That is, could positive change come from all this anguish and anger? What should we all want?
The most immediate goal is that the criminal justice system treat Mr. Floyd’s death as the crime that it was. It’s a measure of how far we have to go that this cannot be taken for granted. Uniformed perpetrators of brutality, especially against African Americans, are rarely held to account. The goal, very simply, is justice. Not vengeance but justice.
But “justice for George Floyd” is about much more than Derek Chauvin and the other three former police officers who have been charged. It is a way of saying: No more George Floyds. It means rewriting laws and procedures to turn police officers from “warriors” into “guardians,” as a task force appointed by then-President Barack Obama laid out. Hiring, training, equipping, residency rules, transparency, disciplining — all can be transformed. Money now spent on military equipment that can encourage police to treat communities like occupied territory could be redirected to the communities themselves. Such reforms have been talked about for years, and some departments have made real progress. But too few. Fair and impartial policing must become the norm across the nation.
That would not be sufficient either, though. Because the true, root cause of Mr. Floyd’s death can’t be found in any police manual: It rests in one man’s inability to accept another as a human being. The power of that horrific eight minutes and 46 seconds of video is, we can all see that. Many black Americans are saying to white Americans: Do you see? Do you finally see? This is what happens to us all the time. We have been trying to tell you. Do you see?
It seems to us many Americans are seeing, and beginning to understand. Not everyone may have internalized terms such as “white privilege” or “systemic racism,” but they see the inequity. They see it not only in criminal justice — the Minneapolis police use force against black Americans at seven times the rate as against whites — but throughout American life. They see that the novel coronavirus is killing blacks at 2.4 times the rate it kills whites, and that the economic burden — the job losses, the shuttering of small businesses — is weighing more heavily on blacks as well, though undoubtedly there is plenty of suffering to go around.
Many Americans, in other words, are seeing, and understanding, that racism was not solved by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. It was not solved by the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The election of a black president in 2008 did not solve it, either.
It is a problem still with us, and in us.
Such an understanding could take us in many directions, most of which cannot fit on a protester’s placard. It could lead to a structure to hold an honest national conversation on truth and reconciliation and to consider remedies and reparations. It could lead to redoubled efforts to bring equity to schooling, to rates of imprisonment, to the provision of health care. We might address the stark inequity in accumulated family wealth, the presence of which gives so many whites a head start they are hardly conscious of, the absence of which functions as such a handicap for young black boys and girls.
And it could take us to the ballot box in November. The nation is in the pitiable position, as these protests unfold, of having a president not only indifferent to their cause but actively opposed to their righteous goals. By seizing on the condemnable looting and acts of violence that have marred the protests, and falsely portraying the movement itself as “anarchy,” President Trump hopes to stoke fear and exploit bigotry in enough Americans to win an election, the same strategy employed by George Wallace and Richard M. Nixon two generations ago.
It is contemptible, and we hope and believe it will fail: 2020 is not 1968. We are seeing largely nonviolent protests, not the widespread riots of 1968. People of color are being joined by whites. This is not anarchy; it is America doing what it does best, which is seeking to improve itself. Governors, mayors, police chiefs, community and faith leaders, and, above all, the protesters themselves are stepping into the void of national leadership with compassion and commitment.
That commitment suggests that progress is possible, even with a malign force in the White House. It’s essential to remember that no progress would be guaranteed, even with an ally in the White House. But progress will come faster if activists embrace politics along with protest — if they elect sheriffs, prosecutors, mayors, members of Congress and, yes, a president who also sees and understands.