The Taunting of George Floyd
The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, revealed a U.S. leadership capable of vision. I do not refer to President Donald J. Trump, a man who does not understand leadership and from whom no one expects it. Genuine political leaders such as Joe Biden have listened to the groundswell of outrage and responded with sensitivity and conviction. It’s what we hoped for. We’ve hoped for it before. But the resonance now has never been so promising, so convincing. No wonder.
Never has the plight of the oppressed been depicted so succinctly. Listen:
“I can’t breathe. Just get up.”
“What do you want?”
“I can’t breathe. Please. The knee in my neck. I can’t breathe.”
“Well, get up and get in the car.”
“Get up and get in the car.”
“I can’t move.”
“I’ve been waiting the whole time.”
“Get up and get in the car.”
“Get up and get in the car right.”
“Mama.” Groans, strangling noise. “I can’t.”
Throughout the 30-second exchange, white police officer Derek Chauvin kneels on the neck of George Floyd, a black man, pressing his head to the pavement with such pressure that Floyd has difficulty breathing. A second unseen officer orders Floyd to get up and get in the police car. Floyd agrees to do so. For Floyd to comply Chauvin must remove his knee. Chauvin does not. The unseen officer repeats the order for Floyd to get up. Chauvin hears that order and hears Floyd agree to obey, but keeps his knee lodged firmly against Floyd’s neck. When the unseen officer orders Floyd yet again to get up, it’s clearly a taunt. Both officers know Floyd cannot get up unless Chauvin removes his knee and Chauvin does not. Floyd loses consciousness. Chauvin maintains pressure on Floyd’s neck until a medical team arrives and tells him to remove his knee.
George Floyd suffers a fatal cardiac arrest minutes after his unresponsive body is heaved into an ambulance. He is pronounced dead at the Hennepin County Medical Center emergency room later that evening.
A cell phone video captured the exchange, giving us a centuries-deep view of racial abuse. The nation erupted.
Leaders Who Listen
Strong leadership is required to drive what has become white-hot commitment into legislative chambers. At first, our leaders merely rode the swell of protests, repeating Floyd’s words. Biden: I can’t breathe. Rev. Al Sharpton at Floyd’s memorial services: Get your knee off our neck.
Although these slogans continue to fuel critical momentum, they nevertheless egregiously conflate the racism that runs down through U.S. history with physical oppression. But white racial bigots weren’t just kneeling on black necks. They derided, mocked, and taunted their victims to get up as they held them down. The fact that those underfoot did not rise was cited as proof of their inferiority. The con artist logic aimed at virtual genocide: to extinguish the dignity of a race by convincing blacks their baseness could be mitigated only through subjugation to white masters. The double bind inflicted mental, emotional, and physical suffering on generations of black Americans. The offense is enormous.
No vision today dares to penetrate the germ of American racism or articulate a cure to anywhere near the degree that Abraham Lincoln and Malcom X did. Those two held in common a conviction that there could be no reconciliation between the races due to the advanced state of animosity that had developed. Early on it emanated from the oppressors. Later, after their confidence during Reconstruction was betrayed, it infected the oppressed.
The solution posited by Lincoln: voluntary colonization of former slaves in Central America or the Caribbean where they could sort things out for themselves by themselves; Malcolm X: create a separate country for blacks in America until they could return to Africa for the same reason: to sort out their lives and futures themselves. Radical as it was, their vision was not cruel. Rather it reflected a deep understanding of and respect for the plight of a race in need of space to decompress after the machinery of oppression had been eased off.
It’s not the idea of segregation that is significant, but the degree proposed. Lincoln and Malcolm X did not suggest herding African-American children into unheated ghetto schools to learn lessons from outdated schoolbooks. They did not envision “black” diners and movie theaters on the shabby side of town – segregation as so poorly envisioned and attempted in the United States. Lincoln and Malcolm X proposed an independent sovereignty far removed from the adulterating interference of the race that had oppressed it for so long, a land where a race could in all privacy rediscover itself, find its legs, and flourish through its own initiative or fail with forgiveness to find its feet again.
While not applicable in our time, this vision of segregation provides some indication of how radical and comprehensive our solution to resolve racism in the United States must be today.
The idea of paying reparations to African Americans has never been accepted by Congress. The goal, as stated by economist Robert Browne, is to “restore the black community to the economic position it would have if it had not been subjected to slavery and discrimination.” Former Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) proposed the “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act” every year from 1989 until he resigned in 2017, without success.
There’s at least one good reason for that. The sums proposed paralyze.
African-American lawyer and activist Randall Robinson estimated America’s racism and institutional discrimination have resulted in $1.4 trillion in losses for African Americans. Other estimates range up to $17 trillion. On the high end, Harper’s Magazine estimated total reparations due at about “$97 trillion, based on 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865 … compounded at 6% interest through 1993.”
While the controversy of enacting reparations stands to simmer for some time, we can no longer deny the depth and viciousness of the injustices committed then and now. Our national consciousness must acknowledge American slavery as a product of narrow-minded white supremacists who basely lied to convince a society of the inferiority of an entire race in order to enslave that race for their profit.
We cannot forget Floyd’s words as he lay dying on the pavement under a white man’s knee: “I can’t breathe.” But we must also clearly hear the taunts of the oppressors to a bound man, pinned helplessly to the pavement, to get up. We must understand that slavery makes brutes of the oppressors. To heal ourselves, for which process the protests raging worldwide indicate hope, we must do the supremely difficult: extend stout, magnanimous support to those who perpetrated and perpetuated the evil of racism as they confront, acknowledge, and finally disavow the myth they cherished throughout the centuries that they were superior.
 The exchange cited can be found at time segment 0:59 – 1:34 of the YouTube video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thfNLVvve4A&has_verified=1&bpctr=1591186239
 “Six White Congressmen Endorse Reparations for Slavery”. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (27): 20–21. 2000-01-01. doi:10.2307/2678973. JSTOR 2678973
 Robinson, Randall (1999). “He Drove the First U.S Stake in South African Apartheid”. Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. 24: 58.
 Flaherty, Peter; Carlisle, John (October 2004). “The Case Against Slave Reparations” (PDF). National Legal and Policy Center. p. 1. Retrieved December 20, 2018.