It’s been two years since the murder of George Floyd, and I’m wondering: how are we all feeling? Does it feel like we’ve maintained the energy that exploded across the country after May 25, 2020?
Personally, I still feel a lot of rage and despair. Police brutality continues to claim innocent Black lives, and with two young children at home, I’m highly conscious of the future we’re building for them.
Despite those difficult emotions, I know there is tremendous goodwill out there – especially amongst allies. The question is, how do we keep translating that goodwill into effective, engaged allyship?
The world can’t function with never-ending protests, and social media traffic is not a reliable metric of genuine engagement. Instead, we need to focus on making these issues personal. In particular, allies who feel they are less engaged than they were two years ago should think about how they can use their individual skills and interests to stay in this fight. Because no matter how much progress we make, it’s a fight that will last long beyond all our lifetimes.
Today, it has been two years since the murder of George Floyd.
May 25, 2020 was a dark day for this country, like so many others before it in which an innocent Black life was senselessly taken by the police. But as we all remember, the events that followed Floyd’s killing were extraordinary. The waves of rage and devastation we felt across the nation, amplified by social media and the pandemic, led to some of the most intense discourse about race and social justice I can remember in my lifetime. It was a galvanizing moment for many in this country, an unavoidable reckoning with every individual’s relationship to racial inequality. But even in June 2020, I sensed that the energy could not last forever. I knew that, particularly amongst allies, it would be difficult to sustain momentum in the long run.
After all, this was not the first time that the reckless and illegal destruction of Black life had prompted popular outrage. The killings of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown also sparked protests and engagement with police brutality and racial inequality. Those crescendos changed our culture’s attitude, but they ultimately died down as well.
In the case of George Floyd, a widely publicized trial helped keep the public eye on track. So did the proliferation of new words and ideologies: “antiracism,” “white fragility” and “critical race theory” have all enjoyed a spectacular debut on the national stage as a result of our collective response to this trauma.
And while I do believe that our culture has moved forward significantly, I’m still left wondering: how are we all feeling about this work right now? Does it feel like the energy and momentum of 2020 are bearing fruit? Do we feel like our lives have measurably changed? And in particular I would ask allies: do you feel like you’re still in the fight?
Personally, I feel like I haven’t moved on from the rage and heartache as much as I’d have hoped. I'm still painfully aware that I am a Black man in this country. No matter what my résumé says or how much I do to help others in my community, I'm still perceived to many as a threat. With two young children at home, I’m acutely aware that I’ll have to have "the conversation" with them. I will need to explain why their blackness can be perceived as dangerous in the eyes of police and other representatives of the state. All of this continues to weigh on me.
At the same time, I've seen in very real ways the kindness and goodwill people have in their hearts, particularly when it comes to allyship. I’ve seen their willingness to engage in the conversation of race unlike ever before. And I’ve seen their acceptance of the fact that, in this country, the color of your skin will impact your day-to-day experience.
Two years on from the tragedy, I want to reflect on what we can all do to stay in the fight for transformative social justice and equality. These are complex problems that weigh heavily: it’s worth thinking about how we keep ourselves energized and committed in the face of seemingly intractable challenges.
Perhaps the first thing to note is that police brutality and killings of innocent Black people have not stopped. Let’s let that sink in.
In February, police in Minneapolis shot and killed 22-year-old Amir Locke, when they entered an apartment he was sleeping in with a “no-knock” warrant. This is the same type of warrant that was used to enter the home of Breonna Taylor and her boyfriend in 2020.
Just last month, police in Grand Rapids, Michigan apprehended 26-year-old Patrick Lyoya while he was driving. After a brief struggle, he was shot point blank in the back of the head. The police had pulled him over ostensibly because his license plate didn’t match his vehicle. Even though these killings have sparked protests, nothing like the same engagement has taken place online as when George Floyd was killed. These stories have been overshadowed by other world events, as the media has clearly deemed them lower priority. And users of social media have not helped propel Amir and Patrick’s stories into the digital limelight, suggesting they too are less engaged with that kind of content. All of that is very telling.
We can also take note of an important lesson here. Even when there is some official change – a mayoral ban on no-knock warrants in Minneapolis, for instance – reality takes a lot longer to catch up. The police’s liberal dispensation of the death penalty continues with impunity, and probably will for some time. Police reform alone won’t keep people safer on a desirable or necessary timescale.
I think we need to acknowledge what this implies for the true nature of social justice work. Systemic racism has to be dismantled through systems – particularly legal and governmental ones – but that’s only part of the challenge. The other goal is to change people’s hearts and minds.
People who campaign for social justice at whatever level must accept the perpetual nature of the task. That doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate progress. But social equity and human rights are not set in stone simply because they’re passed into laws. It takes community vigilance and cultural transformation to make sure the rights we all deserve are protected. Progress doesn’t end with legislation. But it always begins with people.
John McWhorter, a Columbia professor and author of a recent book called Woke Racism, has written passionately about the mechanism behind movements like Antiracism: namely, that they operate more like religions than rational progressivist movements. He has many arguments to support this theory – which in my view is more of an interesting intellectual exercise than a practical guide – but one of them is worth talking about here.
Professor McWhorter claims that, like many movements before it, the current “woke” movement has “attracted and retained their followers by appealing to an idealized past, a fantastical future, and an indelibly polluted present”. That last part is the most important, and I think we all intuitively understand the claim that social advocates often come off pessimistically. “The battle is never over,” they always seem to say. Or as McWhorter puts it: “the present, if the religion is to make any kind of sense, must always be a cesspool.”
I think McWhorter’s is actually a very understandable reaction, and one that we don’t talk about openly enough. It’s true that it can be difficult to measure progress when we’re talking about dismantling centuries of cultural, social, and economic inequity. How do we know when we’re progressing with changing people’s hearts and minds? What does good look like? How do we know when we’ve vanquished racism and made it to the “Promised Land”?
The world obviously can’t operate with never-ending protests and demonstrations. Human beings can’t think or talk about the same issues on social media and the news every day. And, most importantly, individuals can’t solve systemic problems on their own.
Social justice work is contextually dependent. Its focus and objectives change depending on time and place, history and the present. We’re not all simply in a fight to “end racism”. It’s much more complex than that.
It’s somewhat analogous to the climate crisis. Every person knows that this represents an urgent existential threat to humanity. We have established milestones and statistics to measure progress (e.g. not letting global temperatures rise more than 1.5ºC), but when we inevitably miss some of them, then we’ll have to re-evaluate. And when we manage to create progress, like switching to electric cars or building the infrastructure for renewable energy, then we’ll have to evaluate the environmental impact of those solutions. Living sustainably on our planet with 8 billion people isn’t a box we can tick off our species’ to-do list. It’s a constantly evolving set of challenges.
Similarly, even though we have defined goals around police brutality, economic justice and education, we won’t be living in a post-racial utopia anytime soon. We have to be OK with that.
But the question then becomes: how do we keep ourselves motivated? How do we keep people engaged? And particularly for allies with varying levels of privilege, how do you continue to treat this as an urgent issue?
Hundreds of years ago, before the advent of modern machinery, craftsmen in Western Europe worked on building cathedrals for the Catholic Church. They took decades to complete. Sometimes over a century. Many of the architects who worked on a single cathedral died during its construction. Some artisans worked their entire lives on a single edifice without ever seeing it completed.
Today we call endeavors like this “cathedral projects”. They describe work that is so important to humanity that people are willing to do it even when they know they’ll never see it finished. I find so much inspiration in that, because it shows how powerful our human instinct to collaborate is. Complex cathedral projects have to rally diverse groups of workers who focus on different tasks.
For a cathedral, architects have to draw up the plans, stone-masons have to cut the stone, carpenters have to work on the wood, artists have to sculpt the statues, and so on. Everyone has a role to play.
I think one of the most important things we can all do in the fight for social justice – especially for allies – is define what kind of role we want to play. Human behavioral science tells us that personalization is one of the key ways to grab people’s attention and keep them engaged. (That’s why you turn around when you’re alone on the street and you hear your name.) So if we want to stay engaged, we need to make this issue personal.
Everyone has different skills. Some people are great at connecting with others and building community. Others are scholarly and love to think or research. Some people are brave and willing to take to the streets to make their voices heard. Others are subtle diplomats, presiding over difficult conversations with tact and grace.
Making allyship personal is the first step to making it more effective. And I cannot stress enough how important allies are in this work. But allyship can’t just be a badge to wear on your sleeve. It has to be rooted in tangible work and connections to real people.
When I was a kid in middle school, I was walking home in New Jersey with one of my friends from school. I noticed a cop car drive past us and said to my friend, “Just watch. I bet he’s gonna mess with us.” Sure enough, the police car whipped around at the top of the road and came to a screeching halt in front of us. I was so shocked by the situation (and my clairvoyance) that I couldn’t produce a response when the officer asked me what I was up to. They were apparently looking for someone in the area who fit my description and had been breaking into houses.
Without skipping a beat, my friend (who is white), jumped in and said “What are you talking about? We’re just walking home. We’re 12 years old. We haven’t been breaking into anyone’s house.” I was silent for the whole time, but my friend’s response managed to convince the officer that we were exactly what we were: innocent children.
This was probably the first time in my life I experienced allyship in such a visceral, necessary and blissfully preemptive way. Who knows what might have happened if I was alone and just froze? When I told my mother what happened, she was so furious she went down to the station and lectured the officers about the dangers of harassing her child. But I had none of her wherewithal in the moment. It was because of my friend’s immediate defense – which came without a single prompt from me – that nothing else happened to me that day.
Allyship shouldn’t be something that only happens when the world is watching. It also shouldn’t be something that marginalized people have to tell you to do. If you feel less confident about making progress or pushing for change, then there’s probably a reason for that. It’s time to reevaluate how engaged you are. Allies are only allies if they act on behalf of marginalized communities of their own accord.
On the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, I still feel rage and despair. I am still aware that my identity can be perceived as a threat. But I’m also hopeful. So much has changed. Our vice president is a Black woman. So is a Supreme Court justice. And in many ways, American culture has been shaken into standing at attention: the books that are being published, the groups that are organizing, the art that’s being created – all of these are contributing to changing culture, not just laws.
We are making progress in many ways. But let’s remember to be humble, stay engaged and make this fight personal in whatever way we can. Because no matter how many laws are passed, no matter how many apologies are made, all of us will be working on this cathedral without ever seeing it finished.
Porter Braswell is the Co-founder and Executive Chairman of Jopwell, Founder of Diversity Explained, author of Let Them See You, and host of the podcast Race at Work. Subscribe to his weekly content pieces at Diversity Explained to stay up to date on all new content.