The look in Derek Chauvin's eyes was something worse than hate
Updated 0803 GMT (1603 HKT) April 24, 2021
(CNN)Images and soundbites from the Derek Chauvin trial will linger in people's memories for years. But there is one heart-wrenching image that stands above the rest.
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.
That look was freeze-framed in what the prosecution dryly called "Exhibit 17." It shows Chauvin, the White Minneapolis police officer who was found guilty on all three counts in Floyd's death, glancing at a crowd of onlookers while bearing down on an unconscious Floyd, who is handcuffed and pinned face-first to the pavement.
The look on Chauvin's face is one of bored disinterest. His sunglasses are perched on his head and his hands rest in his pocket. He doesn't seem to notice Floyd at all. The only flicker of emotion on his face is his annoyance at the crowd that has gathered to plead for Floyd's life.
That will go down as one of the defining images of our era because it tells a story about racism that many people don't want to hear.
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."
Why indifference can be more harmful than hatred
There is a peculiar pain to being ignored, to not even being seen. Most Black people have experienced this. That's why if you talk about racism to some in unguarded moments, you'll hear something strange.
Some find it easier to deal with the open hatred of overt racists when compared to those White people who don't even see them. At least the racists recognize that they exist -- they see them, even if their vision is clouded by hate.
To not be seen is another, more insidious variant of racism that can be infuriating. Perhaps that's why one of the best novels about racism by a Black author is titled "Invisible Man."
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."
Racism needs indifference like a plant needs water and sunlight.