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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Westneat: Whites wake up on racism

Polls: Minds changing on justice system, race

By Danny Westneat
Published: June 21, 2020, 6:01am

The current civil rights movement is being led by African Americans and other people of color, with the broader media for the most part featuring their stories and their voices. And rightly so.

But something else is happening here, too. There’s been an abrupt sea change among the white people of America — at least for the moment — on issues that have seemed in the past to be intractably set in stone.

“In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply,” wrote the Republican pollster Frank Luntz on Monday. “We are a different country today than just 30 days ago. The consequences politically, economically, and socially are too great to fit into a tweet.”

What he’s talking about is a spate of extraordinary recent polls in which it appears to have suddenly dawned on white people that African Americans and other people of color were right all along: We really do still live in a racially tilted, inequitable, unfair society.

“Do you think the country’s criminal justice system treats whites and Blacks equally, or does it favor whites?” a CNN poll asked last week. This question has been posed many times over the years, with the predictable result that whites tend to feel we live in a more equal society, while people of color do not.

But this time, white people agreed the justice system is tilted toward them — by 63 percent to 29 percent. That’s an unheard-of 41-point swing of opinion among whites compared with when the same question was asked five years ago.

There have been a slew of these polls in which whites suddenly are answering questions about racism, the protests and the police in ways closer to how people of color traditionally see these issues.

In 2014, after Eric Garner died in a police chokehold as he also gasped “I can’t breathe,” only 26 percent of white Americans said they believed police were more likely to use force against African Americans, according to the pollster Monmouth. Now, after George Floyd, 49 percent of whites believe it — which, while still less than half, is a 23 percentage point jump.

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“It seems we have reached a turning point in public opinion, where white Americans are realizing that Black Americans face risks when dealing with police that they do not,” said the Monmouth pollster.

At this point you may be saying: Are white people really this clueless? George Floyd’s death was, after all, hardly the first video-captured killing of an African American at the hands of police, nor is it by any stretch the only evidence of racial bias in the justice system.

I’ve written a number of times over the years how my tribe, the white people, resides in a fugue state of denial about race. Once was after a Black court worker had the police called on him at a Kirkland yogurt shop; another was after I wrote how former King County Executive Ron Sims had been stopped by police eight times for “driving while Black.” After both stories, white readers deluged me with strained and tortured rationales to explain away any injustice. It’s a phenomenon known as white delusion, or white fragility — my tribe often defaults to it instinctively.

Something seems to have just punctured all that. But what? Why are white people suddenly changing their minds?

I have theories (of course). One is that the immediate case, of George Floyd, is so horrific and painstakingly documented that there’s no ground to stand on to deny it. Even the blue line broke, with police around the country calling it a murder. That never happens.

Another is that the younger generation of African American activists has been relentless in pressing its morally correct case, as well as recruiting their white classmates and workmates as allies along the way. Just look at the racial diversity in the marches.

There are also two other titanic forces at work right now. One, perversely, is Donald Trump. He is the most polarizing figure of my lifetime, in that every single day he demands, by sheer force of personality, that you pick a side, either for his extreme world view or against it. This worked for a time, but each day now his grip has seemed to slip (did you see the paranoid ranting where he claimed a 75-year-old protester shoved to the ground by police in Buffalo was actually … antifa?)

So if we all must pick a side, with no wiggle room left for nuance, then even some “scared white people,” as UW professor Christopher Parker once dubbed them to me, may be deciding that, whatever else, they don’t want to be trapped on the same side of this as the Mad King.

Finally there’s the coronavirus. It’s become a cliche that the pandemic has exposed the deepest inequities in our society, for all to see. But maybe it’s a cliche because it’s true.

“We are a different country today than just 30 days ago.” I’m not used to bowing down to sweeping hyperbole from GOP pollsters. But it feels, at least for the moment, like this one may be true, too.