Reckoning With Race

By Kim Taylor-Thompson, Professor of Clinical Law, NYU School of Law

Eight minutes and forty-six seconds. 

That was the amount of time that Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee and body weight into George Floyd’s neck.  We witnessed a police officer crush the life out of a Black man, all the while ignoring his pleas that he couldn’t breathe.  We watched that officer’s brazen disdain for Mr. Floyd as he casually kept his hand in his pocket as if killing someone routine and reflexive. We watched and re-watched a White police officer murder a Black man who posed no threat as every news outlet endlessly replayed the horror of that encounter.  That single act ended Mr. Floyd’s life, but the vulgar truth of that raw racism could not be contained. That act launched a global uprising.

As a Black woman who has grown up in this country and practiced in the criminal justice system, I was not surprised by the police lethality we witnessed. Communities of color have long known the painful truth that policing in our neighborhoods is all too often tinged with violence.  Growing up in Harlem at the height of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, I recall my parents raising my brother and me with a strong sense of identity and pride in our racial heritage, all at a time when American culture seemed intent on denying and diminishing both.  But against that backdrop, I remember quite vividly the disjunction – chasm, really — between their empowerment message and their equally vehement admonition that my brother and I should adopt an almost humiliating etiquette if the police should ever stop us. We were taught the behavioral mandate that we should react with extreme politeness and should avoid seeming at all angry in any police encounter even if we had done nothing wrong.  Those lectures always ended with the reason for their insistence, gleaned from the hard-learned lessons of too many police encounters gone wrong: “We are just trying to keep you alive.” Back then, our society forced Black folks to strategize to survive police encounters. 

It still does. As I watched George Floyd dying on that pavement, I could see myself, my husband, my nieces and nephews in his face.  I could feel his fear as his pleas that he could not breathe grew more desperate.  I could hear the resignation in his voice as he called out to his dead mother. How can anyone see that and not be changed? This was not new to me, but it was no less painful.  I felt the familiar flood of emotions: rage, revulsion, exhaustion.  Yet again, I was reminded of the life lesson that each loss of life at the hands of police teaches Black and Brown folks: that it takes less than ten minutes to turn us into a statistic.

Still, what has happened in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, for once, has given me hope. Something tectonic shifted in the country as the public took to the streets, even in the midst of a pandemic. The broad-based, intergenerational, multi-cultural uprisings marked a new chapter in the struggle for justice and racial equity. Protesters refused to be appeased by rote denunciations of the violence followed by conventional remedies: better screening of officers, better training, or the firing of a “few bad apples.” Instead, protesters took more radical stances and made bolder demands.  They insisted that we defund the police, invest in interventions to improve community health, and engage in a fundamental rethinking of what it takes to keep communities safe. In fact, these public uprisings started from a wholly different place: demanding that this country acknowledge that racism in this country is systemic, rationalized, tolerated. And the protesters continue to mulishly insist on a real reckoning on race in every system. As they should.

But, here’s my worry. This is hard work. And it is even harder to sustain the momentum for change.  Because the grand vision of racial equity seems so elusive, I worry that we might settle for the usual detritus that systems typically throw our way. Let’s declare a Juneteenth holiday. Or let’s rename a bridge.  These are all well and good, but should not top the list of changes we expect. Change does not happen sedately. And the change we seek involves nothing less than breaking this country’s racism habit. To do that requires painstaking and persistent effort to dismantle the lethal lies that feed that habit.

Make no mistake. This country’s racism is not just individual acts of intolerance and violence.  It is a racialized system conferring advantage and dominance to white people and disadvantage and subordination to folks of color.  Narratives that have driven the fiction of white supremacy and Black inferiority have been at the heart of the systems this country has built since slavery ended. These narratives are an American phenomenon – a handed-down thing – that have become culturally-embedded with intergenerational effects. The daily protests are about those intergenerational effects. 

So, staying the course means staying focused as others fight to change the subject. South Africa taught us important lessons about truth and reconciliation.  What we learned there, and we see mirrored here, is that folks really want to get to the reconciliation part. Everyone would rather just skip over the truth part.  But, truth and reconciliation are sequential.  We cannot get to where we want to go if we do not tell the truth first. That means confronting the raw, messy, heart-wrenching parts openly and honestly if we want to get to the other side.

Facing this country’s continuing legacy of racial terror is our first step. But it is a hard step.  When we look at acts of racial terror that stretch from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration to the ever-present examples of lethal law enforcement, we see a clear through line.  This is the lived and living essence of American history – raw, unyielding and horrific.  But as Maya Angelou reminded us “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage need not be faced again.”  That is how we get to the other side. 

Each of us has a role to play. All too often, lawyers engage in incrementalism; we tinker at the edges; or worse, we take actions to preserve the status quo.  This is not the time for that. This is the time for lawyers to step up to help others envision and realize what is possible.  This is the time to help those risking everything for change to identify and to overcome the legal and political obstacles that systems erect to resist change.  This is the time to help uproot and change the narrative on race in classrooms, courtrooms, board rooms.  If we can use our positions, expertise, and voices to support those on the frontlines of change, I believe we may actually get this country to reckon honestly with race and racism. And we might come to see these uprisings less as a watershed moment that temporarily brought this country to its knees, and more as the catalyzing event that finally brought it to its senses.