted in cultural or group-based trauma, this Article examines accounts by Whites who have offered emotional, social, intellectual, and political responses to witnessing a smirking then-Officer Derek Chauvin kneel on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds.

This Article considers whether the response that many white individuals shared in reaction to the George Floyd killing satisfies the components of a cultural trauma narrative. In doing so, the Article applies critical race theory and analyzes decades of polling data to determine whether the white awakening resulting from George Floyd’s killing is the type of permanent group-based trauma that could maintain the momentum needed to produce lasting social, political, and legal reform in the United States. The Article concludes that, due to missing components of the “master narrative” for cultural trauma, no such trauma arose. The Article ends with data showing that the shift in some white people’s thinking about the connection between racism and policing seems to be temporary.

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