The protests over one man’s death touched far more aspects of American life than just criminal justice. Seven thinkers reflect on how America is (and isn’t) different now.
In the year since George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, the explosive waves of national protest that followed have taken on almost a settled meaning: They were calls for police reform, and for America to take a hard look at the racial injustice threaded through its civic life.
But in its breadth and impact, the reaction to Floyd’s killing also blew through any conventional expectations for what a “protest” might touch. The reckoning it prompted about race in America extended to workplaces, classrooms, legislatures; it shook the worlds of art, literature and media. Americans began to talk about their own history differently. They physically pulled down monuments. The waves crashed against the fence of the White House, and rippled overseas.
POLITICO Magazine asked a range of thinkers to reflect on the surprising ways that Floyd’s death reshaped the country—and what hasn’t changed, too. They noted that many Americans, including political leaders, now talk about race and racism in blunter, more honest ways, and are more willing to rethink the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Some cities are physically different, perhaps permanently.
Of course, in some cases, they said, the way we talk might be all that’s changed, and not so much the way we act. A year later, a police officer is guilty of murder, but Black people have continued to die. And the next chapter has yet to be written.
Up until a year ago, the words “systemic racism,” and the reality they represent, were toxic to many Americans—a sweeping indictment of a nation that even the most liberal white people preferred to see as a glass half full. Then George Floyd was murdered. What had been an abstract argument made in numbers and percentages by a cadre of activists and academics became impossible to deny. The dam of resistance burst, and “systemic racism”—the idea and the phrase itself—went mainstream practically overnight. Everybody from NPR to Wall Street embraced the notion, incorporating it into their reporting and advertising.
Joe Biden did something no presidential nominee, or winner, had done: He used the phrase “systemic racism” in his convention speech—and again on election night, and again in his inaugural address.
It might sound superficial to make so much of one phrase, but the implications are profound. Even many of those who still think the term goes too far are acknowledging that America’s ugly past has finally caught up to the present, and the present is reshaping our political future. This tectonic shift in public sentiment about race reminds me of what a friend and fellow journalist always told me when I despaired about the snail’s pace of social progress in America: The status quo is the status quo, until it changes. It is possible for big change to happen overnight.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the nation’s racist past that was never really past has also burst into view again. The George Floyd awakening was countered by a presidential election that the Republican Party, increasingly clinging to Donald Trump, declared illegitimate after voters of color had gone to the polls in record numbers. In January, mobs of mostly white people stormed and desecrated the U.S. Capitol because of a total unwillingness to accept any electoral outcome except the one they felt entitled to. A fundamental schism has emerged between those who believe white supremacy in America is still perfectly feasible, even moral, and those who believe it is deeply anti-American and are determined to put it to rest once and for all. It’s the Big Lie versus the Big Truth.
The George Floyd protests have highlighted that there is no middle ground in this battle, as there never should have been. It’s ironic—but very instructive—that the systemic racism that used to be so hard to see, or to name, is now visible every day, in ongoing police shootings of Black people, but also in the words and actions of elected officials across the country. At least we all know now which side we’re on.
In the year since George Floyd’s murder, the nation has opened a new chapter in our necessary, nationwide conversation about race. This inevitably has led to more discussion about how we learn history and how we remember it, especially when it comes to monuments honoring and revering the Confederacy.
As a lifelong New Orleanian, I drove by Confederate monuments nearly every day for years without giving them much thought. But in my time as mayor of New Orleans, including after the Charleston AME church murders in 2015, I learned through research and discussions that most Confederate monuments were propaganda put up years, and often decades, after the Civil War. It became clearer to me that these symbols were intended to send a specific message to Black Americans, standing not as mournful markers of the legacy of slavery and segregation, but in reverence of it. On pedestals all across the country, not just the South, these statues have long represented white supremacy, and our collective inability to confront our past.
As a result, in 2017, after a contentious process that played out over several years, the city of New Orleans removed four Lost Cause Confederate statues, including of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. By no means is New Orleans a post-racial society, but the very painful public process of grappling with our past—statues, street names and more—is moving our city forward.
Since Floyd’s murder and the broader reckoning that followed, it has only become more common and more politically possible for states, cities and universities to take a hard look at their use of Confederate symbols. In the past year, dozens of statues and monuments have come down, including representations of some of the most towering figures in Southern mythology: Stonewall Jackson in Richmond, John C. Calhoun in Charleston and Jefferson Davis in the Kentucky State Capitol. This is progress. Given how hard these fights over monuments have become, we cannot let the momentum this moment has generated fade.
These statues are about so much more than stone and metal; their removal can be a catalyst for deeper learning and healing, correcting our history and making our communities more inclusive. An even more lasting outcome requires changing or correcting the attitudes that allowed these symbols to be put up, and stay up, in the first place. As a country, we must examine the systems and institutions that operate to the detriment of Black Americans and other people of color. We have to continue to tell the truth about our past and present, and to heal the racial divides across the nation. We will never taste the full fruits of freedom unless and until all of us are and feel included.
The police killing of George Floyd—caught on video by a courageous young, Black woman—stunned the nation and persuaded activists to flood the streets, even during a global pandemic. The protests in turn rekindled the global movement to end anti-Black racism and state-sanctioned violence.
As thousands decried Floyd’s death, pointing to the systemic problem of police violence in the United States, a group of activists in Louisville, Kentucky, worked to shed light on another act of senseless violence that had largely gone unnoticed: the police killing of Breonna Taylor. Two months before Floyd’s death, Taylor had been gunned down in her home, when a group of officers entered without warning as part of a drug investigation. Yet it was not until after Floyd’s death that most Americans learned Taylor’s name. And this was only possible because of a network of Black activists, many of them women, who demanded that Americans pay attention to how police violence impacts all Black people.
There is no denying that Black men and boys represent the majority of Black people who are killed by police in the United States. Yet, Black women and girls are also vulnerable to state-sanctioned violence. Even though their stories are often sidelined, they are no less significant. Activists in Louisville, including Taylor’s mother Tamika Parker and Taylor’s sister Ju’Niyah Palmer, made this clear when they took to the streets to say Breonna Taylor’s name last spring and summer.
As protests erupted in Louisville, Cate Young, a Los-Angeles based writer, introduced #BirthdayForBreonna on what would have been Taylor’s 27th birthday (June 5, 2020). She appealed to her followers on Twitter and others within her social media and personal networks. She also created a page with a list of actionable steps others could take to fight for justice for Taylor’s family, including sending emails and birthday cards for Taylor to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron and Louisville Metro Mayor Greg Fischer, to demand criminal charges for the police officers responsible for Taylor’s death. Within a matter of weeks, Breonna Taylor was a household name.
Young’s efforts, combined with the work of activists in Louisville and beyond, helped to center Black women’s vulnerability to state-sanctioned violence, elevating the #SayHerName campaign—which was started in 2014 to draw attention to violence against Black women—to a national rallying cry. And the uproar following Floyd’s death created the conditions that made that possible. The mass uprisings that followed, bringing together people from diverse backgrounds, offer a glimmer of hope that change is on the horizon.
The protests over systemic racism that erupted across the country a year ago didn’t just transform how people think about policing in the United States—they transformed actual places, and sparked concrete changes in the ways we plan, build and govern our cities.
Among the most iconic images of last summer were protestors and mourners in Minneapolis transforming the site of George Floyd’s murder, a public street, into a plaza that now serves as a gathering place, a site for expressions of grief, remembrance and demonstration.
Protests in other cities led to similar transformations, such as in Washington, where Mayor Muriel Bowser designated a section of 16th Street NW, a spot where marchers congregated just blocks from the White House, as Black Lives Matter Plaza. Protesters from Seattle to New York used roads, bridges, highways and other public rights-of-way to voice anger and grief, and to call for remaking inequitable systems. In the process, they forced reformulations of urban space. Whether permanent or fleeting, these actions brought the aims of the protest into the literal building blocks of our cities.
The racial justice protests also merged with parallel discussions, brought forth by the pandemic and potential infrastructure spending, about how to plan and use public spaces. They made infrastructure into contested ground, where questions about access and safety intertwined with confronting police brutality, racial injustice and historic patterns of community disinvestment.
In the early stages of the pandemic, numerous cities opened streets for socially distanced recreation. While these moves were celebrated widely, several Black and brown urban planners powerfully pointed out that more open spaces did not mean the same thing to every community and that not everyone would feel safe using them. The attention last summer brought by Black and brown activists to our literal streets has led to efforts to rethink infrastructure projects and policies in ways that better address community needs or concerns, such as recent moves to eliminate jaywalking penalties that disproportionately impact nonwhite walkers. Similarly, the push from the Biden administration to invest in infrastructure improvements has been shaped by calls to right past wrongs wrought by highways that divided communities or historic lack of investment in minority neighborhoods.
The protests—and intertwined infrastructure critiques—were a demand to rethink not just how we police our cities but how we design them; to consider who is at the table and whose voices are heard; and to recognize and reckon with the legacies and current obstacles imposed by racism. The events of the past year have shifted the lens of urban planning, bringing issues of equity to the fore. The durability of this focus is yet to be seen, but activists and advocates have succeeded in elevating the power of these physical spaces and insisting we grapple with the meaning they have for us all.
More than 140 new pieces of police reform legislation have passed across 30 states in the year since Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. These new laws strive to increase police accountability by limiting officer immunity in civil misconduct suits, restricting the use of neck restraints and expanding body camera requirements. Yet on a day-to-day basis, much of policing remains unchanged. In fact, instead of being open to transformation in response to public concern, many police leaders and their political allies have adopted a defensive posture over the past year, changing their messaging, rather than their policies and practices.
The movement to defund the police has garnered much attention—often critical, even from Democrats—but, with the exception of police unions, the organized resistance to reform has largely escaped scrutiny. As one example, police-related public relations firms are playing an active role in these efforts. Sixteen days after Floyd’s murder, Police1, a website run by the police consultancy juggernaut Lexipol, published a post that explains to police leaders how important social media should be in their public relations efforts. In direct reference to viral videos of Floyd’s murder, the authors ask their readers—mostly police leadership—“Now do you recognize the power of social media?” The lesson to be learned from the viral, wrenching murder scene was not that policing should change; it was that policing needs better publicists. In the ensuing year, private companies and consultants, such as Critical Incidents Videos and LLC/Cole Pro Media, which creates videos of police shootings for the public that are meant to offer a police department’s perspective on “a gut-wrenching moment only law enforcement can experience,” have become visible players in the market for external public relations support for police.
Police leaders are also capitalizing on a pandemic-era uptick in violent crime in U.S. cities to upend the effort to reform and shrink policing and invest in other ways of preventing and responding to harm. Despite the evidence that the pandemic and its massive social disruptions likely prompted the spike in homicides, some leaders primarily blame the defund movement. Consider Hartford, Connecticut, where the police union president blamed a spike in shootings on a new police reform law in the state last fall. Although the police chief and the mayor blamed the uptick on the broader impacts of Covid-19, the union president made an argument that has been disturbingly common among police leaders: He pinned crime increases on the movement and reform. In Lansing, Michigan, the police chief has explicitly acknowledged using crime spikes to stave off the city council’s efforts to respond to movement concerns.
The pushback to reform isn’t just from police departments and unions; Republican legislatures have also enshrined it in law. Although Republicans have touted support for local control over town and city budgets since the Reagan era, Republicans in Georgia and Texas are now advancing legislation that would penalize cities that reduce police funding.
Among the public, George Floyd’s murder precipitated a profound questioning of the role and scope of police. Many Americans started asking tough and uncomfortable questions about the unfettered authority of their police departments. But one of the biggest obstacles that still remains is a police culture invested in self-defense, not racial justice, and the politicians that follow suit.
The outrage over George Floyd’s murder was a big wake-up call for America’s CEOs. There were plenty of moral reasons for them to take action, but it almost immediately became clear that there were plenty of business reasons to do so as well: In the month after the killing, survey data showed an overwhelming majority of the American public wanted executives to speak up and to act on racial inequality in the United States.
Many business leaders did just that. At a Yale CEO Forum last spring, Ken Frazier, the CEO of Merck and one of four Black CEOs in the Fortune 500, spoke personally about Floyd, saying, “This African American man could be me or any other African American man” and terming the killing “a defining moment for our country when it comes to the issues of race.” Soon afterward, Frazier and then-IBM CEO Ginni Rometty organized several dozen other CEOs and more than $100 million to launch the OneTen workforce initiative to secure 100 million good jobs for Black workers without a college degree.
Other programs followed—real efforts with real money behind them. Goldman Sachs has just begun funding recipients of its newly launched One Million Black Women initiative, which commits $10 billion in direct investment capital and $100 million in gifts to address racial and gender bias suffered by Black women and exacerbated by the pandemic. Doug McMillon of Walmart has similarly invested $100 million into such community economic development initiatives. Target CEO Brian Cornell has committed to send $2 billion to Black owned businesses. Brian Moynihan of Bank of America just announced he was raising last year’s commitment of $250 million for investment in minority entrepreneurs to $350 million.
Of course, if you take a hard look at who really controls all that money and all those decisions, it’s clear the business community still has a long way to go. Less than 2 percent of top executives at the 50 largest companies are Black. But certain actions by pillars of American industry suggest meaningful change. As one example, this year Walmart showed a significant increase in officers of color to nearly 25 percent, and 55 percent of the company’s new hires were people of color. Similarly Target reports that more than half of its approximately 1,900 stores are led by female store directors and more than a third are led by people of color. In 2017, following police killings of unarmed Black citizens, PriceWaterhouse Coopers CEO Tim Ryan launched CEO Action for Diversity, an initiative where executives commit to diversifying their work forces and sharing best practices. This summer, more than 1,600 CEOs signed up.
There also appears to be a new appetite to listen. Many CEOs convened company-wide town halls in the wake of the protests. Brian Cornell of Target, David Solomon of Goldman Sachs, Doug Parker of American Airlines, Mary Barra of GM, Arvind Krishna CEO of IBM, and Johnson & Johnson’s Alex Gorsky told me they’ve had such dialogues for years but that the tone has changed precipitously in the last year towards far more candor.
Should we take this all with a grain of salt? I’ve been studying American businesses and CEOs for 45 years, and I’ve seen plenty of meaningless virtue signaling from this community—like the insincerity of some companies that joined the sustainability movement for more cosmetic reasons, without actually making meaningful changes to their climate footprints. Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker warned us at Yale/Korn Ferry forum on racial justice this year that it is premature to celebrate progress, that the frequent feel-good gala dinners on racial justice of the past are insufficient, telling me, “We have been unable to move from performative acts to real, sustained commitment to change.”
But I think these recent examples are something different. And I’m not alone. Mellody Hobson, co-CEO of Ariel Investments, chairwoman of Starbucks and one of just a few Black female CEOs, is also optimistic that the changes are real, calling this shift in corporate attitude a new chapter in the American push for civil rights. At the Yale/Korn Ferry forum, she said, “Corporate America has learned very quickly that social unrest and economic inequality are bad for business.” Of course, it’s too soon to know for real. As PepsiCo’s former CEO Indra Nooyi says, the true test will be if these changed dynamics take hold when we are out of the pandemic and the energy behind the protests has died down. Only then will we know if this racial justice mission in corporate America has led to lasting change.
Writers are often walkers. Whether that entails roaming a pastoral countryside or meandering city blocks, writers often find that walking removes us from the minutiae of writing long enough to then be able to think more clearly when we sit back down to keep at it. I found this to be particularly true during the height of the pandemic. My quarantine home life was filled with the din of people—dishes and too much laundry piling up and school shouting to be tended to via Zoom. Life at the height of the pandemic was deafeningly loud. So I walked.
The area where I live is best described as deceptively rural. No sidewalks, pastures for horses and cows, and if you are in a hurry and unlucky, tractors in front of you on the main road. It is also predominantly, overwhelmingly, white.
We bought the house at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency and settled in during the era of Trump. One might say Massachusetts is not known to have a large percentage of Republicans, but our town has a fair number of Trump supporters. The rotary on Main Street, with its patch of green lawn, is the designated space for political expression. Activists of all persuasions use the rotary to give voice to their beliefs, urging motorists to honk in agreement. For most of the year leading up to the 2020 election, when it was supporters of more right-leaning candidates or causes, my presence in our town was met with ice-cold stares or blank looks off into the distance, away from me and my kids, none of us white, in the backseat. If I could, I’d catch their eye, try to match their gaze.
When I first began walking it was March. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were known only to their loved ones. By spring, no longer. Through May the makeshift signs signaling the current death toll from Covid-19 and placards heralding graduates’ accomplishments gave way to new signs and new postings. In front of the houses in this rural white town rose black fists and hashtags calling for justice. By the end of June I was seeing rainbows and demands for the world to continue to listen, for those inclined to continue to fight. Black lives, trans lives.
Not every lawn, to be sure. And minds do not change direction; they are not streets heading only one way. But minds can expand to be able to hold new ideas. While our nation has a very long way to go in terms of ensuring equity and equality for all, the months, minutes and moments after we bore witness to the killing of George Floyd have demonstrated that we have the capacity to expand, as individuals and as a nation, our ability to love, truly love, our neighbors. We do not have to know each other, or fully understand each other, to honor the notion that we each have the right to live.