Some have said that the tragic murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, and the ensuing protests, represent an awakening in America. Civil rights scholar Aldon Morris noted that the protests “are unprecedented in terms of white participation in a movement targeting Black oppression and grievances.” Throughout America’s history, there have been countless protests against racial injustice, but as Black scholar, Professor Sharde Davis said, “What feels different this time is that white folks are listening.” New York Times journalist Charles Blow called out those who don’t see this moment for its full meaning, writing, “People are marching as a way of exhaling pain…This isn’t only about the pain of police brutality. It’s about all the pain.” Many point to what happened to George Floyd not as an isolated incident perpetrated by one “bad apple” but rather as part of systemic racism long evidenced in our nation in many ways, including policing, health care and economic opportunity. Blow quotes protester Kimberly Latrice Jones as saying, “They are lucky that what Black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.” The one-two punch of the horror of the pandemic crisis and the surge of deaths of Blacks at the hands of white law enforcement can’t be minimized. More than 100,000 lives were lost in America; more than 40 million people became unemployed, and the isolation felt by restrictions on social interaction all hit people of color the hardest. In many ways, the protests brought on by the murder of George Floyd are about him and more. As Blow wrote, “Black people are saying: ‘See me! See what you have done to me and continue to do to me’…They are saying, ‘Stop killing us!’ And in that, they mean killing in every conceivable way.”
The question now is where do we go from here? We’ve seen the expensive, full page ads from corporate America, including several by Black-owned corporate giants, demanding an end to police brutality and calling for an end to systemic racism not just in policing but in all institutions, including finance, education and health care. We’ve seen elected officials at all levels of government call for changes to police practices and policies that range from job performance transparency to defunding. While some of those initiatives are well thought out and long-overdue, others suggest a misguided, knee-jerk reaction that reeks of political pandering. The problem with many of the “solutions” is exactly what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said: “It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel just to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” But until there are more Blacks on corporate boards, and until there’s not just job retention but promotion and recruitment for Blacks, until educational institutions are more concerned with cultivating Black talent than just trying to fill a quota, and until we stop vandalizing and destroying our own hard-built Black businesses in the name of a protest, then all we’ll have left is what President Abraham Lincoln warned against: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”
Many have said that this is a defining moment in America. But what will that definition include? Certainly it’s not enough that the Merriam-Webster dictionary is revising its definition of racism after a Missouri woman’s emails claimed it fell short of including the systemic oppression of certain groups of people. Instead, this moment must be more. It should be a movement toward goodwill. We’ve strayed too far from America’s motto: “E pluribus unum,” Latin for “Out of many come one.” And we can’t afford to embrace the new motto: “Out of many, come none.” Instead, let this moment, which was fermented by a health crisis and ignited by racial injustice, become the catalyst for reinvigorating and revising an old, but powerful message from the founding fathers: “WE THE PEOPLE.” Except, this time, we must be vigilant to ensure that “THE PEOPLE” includes everyone.
Gregory Floyd is president of Teamsters Local 237 and vice president-at large on the General Board of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.