By now, many of us have seen it. The killing of George Floyd. Murdered on a public street by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin who saw fit to kneel on Floyd’s neck, as if Floyd was some feral animal. For many of us, Floyd’s murder is yet another example of the systemic racial injustices that pervade the everyday lives of Black Americans. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently remarked that racism in America “is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in.”
Here, Jabbar eloquently describes the intersectionality of racial injustice and Floyd’s murder, and the events that have followed. We are now living in a moment of great historical consequence; hopefully. Carlotta Walls Lanier, one of the members of the Little Rock Nine recently described demonstrations taking place in the wake of Floyd’s murder as “the most diverse” she’d seen. Despite looting and incidents of violence, most Americans have reacted to Floyd’s murder in constructive ways.
I’ve used the time to think. In an attempt to make some sense of all of this, three areas of focus come to mind: (1) my own feelings; (2) my own understanding of the issues that gave rise to the events of the last month; and (3) what steps I can take to make a difference. The issues laid bare by Floyd’s murder may be nuanced. But ultimately, the plight of non-whites in this country has endured since before its creation.
Violence against non-whites is as American as apple pie. Bobby Kennedy once referred to America as “a land which defined itself on a hostile frontier.” Indeed, violence has been an indelible aspect of American life since long before its creation. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Trail of Tears. Black Wall Street. Jim Crow. Emmet Till. Medgar Evers. Malcolm X. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. And now George Floyd. It’s all there. If you understand the history of this country, even a moment as heinous as George Floyd’s murder is undoubtedly sad, but hardly shocking.
George Floyd was a father, brother, and friend. But most of all, he was a human being. And those that loved him had to witness his death in the most public way. As I watched the video I imagined how I would feel if I watched one of my brothers, or my son murdered by a police officer on YouTube; naturally I worry.
As a parent, you spend so much time worrying about your children. Will they grow up to be happy? Healthy? Will they be kind? If you are black, you spend just as much time worrying about their safety. You see, it’s not enough to be “good” if you are black. My son was born into a different world than me. And he will grow up with far more privilege, to be sure. But that does not make him immune to racism.
Consider Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. One of the preeminent scholars on the subject of African American History. Educated at Yale and Cambridge, Gates is the Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Despite his pedigree and socio-economic status, Gates somehow managed to be falsely arrested for trying to enter his own home. Even worse, consider Ahmaud Arbery. A young black man lynched by two white men on a public street in broad daylight, as he was out for a jog. Like George Floyd, Arbery’s murder was captured on a cell phone.
At a time in which wealth for whites vastly outnumbers blacks at every education level in America, it is indeed an odd twist of irony that modern technology has played a crucial role in exposing the bitter truths about racial inequality in our society. High-definition videos captured on a device that fits in the palm of your hand deliver the horrors of violence against blacks, even as the fruits of this modern technology continue to evade the very people subjected to this senseless violence.
Still, I take comfort in the support of people across the country, and almost every corner of the world that have taken part in peaceful protests against injustice and inequality. That it took cell phone footage to bring about a change in our collective mindset is interesting, but not surprising.
Recently I watched Ava DuVernay’s compelling documentary “13th,” which explores the history of racial inequality in America, all within the context of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the amendment that outlawed slavery). One compelling aspect of the film is the way in which it captures the power of images. And it demonstrates the extent to which visual mediums (e.g. Emmet Till, Selma) have shifted public sentiment regarding America’s treatment of blacks.
This brings us back to Floyd’s murder. The video footage of his murder has brought about protests, podcasts, articles, studies, discussions, arguments, and yes violence. What comes next? I can’t speak for others, but below are four things that I will do with the hope that I can make a difference. I think you can do the same.
- Give. Change requires mobilization, which in turn requires money. Consequently, we have begun, and will continue to financially support organizations that are committed to change, as best as we can. I encourage you all to find out whether your employer matches charitable contributions. This is one of the best ways to maximize your financial impact on issues for which you are most passionate.
- Vote. This seems obvious. But clearly, it’s not. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 56% of the voting age public cast ballots in the 2016 Presidential election. We can do better. If you regularly vote that’s great. If you don’t, understand that local and state elections have a greater impact on our everyday life than Presidential elections. If you want to understand how it is that Derek Chauvin was still carrying a badge when he murdered George Floyd, look no further than the elected officials in Minneapolis and Minnesota. Both past and current elected officials (state congressmen, prosecutors, etc) put in place policies and procedures that led in part to Floyd’s murder. Ask yourself these questions: do you know your state senators and representatives? How about your alderman or city councilmember? Sheriff? What about the school board? These people affect your life in profound ways; get to know them.
- Engage. My wife and I recently had a series of conversations about Sam Harris and his most recent podcast episode titled “Can We Pull Back from The Brink?” Coincidentally, a close friend of mine reached out to me to ask if I’d listened to it, which led to a series of constructive conversations about race, police violence, inequality, and poverty. And while I find Harris’ observations overly simplistic, and ultimately pointless, I respect his broader point about the need for us to listen to one another as a society. Listening to differing viewpoints has its limitations. Seeking elevated discourse from a white supremacist is pointless. But surely, we can do more to engage with others that do not share our politics.
- Act. Volunteerism is not only a noble endeavor, but it also helps to bridge gaps between people of different socio-economic groups. Tutor children in underserved communities. Serve as a mentor. Mobilize fellow employees for a cause. Serve the homeless. If you are a part of the leadership team at your company, take a look at the makeup of its employees, your executive team, and your board. Do these groups reflect the makeup of modern society? Are they diverse? If not, then ask yourself why, and do something about it. There is no shortage of diverse talent in the labor pool; FIND THEM. Educate your children about the importance of donating time. Volunteering is a way to give. But it is also a way to engage and to mobilize with others to bring about substantive change.
This country has given me opportunities that so few have in other parts of the world; and for that I am grateful. But gratefulness does not require turning a blind eye to the horrors inflicted on so many in this country, so often. We should expect more from our leaders and fellow citizens; and we should do more. I will continue to learn, engage, and act. I hope you do the same.