George Floyd’s death changed America. Let’s not squander the moment.
As a former chair and a current board member of the National Credit Union Administration, I regularly work with the agency’s Office of Minority and Women Inclusion. In preparing my remarks for a recent OMWI event on LGBTQ+ rights, I knew I also wanted to address the shocking treatment of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis police department. But what value could I possibly add as a middle-aged white guy of privilege? I concluded I was fretting too much and should simply offer that perspective.
A few years ago, when I was in private legal practice, I had dinner with one of my Chinese law partners who was posted in our firm’s Hong Kong office. When I inquired as to the most significant difference between modern-day China and the U.S., he responded without the slightest hesitation. “It’s very simple, Mark. In China we fear the police. In America you don’t.”
Although my recent encounter with a police officer for a modest traffic infraction proved entirely benign, similar treatment does not necessarily follow for people who do not look like me. This is especially true for persons of color, particularly African American men. Many differences exist today between the treatment of white and African American males in this country, yet – in a bitter twist to the perceptive analysis of my former law partner – the principal distinction is that white men generally do not fear the police and African American men often do.
Unless you have walked in the shoes of an African American man, and I haven’t, it is difficult to imagine the stress, anxiety and – yes – anger created from a lifetime of living with this patently discriminatory reality. Just imagine the thought of placing yourself at risk for driving 35 in a 30 or merely running or walking down the street. And even if there is reasonable cause to suspect you of committing a crime, our Constitution is supposed to protect you from the use of excessive force, and ensure your innocence until guilt is proven and due process afforded. These protections and rights, regrettably, too often prove illusory and, at best, theoretical for African Americans and other minorities.
As a morality play, I have one question to pose that’s worthy of reflection. Would I consider the treatment received by George Floyd and others acceptable for my two twenty-something sons under the same circumstances? Isn’t that the standard by which we are supposed to analyze these issues in an objective and transparent manner? After all, if the treatment is OK for George Floyd, then it’s surely OK for my sons. If it’s OK for my sons, then it’s equally OK for Mr. Floyd.
The question makes me bristle, as I would never accept such outrageous behavior directed by a governmental instrument, or anyone else, toward my sons. As such, out of an abiding sense of equity and inherent fairness, I feel the same regarding the treatment of Mr. Floyd. How could anyone think otherwise?
On a less visceral level, as an attorney for over 38 years I fully appreciate that the police are, in a constitutional sense, instruments of the state who are often provided with immunity from prosecution under the premise that their actions are fraught with peril, require split-second judgment under extreme pressure and are viewed as a benefit to society. I also appreciate the concept of “bad apples” and that the bulk of police officers are not bad apples.
Yet, with respect to George Floyd, the police officers implemented the functional equivalent of the death penalty on the spot. Mr. Floyd who was handcuffed, prostrate on the ground, offered no resistance to his arrest. Further, he was never indicted for any crime, he never received a trial by jury, he was never sentenced for committing any crime and he never received the right of appeal. Mr. Floyd was not afforded any semblance of his constitutionally mandated due process rights and he did not receive equal protection under the law. The treatment of George Floyd was an abomination to the norms of civil society.
This was also not a case of mere “bad apples,” but one of a culture that permits an instrument of the state – municipal police forces – to deny due process and equal protection rights to African Americans and other disempowered minorities on an ongoing basis. This culture permeates significant aspects of our society in subtle and invidious ways that are invisible to those who don’t have the courage to see.
Perhaps, as we remove the statutes of Confederate leaders and generals who fought to keep George Floyd’s ancestors in shackles, we will consider a monument to George Floyd. I suspect he would find this thought at least somewhat amusing and lament that he would just as soon return to Minneapolis or Houston and get on with his life. Regrettably, that’s not an option. We must remember Mr. Floyd as the person who made America – all of America – finally say enough is enough. Black lives really do matter.
I understand that he didn’t expect to end his last day as an accidental Rosa Parks, but he did and we should not squander this moment.
In closing, it is encouraging to note that the NCUA, with the assistance of OMWI Director Monica Davy and her excellent staff, endeavors to create and nurture a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion within the agency and the credit union community. While we can’t stop the next atrocity similar to George Floyd’s death, working together we can help to build a culture with zero tolerance for any discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender that, regrettably, continues within our society today.