It was the look of indifference in Chauvin’s eyes on May 25, 2020, as he casually drained the life out of George Floyd. That was as chilling as his knee on Floyd’s neck. And what it represents could pose the biggest challenge to broader police reforms ahead.
When we talk about racism, we often focus on spectacular acts of cruelty. The ghoulish photo of Emmett Till’s face in an open coffin. The lynching postcards that some White Americans used to mail to one another. The snarling faces of White students who surrounded a young Black woman who tried to integrate an Arkansas high school. But the look of disinterest in Chauvin’s eyes is a reminder that indifference – not just hate – is a critical part of how racism works.The late Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel once said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” Wiesel said that to the indifferent person, “his or her neighbor are of no consequence… Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction.”
And that’s why it’s no accident that it was White indifference – not hatred – that seemed to anger the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. the most. King didn’t write his epic “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963 in response to the hateful actions of White segregationists. He addressed it to a group of White moderates who he thought were indifferent to the suffering of Black people living under segregation, and who were “more devoted to order than to justice.”
White indifference is why slavery and Jim Crow lasted so long. White indifference to police brutality is why so many Black men continue to die like Floyd. White indifference is why it’s harder for Black and brown people to vote in some states than for White people.It’s White indifference that allows so many Black and brown students to go to racially segregated public schools with fewer resources. It’s White indifference that allows so many people in the medical profession to believe that Black people don’t feel pain like others.
As activists use momentum from the Floyd verdict to press for more police reforms, this wall of indifference may be their biggest challenge. There are plenty of complicated proposals to reform policing: a federal ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants, challenging authorities’ immunity from civil suits and stopping the militarization of local police. Much of the progress on police reform, though, will boil down to this: Will enough lawmakers and judges see Black and brown people who are being brutalized by the justice system as fellow human beings? Or will some they continue to see them as thugs, predators, or superhuman?