The past few days have been traumatizing for our nation, with the murder of George Floyd, gasping “I can’t breathe,” before taking his final breath.
He would die in a scene horrifically reminiscent of Jim Crow, if not slavery; neck pressed into the black asphalt stifled, handcuffed and asphyxiated under the knee of Officer Derek Chauvin, while other officers look on—casually. In part, it is the nonchalance which is so terrifying—and yet for too many Black Americans too familiar.
The officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s death were fired, but so far, only Chauvin has been charged.
For many African Americans, it was an agonizing tipping point after the senseless and tragic death of Breonna Taylor, 26, an essential medical worker, unmercifully shot in the middle of the night, multiple times, by plain-clothes Louisville police. In that case, the officers stormed the wrong house, killing Breonna while the man they sought was already in custody.
In the wake of these tragedies and overt displays of racism, including the now viral video of birder, Christian Cooper being threatened by a white woman in New York’s Central Park—many families are grieving and finding it difficult to cope.
Protests and rioting capture a growing public disillusionment and rage regarding racism and policing in the United States. Minneapolis—and many other cities throughout the U.S.—are now on fire.
Questions and misgivings about race, racism, policing and more come forcefully back at a time like this. And what is clear is that the deeply entrenched patterns of racism, like the Mississippi River, flow north—ending, ironically, in Minnesota. Living in Minneapolis, I came to learn that Black Minnesotans often refer to the state as Northern Mississippi.
The tragedy unfolding in Minneapolis resonates with me in a very deep way. I held a distinguished professorship, the Everett Fraser Chair, at the University of Minnesota Law School—named after one of the longest serving dean’s in that institution’s history and taught there for a number of years.
For me, the very spot where Floyd died is a street that I passed by regularly, driving to my recently belated uncle’s home. Right before the shelter in place orders were issued weeks ago, it was a spot that I traveled sometimes twice or three times a day, moving, cleaning and addressing matters of his home.
Minneapolis is a challenging city on race—largely because it is a tale of two different realities.
One that is picturesque, peaceful, artistic, environmentally mindful—and hip. Those things are true too for people of color. However, it is also a place of fear, hostility, passive-aggression and lack of mindfulness regarding race.
And, because the realities are so different, having meaningful conversations about the divide do not progress in meaningful ways—or really exist.
According to data from the Minneapolis Police Department, on average, Black people in that city are:
- 16.39 times more likely to be arrested than a white juvenile for curfew/loitering;
- 11.5 times more likely to be arrested than a white person for marijuana possession;
- 8.86 times more likely to be arrested than someone white for disorderly conduct; and
- 7.54 times more likely to be arrested than a white person for vagrancy.
Such statistics expose a different type of suffocation: one that may not end in death, but reveals what Professor Patricia Williams brilliantly referred to as “spirit murder.”
Part of my life is still in Minneapolis and my experiences are mixed. My husband—an international trade lawyer and law professor, who is white—thrived in Minneapolis. It was an exceptional place for him (aside from the pangs he felt related to my experiences and those of our daughter).
In my family, we, in a sense, lost our daughter to the racism in Minneapolis. No, she did not die. However, as a rising senior at an elite prep school (who was first in her class, and would have been their first Black valedictorian), she refused to come home from her junior year in China. Our compromise was that she attend college a year early.
On one hand, her school was lovely: beautiful grounds, terrific facilities and highly educated teachers. And, on another, it was so painfully unaware of its persistent racism: teachers, students and parents. Even so, we ruled out the other schools as worse.
For two years of high school in Minneapolis, she endured persistent, searing headaches. We went through MRIs and medical checkups. However, racism has no special gene to tap, no special blood work.
Nevertheless, it harms the body in myriad ways. There was a pain that I saw in my daughter’s eyes that shook my soul and which I will never forget. When I could no longer in good faith urge her to “stick it out,” we agreed that she didn’t need to return to Minneapolis.
It turns out being in China—not a place known for protecting civil liberties or civil rights—was a less threatening experience for a Black 16-year-old than Minneapolis.
Truthfully, the toll on our daughter resonated because of my experiences— including harassing police stops after leaving my yoga studio, being called “N” by a floor repair guy loudly enough that my husband could hear through the phone receiver. Indeed, service repair was a jarring experience. Once, a plumber accused me of being an “impostor,” and shockingly proceeded to look for the owner of our historic home. I fired him, but his boss urged my husband to rehire him: We did not.
In another instance, after shopping at a major appliance store chain, I was followed to my car and my license plate number written down—on the hunch that I used a fraudulent credit card to purchase lights. Sadly, these were not isolated events, but rather episodic. I often felt as if I were in a strange sociological experiment.
Ultimately, by our daughter not returning home to Minneapolis, there was a price paid for me as her mother and for her. For her, there was no graduation, prom, getting a driver’s license while in high school and borrowing the car, no awards ceremony, none of the pats on the back: “You worked so hard,” and “We see you.” And, as a mom, I suffered the pains of missing my daughter. She ultimately graduated from Stanford University.
But this needn’t have been my family’s story. So how do we fix this?
First, let’s acknowledge racism as a broad social problem, not simply what happens to people of color. As such, racism and xenophobia are collective, social problems that erode our democracy and diminish our social fabric, and trample constitutional values, implicating all of our lives.
Second, as displayed in the Christian Cooper video, white privilege is the preverbal “race-card.” As such, we must take ownership that racism remains a horrid criminal law, political and economic tool.
Third, yes, we all need to communicate more about racial bias, but white Americans especially—and they need to listen to their friends and coworkers who share their stories. At a certain point, it becomes hopeless and seemingly pointless for people of color to talk about the myriad ways in which racism affects their lives if white friends, coworkers and “allies” are not listening.
Fourth, it’s not enough to do all of the above, without harnessing the courage to raise questions and speak out against racial bias. Offering validation to those harmed by racial bias or discrimination is a critical step toward dismantling racism.
Finally, we all want a more just society—not only for ourselves, but also for our children. To achieve this, improving and protecting our democracy must be at the root of our efforts as this affects schools, housing, employment, policing and incarceration and fundamental rights.
The first step: Ensure voting rights and protect voter access—not only now and through the 2020 election, but beyond.