One year after the significant murder of George Floyd, a global reckoning on race has led to little actual change in America, writes Lincoln Mitchell.
New York (Brussels Morning) One year ago this week former police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Sadly, the murder of African American men by security forces is a story that is older than the US itself. Occasionally, one of these acts of brutality takes a larger role in the national consciousness.
Perhaps because it was caught on video, perhaps because of the almost casual uncaring look on Chauvin’s face as he knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, perhaps because of the external stress created by the pandemic and the Trump presidency, the murder of Floyd led to weeks of marches, protests and demonstrations that rocked the US, and indeed much of the world. These were the first rumblings of a summer of protest and instability unlike any other America had seen.
During the summer of 2020 the revived Black Lives Matter movement brought out massive numbers of Americans to participate in demonstrations that appeared to redefine the national discussion around race, racism and policing. Most of these demonstrations were peaceful, but there were also incidents of looting in some cities. The response from the state varied from city to city, but the Trump federal government sent troops to violently disperse a rally in Washington, D.C., so the President could have a photo taken trying to look decisive in front of a church.
Meanwhile in Portland, federal troops picked demonstrators off of the streets in what could be described as kidnapping. On the right, anti-masking and anti-shutdown demonstrations had already begun by the time of Floyd’s murder, but continued into the summer. In early fall, some of these right wing activists hatched, but failed to execute, a plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer.
A lot has changed since Floyd was murdered. Relative to late May of 2020, America feels, simultaneously, like a very different and a stubbornly unchanged country. The toxic adrenaline that drove the Trump presidency and Trump himself, as he careened from horror to horror and consistently sought to inject hatred and division into America’s political and social life, has been replaced by the mellow and soft-spoken style of a new president for whom the secret of enduring popularity seems to be simply not being the focus of attention all the time.
Summer of 2020 was also when Covid began to ravage more of America as for most of the spring, the worst of the pandemic was concentrated in a few states in the northeast. Although there are still hundreds of deaths from COVID-19 every day in America, there is a widespread and palpable notion that, in large part due to vaccines, the US has turned the corner on the pandemic.
Despite this, systemic racism, which was both the target of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer and one of the fundamental and defining traits of American life for centuries, remains an enormous problem. Even with a presidential administration that explicitly recognised its existence, we have made little progress over the last year. The demonstrations last summer were only the latest iteration in the long struggle to defeat systemic racism in the US but the progress remains agonisingly slow.
One of the more disturbing results of the demonstrations from last summer is a reinvigorated effort, on the part of the right, to ensure that political power is not equally shared in an increasingly diverse US. The insurrection at the Capitol in January, the efforts by the Trump administration to limit voting during the 2020 election, the spate of new laws in various states aimed at making it more difficult for people of color to vote and the numerous killings of African Americans by police since last summer are all evidence of that.
During the summer of 2020 something close to a consensus emerged that the US had reached an inflexion point on questions of race and that the future would either bring the racial equality that that many have sought and hoped for over generations or a hardening of the racism that has always been deeply embedded in America’s political DNA. It is not yet clear which way America will go as either of these outcomes is still possible.
However, there is another and less dramatic possibility, one that seems more likely now than it did a year ago. The horrific tragedy of Floyd’s murder may not have been a crucial turning point in America’s long quest for racial equality. It now appears that the massive protests and increased recognition of the problem of systemic racism, like so many other developments in American life, just make most of us go back to our ideological corners as the country continues to be divided and unable to solve fundamental problems.