By Nicholas Bailey, Birmingham Business School and Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business
When George Floyd walked in to Cup Foods in Minneapolis a year ago he didn’t know he was about to die. Reflecting on May 25th 2020, I remember watching the video, frozen and incredulous and not discovering I was crying until the end of it. I also remember, very clearly, thinking ‘what now?’.
When Professor Nando Sigona and myself sat down for a podcast and co-authored the blog post, Black Lives Matter: A movement or a moment, we reflected on the ‘collective global consciousness’ activated by Floyd’s murder, how history seemed to be stuck in a narrative loop, and how some were seeking to use the confusion, fear and uncertainty of 2020 to increase populism and cement exclusive systems of power. A year on, I still ask myself, ‘what now?’
George Floyd’s murder has not only united a world community in sorrow and anger but it has also been utilised. Some have utilised it to stand beside the Black community and show solidarity, some have utilised it in addressing challenging questions within themselves, some have built initiatives, and some have used George’s murder to capitalise on the PR possibilities or to strengthen political power bases. What’s clear is that it isn’t useful to look at the last year in isolation. George Floyd’s tragic death exists on a continuum of Black suffering in America. History attests to slavery, inequality, systemic and institutional racism and social injustice in America. Since George died, other Black lives have been taken violently by police in America. Daunte Wright and Ma’Khia Bryant were both alive when George Floyd breathed his last and Breonna Taylor had been shot just before him. What is now apparent is that as the community calls for justice, it is forced to reflect on the intolerable forces at work and both the systems of recruitment and career advancement in law enforcement. Are individuals who serve and protect us being appropriately recruited, on-boarded and continuously assessed? Is a given officer in the field in an appropriate state of wellbeing to be able to assess, decide and act appropriately when the unforeseen arises?
Institutions have begun to speak of and address inequalities in recruitment processes and leadership participation. Whilst quotas and targets supporting greater diversity and inclusion are welcome, they need to be longitudinal, contextual, purposeful and holistic if they are not to be dismissed as opportunism. Companies need to really invest in change. Many Black people have woven their testimony to the tapestry of the George Floyd story. I myself as a Black man have reflected on micro-aggressions, racism and self-fulfilling prophesies that have peppered my life story. I have also realised how often I didn’t speak up when I could have spoken. This has been hard to confront.
George Floyd was terrified when he died but at a certain moment he seemed to realise that he was going to die. It was tangible. It is important that we who remain here contribute to prevent this from happening – we need to move beyond movement and moment to manifestation. We stand under the shadow of a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities that directly contradicts the lived experience in Britain of Black and mixed-heritage people today. President Donald Trump was blamed for the storming and desecration of Capitol Hill and the tragic loss of life and Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder and rightly so. However, the story is more complex than that. The systems, environment, people and enabling factors that supported the wrong doing are inextricably linked to this issue too. Leadership is a process, not a person.
What’s required is an acknowledgement that every single one of us has a choice to contribute to a society that celebrates difference and doesn’t create fear and mistrust. We need institutions that are truly diverse, inclusive and fair; choosing to commit to and invest in longitudinal cultural change. We need a government that recognises that Black history on the curriculum confirms history not denies history. We need commissions and studies that remain impartial; we need to learn how to return to debate solutions not only problems and we need to dismantle the assumptions that not only hold us in fear and conditioning but prevent us from reflecting, listening and connecting with one another. Beyond blame and shame lies a possibility. It is possible for us to reboot and recalibrate our communities. This last year has been brutal, terrifying and sad. We have been isolated and frustrated. As we come out of lockdown, one thing we irrefutably know is how fragile life is. We have an opportunity to challenge ourselves as a community to recalibrate our thinking and to continue, as many have, to embed inclusion and anti-racist thinking into our everyday lives.
Whatever Derek Chauvin’s sentencing, George Floyd could still be alive today and he isn’t. What’s apparent and welcome is that there is now a kind of closure for the Floyd family; a culmination of irrefutable evidence, brave testimony and the collective will of the world community over the last 12 months. But what now? How are we going to utilise the opportunity to heal at this crossroads where we sit. The road ahead is long and complex but we need to take collective responsibility, listen, be consistent and keep moving along its course avoiding those who benefit from our polarisation and fear. It’s not until Black people feel protected, respected and supported by systems predicated on cohesion, listening and action in society that George Floyd will finally be at peace. Justice is justice for all or it’s no justice at all.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.