Two years today, May 25, 2020, the nation was shocked, sickened, and outraged at what they had seen with their own eyes – video of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a handcuffed Black man who said he couldn’t breathe and was gasping for air.
Bystanders pleaded for the other police officers at the scene to do something, but none did. George Floyd was murdered by Officer Derrick Chauvin, but instead of becoming a statistic of police brutality, he became a powerful symbol of systemic injustice against Black Americans.
Floyd’s murder came just months after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor and was a tipping point in calls for racial justice and a re-examination of racism and policing in America. Massive protests would follow, as would a second wave of Black Lives Matter protests, a pledge of an estimated $50 billion promised to Black communities, and promises across corporate America and leaders from all corners of the country to do better in rectifying the inequalities inherent in this country.
While some progress has been made, evidence of wholesale change has been difficult to identify. The racially motivated mass murder at a Buffalo grocery store earlier this month, racial wealth gap, racial disparities in health, and the opportunity gap in education all serve as cases in point at how much work there is to be done, says Dr. Kimberly Truong, Chief Equity Officer in the Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Office at MGH Institute of Health Professions.
“I don’t think we’ve gone very far,” says Truong. “It was powerful two years ago when we as a country acknowledged that racism existed and that’s not something we had done since the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Then came promises from different organizations and institutions of remedying racism within their own organizations. A lot of these organizations fell short by just acknowledging that racism exists but didn’t go about producing or developing any goals to make things more equitable and just.
“I believe within our society things are the same as they had been before his death. In some ways, things are moving backwards.”
Truong says the pandemic was an opportune time to move the needle toward improved race relations.
“All of us were at home during the pandemic and people were attached to media – traditional and social - so that was a time when we were raising awareness,” she notes. “Anti-Asian racism was happening, anti-Black racism was happening, and we could have built coalitions to really support Black communities at this time to really expose racism and to work as a nation to remedy racism. I have talked about this with a team member in my office. It’s a missed opportunity but there are so many opportunities because racism exists every day.”
More Questions Than Answers
With racism still part of our society, the inevitable questions are: Why does racism still exist in this country? And can it ever be eliminated?
“I think oppression is in the very nature of how we operate as a society,” says Truong. “There are hierarchies that are established and the way that we see things as a society is usually a zero-sum game. One of the solutions is to take a race conscious approach – being able to see that racism exists and that it affects different communities in different ways. There’s overt racism and then there are people who don’t necessarily understand that they’re treating others differently because an implicit bias exists, so a lot of it is education and helping them understand that implicit bias exists, and it is something all of us have.”
On the criminal side since Floyd’s death, former police officer Chauvin was convicted of the murder and is now serving a 22-year sentence. Another officer pleaded guilty to an aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter charge, while two other officers were convicted of willfully violating Floyd's rights.
On the political side, there has been some progress: Juneteenth was declared a national holiday, laws have been enacted in 19 states around the police use of force, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have received more attention and financial support from private donors after decades of being underfunded. But only a fraction of the $50 billion pledged has been paid out thus far, while voter suppression laws enacted by dozens of states threatens to curtail residents of minoritized communities from participating in the upcoming mid-term elections and beyond. In the meantime, white nationalism has become stronger and louder across the country.
But without widespread headway, the question remains: Did George Floyd die in vain?
“It’s a tough question. I think his death, along with Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and others around that time, really shed light on racism within our country,” Truong says. “I think it was a moment of enlightenment for a lot of individuals who thought we had made racial progress. I think as a country we forget the violence that’s committed on Black and Brown bodies daily. There’s no solution to racism, and there may never be a solution, but we should work towards ending racism and other forms of oppression.
“Our country has not tried more systemic remedies that some activists have advocated for, such as reparations and prison abolition, and I do not foresee this happening in the near future,” she continues. “We can’t even tackle student loan debt or paid parental leave benefits as a country, or two race ‘neutral’ policies that would also benefit black communities given the intersectionality of racism and classism. We will continue to see more Black community members die at the hands of anti-Black violence just as we saw with George Floyd after Sandra Bland, Jemel Roberson, Oscar Grant, Eleonor Bumpers, after Emmitt Till, along with thousands of others.
“We should not wait until more Black people are murdered or rationalize that their deaths started a movement. We needed change yesterday, but we can start now.”