One month after George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, nearly every title on The New York Times combined print and e-book nonfiction list concerned institutional racism or antiracism. Here’s to those who thought ordering a stack of books was tantamount to doing the hard work of eradicating white supremacy but didn’t learn a damn thing about America or themselves.
Floyd’s murder didn’t just supercharge book sales. It also compelled millions into the streets. This was supposed to mark the beginning of an overdue racial reckoning. How could this nation remain unchanged after the world watched Floyd slowly die, his neck pinned under a police officer’s knee for more than nine excruciating minutes?
Of course, America never reckons with its racist transgressions. Heady notions of any reckoning disappeared faster than all those Black Lives Matter signs that suddenly popped up everywhere. We’ve been left with the bitter reality that our country deliberately squandered a pivotal moment ensuring that Floyd’s death would be in vain.
Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, during a week that amplified this nation’s racist attitudes and racial disparities. Those seven days began with the grim anticipation of America’s 100,000th death from COVID-19, a pandemic that has had a disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities.
On the same day of Floyd’s death, a white woman provoked a confrontation when a Black man asked her to abide by leash laws in New York’s Central Park. He videotaped her as she called 911 and falsely claimed that “an African American man is threatening my life.” That viral video sparked discussions about how this woman tried to use her privilege and a racist lie to provoke police to punish a Black man.
Before that week’s end, the last minutes of Floyd’s life would dominate the news and social media. If not for Darnella Frazier’s cell phone video, his death would have been forgotten; Minneapolis police lied and initially called it a “medical incident during police interaction.” Instead it became a worldwide call to root out the police violence and entrenched racism that enabled Floyd’s death.
In 1955, the racist murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi became a flashpoint for the modern civil rights movement. A decade later, hundreds of nonviolent activists marching for Black voting rights in Selma, Ala., including civil rights icon John Lewis, were attacked by state troopers. A week after what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to Congress.
From tragedy grew hard-won changes that pushed this nation closer to a more perfect union, and that was the expectation after Floyd’s murder. Last year, President Biden vowed to sign into law the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act when it reached his desk. It never did, stiff-armed by Senate Republicans. Now Biden says the best way to fight crime and reform the police is with even more police funding.
In lieu of the policing act, Biden is expected Wednesday to issue an executive order for all federal agencies to start a nationwide registry of officers fired for misconduct; update use-of-force policies; limit transfers of most military equipment to law enforcement agencies; and use grants to encourage state and local police to restrict no-knock warrants and chokeholds.
Last year, Chauvin was sentenced to 22½ years in prison after he was found guilty on all counts including unintentional second-degree murder for killing Floyd. (He is appealing his conviction and sentence.) Facing state charges, Thomas Lane, the former Minneapolis officer who helped hold down Floyd’s legs, pleaded guilty this month to second-degree manslaughter. Chauvin, Lane, and two other former officers have already been convicted on federal charges for violating Floyd’s civil rights.
That’s accountability. But the horror of Floyd’s murder demanded much more light from the darkness. I’m reminded of what Barbara Fields, the only Black historian in Ken Burns’s problematic 1990 documentary “The Civil War,” said about that seminal four-year conflict: “It could have been a very ugly filthy war with no redeeming characteristics at all, and it was the battle for emancipation and the people who pushed it forward — the slaves, the free Black people, the abolitionists, and a lot of ordinary citizens — it was they who ennobled what otherwise would have been meaningless carnage into something higher.”
Nothing higher has come from Floyd’s murder, and America’s very ugly filthy war against Black people is unwavering. The evidence lies in plain sight as Republican-led legislatures curtail voting rights and right-wing school boards ban some of the same books that topped bestseller lists two years ago. We’ve seen the proof in insurrectionists who breached the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an attempt to overthrow a fair election and the white supremacist who allegedly drove 200 miles on May 14 to kill Black people in a Buffalo supermarket.
A Virginia school board is even mulling restoring to two schools the names of Confederate generals that were changed following Floyd’s murder.
During protests after her father’s death, Gianna, his then 6-year-old daughter, said “Daddy changed the world.” Perhaps her generation will be the one to do that by codifying the protections and progress denied to her father. Until then America, stirred two years ago, will allow the white supremacy that killed Floyd to remain unshaken.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.