GENE DEMBY, HOST:
Just a heads up, y'all - the following episode contains some salty language, which means it's going to be some cussing.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:
I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby. And this is CODE SWITCH.
MERAJI: From NPR.
DEMBY: All right, Shereen, so it seems like the country is having a racial reckoning - again.
DEMBY: As of when we are recording this, this is what the top of The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list looks like - "White Fragility," "So You Want To Talk About Race," "How To Be An Antiracist," "Me And White Supremacy" and "The New Jim Crow."
MERAJI: That's quite a list. That list kind of blows my mind. And there was a similar one on Amazon. And it does make sense because all over social media, there are these, hey, white people, you need to read this lists. They're everywhere. I mean, we were the No. 1 podcast on iTunes for a quick minute.
DEMBY: Yeah. We got the screen grabs and everything. It happened. Please believe me, Mom. It happened.
MERAJI: Oh, I sent that to my mom.
DEMBY: At first, I couldn't figure out what was going on. Like, I just suddenly had thousands of new Instagram followers, the overwhelming majority of whom appeared to be white people. And then people started tagging us in posts and shouting us out. I could not figure out what was happening.
MERAJI: J.Lo tweeted about us. We were on a list created by Lululemon. Oprah Magazine did a list where we were in it. There are a lot of other places. Reese Witherspoon, that actress, put us in her newsletter. Yeah.
DEMBY: Get at me, J.Lo. But yeah, it's such a strange moment that we're in.
MERAJI: CODE SWITCH - we're like the gym on New Year's, only for racism.
DEMBY: (Laughter) So we have all these new followers and listeners.
DEMBY: Hey, y'all. What's good? But, Shereen, if you've been to any of the protests, if you've been outside watching any of the marches around the country, something that will jump out to you immediately is that there are a lot of very fired-up white people out in the streets, even in these alabaster white places like Vermont.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Hundreds of protesters in Burlington and Montpelier joined those across the nation in a demonstration against police violence.
CHRIS HAYES: A lot of those images have come from small towns and rural areas, predominantly white areas.
UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Many of these communities are made up primarily of white people.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: George Floyd. Say his name. George Floyd. Say his name.
DEMBY: So I think a lot of us were confused. Like, why now? Why now, white people? What is going on?
MERAJI: Yeah. Gene, you and I were in Ferguson in 2014, and there weren't that many white people out with the protesters in Ferguson. The same was true in Baltimore in 2015 after Freddie Gray was killed by the police. There were a smattering of white people...
DEMBY: A smattering.
MERAJI: ...But nothing like this - nothing.
DEMBY: What do you call a smattering of white people? What is - is there a term, like a murder of bros or something? I don't - sorry.
MERAJI: Just a smattering.
DEMBY: A smattering. That's - henceforth, any collection of white people more than three is called a smattering.
And it couldn't have just been that people's consciences were shocked by, you know, that horrific video of George Floyd and the police officer kneeling on his neck and eventually killing him because, as bad as that was, Eric Garner was killed six years ago next month.
MERAJI: And that case had a similar set of facts. It was caught on video in broad daylight on a city street with lots of onlookers. Floyd and Garner even shared some of the same last words - I can't breathe. So it's not like these racial flashpoints are new. Why white people didn't come out in huge numbers after the Philando Castile video came out in July of 2016 is completely beyond me. You know, why weren't you yelling about Black Lives Matter then in the numbers that you are now?
DEMBY: Right. I mean, and Philando Castile was St. Paul, so it was, like, the same set of facts in the same place. So I don't know. Maybe it's the cumulative effect of all this. I figured, why don't we just ask these people directly? So I posed to people on Instagram stories a question. Like, talk to me, y'all. I'm really curious about what is happening in the world broadly or in your world that makes this moment different.
MERAJI: I saw that you posted that, and I was like, I cannot wait to see what people wrote to you.
DEMBY: Shereen, I got so many responses - so many responses, like, at least 100.
MERAJI: That's amazing.
DEMBY: No, I know. It was a lot. And obviously, none of this is scientific, right? But people were really candid and forthright, and a lot of people, you know, said upfront that they were really embarrassed and ashamed that they weren't paying attention before all this.
MERAJI: You know, I wanted to think that our podcast moved the needle in just a little bit of a way, and maybe a bunch of people decided to, I don't know, diversify their friend circles over the last four years of listening to us.
DEMBY: (Laughter) That's so funny. You got jokes, Shereen.
MERAJI: Why not? No. I know.
DEMBY: Come on. Let's be real, Shereen. Like, this did not happen because people have browner circles or blacker circles. Only a handful - maybe, like, five or six people alluded to having browner or blacker circles over the last few years as part of what changed their stances on these things, what moved them. I want to point out that there were three dudes, actually, who said that their partners, who were women of color, finally called them out for being silent and for never speaking up on any of this stuff.
MERAJI: Finally called them out. So how long were these couples together?
DEMBY: So two of these couples were married. So pretty - these were pretty serious relationships.
MERAJI: That really makes me want to talk to their partners who put up with this...
MERAJI: ...Behavior for what seems to be a long time. Partners, if you're listening, DM me. I have a lot of questions for you.
DEMBY: So many questions. But I think this question you just posed about what people's social circles look like gets at one of the three really big themes that I kept seeing over and over in the responses.
MERAJI: Three big themes.
MERAJI: All right. What are they?
DEMBY: OK. So the first big theme is that white people are being moved by other white people. So here's what a woman named Carrie (ph) told me.
CARRIE: I think right now it's, like, cool to be antiracist amongst white people, especially white women. So engaging in it is likely that maybe has its ulterior motives for some, which I suppose is better than nothing if a virtue signal eventually becomes a genuine action. But all I know is that nine out of 10 of my white friends are engaging in real ways when maybe three out of 10 were even talking about it last time.
MERAJI: In our episode about interracial friendship, we talked about that study that found that about 75% of white people have zero friends of another race - none.
MERAJI: So if white people were being nudged on these things, it, probably, most certainly would be from other white people because that's who...
MERAJI: ...Is in their social circles.
DEMBY: That's who they know, right? And that's who they kick it with. And that's what people kept saying. There were more white people in their orbit who were being vocal, who were sharing hashtags, who were going out to protest. And so there was this current that they were sort of being pulled along by.
MERAJI: Yeah. And it goes beyond people folks know. All these brands were also putting out statements about Black Lives Matter. They were posting black squares on Instagram in solidarity with the broader movement - you know, even problematic brands like Lululemon, the NFL, NASCAR...
DEMBY: (Laughter) NASCAR. Yeah. So it felt like this messaging around this moment was just everywhere, even if wasn't from people that you know. It was just, like, in the atmosphere.
MERAJI: So peer pressure.
DEMBY: Yeah. And not just peer pressure, though - like, peer permission. A lot of people said that they started thinking about these really big, foundational problems in American life a while ago. They said that either Trayvon Martin's killing or Ferguson was a turning point in their thinking about a lot of stuff. And they said, you know, they had often been the only, lonely white person in their social circles or their family who would speak up about stuff.
Or they would be too scared to speak up or too scared to post on social media about this stuff because they thought it would be seen as unprofessional or would, like, you know, cause a lot of commotion. But now what people kept saying over and over is that as more white people around them are speaking up, there's more room for them to say the stuff that they've been thinking for a long time. There's more space for them to actually be vocal about these ideas.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DEMBY: One person wrote, quote, "it became inappropriate to be silent and seemed like there would be less social repercussions from being that white girl who was always talking about race inequality, which is extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing to admit."
MERAJI: Thinking about this, one other thing that's worth considering is that even before this moment, it did seem like something was happening in white public opinion. There was that study published in The New York Times in 2018 that showed that white Democrats, in particular, have gotten much more liberal on issues of race and discrimination in the last few years.
DEMBY: And just last week, there was a study from Pew that found that 60% of white respondents said they were at least somewhat supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement.
MERAJI: So white people even in their all-white spaces, they're moving. They're changing. And that could be pushing more white people to move.
DEMBY: Yeah. And I think that pretty much jibes with what people were saying in my DMs.
MERAJI: But, why? Why is this happening?
DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, that gets to the second big theme I heard, Shereen, which is...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.
MERAJI: Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States.
DEMBY: Yes. The elephant in the room. Get it? Elephant because Republican...
DEMBY: ...Get it? OK.
DEMBY: But, yeah, the president came up in most of the responses I got either directly or obliquely, like this one I'll read to you. Quote, "I also think the election of Donald Trump was eye-opening for me. Prior to that, I always had this feeling that someone else will take care of it, like I could just coast along and the world, on a macro level, would work itself out. I guess seeing that our president could speak in such discriminatory and openly racist language in front of the entire world, and then to see others in our country defend it, both infuriated me and also lit a fire under me to learn, grow and do more to combat issues of equality in the United States and prepare myself to be well-informed for the next election." End quote.
MERAJI: So Trump's demagoguery on race brought some clarity for some of these white people - you know, the Muslim ban, family separation and kids in cages at the border, shithole countries, Charlottesville, good people on both sides - which we just heard - throwing paper towels at Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria. I could keep going if you'd like me to. Shall I?
DEMBY: (Laughter) I feel like there's so much stuff we're forgetting. I mean, there's just so much stuff.
MERAJI: I can't believe I remembered all of that.
DEMBY: And, you know, a lot of the issues underlying those moments predate Trump. Even though, you know...
DEMBY: ...We're talking about police violence right now. But police violence, obviously, predates President Trump.
DEMBY: But, yeah. One person told me, quote, "honestly, I'm embarrassed and sorry that I haven't been more involved before now. I think what makes this year different is that there's a literal white supremacist in the White House. It's ignorant of me, but I thought when Obama was in office, it'll be better. We'll be better because of him," end quote.
MERAJI: That's a lot to put on President Obama. Wow.
MERAJI: So much.
DEMBY: Some other people said the shock of Trump's election in 2016 made them more politically active and engaged generally. They went to women's marches. They started joining local groups and online groups. And so they were more practiced, more comfortable with being part of a protest movement by the time we got to this moment.
MERAJI: I wonder how much of the current fascination with anti-racism is really just people being anti-Trump.
DEMBY: Yeah. That seems like it has to be part of it, right? Like, that's - it's all - like, all this partisan stuff is mixed up in there. But it wasn't just Trump's rhetoric and his policy on issues that are, like, obviously about race that mattered in people's responses. There was also the way that he and other government officials have handled this particularly harrowing moment that we find ourselves in right now.
MERAJI: COVID, a global pandemic - people dying. People have lost their loved ones. People have lost their jobs. People have lost their livelihoods.
MERAJI: So I'm guessing that's the third big theme.
DEMBY: It is the third big theme. For some people, it was that the cratering economy and the government's response to COVID has made them feel really vulnerable. Here's one response. Quote, "I was talking to a friend of mine who identifies as" - I'm doing air quotes - "apolitical about why he seems to care more now than ever before. And he told me he feels more scared. So I don't know if it has something to do with the pandemic that has allow for literally the smallest fraction of empathy or because everything is turbulent under Trump and there was maybe more faith in the system under Obama. The answer is probably all of these things and none of these things. But that's just my guess," end quote.
MERAJI: Sounds like a good guess.
DEMBY: Yeah. It sounds like a really good guess. Other people talked about the way COVID interrupted their routines. They've been stuck at home, watching a lot more news, consuming a lot more social media. One person wrote to me and said, quote, "during COVID I literally cannot turn to the things that used to distract me - my nearly all-white workplace, leisure activities and family gatherings, for example. And during COVID I've also felt a physical vulnerability in the face of the virus that's made me more empathetic and shifted my priorities to some degree. COVID has made me really realize that staying alive in America can be a true struggle and is a thing many white people take for granted in America," end quote.
MERAJI: This really makes me wonder if we'd be seeing this activation, if we'd be seeing this energy, if so much of the country hadn't been locked down for the last three months or so.
DEMBY: It's so funny that you mention that, Shereen. So after I posed this question, I heard from a social psychologist, who, as it turns out, wrote an article way back in March - remember March...
DEMBY: ...Predicting that all the stuff we're seeing right now - people amped up, people protesting, people out in the streets - that that stuff was probably always going to happen because we already had all the ingredients.
NICOLE FISHER: All that kindling, I think we had all of it there. Everything we needed, we had it in spades, and then there was an injustice that was in our faces.
DEMBY: She's going to break that down for us after the break.
MERAJI: Stay with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MERAJI: CODE SWITCH.
So before the break, Gene, you said that you were going to introduce us to someone who basically predicted that we were going to see all this political energy erupt in one way or another.
DEMBY: Yes. And that person's name is Nicole Fisher. She's a social psychologist, a policy adviser on Capitol Hill. She runs a company called Health & Human Strategies. And she wrote this piece for Forbes back in late March, headlined History - And Psychology - Predict Riots And Protests Amid Coronavirus Pandemic Lockdown. Nicole said that a lot of the stuff that people told me in my DMs basically lines up with what we know about how our brains respond to stressful circumstances beyond our control.
FISHER: A lot of people think of this as what we often say the fight-or-flight response. And so basically what's going on there is your sympathetic nervous system kicks in immediately, and that's the stuff you can't control, so your heart rate, your pupils dilating, blood pressure.
MERAJI: So what does fight-or-flight have to do with protesting racism and police brutality?
DEMBY: She told me that human brains love the status quo. Like, even when the status quo was not helpful, even when it's not beneficial, we just don't like the interruption of routine. And so quarantines and lockdowns, those are things that are imposed on us. So those interruptions of our routines, they're not voluntary.
DEMBY: They made people afraid and frustrated.
FISHER: Just like you see often in prison populations, when placed in lockdown, we go through a very predictable set of responses and, you know, adrenaline and stress hormones, like cortisol, kick in. When people are scared, when people have feelings that they are very uncomfortable with, it often leads to disorder.
MERAJI: So what I'm hearing is if enough people get scared, if they get uncomfortable all at the same time, you know, you're going to see a lot of tables getting flipped.
DEMBY: Exactly. And right now, we have all of the necessary conditions for civil disobedience in spades. For example...
FISHER: Lack of trust in government or authority.
MERAJI: People are definitely frustrated with how everyone from the president and the federal government down to their local elected officials - and even maybe their bosses - have responded to the COVID outbreak.
DEMBY: Exactly. And she said it's also helpful if people have...
FISHER: A common enemy. I'm a Tarheel. Anyone who hates Duke, we're friends. We're good. I don't need to know anything else about you. You don't like Duke. I don't like Duke. We're on the same team essentially. Like, we rally around having a common enemy.
MERAJI: So the guy wearing jersey No. 45 perhaps.
DEMBY: (Laughter) Exactly.
FISHER: The next thing is shared grievances. And this one, I think, makes a lot of sense. People in similar situations - and that can be financial, political, sexual, you know, racial - whatever it is, that uniting factor gives people a shared identity and a shared purpose. And it can only be one issue.
MERAJI: That feels very related to the common enemy thing.
DEMBY: It does. And that is related to shared intensity.
FISHER: You can have very strong feelings, but when other people around you have strong feelings, they start to feed into each other.
MERAJI: Yeah. Everyone's mad, and they're all mad on Zoom together or on, you know, WhatsApp, text threads. Everybody's venting in all of these various ways. And this anger and anxiety, it's spreading, and it's multiplying.
DEMBY: Right. And Nicole said that that multiplying is actually a big factor, too, because there's safety in numbers. The more people who are upset about something alongside you, the more being outspoken or angry or being unruly doesn't really stand out.
MERAJI: Which is what people are saying to you about peer pressure and permission.
MERAJI: If all your friends are posting ways to be anti-racist on Instagram, if they're all out in the streets marching, you're less likely to be the one in the spotlight.
DEMBY: Right. Everything is collectivized. And, plus, when it comes to public protest right now, there's even more anonymity out on the streets because people are wearing masks.
FISHER: I think there are a lot of white people who, whether it's that they didn't have free time off of work or they weren't really fired up or they didn't feel like they had permission - maybe they felt like it wasn't their space - all of a sudden, you have an introduction of a lot of white people who are also angry with the government. They're angry with authority. Now you're forced to wear a mask. You're anonymous. And away we go.
DEMBY: And if these are the conditions that help create protest energy, Nicole said that pandemics throughout history have helped supercharge that energy. In Moscow back in 1771, much of that city was placed under quarantine after an outbreak of plague. There was civil unrest and riots. In the 1800s, she says there were six different cholera pandemics around the world and at least 70 riots associated with those outbreaks. In Milwaukee in 1894, there was a smallpox outbreak, so the city went under lockdown and...
MERAJI: Let me guess - unrest and riots.
DEMBY: ...Yep. In 2014, there was the Ebola outbreak in the capital of Liberia.
FISHER: I think about 70,000 people woke up one morning and basically found themselves blockaded in. And it was very poor area. And they created buffer zones and checkpoints. And then what happened is not only do you have all these scared people, you have, you know, a disease people don't understand, but then a government official who was in the area was escorted out. And so that was really the eruption of just people's outrage and violence and inevitably led to the spread of Ebola because people took to the streets. What they saw was someone being extracted, which was an injustice. It was saying we're going to prioritize this person's safety, their health over everyone else's.
DEMBY: Nicole says all this stuff, all this context, that right there is the kindling, and the match is usually something that people perceive as an injustice.
MERAJI: So in this moment, the match, especially for white people, was that video of George Floyd with a white cop's knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. But for so many black and brown communities in the United States, most of this killing is almost always in place. The police make sure black and brown people can't move freely in their own neighborhoods. So this idea of being locked down, it's not new. It's not a new thing. In Latinx communities, there is constant fear of ICE raids and deportation, which goes hand-in-hand with police abuse.
DEMBY: And, you know, it explodes in those communities because there are always plenty of matches. Think of how many riots we've had in the last 50 years and in how many of those cases police violence was the inciting incident. You had Watts in '65. You had the Compton Cafeteria riots in '66. You had Detroit in '67. You had Stonewall in '69.
MERAJI: D.C. in 1991 after the police shot a Salvadoran man, the LA riots in 1992 after the Rodney King verdict, Anaheim, Calif., in 2012, after the shooting of Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo.
DEMBY: Baltimore in 2015 after the death of Freddie Gray.
MERAJI: But thinking back to this question of why white people are amped right now - sharing the protest energy, saying Black Lives Matter - you know, I can't help but wonder, thinking about all this and thinking about what Nicole is saying, could the match have been something completely different, something that had nothing to do with police brutality or racism? I know it's cynical, but it's definitely what's on my mind right now.
DEMBY: Yeah. I mean, that is the big question. And I asked Nicole about it.
FISHER: I don't want to detract from some people who I think have actually learned over the years. But I really do think that this pandemic is the reason so many white people care.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FISHER: I wish that I could just say white people collectively had a moment when we all woke up, but I don't think that's true. I think there has been a building effect. I think there has been increased exposure. I think, you know, more imagery, more engagement - I think all those things are part of the equation. But at the end of the day, I really do believe it is the shared - I feel like anger is too simple of a word, but I'm going to use it - the shared anger of the collective. It really means something right now.
DEMBY: And anger is a really hard emotion to sustain for a long time.
MERAJI: Yeah. If the people we've been talking about in this episode go back to their jobs, they go back to their regular lives, they have their regular distractions, and if, you know, they vote President Trump out of office, what then? Will they still be angry? Will they still want to fight racism?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. Shereen is @radiomirage on Twitter. I'm @geedee215. That's @geedee215. We want to hear from you. Our email is email@example.com. Subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. And coming up soon on CODE SWITCH...
MERAJI: Gene, as you know, I've been checking every Monday morning to see how the Supreme Court is going to rule on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
DEMBY: The big DACA case.
MERAJI: Most of the 650,000 DACA recipients are Latinx - or as writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio calls it, DACA.
KARLA CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: My undocumented immigrant friends and I have called it DACA. And when I was doing the audiobook version of my book, I got edits back from someone named Kate Winslet - for real - who was like, it's DACA. And I was like, b****, it's DACA. And she - and then I got, like, audio clips played to me how it really is DACA. And I was like, but in my heart, it's DACA.
MERAJI: That is just a taste of Karla's personality, Gene. And you're going to hear from her on an upcoming CODE SWITCH episode. We talked about her family's story and the stories of the people she wrote about in her new book, "The Undocumented Americans."
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE UNDOCUMENTED AMERICANS")
VILLAVICENCIO: Maybe you won't like it. I didn't write it for you to like it. I did not set out to write anything inspirational, which is why there are no stories of DREAMers. They are commendable young people, and I truly owe them my life. But they occupy outsize attention in our politics. I wanted to tell the stories of people who work as day laborers, housekeepers, construction workers, dog walkers, deliverymen, people who don't inspire hashtags or T-shirts.
MERAJI: Karla says she wrote "The Undocumented Americans" for people who are sick of the immigration buzz words, people who want to hear about the real lives of the millions who aren't DACA recipients. She says she also wrote it for immigrants and the children of immigrants, like me.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "THE UNDOCUMENTED AMERICANS")
VILLAVICENCIO: This book will give you permission to let go. This book will give you permission to be free. This book will move you to be punk, when you need to be punk. Y Hermanxs (ph), it's time to f*** some s*** up. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio.
MERAJI: That's coming up on CODE SWITCH. But this episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and Jess Kung. It was edited by Steve Drummond with editorial assistance from Natalie Escobar.
DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive (ph) - Karen Grigsby Bates, Leah Donnella, LA Johnson and Alyssa Jeong Perry.
I'm Gene Demby.
MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.