Born with two strikes
How systemic racism shaped Floyd’s life and hobbled his ambition
His life began as the last embers of the civil rights movement were flickering out. Its horrific, videotaped end ignited the largest anti-racism movement since, with demonstrators the world over marching for racial justice in his name.
During the 46 years in between, George Perry Floyd came of age as the strictures of Jim Crow discrimination in America gave way to an insidious form of systemic racism, one that continually undercut his ambitions.
Early in life, he wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. Then, a pro athlete. At the end, he just longed for a little stability, training to be a commercial truck driver.
All were bigger dreams than he was able to achieve in his version of America. While his death was the catalyst for global protests against racial inequality, the nearly eight minutes Floyd spent suffocating under the knee of a White police officer were hardly the first time he faced oppression.
Throughout his lifetime, Floyd’s identity as a Black man exposed him to a gantlet of injustices that derailed, diminished and ultimately destroyed him, according to an extensive review of his life based on hundreds of documents and interviews with more than 150 people, including his siblings, extended family members, friends, colleagues, public officials and scholars.
The picture that emerges is one that underscores how systemic racism has calcified within many of America’s institutions, creating sharply disparate outcomes in housing, education, the economy, law enforcement and health care.
While Floyd’s life span coincided with many advancements for Black Americans — some of them dramatic — his personal path highlights just how much those hard-fought gains remain out of reach for millions like him.
“My mom, she used to always tell us that growing up in America, you already have two strikes,” as a Black man, Floyd’s younger brother Philonise said in an interview. “And you’re going to have to work three times as hard as everybody else, if you want to make it in this world.”
Like many Black Americans, Floyd was behind long before he was born.
A descendant of enslaved people and sharecroppers, he was raised by a single mother in a predominantly Black Houston neighborhood where White flight, underinvestment and mass incarceration fostered a crucible of inequality.
In the crumbling Houston public housing complex where Floyd grew up — known as “The Bricks” — kids were accustomed to police jumping from cars to harass and detain them. His underfunded and underperforming public high school in the city’s historically Black Third Ward left him unprepared for college.
When Floyd was a young man, minor offenses on his record yielded significant jail time and, once released, kept him from finding work. One conviction — a $10 drug deal that earned him 10 months behind bars — is now under review because the arresting officer is suspected of fabricating evidence in dozens of low-level drug cases.
Floyd spent a quarter of his adult life incarcerated, cycling through a criminal justice system that studies show unjustly targets Blacks. His longest stint was at a private prison in a predominantly White town where the jail housing mostly minority inmates generated a third of the town’s budget.
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A survivor of covid-19, he struggled with several ailments that disproportionately cut short Black lives.
Floyd made many mistakes of his own doing. His choices landed him in jail on drug and robbery charges, while also leaving him without a college degree and with limited career prospects. He acknowledged many of his poor decisions and tried to warn others against making them, too. But for him, each misstep further narrowed his opportunities.
“I got my shortcomings and my flaws,” he said in a video he posted on social media aimed at convincing young people in his neighborhood to put away their guns. “I ain’t better than nobody else.”
But he also didn’t get the benefits that others might have.
“If you are a Black man in America, you’re going to get stopped and if there’s some basis to detain you, that’s probably going to happen,” said Alex Bunin, chief public defender in Harris County, which includes Houston. “If you have means, you can get out. But if you’re poor and you’re Black, you’re not going to get those breaks.”
“George Floyd,” he said, “wasn’t getting those breaks.”
When Floyd stumbled, he fell far, ultimately battling drugs, hypertension, claustrophobia and depression.
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and three of his colleagues are set to stand trial in Floyd’s killing. But his death on Memorial Day has prompted millions of Americans to probe the broader question of whether the systems that limited Floyd’s prospects and contributed to his downfall also need to be cross-examined.
A nation ‘weary of the struggle’
Floyd was born in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1973, a time when Whites-only service at restaurants and segregated seating in movie theaters were fresh wounds.
Five years had passed since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the drive for equal rights for Americans of different races lacked a clear leader. Groups that had once united in common cause were feuding and much of the country appeared to have lost interest in the plight of its Black citizens.
“The nation seems weary of the struggle,” bemoaned the then-executive director of the National Urban League, Vernon Jordan Jr.
But there was still a cause for optimism.
When Floyd was two days old, Maynard Jackson was elected mayor of Atlanta. It was the first time a major Southern city would have a Black leader. Detroit and Los Angeles also elected Black mayors that year. Representation within the system — not just activism on the streets — was the order of the day.
“Politics is the civil rights movement of the seventies,” Jackson declared.
It is a view that largely held for decades and culminated with the 2008 election of a Black president, Barack Obama. But it wasn’t enough. The shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo. — along with a spate of other deaths of Black men and women at the hands of the police — put to rest any notions of a post-racial America.
The cellphone video of Floyd screaming “I can’t breathe” before expiring under the knee of a White police officer came during a presidency that has employed the rhetoric of white nationalism and a pandemic that has been especially deadly for minorities. It sparked a fiery summer of activism and unrest unlike any the nation has seen, with peaceful protests sometimes erupting into violent clashes. The demonstrations have continued this fall, most notably after the officers who shot 26-year-old Breonna Taylor to death at her Louisville apartment were cleared of wrongdoing.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” Christopher Lehman remembers thinking when he saw the video of Floyd’s killing. “That was a wake-up call for people still thinking that politics is the movement.”
A Black man living in Minnesota, Lehman didn’t realize until later how much he and Floyd shared, including a youth spent in the post-civil rights movement South and a birthday, Oct. 14, 1973. Lehman grew up to be a professor at St. Cloud State University and a prizewinning historian of both slavery and the civil rights movement, embodying the possibilities available to those born into a world where Jim Crow had been dismantled.
Over the last half-century, the gap in Black and White life expectancy substantially narrowed, from seven years to 3½. The ranks of the Black middle class swelled, while the Black-White poverty gap shrank. Long-standing disparities in education have been reduced as high school graduation rates converge.
Yet, Black families also have just over one-tenth the wealth of the typical White household, a gap that has persisted for decades. The Black unemployment rate has consistently been double that of Whites, putting African Americans in recessionary territory even when other Americans are experiencing a boom. And the gap in homeownership is wider than it was a half-century ago.
In recent years, unequal treatment in the criminal justice system has stirred the most passion. Black citizens are incarcerated at six times the rate of Whites. They are also more than twice as likely to be killed during interactions with police, according to a Washington Post database.
“There seem to be two justice systems in America,” said Ben Crump, attorney for the Floyd and Taylor families, as protesters took to the streets in Louisville last month. “One for Black America, and one for White America.”
Injustice endured through generations
The systemic racism that shaped Floyd’s life began more than 100 years before he was born.
Floyd’s great-great-grandfather, Hillery Thomas Stewart Sr., spent the first eight years of his life enslaved in North Carolina, where tobacco fields financed American dynasties — and perpetuated inequality — that endured from the 19th century until today.
Stewart was freed in the mid-1860s, the result of a bloody Civil War that led to the emancipation of nearly 4 million Black Americans who had toiled under a brutal system of chattel slavery.
Despite having no formal education — teaching enslaved people to read and write was deemed illegal by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1830 — Stewart acquired 500 acres of land by the time he reached his 20s, according to Angela Harrelson, Floyd’s aunt.
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Stewart lost it all when White farmers seized the land, using legally questionable maneuvers that were common in the postwar South, said Harrelson, who has helped preserve the family’s history through photographs, letters and other records.
Stewart’s state-mandated illiteracy left him powerless to mount a legal defense.
“The land was stolen from him,” Harrelson said, adding that her great-grandfather was “targeted” by White usurpers because of his relative wealth. “They used to call him the rich nigger.”
It was not an uncommon occurrence, according to a 1982 report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights that documented the steep decline of Black-owned farms from the Civil War through the 20th century.
“The frequent pattern is for land to remain in minority hands only so long as it is economically marginal, and then to be acquired by whites when its value begins to increase,” the report said.
Floyd’s grandparents were North Carolina sharecroppers, working farms owned by White landowners in exchange for a portion of the crop. They, too, fell victim to state-sanctioned discrimination and wage theft, according to Harrelson and other family members.
As they raised their 14 children — including Floyd’s mother, Larcenia — they were repeatedly forced out of the shacks they rented with their labor, and regularly cheated out of their pay, Harrelson said. It was a familiar experience for Black sharecroppers, who worked under a predatory system and often had no recourse other than to move to another farm and start again.
By the time Floyd was born, his family had spent more than a century toiling under the unforgiving Carolina sun — with little to show for it.
That dynamic is at the core of the 10-to-1 wealth disparity between Whites and Blacks that has persisted since the civil rights movement, said Melvin Oliver, co-author of “Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality.”
The economic gap only widened during the course of Floyd’s life, a phenomenon many scholars find damning but unsurprising.
“That's what structural racism is. It's built into a system that continually advantages one group and systematically disadvantages another over time,” said Oliver, who now serves as president of Pitzer College in Southern California. “And as long as you don't do anything about it, it's going to continue to create those outcomes.”
While unable to bequeath financial wealth to their descendants, Floyd’s grandparents passed down an ethic of hard work, a reverence for education and a deep familial bond borne out of shared perseverance, family members said. Larcenia and her 12 surviving siblings all graduated from high school, a source of pride for their sharecropper parents who never attended.
But a more ominous sentiment also filtered down through the generations, ultimately reaching Floyd: an unshakable fear of White exploitation, and a skepticism toward a system that had treated the family’s dark skin as a permission slip for oppression.
“That’s the thing about this whole systemic mess — it’s tiresome, it’s frustrating,” said Harrelson, who became a nurse and settled in Minneapolis years before her nephew moved there. “And you’re always working two and three times as hard.”
Recalling the racial profiling he and his siblings experienced regularly in their Third Ward neighborhood, George Floyd’s younger brother put it more succinctly: “Your skin,” Rodney Floyd said, “is your sin.”
Inequality of opportunity
Larcenia “Cissy” Floyd arrived in Houston in 1977, a single mother of three hoping to put North Carolina’s tobacco fields behind her and start a new life in Texas.
She didn’t have much money and settled in Cuney Homes, the city’s oldest public housing complex.
The low-slung development in Houston’s Third Ward is a place where generations of neighbors watch each other’s children and an empty lot beneath a pecan tree served as both a community gathering place and gossip hub.
It’s also a sand trap of entrenched poverty and a symbol of enduring racial segregation in the middle of the country’s most diverse metropolis. With a median household income of less than $20,000 and a poverty rate above 60 percent, according to Census figures, the predominantly Black residents of “The Bricks” were surrounded by signs of struggle.
Against that backdrop, Floyd had what family members described as a happy if resource-deprived childhood. His brothers remember eating mayonnaise and banana sandwiches, washing their clothes in the kitchen sink and sleeping hip-to-hip in a house whose population constantly stretched the capacity of its square footage.
“One thing about Floyd is it’s always family. That’s in the heart. He’s our mother’s child so he’s going to be family, family, family,” said Rodney Floyd, recalling his older brother’s efforts to be a breadwinner in a multigenerational household.
“One roof, one family,” added Philonise Floyd.
“Yeah, that was his saying.” Rodney laughed, his voice trailing off in remembrance. “Yes … that’s Floyd.”
Larcenia Floyd worked at a neighborhood fast-food joint and, despite her low wages, was quick to extend hospitality to visitors to her home. Neighborhood children would often show up unannounced and hungry. They would stay for a meal — longer if they had nowhere safe to go.
During the civil rights movement, securing economic opportunity and fair housing for Blacks was a key pillar in the fight for equality. Martin Luther King Jr. was met by an angry mob and struck by a rock in 1966 while marching through a White Chicago neighborhood to demand access to integrated housing after years of discrimination. King said the march was part of a campaign “to eradicate a vicious system which seeks to further colonize thousands of Negroes within a slum environment.”
A half-century later, racially segregated housing in America’s cities remains as common as rush-hour traffic.
The concentration of minorities in places like Cuney Homes can be directly linked to government policies — both well-intentioned and prejudiced — that created racialized ghettos in Houston and across the country.
Redlining — the practice of banks either denying mortgages to people in minority neighborhoods or charging those borrowers more — limited Black home buyers’ options through much of the 20th century. Local housing authorities in Houston and elsewhere built projects that quickly became racially segregated. States like Texas have passed laws allowing landlords to continue discriminating against people with low-income housing vouchers, blocking many Black renters from accessing certain neighborhoods.
While the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act and other policies have facilitated integration in many neighborhoods, Black Americans have remained the most segregated ethnic group in the country.
Attempts to integrate housing continue to be blocked at the highest levels of government. In July, President Trump eliminated a housing regulation designed to reduce racial disparities in neighborhoods, claiming without evidence that such desegregation would lead to more crime. His reelection campaign has used the same kind of racist tropes that White homeowners and legislators employed to resist King’s push for integration in the years before Floyd was born.
Education and a blocked route
School desegregation didn’t begin in Houston until 1970 — it was the nation’s largest segregated district at the time — following more than a decade of resistance. Schools remained deeply unequal as Floyd moved through predominantly Black classrooms in the 1980s and early 1990s. At Yates, a former “colored” school named for a minister who was born enslaved, test scores were low and dropout rates high, with the 1989 valedictorian — who was seven months pregnant at the time — noting in her graduation speech that more than half of freshmen had failed to graduate.
After a generation of reform efforts, poor and mostly Black school districts continue to suffer from chronic underfunding; a 2019 study showed that state support shifts away from schools as they become more concentrated with Black students.
By the time Floyd left high school in 1993, he wasn’t academically prepared to go to college. But his athletic skills earned him a place at a two-year program in South Florida before he transferred closer to home — to Texas A&M University-Kingsville, a small, mostly Latino school known as a pipeline to the NFL.
“Big Floyd was always talking about going to the league,” said his close friend Demetrius Lott, who also was on the football team and lived in the same apartment complex. “It was what we all wanted.”
The Black students stuck together and supported one another. The red tile-roofed Spanish Mission architecture of the campus, with its rustling palm trees lining quiet streets, was a world away from Third Ward projects. Adjusting to college life wasn’t always easy for him, his friends said, but it was a happy, triumphant time because few from his neighborhood had made it that far. Floyd fired up the grill for frequent barbecues and stayed up all night playing video games.
“I would always tease him because he would eat all my food,” Deron “Smoke” Rutledge said. “He was a gentle giant who never got into any trouble or had any confrontations. He was a humble guy who came from a poverty-stricken neighborhood. I had a little more, but we all shared everything. We were all the same. We were like brothers.”
Floyd, a tight end, went to practice every day, but he wasn’t making the grades or completing the credits that would have allowed him to get on the field. Many of Floyd’s friends also fell short, unable to finish college or make it to the pros.
Other students, particularly White ones, had “a better foundation, a better support system,” said college roommate Marcus Williams. “Me and Floyd didn’t have that.”
For many Black undergraduates, the same is true today. The gap in high school graduation rates has narrowed dramatically in recent decades. But it has persisted at the college level, with only 41 percent of Black students completing their degrees, compared with two-thirds of Whites, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
A lack of both preparation and financial support helps explain why. The disparity, according to a bipartisan congressional report released this year, represents “a powerful determinant of economic outcomes, undermining the notion that every American has roughly the same chance of achieving economic success.”
While Floyd was away at school, he would send money and clothes back to his siblings regularly, family members said. He felt an even stronger responsibility to provide when his mother’s health started to wane even as her home swelled with grandchildren to feed.
Harrelson, Floyd’s aunt, said her nephew was “torn” between trying to better his life and help out his family back in Cuney Homes, complicating each of his attempts to move on.
Floyd’s time in college ended with neither a degree nor a draft into professional sports. With his two planned routes out of Third Ward blocked, he moved back to Cuney Homes in 1997.
Unequal under the law
It didn’t take much time before he was in trouble with the law.
Police — described by residents as an omnipresent force around Cuney Homes — arrested him in August 1997 for delivering less than a gram of cocaine. A judge sentenced him to six months in jail. It was the first of at least nine arrests in Harris County over the course of a decade, mostly for low-level drug crimes or theft.
The nation’s incarceration rate soared during that period, with Texas leading the way, and people fitting Floyd’s description — young, Black, poor, male — disproportionately targeted.
A 2018 study published in the Boston University Law Review found “profound racial disparity in the misdemeanor arrest rate” for offenses like drug possession, theft and simple assault.
The arrest rate for Blacks was more than double that for Whites for such crimes, and the disparities have “remained remarkably constant” for nearly 40 years, the study found.
Arrests for drug possession soared in the 1990s, peaking just as Floyd was cycling through the criminal justice system and facing many of the very charges with the highest racial disparities.
While federal data shows that Blacks and Whites use drugs at similar rates, public policies ranging from the war on drugs to the 1994 crime bill have contributed to widely disparate rates of prosecution. Policymakers from across the political spectrum have since expressed regret about the far-reaching consequences of the tough-on-crime push.
As police amassed in inner-city ghettos with a mandate to lock up those selling or using drugs, Floyd joined a fast-growing generation of young Black males trapped in a seemingly never-ending cycle of incarceration and deepening poverty with legal fees accruing and job opportunities dwindling. The number of Americans in prison jumped from 200,000 in 1973 to more than 1.4 million today, a sevenfold increase over the course of Floyd’s life, according to Justice Department statistics.
It would take 30 years of mass incarceration — and the arrival of an opioid epidemic in White suburban neighborhoods — before public policy shifted to treat addiction as a public health issue.
In the meantime, police cars continued speeding through the Cuney Homes projects, with officers jumping out and seemingly arresting men indiscriminately, Floyd’s family members said.
“I’ve seen them harass so many people in front of Cuney Homes where we were, and took them to jail,” said Rodney Floyd. “So many people, for nothing.”
Floyd’s 2004 conviction for selling less than a gram of cocaine is under review by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who charged the arresting officer Gerald M. Goines and five other Houston officers with regularly falsifying evidence in drug cases.
“The lion’s share of arrests made by this squad were minority men for low-level drug crimes.” Ogg said as she announced the charges in July. Goines’s attorney has denied the accusations against him.
The most serious charge that Floyd faced was in 2007, for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. Prosecutors said the then-33-year-old and four others forced their way into a private home and that Floyd had held a woman at gunpoint while others ransacked the place, looking for drugs and money.
After a plea deal, Floyd would spend four years at a privately run prison nearly three hours northwest of Houston. There, he largely languished, without access to vocational training or substance abuse treatment. Once jovial and confident, Floyd left prison deflated, introspective and terrified at the prospect of being locked up again, according to family members and friends.
“When he got in trouble, it hit his pride, it hit his self-esteem — and I think he felt depressed,” said Harrelson.
A new life, then a sudden death
At the urging of a local pastor, Floyd left Houston in 2017. The move was a chance to leave his troubles behind — the constant harassment by police, the discrimination against felons in the labor market, the downward pull of his old neighborhood.
After arriving in Minneapolis, he enrolled in a rehabilitation program, began training to become a commercial truck driver and took up jobs working security at the Salvation Army and a Latin nightclub.
Floyd kept a list of goals in his house to make sure he was living a meaningful life, according to his close friends. “Staying clean,” was one of them.
This spring, Floyd contracted the coronavirus and lost his security job when the pandemic forced the nightclub to close.
Over Memorial Day weekend, just before his death, Floyd ran into some of his old Houston friends for the first time in weeks. He felt better, he told them, but they could see he was anxious about money.
That Monday, Floyd talked on the phone with his childhood friend, Aubrey Rhodes. Floyd told him he was going to run out for cigarettes and promised to call later.
By the next day, the world was waking up to images of a man gasping for breath as an officer — who had been called to the scene after a convenience store customer allegedly paid for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill — pressed mercilessly into his neck.
Floyd called out for his deceased mother in his final moments, and body camera footage later showed that her son had heeded her warning to be respectful of the police. “Mr. Officer, please don’t shoot me,” Floyd implored repeatedly.
A mass movement was about to be born, the streets in cities across America soon to be filled, a name poised to echo as a cry against injustice.
The people who had known George Floyd best had to watch with everyone else and try to make sense of how their friend’s death fit with his life.
“I was just looking to see if he had done anything that might have been a little out of character,” said Rutledge, Floyd’s college friend, who watched the video at least 50 times.
“But he didn’t. He was the same guy he had always been.”
Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins, and Tracy Jan in Washington; Mary Lee Grant in Kingsville, Tex.; Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in Bartlett, Tex.; Arelis R. Hernández and Laura Meckler in Houston; and Robert Samuels and Holly Bailey in Minneapolis contributed to this report.