What Role Does Racism Play in George Floyd’s America?

A picture of George Floyd at a makeshift memorial put up by protesters at the corner where he was arrested in Minneapolis, Minn., May 28, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Different academics come to radically different conclusions, which suggests the question has no single answer.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE O ur country is literally burning. George Floyd’s death and the response to it are everywhere, and rightly so. Based on everything we know now, Derek Chauvin should have been arrested and charged with murder, as he has been.

The fact that there’s near-consensus on this point means that the protests aren’t about whether Floyd did something to provoke Chauvin (he didn’t), nor even about whether police need more and better training in deescalation and alternative response techniques (they do). The question is an even more vexing one: Is Floyd’s experience with Chauvin emblematic of the black experience in America more generally?

According to African-American studies professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “the crisis in black communities seems most acute and overlaps with almost daily incidents of police violence or some other oppressive expression of state power.” In Taylor’s view, Floyd’s death was one piece in a much larger puzzle, a symptom of the kind of systemic racism that keeps black communities and individuals disadvantaged:

The convergence of these tragic events — a pandemic disproportionately killing black people, the failure of the state to protect black people and the preying on black people by the police — has confirmed what most of us already know: If we and those who stand with us do not mobilize in our own defense, then no official entity ever will. Young black people must endure the contusions caused by rubber bullets or the acrid burn of tear gas because government has abandoned us. Black Lives Matter only because we will make it so.

But here’s another view, from economics professor Glenn Loury, who, on his Bloggingheads.tv show, questioned whether we could know for certain that race was the primary factor in Floyd’s fateful meeting with Chauvin:

The other thing is how it gets narrated. How it gets constructed. . . . I mean race might have been a part of it, it might have been 5 percent of it, but now it has become the entire thing. It’s become a statement about the nature of race in America and that’s a, I think, a highly questionable and a very problematic move.

Both Taylor and Loury are black. Which one is right? Questions about the role of racism in society are almost always impossible to answer definitively. Loury went on to speak to this uncertainty and the choices African Americans make about how to see themselves in the world:

If you’re a black person . . . and . . . you have things happen to you and you don’t know whether or not it’s because of your race, you’re balancing the cost of going around all the time on this hair-trigger, you know, because you’re always looking for the affront of the racist against the retroactive regret of being treated in a way because of your race and not having steeled yourself for that.

The fact that these two perspectives exist — Taylor’s and Loury’s — suggests there is no single “black experience,” even though there clearly are serious problems faced widely by black Americans — problems with policing, with “good” cops’ willingness to excuse or enable bad apples, and with racism. But because people think differently about where racism falls on the ranked list of contributing factors, there will always be different takes on whether the right approach is to lean into a racialized response or to lean away from it.

In Professor Taylor’s America, the United States is racist to its core. Racism is ever-present and, if we haven’t found it, it’s because we’re not looking hard enough. Every disparity and inequality between groups is itself an indictment of the broader system and evidence of the discrimination that pervades daily life. So the only response is to lean into race.

In Professor Loury’s America, racism is one of multiple contributing factors to those same inequalities, but it’s not the only nor necessarily the primary factor. In this view, leaning into racialized explanations and solutions is not only wrong, but may even be destructive.

The real problem here is that there’s only an illusion of symmetry; the “choice” between the two views isn’t really a choice at all. The only way to get to Taylor’s worldview that racism pervades U.S. society is to decouple racism from racist intent. And it’s difficult to imagine a world where the majority of people or even a critical mass gets on board with this separation. Most well-intentioned people believe intent does matter and resent being told otherwise.

So what, at first glance, looks like a coin toss between two perspectives isn’t one at all. This is because there’s no path forward in a democratic society for those who say everyone has to agree with a particular view. In Loury’s America, there’s room for debate. In Taylor’s America, there isn’t.

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